NEW FINDS: Candis must have belonged to a civilisation or civilisations
SUNGAI Batu located in Kedah's mystical Bujang Valley is turning out to be a gem of a story. Two weeks ago, which was when news of the controversial demolition of Candi 11 surfaced, results of "dating" testing on four brick samples unearthed from a site a few kilometres from Candi 11, arrived from South Korea at the Universiti Sains Malaysia's centre for global archeological research in Penang.
"It was a most shocking discovery," said the now much quoted and photographed Kampar-born, USM and Harvard-trained archeologist Prof Mokhtar Saidin, 50. He is head of the USM centre which for five years now has been dredging out the treasures of the Sungai Batu complex, commissioned by the Department of National Heritage. Some RM10 million have been ploughed into research work; payment for USM security guards (these are precious material); RM25-a-day to locals in a knowledge transfer programme; also to experts and workers, among them 45 from the USM centre; and the US$600 (RM1.900) per sample radiocarbon testing and US$1,000 per sample of OSL or optically stimulated luminescence ones.
Until USM commenced digging, the Bujang Valley chapter was not exactly closed. There was however an established script. It went something like this: The place had existed roughly -- guess estimates were derived on relative comparisons of periods -- from 4th century AD, with the oldest candi dating back three centuries later.
In stark contrast, tests on samples of bricks sent out since last year to labs in the United States, South Korea and Japan had been able to yield definitive chronometric periods.
As it happens, Mokhtar's team started off with a hunch.
"The candis must have belonged to something, perhaps, a civilisation. They cannot conceivably be standalones," Mokhtar said in an interview on Tuesday ahead of back-to-back meetings with the Penang state government team followed the next day with a visit to Alor Star to brief Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.
The Candi 11 demolition managed, as a sideshow, to elicit an exchange between political opposites, Kedah and Penang where a few of the monuments were sighted in the first major systematic excavations undertaken by H.G. Quaritch Wales and Dorothy Wales (1936-37).
The couple had numbered the monuments one to 30. That expedition really was part of the "India Raya" theory, an investigation into the vestiges of Indian colonialism.
Reconstruction works started as local experts descended on the scene from the 1970s which was when Candi 11 and a few others were rebuilt.
Sungai Batu had been revisited in the past perhaps in passing. The rupture with everything else has remained unexplained.
Mokhtar was determined to establish those missing connections and context.
At the outset, the USM team flagged a crucial indicator as they probed, on ancient maps, the regional context of Sungai Batu/Bujang Valley.
The candis encountered thus far had been built on plains which during the BC era had been under water. "We quickly sorted out the starting point, that Sungai Batu must have been the seafront before the sea retreated westwards through the ages."
That was the genesis of a 2009 field trip to an oil palm plantation, the edge of which borders the newly laid Merbok-Semeling road, a site some 10km from the Lembah Bujang archeological museum.
The rush of excitement of the excavation kind was glorious. This was an archeologist's gold mine. "We practically walked into an ancient civilisation, the Kedah Tua."
Over the years, the ancient kingdom or a series of kingdoms had been vaguely bandied about minus real content or even basis. The literature associated with the candis reached a dead-end of sorts, unable to be expanded for there were no elements of commerce and trade; social hierarchy; and hints of order and administration.
At this juncture of the interview, Mokhtar punctuated the chronology by adding a powerful accompanying human interest element.
He had learned three days before the interview the death of the owner of the oil palm plantation, a charming uncle who let the USM excavate in between the neat rows of palms with a small Kedah-speak refrain: Jangan kacau pokok saya sudah (Mind those trees)".
The first evidence of a storied past came barely eight inches into the soil. History was in abundance in Sungai Batu.
Altogether 97 sites had since been identified -- 46 of which excavated, within a four sq km area.
The culmination of the extensive exploration was the shocking discovery Mokhtar alluded to earlier, one pinpointed by the Korea Basic Science Institute in Seoul, which had caused a dramatic spike in excitement.
Prior to this exhilaration, Mokhtar and team had worked out 100 ancient "dates" or milestones based on those lab tests.
Associate Professor Stephen Chia and Naizatul Akma Mohd Mokhtar's "Evidence of iron production at Sungai Batu" for instance observed that large scale iron smelting there was halted from the 7th to 16th century (having started much earlier) only to be activated, surprisingly, around 17th to 18th century.
Already the recent discoveries had been phenomenal, prompting the following observation.
"The early history of Malaysia and probably of the western archipelago will require re-writing to take account of this new chronology, notably in respect to iron working, but probably also in regard to the development of scripts and early religious ideas," Chia and Barbara Watson Andaya wrote in an introduction to a compilation of material presented at 2010 conference on Bujang Valley held in Kuala Lumpur.
Rashid Yusof firstname.lastname@example.org is the Deputy Group Editor for NST New Straits Times Opinion Columnist 13/12/2013