Juni 02, 2016

Recent Research in the Southeast Sumatran Region


Since 2010, a new threat to the maritime heritage of Southeast Asia has arisen in the form of looting of the bed of the Musi River in Palembang, site of the capital of the maritime kingdom of Sriwijaya in the ninth century. Port archaeology in Southeast Asia is a gravely underdeveloped field. This river has been a major artery of commerce for 2,000 years. The local adaptation to the area’s swampy, flood-prone environment has been to live on stilt houses over water, on ships, and on rafts. This pattern of settlement presents special problems for archaeologists. It is likely that a major proportion of the area’s archaeological heritage lies on the riverbed. Recent items on the antiquities market include a wide range of items, including Chinese porcelain of the ninth and subsequent centuries, local pottery, and a wide range of metal items including statuary, coins, and jewelry. This source of archaeological data has never been systematically explored, and unless something is done urgently, it will be lost forever. This paper explores the nature of the problem, demonstrates the importance of the subject for maritime archaeology, and proposes a potential methodology for exploring the area.

Riverbeds and Harbors as Sites of Underwater Cultural Heritage

The study of underwater cultural heritage in this panel focuses mainly on cargoes of shipwrecks beneath salt water. Shipwreck archaeology in Southeast Asia has experienced major advances in the last 15 years, but the archaeology of ports and other sites at the place where land and sea meet, such as shipyards, lags far behind. In Sumatra, seaports can be located over 100 kilometers (km) from the mouths of rivers and estuaries. The east coast of Sumatra is largely tidal swampland, and the influence of the tides extends to these ports. Palembang, ancient capital of Sriwijaya, one of Southeast Asia’s greatest maritime kingdoms, lies 90 km up the Musi River. At this point the river is one km wide. Muara Jambi might be considered its sister; it was the capital of the kingdom of Malayu which flourished between the 9th to 13th centuries. This site lies 120 km up the Batanghari. The coastal plain narrows progressively as one moves north, but other ancient ports such as Kota Cina in northeast Sumatra are still 10 km inland. On the eastern side of the Straits of Melaka, in the state of Kedah, Malaysia, the port sites of Pengkalan Bujang, Sungai Mas, and Sungai Batu, are 10-15 km up the Muda River. The same phenomenon can be observed for sites such as Bago (formerly known as Pegu), Syriam, and Mrauk U in Myanmar.

Very little archaeological research has been carried out in Southeast Asian ports. Such sites pose special challenges to archaeology. Stratigraphy of such sites is rarely well-preserved. Environmental factors include floods, tides, tsunamis, rapid sedimentation interspersed with erosion, river course change, and human activity such as construction of piers and warehouses, which are often built of temporary materials subject to rapid weathering, constant repairs, expansion, and other alterations. The most common artifacts found at ports are pottery fragments and organic materials. Large quantities of such remains are needed in order to draw accurate statistical inferences about the past.


Somewhere in the Batanghari valley, possibly at a location now called Muara Jambi, the site of the capital of this very rich and cosmopolitan kingdom must exist. Archaeological research in the province has been focused on the site of Muara Jambi, about 25 kilometers down the Batanghari from the modern capital of Jambi Province, where 39 candi or brick temples have been recorded (M. Nazir 1980/81:23). Archaeological evidence of trade in Jambi consists of Chinese porcelain ranging from the Five Dynasties through the Yuan period (9th through 13th centuries), scattered over a number of sites between Muara Jambi and the sea (Edwards McKinnon 1982a; Edwards McKinnon 1982b; Edwards McKinnon 1992; Abu Ridho 1992; Abu Ridho 1995). A survey project in 2006 concentrated on looking at exposures in the banks of the river at low tide, and identified numerous sites of the 11th and 12th centuries (Miksic N.D.).

Prospects for Future Research

The form of salvage archaeology project involving the local branch of the Indonesian archaeology department in a controlled dredging operation may be the best way to proceed. The field of underwater excavations in rivers is uncharted territory in Southeast Asian archaeology. Such research would face considerable technical and financial challenges. The conventional approach used by marine archaeologists would be to lay out a grid on the riverbed and excavate using an airlift. Whether this would be feasible in the Musi River would need to be investigated. An alternative which could be considered would be to adopt methods analogous to those used in salvage archaeology, where time is an important factor. Looting of the Musi riverbed in Palembang is rampant, as we observed, and it may be more efficient to use mechanical excavation employing dredging equipment to expedite the recovery of artifacts.[]


John N. Miksic, “Recent Research in the Southeast Sumatran Region”, Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Themua.org.

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