By ARNOLD LOH
SUNGAI PETANI: The discovery of ancient shipwrecks in Kedah may force a rewrite of South-East Asian history, making the Malaysian settlement the oldest in the region.
These shipwrecks, now 5m to 10m underground, may rewrite anthropological history as they are said to be older than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat by about 2,000 years. The Angkor Wat is said to be more than 1,000 years old.
The shipwrecks hide tales of merchants sailing into an industrial town here populated by a mysterious culture in search of the most vital commodity for war at the time: iron.
Using ground penetrating radar, archaelogists have discovered outlines of more than five ships between 5m and 10m underground at the Sungai Batu Archaelogical Site, near Semeling, about 20km from here.
“This was once an ancient river with a width of about 100m and a depth of 30m. Now it is a swampy wetland,” said archaelogical team member Azman Abdullah.
Signs of the first shipwreck was unearthed in 2011 not far from the ruins of a jetty made of flattish square bricks.
“We dug until we found a 2m-long mast head lying horizontally. The wood had softened but it was still miraculously well preserved.
“We were excited and dug through the wet mud every day,” said Azman, 54. To the team’s horror, the excavation pit collapsed in 2012 after they reached a depth of 5m.
“All of us were so frustrated,” Azman said. The pit is now filled up with water and has become a small pond rife with fish.
“We prevented the mast head from being buried again and we still dive down to check it occassionally.”
During a tour of the 5sq/km site, Azman pointed at lumps of black-brown rocks.
“These are iron slags and they date back to between 487B.C. and 110A.D.
“This civilisation was refining iron at an industrial scale much before the Kedah Sultanate existed.”
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Global Archaeological Research Centre director Professor Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin, who heads the Sungai Batu team, bemoaned the lack of funds.
“From our estimates, the civil works needed to excavate the first ship will be at least RM1 million. For archaelogy, this is a difficult amount to raise.”
Prof Mokhtar said uncovering the ship would tell archaelogists where it had come from.
He said the many jetties on the ancient river were proof that there was international demand for the iron smelters based in the town.
“Knowing where the ships were from will give us another lead on who ran this town.
“The Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) readings of the ruins show that this town is about 2,500 years old and it thrived for many centuries, even before Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam spread to this region,” Prof Mokhtar said.
Bernama reports that the OSL has also discovered a circle-shaped monument, which was probably used for worship dating back to 110 AD or 1,900 years ago.