In a recent public lecture on the development and challenges of archaeology in Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Global Archaeology Research Centre director Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Mokhtar Saidin recalled the importance of archaeology for the understanding of the country’s history and ancient heritage. He cited for example the Sungai Batu in Lembah Bujang, Kedah, believed to be the earliest civilisation in South-East Asia. He also highlighted the potential of archaeo-tourism.
Though, paradoxically, and despite a clear increase of interest by the public in archaeology, in Malaysia, the professional prospects for trained archaeologists have remained poor, he mentioned, pointing to a need for strengthened policies and management of archaeological heritage.
University Sains has been successfully involved in archaeological research on several sites in Malaysia and, indeed, the country has a lot of ancient historical remains to be investigated or studied more in depth.
Looking here at our own backdoor, Sarawak still has a large potential for archaeological research. Archaeology, which is under the purview of Sarawak Museum Department, seems to have progressively lost steam after the the 1950’s-1960’s excavation activities initiated by Tom Harrisson, except for a few specific sites such as the Niah Caves or Bario Highlands which have benefitted from international assistance. Current active programmes and related communication appear to be limited.
The Sarawak river delta, in particular the Santubong area, is regarded as one of the largest archaeological sites in Malaysia; the Sarawak Government has earmarked the setting up of a Santubong Archaeological Park. In spite of the degradation that part of the known archaeological sites have already suffered as a result of lack of protection measures, the area would certainly deserve to be revisited by new, sizeable excavation programmes mobilising state-of-the-art tools and approaches. Similarly, Sarawak’s numerous cave habitats and rock art sites do still retain lots of secrets to be uncovered, warranting extensive research.
The historical evidence that Sarawak can draw from such effort will help showcase the specifics of Sarawak’s precious history and culture. The additional knowledge produced will also carry universal values, i. e. be priceless for both Sarawak and the global community.
In this domain, and in an era of budgetary constraints, well designed cooperation with external assistance (with non Sarawakian entities, at Malaysia or international level) can bring about true “win-win” set-ups, in particular when the partner can contribute financially beyond the costs of the technical expertise.
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