[updated 03/09/2023 on status of project]
The Santubong peninsula, which lies in the Sarawak River Delta, became a focus of Sarawak archaeology from the end of the 1940’s to the mid 1960’s principally by teams under Tom Harrisson, then Curator of the Sarawak Museum. Several sites which had revealed hints of archaeological interest since the 1800’s were excavated: Sungai Jaong, Bongkissam*, Bukit Maras (just uphill from Bongkissam), Sungai Bua, and two cemetery sites at Tanjung Tegok and Tanjung Kubor.
Among the many findings, these excavations revealed the past existence of a sizeable iron industry along Sungai Jaong and Bongkissam, associated to stoneware, earthenware and Chinese ceramics. The area has also a series of rock carvings and a Hindu-Buddhist structure uncovered at Bongkissam contained a ritual deposit and silver, gold, semi-precious stones, stone beads and earthenware. Several other artefacts of Hindu-Buddhist cultural influence, and many Chinese ceramics shards were uncovered in the area. On the riverside and shore along Santubong village, there are also a number of rock engravings and traces of block-cutting works on boulders.
The area is thought to have been a flourishing trade entrepot between the 7th and 14th century after which it declined, but the distant past of the peninsula remains shrouded in mysteries: on the iron works, who were the communities involved? What may have motivated the choice of the sites? Where did the iron ore come from? What was the technology used for the iron reduction and who were the people who introduced it? What was the destination of the iron that was produced? How did human occupation at Sungai Jaong evolve? How do the iron industry remains, the rock carvings and the Chinese ceramics relate to each other? What may have been the causes of the decline of the sites? Assumptions -some of them diverging- put forward by authors remain to be tested by more research.
After several decades of ebbing archaeological work in the area, a little publicised project was launched under a 5 year partnership between the Sarawak Museum Department (SMD) and EFEO (Ecole Francaise d’Extrême Orient, a French public body respected for its involvement in archaeological research in various SEA countries, such as at Angkor since the 1800’s) signed in September 2019. The project is led by Prof Dr Daniel Perret (EFEO- Kuala Lumpur unit) and Mohd Sherman (SMD), with experts in archaeo-metallurgy, Chinese ceramics and palaeo-environment. It reopens investigations using state of the art archaeological methods and techniques and with references from other SEA sites, on the traces of the past local archaeological work which was mostly not led by well-trained archaeologists.
The Sungai Jaong and Bongkisam archaeological Project project runs in the context of the Sarawak Government’s Santubong Archaeological Park project, which will provide modern infrastructure for visitors to the sites. [At the time of writing this article the Bongkissam and Sungai Jaong sites appear to be out of bounds to visitors, awaiting, as we understand, the official opening the Archaeological Park].
Field work of this research projet started in 2018 with the clearing of the remains of the Bongkissam stone structure, followed in 2019 by core soil sampling inventories and re-investigations at trenches that had been opened by Harrison’s teams at Sungai Jaong.
A 2019 EFEO publication on the project inception concludes that “the first field operations in Bongkisam and Sungai Jaong yielded very promising results and bode well for the future both in scientific terms and in the context of the development of the Santubong Archaeological Park”.
After a long interruption during the Covid period field activities resumed in August 2022 at Sungai Jaong, with excavations were carried in September-October 2022. Documentation of the items collected in 2022 took place in May 2023 at the site, along with preparations for the 2023 excavation campaign. [source]
This exciting project will no doubt shed precious new light on the still many unknowns of Santubong’s ancient past. We are eagerly looking forward to its outputs.
* [On Bongkissam (also spelt Bongkisam): in March 2017, upon observing large earthworks related to a proposed extension of Kampung Santubong (Santubong village) just uphill from the Bongkissam site, a former SHS President, and SHS, raised the alarm, highlighting the proven archaeological value of the Bongkissam and Bukit Maras areas. The Sarawak Land and Surveys Department then ordered the works to be stopped for one week to allow the Sarawak Museum Department to undertake a rapid surface assessment. Further to this it was stated that “Only a few fragments such as pieces of old potteries, fragments of what appeared to be from a Buddha figurine and also old metal fragments, were found by the research officers recently. The majority of the major finds was already collected by the Museum (Department) in the 1960s and 1970s. As such, there’s no more archaeological item to be found at the site”, which allowed the works to resume. See our 2017 article on the matter. Our March-July 2017 Misc Heritage News Newsletter also reported on the matter.]
– EFEO Kuala Lumpur blog (in French)
– Musée d’Archéologie Nationale (France):
https://archeologie.culture.gouv.fr/en/sungai-jaong-Bongkisam (article in English)
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