Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ancient burial site found at Malacca Fort

Human skeletal remains from the 15th century at World Heritage Site could hold clues to the region’s history

BIG FIND: After the excavation at the burial site at the Malacca Fort.

An ancient burial site dating to the 15th century has been discovered at the Malacca Fort, in the historic Malaysian city of Malacca, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia on Friday unveiled an initial analysis of the site, a press release said.

Malacca was a strategic trading post for South-East Asia in the 15th and 16th century. The burial site is pre-Portuguese and could hold clues to the history of the region.

In late May 2007, human skeletal remains were found during excavation undertaken to trace the walls of the ancient Malacca Fort known as Bastion Courassa (Portuguese) and Fredrick Hendrick (Dutch) by the Department of National Heritage; and the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage, in the compound of a Tourist Police Station in Bandar Hilir. Further excavations until early September 2007 uncovered at least 10 human skeletons and hundreds of broken pieces of human bones.

The removal, conservation and analysis of the remains were carried out by researchers from the Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, with staff from the Department of National Heritage. Four of the better preserved and more complete skeletons were removed for further study. These were rather fragile and had to be conserved on-site as well as in the laboratory at the Centre for Archaeological Research. A tibia of one of the skeletons was sent for AMS dating in Florida. The results suggested a date between A.D. 1400 and 1450.

Since the discovery in the Fort, an area of about 6 sq m was excavated to a maximum depth of 120 cm by the Department of National Heritage, revealing a burial site with more than 10 skeletons. It is believed to be part of a much larger burial site, as suggested by some of the unexcavated human skulls exposed at the site, as well as human bones found at the walls of the trenches.

A large number of loose human bones, broken tiles, ceramics, animal bones, shells, and coins were found scattered, especially in the upper layer.

Observation of the finds and the soil profile suggested that the upper layer probably comprised backfill or “tanah tambak” with broken tiles, ceramic shards, shells, coins and animal bones. All the intact skeletal remains appeared to have come from the burial ground, which is situated on the lower layer, 80 cm to120 cm deep.

A preliminary on-site examination revealed that the four skeletons were laid in an extended position and placed in an east-west orientation with the head pointed west. Three of them were identified as those of males; one was of a female. The skeletons of a male and a female were together in a grave.

Testing of the soil surrounding the first of the skeletons showed slightly alkaline soil. This must have helped preserve them for more than 600 years; acidic soil would have destroyed them.

Malacca, locally known as Melaka, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list on July 7. Along with Georgetown, the historic cities of the Straits of Malacca have developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca.

The influences of Asia and Europe have lent the towns a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible. With its government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications, Melaka demonstrates the early stages of this history originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century.

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