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Shipwrecks lie beneath this calm body of water. Pix by Putri Zanina
The 1900-year-old brick monument used for ritualistic purposes. Pix by Putri Zanina

BENEATH the pockets of placid, murky waters surrounded by wild bushes and oil palm trees lies a secret hidden for over 2,000 years. A thriving seaport called Kataha once stood at a site which only fish and archaeologists can access now.

Archaeologists have spotted wrecks of ancient ships embedded in the muddy floor of what was once an ancient river which flowed through the historical site of Kedah Tua (old Kedah).

The site, now known as Sungai Batu Archaeological Complex, is home to the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia where the remains of the earliest human-built structures have been found.

Universiti Sains Malaysia Global Archaeological Research Centre director Professor Datuk Dr Mokhtar Saidin says his team has conducted geophysics analysis at the swampy site. “We discovered the remnants of ancient ships or barges after sucking out mud to a depth of 24 metres. The remnants include an 8m-long mast, rusted nails and iron pieces.”

So far the excavation work at the muddy area has cost some RM700,000, with the funding coming from the Department of National Heritage. Mokhtar adds that retrieving the ships will cost a lot more, perhaps millions, and it’s a matter that needs a decision from the state government, the federal government and the agencies involved.

“It’s painstaking work and a lot more complicated than digging dry land. This is pure archaeological work that we can’t farm out to villagers, to help with the digging,” he says. Suffice to say, time is something that he wishes he has more of.

The Perak-born Mokhtar of Nusantara Banjar descent, and UKM graduate with a first degree in geology, has also been involved in the discovery of the-now Unesco-listed Lenggong Archaeological site in Perak.

The Department of National Heritage plans to turn the Sungai Batu Archaeological Complex into a heritage park. But for now, Mokhtar has his sights firmly set on completing the archaeological work at Sungai Batu. “We need to do more research and analyses before we can reach a final decision, especially about the findings of the shipwrecks here.”

He doesn’t rule out that the ships may likely be the same age as the Sungai Batu civilisation itself, making the discovery of the relics among the most important historical findings in the area so far.


Nearly a decade ago, the USM archaeological team discovered other relics, such as iron-smelting facilities, monuments, port jetties and administrative buildings, proving the existence of civilisation in Sungai Batu, within Kedah’s Bujang Valley.

The people in ancient times called Sungai Batu by different names: Kataha a Sanskrit word, during the Hindu-Buddha period; Kadaram, Kidaram and Kidara in Tamil, Chieh-Cha (Chinese records of I-Tsing), Kalah in Arabic and Quedah in the West.

“What it was called before the Hindu-Buddha period is unknown, making it all the more fascinating,” says Mokhtar, adding that the Sungai Batu civilisation is chronometrically dated as early as the first century CE, making it even older than that of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Borobodur Temple in Indonesia, built in the 9th and 12th centuries respectively. It certainly is much older than the historic remnants of human-built structures in Malacca that date to the 16th to 17th centuries.

Mokhtar says archaeological research in the Bujang Valley, specifically the Sungai Bujang area, began around 1840s. “Based on the earlier research, the Bujang Valley civilisation is thought to date back to as early as the end of the 4th century CE and to be primarily a Hindu-Buddhist site.

“But our excavations in the last decade at 16 mounds out of 97 mounds mapped and identified in a 3sq km area revealed ritual monuments dating to the early 2nd century CE, a riverside jetty also built in the 2nd century CE and iron smelting sites used from the 1st century CE.”

The discovery of the iron smelting industry in the Sungai Batu complex showed that the Sungai Batu civilisation was based on trade and the iron industry. The jetties confirmed the arrivals of merchants coming by sea from different parts of the world as well as traders using riverine routes. “We’ve found the remnants of 12 jetties, suggesting that it was a very busy entreport,” says Mokhtar.

The remnants of administrative buildings point to the existence of a system of administration in the port jetties. These new finds with chronometric dating (radiocarbon and Optically Stimulated Luminescence or OSL technique) allow the researchers to re-write not only the history of Malaysia’s civilisation, but also that of the region.


The most important discoveries in Sungai Batu, says Mokhtar, include the ancient brick monuments with three distinct architectural elements — a circular brick floor with a square brick structure on top of it. An additional small round brick structure sits on top of the square brick.

“The circular brick floor beneath the square brick structure may symbolise a stupa, similar to Buddhist religious structures that served as the centre of the surrounding structure. A study of the bricks showed they dated to over 1,900 years (110 century AD). The square structure measures a perfect 5.5m x 5.5m, suggesting a precise construction.”

Mohktar adds: “The monument style also suggests some form of connection to cosmology as indicated by the circular structure that represents the moon, sun or earth. The north face of the monument is pointed towards Gunung Jerai, believed in the old days to be the sacred home of the Gods.”

The monument therefore is believed to have been used by the Buddhist community. Buddhist stone inscriptions have been found at the site while the stupa was a later addition to the structures built much earlier. He adds that the earlier structures were used even before the Buddhists came. These include ritualistic spots and pottery with certain ritualistic symbols suggesting the practice of animism.


Mokhtar and I then cross the Merbok-Semeling road to the iron smelting site. He picks up what looks like a stone. “This is an iron slab. Natural iron slabs can still be found in this area. We’ve found a lot of 7.6cm iron slabs made of the raw materials which had been smelted and ready for export. The slabs could be made into parang, swords and other things,” he says.

The discovery of the iron smelting sites complete with ancient foundry and refinery confirmed the existence of an economically-based civilisation in Sungai Batu. Mokhtar says it was an industry driven by the Nusantara Malays, whom he believes were also the ones with the skills to build ships like those found in Sungai Batu.

The Malays were then already producing and exporting iron, and renowned as makers of fine quality iron weapons.

The book Bujang Valley And Early Civilisations In Southeast Asia, a compilation of papers presented at the International Conference on Bujang Valley and Early Civilisations in Southeast Asia held in KL in July 2010, identified three mounds excavated from 2009 to 2010 that revealed evidence of the iron smelting industry.

The evidence was compared against Arabic records and Tamil literary works. Muslim scholars Al-Kindi and Al-Biruni mentioned the importance of iron from Kalah (Bujang Valley in Arabic). Al-Kindi acknowledged that fine quality swords had come from Yemen, Qalai (Kalah) and Hindustan. He also said that hard iron swords called Qala, named after Kalah, were made at this place where the raw materials had come from.

The Tamil poem Pattinappalai from the classical Cankam period (200 BCE - 200 CE) also mentions iron from Bujang Valley, in the north-western part of the Malay peninsula. Both the Arabic and Tamil records support one another.

Says Mokhtar: “We also discovered authentic coal and foundry. One foundry with twin furnace found in Kampung Chemara was dated to the 5th to 10th centuries.

We moved the furnace from the village in Jeniang, part of Kedah Tua, to this site but unfortunately, one of the furnaces was damaged during the move. The furnace was a real antiquity. But the villagers didn’t know this. They planted lemongrass inside the foundry!”

When there’s an industry, there must have been human settlement.

Mokhtar estimates that the ancient area had accommodated some 5,000 people. His next phase of work will involve searching for graves, human remains and ruins of accommodation and palaces. These findings may probably complete his team’s study of the ancient civilisation in Sungai Batu.

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