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Treasures from oldest sunken ship on show
Published on: Sunday, September 18, 2005
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Kota Kinabalu: Sabah's historical treasures recently salvaged from the seabed, some 400 metres off Simpang Mengayau at the Tip of Borneo, are now on display at the Sabah Museum until Sept 27. The treasures were recovered from a sunken Chinese junk that went down more than 800 years ago, believed to be from the Sung Dynasty of 960 to 1127AD.

The Chinese vessel was believed to have sunk near the Tip between 878 and 1045 AD, and a group of fishermen stumbled upon the shipwreck and its remains in March 2003.

It is believed that the sunken ship hit the sandbank between the Tanjung Simpang Mengayau and Kalampunian Island in stormy weather.

It is said that it is the oldest sunken ship ever found in the country and possibly in South East Asia to date.

Unsure of the ship wreck's significance, the fishermen informed the Sabah Museum here and the site was studied in August last year jointly by the Sabah Museum, Museum and Antiquity Department in Kuala Lumpur, and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

The second and third phases were carried out from June to August last year with the expert assistance of UMS and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

Since the findings became public knowledge many have wondered about the type of treasures found at the site.

Hence, in conjunction with the National Day and the Head of State's birthday celebrations, the Sabah Museum decided to organise a special exhibition themed Long Live Tuan Yang Terutama (TYT).

Sabah Museum Director, Datuk Joseph Guntavid, said the exhibition from Aug 15 to Sept 27 displays seven per cent of 503 treasures found at the site and other archaeological findings in the State.

"This special exhibition will present three displays - the biography of the TYT, Treasure of Simpang Mengayau and archaeological artefacts in Sabah. The history of women's development will also be exhibited for the public's knowledge and exposure.

"Among the objectives of the exhibition are to put forward the biography of the Head of State, Tun Ahmadshah Abdullah, who is the symbol of unity, peace, prosperity, peace and harmony in the State.

"Also, the purpose of organising the exhibition is to show the public the popularity of Borneo (now Sabah) as the international trade route as early as 500AD, and to display pre-historic times of Sabah dating back to about 30,000 years ago through archaeological findings," he said recently.

Among the findings that are being displayed, he said, are plates, bowls, teapots, jars and non-ceramic pieces like bronze gongs, copper pieces, iron cooking utensils and wood fragments of sunken ships.

"All the recovered artefacts found at the site of the sunken ship are very invaluable and priceless.

"What we see as having high value is its historical intrinsic worth. If the artefacts are valued in monetary terms, they would cost hundreds of thousands of ringgit in the local market and millions of ringgit in international market," he said.

Before the Museum was informed about the site, Guntavid said many of the artefacts were already found and stolen by nearby villagers who sold them to collectors for quick gains.

He said the display on the 'Treasures of the Tip of Borneo' give an impression that Borneo since ancient times was already an established as a maritime commercial hub as well as explorers' destination.

"It was also one of the main locations of Ferdinand Magellan's voyages round the world about 500 years ago.

"Also, the exhibits of the artefacts bear witness to the existence of foreign trade links more than a 1,000 years ago especially Chinese traders as early as the 10th Century, " he said.

According to him, Borneo was known to Medieval Europe as 'Java the Great' while China called it as 'Poli', 'Poni' or 'Bun Lai'.

The discovery of the sunken ship from the Sung Dynasty era is proof of a busy trade route, and now Simpang Mengayau is being promoted to the outside world as a recreation park and a tourist destination, he said.

Guntavid said the exhibition materials were very difficult to procure as archaeologists who were involved in the discovery had to dive 40 times to the seabed to search for the artefacts.

He said the divers also had a hard time, as they had to fight strong currents and murky waters.

"Some 300 pieces of ceramic and metal artefacts including gongs were salvaged during the first phase of the research. However, only about half of these artefacts are in good condition.

"During the second and third phases, another 131 pieces of ceramic and a few pieces of wooden objects were also salvaged. These artefacts are kept at the Sabah Museum and some area still undergoing conservation treatment," he said.

The other half, Guntavid pointed out, are broken and some have cracks on them.

Apart from the treasures, Guntavid said the exhibition is also displaying other archaeological excavation sites in the East Coast of Sabah.

Artifacts like pre-historic cultural tools, handmade weapons as well as ancient kitchen utensils made of stones and animal bones and woods like from coffin remains were recovered from these sites.

One of the sites was a major prehistoric pottery-making site in South East Asia, located in Bukit Tengkorak off Semporna.

"The site was first excavated in 1988 and completed in 2003 with cooperation from the National University of Australia.

"Later, in 1994-1995, the Archaeological Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Sabah Museum continued the systematic archaeological research at the Bukit Tengkorak site," he said.

Guntavid disclosed that the research, which included about two months of archaeological survey and excavations, revealed that the site was used a major pottery making area in Southeast Asia from 4340 BC to perhaps 50 BC.

He pointed out that the findings in the site dated back about 3,500 years and clay for making the pottery was also recovered, believed to have originated from large deposits of clay found at the foot of Bukit Tengkorak.

In addition, he added that the result of the research indicated that other activities like stone tool making and daily subsistence activities also took place at the site.

"A large amount of food remains like marine molluscs, fish and turtle bones indicated a maritime-based diet. Other dietary items include wild boars, mouse deer, monkey, barking deer, and crabs.

"The research also unveiled that there was cultural contact and long distance trade or exchange between the inhabitants of Bukit Tengkorak and other prehistoric communities that lived along the coast of southeastern Sabah, the Sulu Archipelago, Palawan, southern Mindanao, Minasaha, Talaud, Sulawesi and the chain of Islands between Papua New Guinea and Melanesia," he explained.

Another archaeological site that is currently on display in the Museum is the Gua Samang Buat in Lahad Datu that dates back to about 30,000 years.

He said the cave was surveyed in 1950s but was found to be of less potential. However, he said, collaboration by USM and Sabah Museum showed the site indeed has archaeological potential and, in fact, the site is now the oldest in Sabah.

Amongst the archaeological materials recovered from the sites, he said, were ancient log coffins and stone tools.

He said the State Museum is expected to do more exploration and excavation work at other identified sites in the State.





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