The Dark Age of Temasek: Rediscovering our Origins

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Text by Dr John Kwok

MuseSG Volume 8 Issue 2 - Jul to Sep 2015


The “Dark Ages” was once used to describe Europe in the sixth to eleventh centuries when it was believed that civilised life had disappeared following the end of Rome. Archaeological excavations across Europe have uncovered the remains of towns, ports, temples and markets — evidence that Europe after Rome was anything but “dark”. Historians and archaeologists now no longer use the term “Dark Ages” to describe Europe after Rome. There is a time period in Singapore’s past that resembles Europe’s “Dark Ages”. This time period is called the “Temasek Age”; Singapore was known as Temasek until the arrival of the British in the nineteenth century.

There are no written records of Temasek and the people of Temasek left no records for us. The histories of empires in the region hint at the existence of Temasek. For example, the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) mentions Temasek during an invasion of China led by Raja Suran, a powerful ruler in India. His army rampaged across what are now Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia before arriving at Temasek, where it was stopped by the sea. Raja Suran ordered hundreds of boats to be constructed at Temasek to ferry his army to China. But the Chief Minister to the Chinese Emperor sent an old ship to Temasek with a crew of toothless old men who could barely walk, and filled the cargo hold with potted trees and rusted needles. After arriving at Temasek, the crew told Raja Suran that their ship carried a cargo of iron bars but the long voyage had reduced them to the size of rusted needles and the trees on the ship had grown from seeds that were planted when they left China.

They also said that they had been young boys when they left China. Alarmed that the voyage to China would take so long that he and his army would not survive it, Raja Suran turned his army around. Centuries later, a descendant of Raja Suran later became king of Palembang and the father of Sang Nila Utama, who would visit Temasek and form the settlement Singapura on the island.

The British arrived at Singapura in 1819 and founded the port city of Singapore. 1819 is traditionally marked as the year when the history of Singapore begins. Temasek, if it is mentioned at all, is presented as a myth or in a footnote.

Archaeological research in Singapore over the last 31 years has contributed immensely to research on Temasek and the “Temasek Age”. The archaeological excavation at Empress Place, also Singapore's largest archaeological excavation to date in 2015, unearthed an estimated three tonnes of artefacts. It was the biggest-ever haul in Singapore from a single excavation project, which the National Heritage Board described as an “excavation jackpot”. The archaeology team, led by archaeologist Lim Chen Sian from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Archaeological unit, recovered a number of notable artefacts which shed more light on the “Temasek Age”.

Among them were 16 figurines shaped like Buddhist devotees, suggesting that either Buddhism was widespread in Temasek or Temasek was frequently visited by traders or pilgrims from Buddhist kingdoms.

Porcelain Buddhist devotee figurines - 13th to 14th century

There was also a large shard from a Chinese imperial-grade Celadon incense burner, which suggests that an organised society existed in Temasek — Chinese emperors would bestow imperial-grade pottery to the heads of states of kingdoms as an acknowledgement of their subservience to China, and as a sign that trading privileges with China had been granted.

Celadon (greenware) censer (incense burner) from Long Quang imperial kiln

Also uncovered at Empress Place was a pottery cup produced at the Jingdezhen kiln complex in Jiangxi province, implying that trade between Temasek and China extended beyond the traditional trade hubs around China’s southern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.

There was also the surprising discovery of a pottery lid featuring an intricate miniature sculpture of an embracing couple on its underside, suggesting that Temasek society may have had a more playful and liberal side.

Erotic porcelain - 14th century

Every recovered artefact must be carefully cleaned, sorted, tagged, and catalogued. This post-excavation work, which takes about 23 days for every one day of excavation, is painstakingly slow but important and necessary. The processed artefacts will be studied by archaeologists and historians in an effort to answer questions on the “Dark Age” of Temasek: How was Temasek society organised and ruled? What kind of lives did Temasek people live? What happened to Temasek? Close collaboration between historians and archaeologists researching these recovered artefacts, together with archaeological data compiled from excavations and archaeological artefacts, will one day help us answer these questions and many more.