Long-lost Golden Island resurfaces in Indonesian river

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Remnants of the long lost ‘Golden Island’ – where tales describe man-eating snakes, fire-breathing volcanoes, and Hindi-speaking parrots – may have been found in the Musi River near Palembang , Indonesia. And of course there is gold, oozing from the bottom of the river.

Divers probing the muddy bottom of the river recovered hundreds of figurines, temple bells, tools, mirrors, coins and ceramics. They found gold sword handles and gold and ruby ​​rings, carved jars, wine jugs and peacock-shaped flutes.

These treasures all point to one thing: Scientists have located the lost city of Srivijaya, once a rich and powerful port along the oceanic trade route between East and West. Srivijaya, which was ruled by a king, controlled the Strait of Malacca between the mid-600s and 1025s, when war with the Indian Chola dynasty shattered the city’s power. From that point on, Srivijaya declined in influence, although trade continued there for another two centuries, according to historians. The last Prince Srivijayan, Parameswara, attempted to regain control of trade in the region in the 1390s, but was defeated by forces from the neighboring kingdom of Java; subsequently, Srivijaya and its surroundings became a refuge for Chinese pirates.

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Divers collect a handful of gold rings, pearls and gold coins made of Srivijaya sandalwood from the Musi River in Palembang, Sumatra. The artefacts date from the 7th to the 10th century. (Image credit: courtesy Wreckwatch Magazine)

Today, there are hardly any traces of Srivijaya’s glory days, except for the glittering artifacts that divers removed from the river. No official archaeological excavation has ever been carried out in or around the river; artifacts are sold to private collectors in the global antiques market. This means that even as artifacts resurface, finally pointing to Srivijaya’s location, there is virtually no physical evidence of day-to-day life there, said Sean Kingsley, marine archaeologist and editor of Srivijaya. Wreck Review, where he recently wrote about The Lost Golden Isle.

“We’re starting from zero,” Kingsley told Live Science. “It’s like walking into a museum wing, and it’s completely empty. People don’t know what clothes the people of Srivijaya wore, what their tastes were, what kind of ceramics they liked to eat, nothing. We don’t know. nothing about them in life or in death.

Water world

Earlier archaeological research around Palembang, Indonesia, the modern city of Sumatra near where Srivijaya once stood, had only revealed small clues of the once-rich port: brick temples and a few inscriptions. Most of the information about the city comes from foreigners who wrote about their trips to Srivijaya. These merchants and visitors described a world that was JK Rowling’s “Lord of the Rings” meets “Fantastic Beasts and where to find them,” Kingsley said. They wrote volcanoes spewing smoke and fire, eating men snakes, parrots that could imitate Hindi, Greek and Arabic, and well-armed sailors ready to attack any ship that tried to pass without entering Srivijaya. These stories give an idea of ​​the place, but are often sensationalistic and reveal little about the daily life of the port city.

In the 10th century, the ruler of Srivijaya paid to build Buddhist temples in China and India, according to a 2006 report by French archaeologist Pierre-Yves Manguin. The city’s tributes to China also allude to its wealth, both local and acquired through trade: the city donated ivory, crystal statues, perfumes, pearls, coral and rhino horn, according to a 2019 report published by the Australian National Center of Excellence for Maritime Archeology. Srivijaya had extremely rich local natural resources, Kingsley said, including desirable plants such as sandalwood and camphor. And then there was gold – the natural deposits of it, eroding in the Musi river.

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This map shows the extent of Srivijaya around the 8th century. (Image credit: Gunawan Kartapranata / CC BY 3.0)

How could such a rich civilization disappear without leaving a trace? A likely possibility is that Srivijaya was mostly made up of wooden structures built right over the river. This style of architecture of the aquatic world is still visible on some rivers in Southeast Asia today. The houses are built on rafts and tied together in a sort of floating city. Most of Srijivaya’s structures would thus have rotted in a few generations, Kingsley said, possibly leaving behind a few poles and stumps.

It’s also possible that a geological event, possibly related to volcanic activity in Sumatra, buried the Srivijaya site, Kingsley said.

The disappearance of Srivijaya

Signs that the Musi River might hold Srivijaya’s secrets first emerged in 2011, when construction workers began dredging sand from the Musi for large construction projects. Glittering artifacts appeared with the sand, leading many local workers and fishermen to dive in the moonlight, using hoses attached to compressed air tanks to breathe while probing the bottom of the river with iron stems. This amateur method often caused damage to more fragile artifacts, such as porcelain, wrote John Miksic, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, in a 2012 paper presented at the conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists. The artifacts included bronze statues of Buddha, glass beads, stamps used to imprint words on clay, and scale weights likely used by merchants, according to one 2012 newsletter article by Miksic.

Between 2011 and 2015, a large number of artifacts probably dating from Srivijaya’s heyday appeared on the antiques market in Jakarta, according to the 2019 Australian report. These are the most valuable finds from the Musi River, wrote Miksic in 2012 – items of less commercial value were sold locally around Palembang.

“I think the looting is probably still going on,” Miksic wrote in an email to Live Science. “The river is wide (1 km [0.6 miles] large) at Palembang. Similar activity was reported in the Batanghari at Jambi, the next great river north of Palembang. “

Selling items piecemeal strips them of their context, making them difficult to study. But in the absence of a systematic academic or government effort to protect the site, some artifacts have been purchased by dedicated collectors who have attempted to keep them together. The 2019 Australian Report focuses on the ceramic collection of an Australian couple, Darrell John Kitchener and Heny Kustiarsih. The ceramics tell a story of close ties to China, with Chinese pottery dating from the 800s and 1800s found in the river.

There are major obstacles to systematic excavation of the Musi River, Kingsley said. Indonesia came under international criticism in the early 2000s after the discovery and sale of two major shipwrecks from the 9th and 10th centuries. The first, the Belitung Wreck, discovered in 1998, ended up safely in the hands of the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore, but artefacts from the second, known as the Cirebon Wreck, have been released. auction by the Indonesian government. Alarmed archaeologists have demanded that the artifacts be kept together. In response to the backlash, the government retained about 10% of the artifacts and declared a moratorium on underwater activities. archeology in 2010. (No one knows how many of these saved artifacts are still in the country, Kingsley said.)

The moratorium and the general lack of resources devoted to cultural heritage in Indonesia means that an official archaeological investigation in the Musi would be difficult. Unfortunately, the moratorium did not protect the Musi River artifacts, Kingsley said.

“Fishermen keep fishing and they keep finding out,” he said. “Only now, it’s even more unlikely that they’ll report their findings to the authorities. So underwater archeology goes underground and the black market thrives.”

It might not be too late for the government or a wealthy collector to step in and buy artifacts to display at the museum, Kingsley said, preserving the last remnants of this vanished world of wealth and luxury for everyone. .

“It is the last great lost civilization that no one has heard of,” Kingsley said. “There is an obligation to save it from oblivion.”

Originally posted on Live Science.


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