Prof John Miksic: Unearthing Singapore's forgotten treasures

Throughout his career, Prof Miksic has revealed the rich history of Singapore, by discovering evidence of sophisticated civilisations as far back asthe 14th century

Professor John Miksic’s love of archaeology began as a small boy. Growing up on a farm in the United States, his grandfather would often find arrowheads from the Native American Iroquois that used to live there. These artefacts from a different time captivated Prof Miksic’s imagination — “We used to look at them and speculate what it would have been like to live on the same farm, but a thousand years ago.”

From these beginnings, Prof Miksic’s journey to become one of the foremost experts on Singapore’s enigmatic history is a something of a surprising one. As an undergraduate, he studied anthropology at Dartmouth College and was fascinated with Eskimos. When he graduated in 1968, he joined the US Peace Corps hoping that he would be deployed in Northeast Asia where Eskimos originated. 

However, because of Prof Miksic’s farming background, he was sent to Malaysia to work on organising farmers’ cooperatives. It was there that he first experienced the rich archaeological history of Southeast Asia.   

“I spent two years in Kedah, which turned out to have lots of archaeological sites. There were artefacts from ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples and examples of Chinese pottery. The whole thing entranced me. It was something that I’d never been exposed to,” he said.

After leaving the US Peace Corps, Prof Miksic briefly switched fields to international affairs with the aim of going into the diplomatic service. However, the pull of Southeast Asian archaeology proved too strong and he returned in 1974, receiving a Fulbright scholarship from Cornell University to conduct a PhD project in Sumatra. By the time he had completed his PhD, Prof Miksic was fluent in Indonesian, and after two years at the US Agency for International Development in Bencoolen, he was offered a job teaching Archaeology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia with support from the Ford Foundation and Asia Research Council.

Rediscovering a bygone Singapore 

After a number of years at the university, he was invited to Singapore to conduct an archaeological test excavation. This was to be the first ever excavation performed in Singapore and Prof Miksic chose Fort Canning as the site. He explained, “We excavated on Fort Canning because there was a legend that there had been an ancient palace there. And, lo and behold, we actually found a 14th century layer that was still preserved!”

When describing how it felt, he said, “It was tense. Honestly, I really thought the chances were slim of finding anything, let alone things that were still undisturbed after 700 years, but we did! It was amazing and a real stroke of luck. You just can’t predict what’s going to happen, but you have to try. That’s what archaeology is.”

After the successful dig, Prof Miksic was offered a fulltime position at NUS in 1987, which he gladly accepted and he has worked here ever since. He is now a Professor at NUS Southeast Asian Studies. When looking back on his career and what factors led him to this point, he said, “I never planned any of it. I was just going with the flow.”

You just can’t predict what’s going to happen, but you have to try. That’s what archaeology is.

Since, the initial Fort Canning dig, Prof Miksic has orchestrated numerous archaeological excavations. These digs have revealed much more about the civilisation that existed in Singapore hundreds of years before Stamford Raffles ever set foot on the island in 1819.

A forgotten rich history

Before this evidence was found, many people believed the existence of a sophisticated 14th century civilisation in Singapore was a myth, despite it being chronicled in the famous ‘Malay Annals’. But one person who did believe the ancient stories was Stamford Raffles himself. “That’s the whole reason he came here. He was leveraging the history of Singapore to try and revive the settlement — and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams I’m sure,” Prof Miksic stated.

Prof Miksic describes that this Singapore of hundreds of years ago, actually shared some common traits with Singapore of today. “It was seen as a connecting point, and a collecting centre for local produce. So trans-shipping was a big part of Singapore’s economy way back in the 14th century, just like today,” he said.

“The hundreds of Chinese coins we have found suggest that it was a cash economy too — kind of like a banking centre. The citizens didn’t just barter, they bought and sold and earned wages using a standardised Chinese medium of exchange,” he continued.

Singaporeans centuries ago were also fashion conscious, with several examples found of intricate, beaded costumes. And the island was well fortified to protect its valuables, something which was a rarity in the area at the time. Perhaps another commonality, “They also processed fermented rice to make wine. So they liked to drink,” Prof Miksic revealed.

headless horseman 960.jpg

'The Headless Horseman' is a complete anomaly in Singapore, with no other examples ever found in this style. It is currently on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum

When asked about the most significant artefact unearthed over the course of his many digs in Singapore, Prof Miksic recounted the day one of his former undergraduate volunteers, Dr Alvin Tan, found ‘The Headless Horseman’. “In 1998, we were digging in a location between the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Singapore river. All of a sudden, a little statue, about 6-8 cm tall, appeared.” Made sometime in the 14th century, “it was completely intact, apart from the head sadly enough,” he said.

The statue is of a man, depicted in an Indonesian style, riding on a winged horse. Probably modelled after a mythical, high-status person, this one-of-a-kind object is completely unique to Singapore. Prof Miksic explained, “There’s no other statue made out of this material, or in this style, ever found anywhere in Southeast Asia. And here we found it next to the Asian Civilisations Museum of all places.”

Singaporeans of the past, present and future

Prof Miksic believes that these historical artefacts do not just give us a deeper understanding of the citizens of the past, they can impact the lives of Singaporeans today by giving them a stronger sense of identity. “I believe they can give Singaporeans a feeling of identification with this specific plot of land. Singapore was not something that was created by colonialists. These findings show that there were people like them living here hundreds of years before — maybe even their own personal ancestors.” 

As such, Prof Miksic has been working on a new display at Fort Canning Park for the 200th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival in Singapore entitled ‘From Singapore to Singaporean: The Bicentennial Experience’. Officially opened on 30 May 2019, the display features a cinematic journey called ‘Time Traveller’ which explores the diverse and significant history Singapore before Raffles. “The aim is to put 1819 in the context of 700 years,” he said. 

To this end, when discussing his hopes for the new display and the broader context of his work generally, he said, “I’d love to get Singaporeans interested in the whole history of Southeast Asia, especially around the 14th century when Singapore was really playing a part in a lot of social changes. Even if they don’t become archaeologists, my hope is that they will see this as part of their heritage.”