Sungai Batu (Malaisie) : Archaeologists search for a king

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Tucked between plantations along a quiet country road near Merbok, Kedah, a team of archaeologists and students are busily excavating at a site that is known as South-east Asia's oldest civilisation.

This is Kedah Tua in Sungai Batu, an ancient civilisation that dates back to 535 BC, earlier even than Borobudur in Java (9th century AD) and Angkor Wat, Cambodia (12th century AD).

That's not all... this kingdom was a major iron exporter at the time, complete with mines, a smelting factory, a port and administrative buildings to support the industry.

What is missing are remnants of a palace, its thriving city and the burial sites of its people.

Since 2009, archaeologists and archaeology students from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) have been excavating the site to find these remnants and piece together the rise and fall of this ancient advanced civilisation in Kedah.

The kingdom of Kedah Tua

In 535 BC, Kedah Tua was already exporting iron and this means its social hierarchy in the world was very high, they must have had a raja but so far, we have yet to uncover evidence of one,” said CGAR director Datuk Mokhtar Saidin.

Kedahtyuaa0906The ritualistic site that was built in 110 AD with an addutuon built on top in the sixth century.

We call it Kedah Tua because we are still not sure about what type of kingdom there was during that period,” he added.

Kedah Tua was known as kedaram, kataha, kalaha or cheh-cha previously and this is directly linked to its iron industry because those words mean iron in different languages

He said it was not just any ancient civilisation but an advanced one with geologists to detect and mine iron and the technology to smelt it.

Iron needs 1600 degrees Celsius to smelt and in that period, the Kedah Tua kingdom already had that technology.

The technology must be from somewhere else, from the migration of people from the west to the east, the knowledge flows to China,” Mokhtar said.

Rewriting history

When the site was discovered back in 2009, Mokhtar said they didn't know the significance of itt.

There was no mention of this site in the history books, no mention of a thriving iron industry in Malaya or an advanced civilisation in the area… we didn't know civilisations existed here back in 535 BC so we didn't know what we had found until we pieced everything together,” he said.

Sungai batuKedah Tua's position among other early world civilisations

The discovery of 12 jetties to form a major port off Sungai Batu was a sure sign that this was not just any small iron smelting plant but evidence of a thriving civilisation that was a major iron exporter to the world.

It preceded Borobudur, it preceded Angkor Wat, it is history we never knew and discovering it as a civilisation meant history has to be changed… the oldest civilisation in South-east Asia is here in Malaysia, in Kedah Tua, not Borobudur,” he said.

Mapping burial grounds

After almost 10 years of excavating the site, Mokhtar believes there are still more discoveries waiting to be found.

Apart from the iron smelting industry, the port and the accompanying ruins of administrative buildings, they also found a monument of ritual.

Back in 535 BC, they practised animism, we can clearly see the monument facing Gunung Jerai and we believe that from the 6th century onwards, they moved on to Hindu-Buddhism as we can see signs of a stupa which is indicative of Buddhism,” he said.

He added the Hindu-Buddhism influences could be due to the Silk Route when traders passing by stopped here and introduced their beliefs and religions to the people.


Samples of the furnace used to smelt iron during that period.