Excavations at part of Empress Place site come to halt

Excavations at six zones of a major archaeological dig site at Empress Place came to a halt yesterday, while work at the remaining seven zones will go on as planned until April 9.

The excavations are part of the National Heritage Board's (NHB) effort to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had given NHB the nod to conduct the dig - the largest here to date - alongside works to pedestrianise the area which started late last year. It is developing an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct there for Singapore's Jubilee Year.

The deadline for excavations at the six zones which started on Feb 2 was yesterday.

Those zones have been handed over to URA. It came after a team of archaeologists from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' (Iseas) Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre scrambled for volunteers as late as Monday night, in a bid to complete excavations at the six zones.

Online posts by members of the heritage community said the team, led by Mr Lim Chen Sian, had been given "last minute notification" of the deadline yesterday.

When contacted yesterday, NHB, URA and Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre said in a joint statement that the work schedule had been agreed on from the start, and the timeline "shared with all parties involved in the archaeological work".

The parties noted that archaeological work at the site has been ongoing since the project started, and the NHB has been working with Iseas to hire manpower to facilitate the archaeological work, they added.

Beyond the six zones, works at the rest of the site will be completed by April 9.

The dig site is a treasure trove of artefacts, some as old as 700 years, that tell the story of 14th to 17th century Singapore.

It comprises 13 zones, and spans 1,000 sq m - the size of 10 four-room Housing Board flats.

Artefacts uncovered so far include a headless Buddhist figurine, red-orange coloured carnelian beads from India and a broken celadon bowl with a double-fish motif.

Dr Derek Heng, an NHB board member who heads the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, told The Straits Times that about 70 per cent of work has been completed in the six zones.

Yesterday, some people involved with the project appealed to the authorities for more time for experts to work on the six zones so that "hundreds of years of history can be salvaged".

"There's value to history that would be impossible to retrieve if we shut work down. I hope the authorities can reconsider their decision," said undergraduate Ling Xi Min, 24, who was among the 20 volunteers who responded to calls from the team and pitched in yesterday.

Dr Heng hopes that a database marking out archaeologically viable, pre-1819 sites can eventually be developed.

This could help developers factor archaeological work into their plans and mitigate the issue of the lack of time, he said.


This article was first published on Feb 25, 2015.
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