Unearthing Singapore's history at Empress Place

How the dig works

The artefacts are cleaned, sorted and tagged with information on when and where they were found.

The ground under Empress Place is proving to be a treasure trove of history.

An archaelogical dig there - the biggest since such excavations first started in the 1980s - has thrown up items such as a headless porcelain Buddhist figure, red-orange carnelian beads from India, a broken bowl with a double-fish motif, coins and a clay figurine.

The recovered items weigh a total of 400kg so far.

The excavation, organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB) with the support of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, is part of efforts to commemorate 31 years of archaeology in Singapore this year.

NHB, which is partnering the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies (NSC-ISEAS) in the excavation, hopes to recover artefacts dating back 700 years during the 14th-century Temasek period to the early colonial days in the 19th century.

Ten volunteer archaelogists from NSC-ISEAS are working at the excavation site which measures 1,000 sq m, the size of 10 four-room HDB flats.

This is the largest archaeological excavation ever undertaken here.

Mr Lim Chen Sian, lead archaeologist and research fellow at the NSC-ISEAS, said: "Opportunities for archaeological excavations in Singapore are rare as we are a small and highly urbanised country.

"Empress Place was the location of a thriving port in the early days and any new discovery will hopefully advance our understanding of Singapore's earliest beginnings."

The excavation will end on April 9.

Archaeology is also a form of destruction. If there is no threat from urban development, everything would be left untouched.

Mr Aaron Kaw, 35, research officer at the archaeology unit of NSC-ISEAS

Mr Kaw makes drawings to document the artefacts found because details can be highlighted, such as the shape and form of an object, which may not be accurately represented in a photograph.

Volunteers for NSC-ISEAS have to work fast as urban development is encroaching on the excavation site.

Volunteers use trowels to scrape and remove soil to look for earthenware, metal and organic materials.

A broken porcelain plate with glaze still intact

Artefacts recovered

Headless figurine

Head of a figurine

Old coins that have become brittle

The artefacts are separated from the soil into different buckets.

All artefacts found on State land belong to the Government.

The soil collected in the buckets is sifted to check for artefacts again.

The earth at Empress Place has plenty of sand because this area used to be nearer to the Singapore River. The sand is dark because of the presence of decomposed material.

A sewage pipe, thought to be from the colonial period (19th century), was found. It will be removed to make way for urban development.

The excavation site is 1,000 sq m, about the size of 10 four-room HDB flats.

The area is further divided into 5m-by-4m units.

Sandbags are used to stabilise the soft sand.

A volunteer checks for artefacts that may have been missed.

Items of interest are picked out to be analysed further.



This article was first published on Feb 23, 2015.
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