maandag 9 mei 2011


Archaeological excavations usual yield heaps of earthenware and ours is no exception. Besides the Chinese ceramics, which are relatively well-known, we have exhumed many sherds of local pottery, the manufacturing process and distribution network of which is still to be studied. In order to gain more insight into how people produced and used these pots, we embarked on a small ethnoarchaeological trip.
We first observed that some of the pots still used for cooking and keeping rice were very similar to the sherds we found at Bukit Gombak. After a short enquiry, we discovered that all the earthen pots used in the Tanah Datar area came from one single village: Galo Dandang, near Rambatan.
Although the industry is quickly decreasing, a few women of Galo Dandang still produce traditional ceramics and sell them to vendors who distribute ceramics in the markets of the Tanah Datar area. We have met one of these craftswomen, Ibu Juharnis, 53 years old, who had the kindness to show and explain to us how she shapes and bakes ceramics at home.
Ibu Juharnis goes once a month in the rice fields to dig the clay she needs. The clay is simply  mixed with sand (without any decantation or cleaning) and wedged. Ibu Juharnis shapes the clay lumps by hand, using a bamboo or wooden ring and a paddle. The pot is smoothened using a stone (inside) and a bamboo stick (outside), dried and baked in an open fire at the rear of Ibu Juharnis’ house.

Ibu Juharnis, holding a large stone inside the pot, shapes the clay by hitting it with a wooden paddle.

Ibu Juharnis smoothens the inside of the pot with a stone

Smoothening the outside with a bamaboo stick

After the pot has dried for one hour, Ibu Juharnis adds a rim.
Firing the pots behind the house

dinsdag 12 april 2011

The archaeologist´s blues

A week´s work in trench F
You think archaeology is about exotic places and sensational discoveries? Well, sometimes it is. But it is also about working from early morning to late at night, living with colleagues 24 hours a day, being far away from friends and family and trying to adapt to local food; all of it in the name of science. Most of the time, we do it with joy. Except when, instead of sensational discoveries, nothing is happening at all. 
Looking at an empty trench for days, the archaeologist gets the blues. And this is just what happened to us last week. Everyone has its way of dealing with it: bath for Annika, massage for Johannes, long talks for Kilian and Patrick. In these moments, anything is good to take. The discovery of a modern nail becomes a moment of intense satisfaction, something that breaks the day´s monotony.  The nail is then numbered and classified as the most precious object.
Johannes in his empty trench
In the evening, though, we have time – at last – to fill all those forms we are asked to fill by Dominik. Office work takes a more and more important place during excavation.  Besides making photos, drawings, plans and sections, we also have to fill in locus sheets (for every archaeological layer), ceramic collection labels, small find labels, lists of finds, locus lists, sample sheets, field diaries, ceramic description sheets  and, of course, to enter everything in the database. Although this might not seem exciting, documenting the excavation as precisely as we can is a necessity. As any first year archaeology student learns it: excavating is destroying; hence the importance of documentation.   Let´s just hope we´ll soon have something else to document than modern nails.

Break time in trench F

Annika at the spring

In helps Johannes to relax
Working at home in the evening

zaterdag 9 april 2011

A sherd story

Muti washing sherds
There is obviously something going on between archaeologists and sherds. To the lay eye, our profession seems obsessed with broken pots. But is it really so? And what do we do with them anyway?
The problem with traces of human activities is that they tend to decay and disappear quite quickly. Wood rots, metal corrodes, even bone can disappear under the action of acid soils. But ceramic survives quite well, even in difficult environments. Besides, as pots don´t have a very long lifetime, the usual household needs lots of them and leave a sort of ceramic print of its habits and status. Hence, pottery analysis is an essential component of any archaeological excavation.

A sherd collection
Pottery sherds are first collected layer per layer, washed, dried, sorted, counted, weighted and photographed.  After that, some of them are selected, numbered, drawn, measured and described one by one. The description focuses on shape, technique and ornamentation. This part of the work is done by the archaeologists during the excavation. The final analysis, however, will be carried out later by a ceramic expert, the ceramologist. 

Mai-lin and Patrick discussing the
orientation of a sherd
It is too early to draw final conclusions, but a quick look at the ceramics from Bukit Gombak already gives interesting results. The Chinese ceramics found on the site show that the hill was used from the 13th-14th century onward. The quantity and variety of the local ceramics confirm that the place was a settlement. The distribution of the ceramics seems also to indicate that the (wooden) buildings that made up this settlement were concentrated in the south and on the northern plateau, but not at the top of the hill (although postholes have been discovered there, the lack of pottery suggests a different type of use). Strangely enough, the eastern slope has yielded a material quite different from the other areas excavated until now, with a very large number of sherds with cord mark

The end of the excavation is approaching, but the heaps of sherds awaiting study suggest that the sherd story is just beginning.

Sekar measuring a sherd

Dayat´s drawing

maandag 4 april 2011

At the pursuit of Ādityavarman

Pariangan, the site of one inscription
Ādityavarman. This sole name led us to develop the Tanah Datar archaeological project. But who is the guy anyway? We actually know only very few things about him: he spent his early life in East Java, at the court of Majapahit, and founded a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom in the Sumatranese highlands.  Why and how this kingdom was born is still a mystery to historians, but we hope to be able soon to throw more light on it. The inscriptions he left in the Tanah Datar area constitute the earliest local testimony on the history of the region and the main source of information about this king. Hence, one of our main tasks has been to survey the area for inscriptions, so that they can be transcribed and translated in English – most of them for the first time. During two weeks, our epigraphic team (Sreymom, Sarann, Arlo and Budi) has been at the pursuit of Ādityavarman , photographing and making rubbings of the inscriptions identified during the survey. The rubbings, made on specially imported Korean paper and Chinese ink, will be kept at the office of the BP3 at Batusangkar and at the library of the EFEO in Jakarta. Together with the photos, they will allow epigraphists to have access to the inscriptions in their original scripts.
Arlo, Sreymon and Saran applying the paper on the stone
Sarann, hitting the stone and inking the paper

The final result

zondag 27 maart 2011

Lost and found

Trench B, natural soil
After two weeks of excavation, we have reached the natural soil in the three trenches. Our fears were justified and it now appears that the occupation layers have been heavily disturbed by the agricultural activities of the late 20th century.
As often in tropical climate and especially on the top of a hill, the stratigraphy is very shallow. The monsoon rains wash the soil away and the anthropomorphic layers do not go much deeper than 30-40cm below the modern ground level.
The consequence for us is that the ancient occupation layers have been completely turned upside down when the area was ploughed. The material of 5 centuries of human activities has been mixed up in one thick (modern) layer. Fortunately, the material has not been moved over long distances, since pieces from a single ceramic are often found close to each other. Some areas are clearly richer in archaeological material than others. The top of the hill, where our trench A is located, has yielded very few ceramics in comparison with the two other trenches, in trench B traces of metal working activities have been detected. Among the lost and found in this thick disturbed layer, we have orange and blue beads, Chinese ceramics (mostly fragments of bowls and dishes), earthenware sherds (of jars, cooking pots, lids, kendis etc.), obsidian, Neolithic adzes, iron slag, brick fragments etc. 

Neolithic adze
 Glass bead

Below the disturbed layer, a good surprise was awaiting us though: traces of postholes (in trench A) and even the lower part of a post (in trench B). We finally have physical proof of the existence of a building on our hill! The coming week, we will extend the trenches and open new excavation areas in the hope of finding more post(hole)s.
Base of a wooden post

zaterdag 26 maart 2011

The antenna guy

Ben walking with the magnetometer
Johannes helping Ben with the GPR
Archaeology is not about digging anywhere. There are more and more ways to discover if there are archaeological features beneath our feet before excavation. And that is exactly the job of Benjamin, our Antenna Guy. His antenna is actually a magnetometer, an instrument that measures spatial variations in the strength of the magnetic field. The presence of iron, brick, burned soil and certain rocks causes anomalies in the Earth´s magnetic field and the magnetometer reacts strongly to these. The information is transformed into a grey-scale map that allows archaeologists to locate possible features. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to distinguish man-made features from natural phenomena. Besides, subtle features maybe hidden by highly magnetic materials.
Ben spends his days walking with his antenna or with his ground penetrating radar (GPR) between small red and white flags, recording the strength and velocity of the soil´s magnetic response. During this process, no one is allowed in the area: a belt buckle or even a paper clip would interfere and would be registered as anomalies by the magnetometer.
After one week of work, the results come out: the hill´s magnetic map is relatively homogenous, except for an area north of trench C, which shows a strong magnetic anomaly. The excavation does not yield any solid archaeological structure though. We nevertheless notice that the soil of the area contains numerous small metallic balls (about 1mm in diameter). Are they natural? Are they residues from metal working? Opinions are divided. We hope that the analysis of the samples will give us an answer. 

zaterdag 19 maart 2011

A day´s work

The excavation has started since one week now and everyone is getting used to the daily routine of the fieldwork. We wake up around 6.30, take a (cold) shower, a breakfast and get in the car. It is a 15 minutes drive to the foot of Bukit Gombak, then an 8 minutes climb to the top. The work starts at 8.00 and finishes at 16.00. With their hoes, the workers scrap the first centimeters of earth, while the archaeologists look for ceramics, observe, measure, fill the forms in, sort the finds and take pictures of the different excavation units (strata) .

Up to now, we have opened three trenches of 9m x 9m each, in order to explore three different areas: the top of the hill (trench A), the eastern slope (trench B) and 
the small plateau to the north (trench C). 
Jon, Feri, Soni, In, Samsiwar and Yarli in trench C
In trenches B and C, the material is abundant and diversified (pottery, Chinese ceramics, metal objects, obsidian), but trench A, contrary to what we expected, is poor in material. Besides, we have learned from our workers that the site used to be ploughed with a tractor until 5-6 years ago and we are wondering whether the archaeological layers are still in place or have been completely disturbed. In any case, we hope that the artifacts will give us a good idea of the duration and the type of occupation of the hill. A quick look at first the ceramics and metal artifacts seems to confirm our hypothesis, that Gunung Gombak was indeed a settlement site as early as the 14th. Some of the objects that we have recovered are clearly of a more recent date though, such as a VOC coin found in trench C. We still hope to find more tangible traces of a building, but so far nothing.
Pottery sherds found in two hours in trench C

zondag 13 maart 2011

Burning point

Smiling Kilian in front
of one of the landmarks

Slowly but surely, problems are being solved. Dominik has all the necessary authorizations and the Total Station has no secrets for Annika, Johannes and Kilian anymore. The preparation work may begin.

Andrison, a topographer from the local Institute for preservation of cultural heritage (BP3) walks through the high grass and keeps running up and down, taking measurements for the topographical map. Meanwhile, our Total Station team has chosen a series of landmarks that will help us to localize the trenches and the finds.

Two workers have started cleaning the site in the traditional way, cutting the grass and burning the ground.  A thick smoke now covers Bukit Gombak, and though the place has become less bucolic, some of us seems to find pleasure in playing with fire.

Marking the first trench

But the most moving moment of the day is undoubtedly the delimitation of the first trench, at the top of the hill. In a few days, the whole hill will be cleared, the three trenches will be marked and the real work will begin. Everyone anxiously awaits the digging. Some team members even let their imagination go. For Johannes and Véronique, it will be a wooden palace with few ceramics and a  couple of Changsha bowls (imported from China, they are easy to identify and excellent chronological markers for the 9th century). For Sekar and Annika, it will be an inscription, even a short one (to make Arlo forget that they are not ready with their essays yet?). Will our craziest dreams come true? We'll soon know.

Atop the smoky hill

Sekar keeps smiling

Annika and Baskoro playing with fire

dinsdag 8 maart 2011


Our base camp
Welcome on the website of the Tanah Datar archaeological project!
Thanks to Indiana Jones, archaeologists have earned a reputation of adventurers and treasure seekers. However, very few archaeologists fit this profile - and none of us does. So, forget about Hollywood and learn about the every day life on our excavation.
It all started a couple of years ago, when Dominik and Mai-lin got the idea of excavating at the top of the Gombak Hill, near Batusangkar, in the province of West Sumatra. The landscape was beautiful, the food delicious and the site promising. A few sherds and a fourteenth century inscription convinced them that going through the lengthy process of searching for subsidies was worthwhile. For most of us, however, the adventure really began on Saturday, when we left Jakarta and embarked on a plane to Padang.
Bukit Gombak before the excavation
From Padang, a three hour drive brings us to our base camp in Tanah Datar, where we are introduced to our hosts and settle in our new house. The house actually looks more like a four star hotel than like the usual excavation house. Instead of a dormitory we find spacious rooms for two or three persons. Our first visit to the site leaves us an excellent impression. The hill is covered with grass. It is a sunny, airy place with a few trees and a magnificient view on the surrounding plain and on the Merapi mountain.
Monday, Dominik must make sure that we have all the necessary authorizations - from the local governor to the owner of the land that we want to excavate. First disappointment. One letter is missing and we are not allowed to start the excavation. Annika, Kilian and Johannes, who went back to Bukit Gombak, try to install our brand new total station - it is supposed to give us the position of any structure on the site. In vain. 
Hopefully, tomorrow is another day.
Johannes et Kilian trying to install the station

vrijdag 25 februari 2011

Tanah Datar: Early state formation in relation to lowland and highland exchanges on Sumatra

Sumatra is renowned since the earliest times for its gold, camphor and precious forest products. The island has yet another asset: its strategic location, for Sumatra borders the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest maritime routes. For 2000 years trade linking China and India and points further west has passed its shores. Sumatra, and particularly its eastern coast, was thus a favourable place for early polities to develop. These coastal polities derived their wealth from controlling the Strait of Malacca and from trading hinterland products on the international market. Highland regions and lowlands polities developed over time complex interactions which we begin only to understand.
The Tanah Datar project will focus on the time of Ādityavarman (1343-1375), a late ruler of Malayu, who established himself in the Minangkabau area. His reign, documented by 14th century inscriptions, constitutes the only chronological anchor for the early history of the region. The aims of the research are: 1) to get a better insight of the relation with the lowlands and its effect on the socio-economic conditions of the highlands, 2) to document the material culture at the transition between pre- and early state formation in the highlands.
This year, the field work (5 March – 17 April 2011) will include:

1. Excavations at Bukit Gombak
The potential centre of the reign of Ādityavarman lies on Bukit Gombak, a slope south of Batusangkar. This hill lies in the middle of the fertile plain of the valley of Tanah Datar (“flat land”) south of the volcano Gunung Merapi. Here the oldest Ādityavarman-inscription in the highland of Sumatra dating to the year 1356 was found which mentions the existence of a palace, the erection of cloister and temple buildings. In the vicinity of Bukit Gombak more inscriptions and fragments of sculptures were unearthened in addition to surface finds of local pottery and Chinese porcelain of the Song-dynasty (960-1279). At the potential settlement area of Bukit Gombak (600m x 250 m) test pits and at least three wider areas will be excavated to investigate a stratigraphy and to recover archaeological remains. The surveys will examine sites of Pagarruyung, Kuburajo, Saruaso and Pariangan where inscriptions were found but no archaeological remains. The inscription of Batu Bapahat mentions the construction of irrigation canals possible traces of which will be investigated by geophysical measurements and archaebotanical analyses.  

2. Survey of megalithic sites
Megalithic remains are documented in three valleys of the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra: Mahat in the North, Sinamar in the centre and Tanah Datar in the South of this region. They either form cluster of up to 400 stones or they are upright standing and single monuments. Most of them are not decorated, some are rounded and shaped as swords (kris-shape) from 1-4 m height.

3. Survey of the inscriptions

The aim of this part of the Tanah Datar Project is to study and publish a complete corpus of the inscriptions issued by Ādityavarman. Even though all we know thus far about this king is based on his inscriptions, several have not been edited at all and none has been translated into English or Indonesian directly from the original. The aim of this part of the project is therefore to place this historical record on sound and comprehensive footing by providing critical editions of all the relevant documents with annotated translations, good images that allow verification of the (often problematic) readings, and relatively elaborate explanations of the language and contents of the inscriptions, to allow non-philologists to understand the pitfalls in their interpretation.