The project

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.