Indiana Jones who pieces together S'pore's past

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Indiana Jones who pieces together S'pore's past
Associate Professor John N. Miksic, dubbed Singapore’s answer to Indiana Jones, holding up fragments of a rare 14th century Chinese ceramic compass he unearthed at Fort Canning Hill.

Textbooks here recount the legend of how Singapore's founder, Sang Nila Utama, first landed on the island in 1299 because he was attracted by sand so white that it looked like a sheet of cloth.

This pristine white sand is no romantic embellishment. It has been found some 90cm underneath the grassy expanse of today's Padang - part of what was once an ancient city's shoreline.

The man who unearthed this discovery was born and raised on a farm in New York, grew up being interested in Native Americans, then helped farmers in Malaysia, where he was fascinated by temple ruins in Kedah. In the last three decades, he has been on a mission to piece together Singapore's pre-colonial history.

Meet 67-year-old Associate Professor John N. Miksic, Singapore's answer to Indiana Jones. Not that his life is anything as exciting as that of the cinematic hero, said the grizzled archaeologist.

"Digging is the first step in a process of about 10 steps. Real scientific work is done in the laboratory, which takes up 90 per cent of an archaeologist's time."

Yet his work has been drumming up excitement about Singapore's pre-colonial past.

Since being first invited to excavate Fort Canning in 1984, when Singapore lacked a local archaeologist, he has led digs at 11 other sites, such as Empress Place and the Old Parliament House.

He has since amassed eight tonnes of ceramic fragments and other local artefacts, including shells and small statues. They help paint a picture of Singapore as a sizeable and prosperous Asian trading port with a population of 10,000 in the 14th century, more than 500 years before the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

"I've been trying to tell people that Singapore has deeper roots that go far beyond the colonial period and date back 700 years.

"It gives me a real feeling of happiness when people accept that there is a lot more to Singapore history than the textbooks used to tell us."

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