Category Archives: Local Jaunts

Fulfilling Childhood Dreams: Being an Archaeologist

Archaeological Works in Progress | Caution!

We’re in a two metre deep pit, with an archaeology trowel in one hand and a dust pan in the other, ready to attack the one metre pile of dirt in front of us. We had already dug through 30centimetres worth of gravel – made up of cement and sand I believe – and barely found anything save for an occasional piece of ceremic n some old plaster. I learn that the section I was digging was not old, probably not more than a few decades old since it was previously dug up for telephone line laying purposes.

Dust pan and archaeology trowel

Dust pan and archaeology trowel

Another volunteer hard at work. Notice the grey band? That's the 30 cm gravel we had to dig through.

Some of the things we found

Some of the things we found

One of the two pits we were working on that day

Undug portions of the area

With me for company was a First Year Arts student from a local university. Other volunteers included an Archaeology exchange student from Australia, a recent graduate from a local polytechnic  who was interested in taking up Southeast Asian Studies at a local university, and some members of “Southeast Asian archaeology” I believe. One volunteer had even taken two weeks of leave off work to be part of this meaningful exercise. Another man had stumbled upon the site, walked in for a chat, and for the next one to two hours began digging away.

Some of the volunteers

Some of the volunteers

This group of people have been at this for a couple of days, while this was the first time I was joining them. My back was starting to ache, and my hands were cramping up from the constant digging, while my fingers were starting to blister due to the roughness of the gloves against the skin. I begin to wonder how they could do this everyday without a rest day.  I look around and see two volunteers digging and chatting at the same time, completely unperturbed that their clothes were gradually becoming a shade of soil-brown. I look down at my own clothes, and saw that it was still as good as new. “I must not be working hard enough,” I thought to myself.

Soiled gloves

Soiled gloves

As I continue to dig, I imagine a whole pit full of 14th century vases waiting for me to discover them. It has always been a childhood dream to become an archaeologist but I’ve never found the means to becoming one, especially not in Singapore. I’ve always dreamed of ‘hanging out’ with King Tut and his ‘mummy’ friends, as well as sweeping 2,000 year old Vesuvius-ian ash off the perfectly preserved bodies of Pompeii; digging here in between two of urban Singapore’s oldest buildings – the Former Supreme Court and the Old City Hall –  is the closest I’ve ever been to becoming an archaeologist, and probably the closest I’ll ever be.

Archaeology site

The Archaeology site

After six hours of digging an approximate 2 by 1 by 1 metre space, this was all that was found:

The Find

Some rusted nails and bolts, blue and white European/Chinese ceramic pieces (could not be identified at that time), Fourteenth century water jugs, celedon pieces, a mouth-blown glass bottle mouth piece, Twentieth century machine-made glass bottle pieces. Not a lot for a day’s work, but still giving a little insight into the life of present, colonial, and Temasek (pre-Raffles) Singapore.

In the archaeology pit

Actual sand of Singapore's beach of the past

This is the actual sand of Singapore's beach of the past. Legend says that Sang Nila Utama was allured by the white beaches of Singapore at that time. The City Hall area has been built on top of this old beach. Thanks Chen for the mini History lesson.

Soil Stratification

Stratification of the soil. The area of the left is the "untouched" land of Singapore. The bottom-most is the old beach, the middle, soil that was placed on the beach when land was being build, and the above band, rocks that were placed for foundation for the roads. The right side is an area that had once been dug up to place piping.

More artefacts found

More artefacts found

The green shards are pieces of celedon ware

The green shards are pieces of celedon ware

It was fulfilling one day of digging and playing archaeologist. If you want to join in to help Singapore understand her past better, you can contact Chen (shien[at]seaarchaeology[dot]com) with your name,contact number n available timings. The dig goes on till 30 Nov (0930-1830 everyday, rain or shine, save for Mondays). For more information on the archaeological happenings in Singapore and on this dig click here and here respectively. I’ll be there again next Sunday (14 Nov) if you would care to join me.

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Heritage Trails in Singapore


I can’t believe I just discovered this website (http://heritagetrails.sg).
This website, brought to us by the National Heritage Board in Singapore, offers trails for one to discover’s Singapore’s heritage and look into the history of the country.  This website reminds us, Singaporeans and foreigners alike, that there is much more to Singapore than Orchard Road and its shopping malls. One can, for instance, explore the areas of Balestier, Bukit Timah and Fort Canning, to name a few.
Now a perfect addition to this website would an phone app so that one can walk through the area with ease.

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Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival The Way My Family Does

September 22, 2010

In the ever-progressive country of Singapore, where we have advanced so fast in our short 45-year history as an independent nation to become the modern cosmopolitan that we are, and where many of us, especially for those in my generation, speak English as our first language, it is very easy for us to lose parts of our roots and culture.

As a Singaporean Chinese who speaks English 95% of the time, I admit that I am not very fluent in my native tongue, Cantonese. However, I’m glad that my family still tries our best to follow certain customs that my late paternal grandmother, who immigrated to Singapore in the 1930s and passed away two years ago, introduced to us at a young age. For instance, we celebrate Dong Ji (Winter Solstice), a festival where we gather as a family to eat tong yun (glutinous rice balls), a festival that I dare say that most Singaporean Chinese tend to forget about. Did you know that it’s one of the most important Chinese festivals along with Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Festival? We are traditional in that way.

Which brings me to my point about Mid-Autumn Festival. I shall not delve much into the significance of the festival itself as Wikipedia can probably do a better job, but there is something else I would like to share. I do not know whether this is an actual custom or this is just something that my grandmother came up with:

Last year's pomelo "chicken" lantern

Every year, my grandmother would make a lantern in a shape of a chicken out of pomelo skin. She would then place a tea light inside, and go around every corner of the whole house with the lantern, turning on all the water points (taps, showers etc) where ever they are positioned, while reciting the phrase “路路两头遇贵人”, which translates to something along the lines of: meet benefactors at both ends of the road.

Truth be told, growing up, I never followed my grandmother around the house; only my sister did. And even then, none of us knew what she was saying and the significance of her practice. We later learned it was her way of blessing the family and the household.

The year she passed away, my dad, who is the head of the household, took over the “duties” of carrying the lantern around the house. Admittedly, we do it now, in my opinion, more so in honour of my grandmother. That said, I believe this custom has continued to bring my family together, which is after all part of what this festival is about, and has helped to maintain some semblance of this custom in my family.

My dad bringing the pomelo chicken lantern around the house (I've blurred out his face to maintain his anonymity)

This year, my parents were away in Japan, but my dad’s sister, who’s not married, came to have dinner with my siblings and I, and the four of us repeated this custom of bringing the pomelo chicken lantern around the house.

This year's Pomelo "Chicken" lantern

Some other photos:

Water Caltrops (they resemble bull heads, complete with “horns”) and yam. These are seasonal autumn food and are traditionally laid out as offerings. My family still does that, though merely symbolically:

Water Caltrops and Yam

Some not-so traditional food, a result of globalisation and localisation. I’m not a fan of the traditional mooncakes with the salted egg yolks so no photos of that:

(i) Chocolate+champagne+pandan and (ii) Durian snowskin mooncakes

Besides celebrating with the family, Mid-autumn festival has evolved to become a time for my friends and I to gather and relive some childhood memories of playing with lanterns and sparklers (the sparklers bit isn’t exactly traditional, but fun nonetheless):

Playing with Sparklers

Playing with more sparklers

Lighting the paper lanterns

Lit lanterns

To the Chinese of the world, hope you had a great Mid-autumn festival!

PS: Sorry if some of the photos are blur. I took most of these with my mobile phone.

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