Join us on a journey into the Minangkabau highlands in West Sumatra.
Follow the work of an international team of archaeologists, learn about their findings and the history of the region.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

International Ceramics

From the 26th to the 29th of March the Tanah Datar Archaeological Project hosted an international workshop with guests from far and near. Our guests provided expertises in various interrelated fields of study that have been the backbone of this project from the onset. The group of researchers, including Prof. Dr. John Miksic an archaeologist from the National University in Singapore, Prof. em. Dr. Hermann Kulke a historian from the Universität Kiel and Prof. Dr. Arlo Giffiths an epigraphist from the  Ecole Française d'Extreme Orient, as well as the project directors Dominik and Mai Lin, and other team members such as Budi Istawan from the BP3 and Pak Lucas from the Balai Arkeologi Medan discussed topics regarding the material from the site of Bukit Gombak and the surrounding area in connection with more broad themes and questions. Several of the topics talked about and reflected upon included:
- early state formation in the context of lowland and highland exchanges
- the reconstruction settlement patterns before, during and after the interregnum of Ādityavarman
- relations between the highlands and lowlands and its effect on the socio-economic conditions of the highlands
- megalithic remains in Tanah Datar as grave markers and communal meeting sites
- material culture: local earthenware and imported ceramics (e.g. the Indian influence (?), imports from mainland Southeast Asia and China during the Sung, Yuan and early Ming Dynasties)
- the connection to Dharmasraya: new finds at the BP3 Museum e.g. stone and bronze images from Tanah Datar and Dharmasraya
- Ādityavarman and his inscriptions
- revised Chinese sources on the late Srivijaya-Melayu period

These themes and questions set the backdrop for a preliminary analysis of some of the finds made at Bukit Gombak and surrounding areas during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. For instance it became clear that the repertoire of imported ceramics found at Bukit Gombak includes pieces from a manifold of Southeast Asian countries (for example China, Vietnam, Cambodia) as well as from India and even as far as Persia. This opens an entirely new array of questions concerning the involvement of the Tanah Datar region and the site of Bukit Gombak in a far greater international setting than previously anticipated. Also the importance of pottery and ceramics for dating has once again become apparent with initial indications pointing toward a intensive settlement during the 14th century and thereafter, a period with almost no material evidence not only on a regional or even Sumatra-wide level, but also on a macro-scale, where this post- Ādityavarman era remains a ‘dark-age’ within all of Southeast Asia.

These new insights and developments, substantially bought about by the visit of our guests and their contributions, show the truly international character not only of the workshop and its participants itself but also of the material being discussed!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Up, up and Away!

Since Manfred's arrival last week the Octocopter has been talk of the town. With its eight battery powered propellors, mounted digital camera, fully automatic stabilisation system which uses GPS signals to maintain an exact position and 'direct view' remote-control unit this high-tech gadget has impressed all. The Octocopters capability to take aerial pictures from precise positions above the site by flying a pre-programed flight matrix will allow topographic mapping and 3-D imaging over a large area. 
Early morning rises to avoid windy weather (the only disadvantage of such a device) have been routine for Manfred and his assistant (all team members have been sacrificing breakfast and rotating as assistants). When the big black transport box has been lugged up the hill and the gear is set up its time for take-off! 

The programmed flight matrix tells the Octocopter at which exact GPS position the images are to be taken, guaranteeing a minimum 70% overlap for all images. This means a single flight can include up to 160 individual positions! The electrically controlled mount for the camera holds the device in the selected position, mainly 90° for aerial images, automatically and feeds a live image to the TFT 'direct view' display held by the operator. Manual controls for flying the Octocopter, used for take-off and landing, as well as displays for battery power, GPS signal strength and link strength between remote and Octocopter can also be found on the remote-control pad giving the operator, in this case Manfred, 'constant peace-of-mind' or alternatively ordering him to land immediately because a crash is imminent.

After the brave assistant has literally 'caught' the Octocopter from the air (landing process) the battery-pack is changed and the next flight sequence can be prepared. 6 battery-packs allow roughly 1 hour of flight time. This and favorable weather has meant that almost the entire site has been covered over the last one and a half weeks!
Survey points, in form of regular white bathroom tiles, placed strategically on the surface being photographed, are measured with the Totalstation to give an exact coordinate reference for the images. These are then processed using computer software to generate a variety of images or maps. Also 3-D models of the site can be generated using the images taken by the Octocopter, in which every individual pixel has a coordinate that can be referenced. This mind-boggling amount of data is needed to create precise 3-D models and topographic maps. 

This very exclusive work with Manfred and the Octocopter continues to be very rewarding for all as it's not everyday such a fancy device is employed on an archaeological excavation!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The last week has been plagued by rain on several occasions, with some thunderstorms leaving the teams with no choice but to suspend excavations. The muddy ground caused havoc during the morning peak hour traffic up the hill to the site for both our car and the plentiful motorbikes. Only some of the daring workmen battled the sludge for prime parking positions. 

This morning Annika’s trench on the summit of Bukit Kincir, which has been revealing promising finds including Chinese Song-Period ceramics and several obsidian tools, had turned into a swimming pool after it rained throughout the night. Much to the dismay of both the workers and the excavation team, the trenches depth and the amount of water did not allow for a pre-work swim, but did provide these great snapshots! 

Our enlarged team, now including Terrylia, Belinda and Rizky from the Universitas Indonesia, Pak Andri from the Balai Arkeologi Medan and Manfred, also from the Freie Universität in Berlin, has allowed us to open two new excavations trenches, one under the supervision of Maresi and the other led by Pak Andri, as well as add support to the existing units. Work in Johannes and Terrylia’s trench is becoming quite suspenseful as three promising burial pits have been identified below the twin grave-marker stones at the surface. This means we could be getting close to the first archaeologically identified burial in the region!
After a week of productive work on the summit of Bukit Kincir, which has provided sufficient evidence for the settlement of the hill, Kilian and Rizky will move down to the site of last years excavations, Bukit Gombak, to recommence investigations on the large house identified there during the final stages of the previous season. 
Maresi and Belinda have spent most of the week setting up their excavation area on Bukit Lua yet another site located within sight of Bukit Gombak. Here a ca. 2m high section dug into the side of the cliff-face shows an occupations level in which sherds possibly older than those at Bukit Gombak have been identified. The team anxiously awaits the first results from this area as it could provide the first evidence for pre-classical settlement in the region. 
All the while Arne and Manfred have been toying around with their high-tech gadgets showing off the diverse and sometimes mind-blowing possibilities technology can provide to such a research endeavor. More on this topic in the following posts!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Up in smoke

After most of the week was spent cutting paths through the thick forest covering Bukit Kincir, the neighboring hill to Bukit Gombak, archaeological excavations have finally begun in three trenches. Restricted to work only at this steep and rugged site, where only one small area was examined during the previous season, has meant several changes in plan and a temporary postponement of work at Bukit Gombak. 
Several paths cut into the jungle surrounding the site were used to measure the topographic layout of the site. Arne spent many hours and walked many kilometers up and down the hillsides and into the surrounding landscape (sometimes to the concern and amusement of the locals wondering why a funny white-man holding a box was running around the rice fields) gathering over 6,000 GPS-'points', enabling him to generate topographic maps as well as 3-D images of the site using advanced computer software. Another larger track straight up the slope of Bukit Kincir was used to place several fix-points guaranteeing an accurate measurement of the trenches.

Today, the morning sky was filled with smoke as the final clearing and burning of the area at the top of the hill began. The presence of bamboo, which was most certainly planted there intentionally, and the generally flat layout at the top of the hill, as well as interesting reports by local workmen of large, shaped stones (these stones are generally markers for burials both from islamic and pre-islamic times depending on the direction in which they point) that were supposedly pushed down the hillside several decades ago in order to make way for grazing livestock, present compelling reasons to believe there was human activity in this area and to warrant excavations here. In light of this new evidence two trenches were set up at the peak, in which investigations will take place in the coming week under the supervision of Annika and Kilian. 
Work at the base of Bukit Kincir, where excavations during the last two weeks of last years season also took place, continues in Johannes and Maresi's trench where at least three pairs of grave-marker stones have been identified. The unearthing of an in situ burial in an archaeological context would be a first for the region and an enormous gain to the research and history of highland Sumatra.

Eagerly anticipating the weekend, the team is also looking forward to the arrival of Manfred from Germany (who has a fancy surprise in his luggage...) and three students from the Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, who will be joining us on Sunday!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Volcanic Awakening

Weekends are blog-free days, but we just couldn't let you miss out on the two trilling eruptions of Gunung Merapi during todays fieldwork! The photos speak for themselves!


Friday, 2 March 2012

The construction site

When an archaeological site becomes a construction site!

Our first inspection of the site today turned out to be quite a surprise. To our astonishment several parts of Bukit Gombak have be utilised to construct buildings or build vehicle tracks. Luckily the areas now disturbed or covered were excavated last year so that the initial worries were taken slightly. Still, this 'invasion' of concrete, bricks, steel and the inevitable construction machines is an unsettling development, especially when considering what may have happened in the last 12 months. 

Much of the bush and grass covering large parts of the site and its surrounding hills has been cut or burnt, which is an advantage when considering the need to clear areas for excavation, but also substantiates a further incursion on the previous topography of the area and therefore possibly those of historic relevance.

Nevertheless, the first assessment of the site was an exciting visit for both the new team members as for those returning to the team, including a climb through thick jungle to the top of Bukit Kincir, the neighboring hill where excavations will also continue and possibly be extended this season. In the eastern part where work will also soon be resumed several interesting large stones, most definitely placed there intentionally, were discovered. Tomorrow the team will begin working with the Totalstation and GPS in order to place the trenches and upgrade the topographic plan.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

We are back!

After several days of tropical acclimatisation and tedious administrative adventures into the depths of the Indonesian bureaucratic world (oft causing headaches and racking nerves...) our team of researchers has arrived in the Tanah Datar region in the heart of highland Sumatra!

This season, our team comprising local and foreign archaeologists (and the children, who according to the visa also count as researchers this year!) will continue excavating the site of Bukit Gombak at the foot of the Gunung Merapi, an active volcano and spectacular landmark looming above the open valley. In cooperation with students from the Universitas Indonesia our group from the Freie Universität Berlin will commence fieldwork in the coming days, as well as in other areas of research such as pottery or small find studies and an accurate topographic measurement of the site.

As last year, we will be living with our generous host family whose home will be ours, and where many hours of documentation and office work, but also the occasional 'Feierabend-Bintang' (local beer), await us. Now the necessary humdrum of preparation is well underway the team is hoping for a successful and rewarding season in 2012, and look forward to your company over the next 6 weeks!