- 2008/07/27 Melaka's pre-Portuguese invasion skeletons

The Centre For Archaeological Research Malaysia unveiled their initial analysis of the oldest burial site found in Melaka that was recently designated an Unesco World Heritage Site.

Melaka was a strategic trading post for Southeast Asia in the 15th and 16th century. The burial site is pre-Portugese and could hold important clues to the history of the region.

In late May 2007, human skeletal remains were accidentally found during excavation works to trace the walls of the ancient Melaka Fort known as Bastion Courassa (Portuguese) and Fredrick Hendrick (Dutch). The work was undertaken by staff of the Department of National Heritage, the Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage in the compound of a Tourist Police Station in Bandar Hilir. Further excavations until early September 2007 uncovered at least 10 human skeletons and hundreds of broken human bones.

The removal, conservation and analysis of the skeletal remains were carried out by researchers. Four of the better preserved and more complete skeletons were removed for further study.

The four skeletons were rather fragile and had to be conserved on-site as well as in the laboratory. Prior to their removal, a tibia of one of the skeletons from the burial site was sent for AMS dating of the bone collagen at the Beta Analytic Limited Radiocarbon Laboratory in Florida, USA.

The results of the dating suggested a date of AD 1400 to 1450 for the skeletal remains and burials. Since the discovery of the skeletal remains a 6 x 6 metre square was excavated to a maximum depth of about 110-120 cm.

The excavations revealed that it was a burial site with more than 10 skeletons.

The burial ground is believed to be much larger than the excavated area as suggested by the some of the unexcavated human skulls exposed at the site as well as some human bones found at the walls of the trenches. Also found were large number of loose human bones, broken tiles, ceramics, animal bones, shells, and coins scattered all over the site, especially in the upper layer of the site.

Observation of the finds and soil profile during the excavations suggested that the upper layer of the soil probably comprised backfill or "tanah tambak" with broken tiles, ceramic sherds, shells, coins and animal bones.

All the intact skeletal remains appeared to have come from the burial ground, which is situated on the lower layer, about 80-120 cm deep.

All the four skeletons were laid in an extended position and placed in an East-West orientation with the head pointed west. Three of the skeletons were identified as male while one of them was a female. Two of the skeletons (a male and a female) were found buried together in a single grave.

Testing of the soil showed slightly alkaline soil of pH 7.8, which must have helped preserve the skeletons in the burials for more than 600 years.

Acidic soil would have destroyed the skeletons.

Melaka had seen over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Melaka. The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed the city with a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible.

With its government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications, Melaka demonstrates the early stages of this history originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century. (Adapted from the Unesco World Heritage Site website)

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