SciMy Interview: Professor Dato’ Dr. Mokhtar Saidin
by Dr. Lee Hooi Ling
Professor Dato’ Dr. Mokhtar Saidin is a Professor and the Director of Centre for Global Archaeological Research Malaysia in Universiti Sains Malaysia. He and his team made significant contributions to the exploration of Bujang Valley in Kedah and Bukit Bunuh in Perak. Dated at 1.83Ma (millions of years ago), Bukit Bunuh is an open Palaeolithic site and the oldest prehistoric site in the world located out of Africa. His other contributions include the discovery of Sungai Batu, the oldest civilisation site in Southeast Asia. In this interview, Prof. Mokhtar Saidin shares his experiences being an archaeologist in Malaysia.
Q1. Professor, can you tell us briefly about your educational background and what got you interested in the archaeology field?
I completed my undergraduate studies in Geology in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Then, I did my Master in Art (MA) degree in Archaeology which I obtained from USM. After my MA, I pursued my PhD (Archaeology) from USM and with a special coursework programme at Harvard University, USA.
I got interested in archaeology because it is a multidisciplinary research and the knowledge comes from various backgrounds. I felt responsible to take up this field because archaeology was still quite backward in Malaysia at the end of 1980s especially in terms of scientific data collections. During that time, there were not many archaeologists in Malaysia.
Q2. What is the general path or qualifications required towards becoming an archaeologist?
You can start your education in archaeology as your first degree. However, currently there is not a single university in Malaysia that offers an undergraduate degree in archaeology. One has to go oversea to take up a degree in archaeology such as in Europe, USA, Australia or even in Indonesia and Thailand. USM only offers postgraduate programme in archaeological research.
Q3. Can you tell us a bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis? Do you spend most of your time doing field work?
Yes. I spend most of my time conducting field work. Field work is a basic or fundamental part of archaeological data collection. Field work involves survey, mapping, excavation and field analysis. Beside my own research, I am also involved in helping my postgraduate students in their data collections.
Global Archaeological Research Centre:
Q4. What are the roles and research focus of the Centre for Global Archaeological Research Malaysia (CGAR), USM1?
We started out as Malaysian Archaeological Project in 1987 and was a pioneering initiative in the development of archaeology in the nation. By 1995, this project unit was upgraded to The Archaeological Centre Malaysia. In 1997, for the first time the Centre offered a minor package in archaeology to USM undergraduate students. In 2000, the Centre acquired its own building equipped with basic scientific laboratory facilities. Beside research and teaching in minor package programme, our main focus is in the supervision of postgraduate students. In 2009, the Centre once again upgraded to the Centre for Global Archaeological Research (CGAR) on the basis of its contribution of data to the global archaeology. The main focus of CGAR at present and in the future are (1) to do a scientific archaeological study throughout the country to accomplish the chronological sequence of the prehistoric and early civilisation of the country and to produce high quality publications, (2) to provide the latest archaeological data and artefacts to the nation through museums and heritage department to be published and exhibited, (3) to equip CGAR’s science laboratories, (4) to develop the nation’s human capital in archaeology, and (5) to develop an archaeo-tourism package for the nation.
Q5. Bujang Valley or Lembang Bujang is a site of historical ruins that could be dated to more than 2000 years ago. It was the site of an ancient kingdom that ruled the region from the 4th century AD, believed to have established earlier than Srivijaya Kingdom. Can you tell us more about your findings at Lembah Bujang?
Latest evidence from the iron smelting site in Sungai Batu revealed a new date, which goes as far back as to 535 BCE. This is one of the earliest evidence that indicate the oldest civilisation in the South East Asia (SEA) region. We also discovered monuments of ritual sites, jetties or ports at the side of the river and some other administrative ports. In short, these findings could re-write the history of civilisation in SEA.
Q6. Besides Lembah Bujang, what are the significant findings in Bukit Bunuh2 in Perak, which is also known for its meteorite impact site? It was reported that the site may be dated 40 000 years old and has been recognised as one of the most important sites for the Palaeolithic era study.
Archaeological research in Bukit Bunuh have discovered evidence of the earliest human activities in Asia, dated 1.83 Ma. The evidence was in the form of stone tools such as hand-axes and choppers found embedded in the suevite rocks. Suevite is a metamorphic rock formed by the meteorite impact. The suevite at Bukit Bunuh remains the only evidence of meteorite impact in Asia and the only impact in the world at 1.83 Ma.
These discoveries indicate that there are a group of Palaeolithic people in Bukit Bunuh area before 1.83Ma. At this moment, this date represents the earliest Palaeolithic data out of Africa. Beside this piece of evidence, we also found the 40,000 and 30,000 Palaeolithic workshops in Bukit Bunuh. This showed that Bukit Bunuh was continuously used by the Palaeolithic people for a period of time.
Q7. Are there any other historical sites recently discovered by the Global Archaeological Research Malaysia?
In 2015, we found a new site at Gua Pelangi, Jelebu, Negeri Sembilan. It is the southernmost pre-historic site in Peninsula Malaysia. The site is dated to 14,000 years ago, based on the clues from pre-historic human migration discovered at the site.
Q8. How does the research budget cut (about 20 %) in 2016 affect the research in archaeological field?
In general, the research budget cut definitely affects the research in archaeological field. We will try to manage our research planning based on whatever budget that we have right now. However, based on the record, USM will continue to support our archaeological research as promised.
Q9. Archaeologists are often perceived as people who work with historical and ancient artefact. In your opinion, does archaeology belong to the sciences or the humanities? What are the scientific methods commonly used by archaeologists?
In the past, archaeology was categorised under history or anthropology. Now, archaeology is known as a multidisciplinary field combining knowledge and expertise from geology, biology, chemistry and physics. This ensures that more holistic interpretations of the collected data can be achieved.
Q10. Finally, what is the career prospect of an archaeologist, especially in Malaysia?
The career prospect is getting better. Besides working in a university, one can also work in the museum, heritage departments and tourism agency.