GEORGE TOWN, Dec 6 — The destruction of an ancient temple in Lembah Bujang may have stunned the nation, but two historical sites thousands of years older have also fallen victim to modern progress in nearby Penang and leaving just one still standing.
In the midst of paddy fields and a jackfruit plantation in north Seberang Perai, thousands of shells are scattered so inconspicuously across the ground that few at the Guar Kapah location would ever know that they were at Malaysia’s final remaining Stone Age site.
The only one of its kind in the region and the last of three recorded at the village, according to archaeologist Prof Dr Mokhtar Saidin, the prehistoric site features shell middens or mounds that date back more than 5,000 years.
“The British excavated three sites – A, B and C – in the 1860s but when we went to do a mapping of the area in 2007, we only found Site C while A and B were already gone and replaced by paddy fields and the road,” Mokhtar said.
The shell middens were first discovered by British colonial officer G.W Earl in 1860 and the spot became Malaysia’s first archaeological excavation site.
According to a book by F. David Bulbeck titled “The Perak Man and Prehistoric Skeletons of Malaysia”, a total 41 skeletons were excavated from the site after Earl’s discovery; dating placed the skeletons as between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Back in 1860, the shell middens were recorded to be 6m tall, but when the USM archaeology team did their mapping in 2007, they found the mound at Site C had been reduced to about a third the original height.
Mokhtar said the Neolithic Period site at Guar Kepah, which is older than the ancient civilisation site of Lembah Bujang, has the potential to be a major tourism draw.
The Neolithic era is considered to be the last period of the Stone Age before the discovery of metal tools led humans into the Bronze Age.
The director of the Centre for Global Archaeological Research Malaysia from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) said the site is the only prehistoric evidence of marine adaptation by prehistoric humans living near the sea in Malaysia.
“It is unique as other prehistoric sites found are in caves, but in Penang, it is found on a site that used to be near the sea,” he told the Malay Mail Online in an interview at his office here.
Interestingly, these shell middens were also how the village got its name as Earl had recorded the shell middens as “cockle hillocks”, which was Guah Gappah in Malay at that time.
Coincidentally, the Guar Kepah Neolithic site is just 14km south of the ongoing excavation sites of an ancient civilisation at Sungai Batu in Lembah Bujang, currently the centre of a controversy following the demolition of an ancient temple there.
Mokhtar said the shell middens were believed to be burial sites used by the prehistoric humans to entomb their dead with shells.
“We found sections of sites that are made up entirely of shells, which is why the shells did not rot away and were preserved till now,” he said.
He referred to research by Bulbeck that pointed out the prehistoric Guar Kepah population is believed to be the ones who had started going into agriculture in this region, as opposed to only foraging for food.
“We completed excavation on Site C in May 2010 and found pottery shards, rock artefacts and even ornaments made from fish bones and hematite at the site,” he said.
No new human remains were found beyond the 41 skeletons previously unearthed, which he said were taken to the National Natuurhistorisch Museum in Leiden, Holland.
“This is why we are pushing for the government to set up an archaeological gallery at the site so that we can place all the artefacts found here and perhaps request for Holland to return the skeletons to be displayed here,” Mokhtar said.
Mokhtar led the excavation team at Guar Kepah and currently leads the dig team at the ancient civilisation site of Lembah Bujang in Merbok, Kedah.
Site C of Guar Kepah is located on a piece of state government land previously occupied by a farmer who cultivated jackfruit trees.
Following his criticism of Kedah over the destruction of the 1,200 candi or temple tomb in Lembah Bujang, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng found himself on the receiving end when Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir took aim at the Guar Kepah sites.
Lim subsequently said a farmer had been given a temporary occupation licence previously but the state government had terminated it this year.
He further said the state will not allow any other activities to be done on the land and he will instruct the district officer to watch over the land.
A visit to the site showed that the house near the excavated site to already be vacant, and nearby residents said the occupants had moved out last year.
The excavation site had been filled in after excavation works completed in 2010 and today, it is just a piece of barren land covered in thousands of remnant shells and surrounded by remaining jackfruit trees.
The state government is mulling Mokhtar’s proposal of setting up a gallery and had applied to the Tourism and Culture Ministry for funding of RM3.9 million to set up the gallery and to fund further excavation works on the site.
The state said it hoped to start constructing the gallery next year.