The Iron Industry of Ancient Kedah | A Story of the Oldest Civilisation in Southeast Asia

Austronesians began migrating to the Malay Archipelago approximately 3,500 years ago. It is now widely accepted that pre-Han Taiwan is the cradle of the Austronesian languages. Austronesians were great seafarers and their voyages took them as far as New Zealand, Hawaii and Madagascar. Austronesians were the first humans to invent sailing technologies and this allowed them to ‘colonise’ a large part of the Indo-Pacific region.

By the medieval era, much of the Nusantara Malay Archipelago, had become a part of the Srivijaya Empire: a major power in the Indian Ocean trade. While on the surface there appears to be no continuous knowledge of the history of Srivijaya–even in Indonesia and Malaysia–its forgotten past has been resurrected by archeologists and scholars.

The region in which ancient southern Kedah flourished is known today as Bujang Valley. This name, like the name of many cities across Southeast Asia, has its origins in Sanskrit. The Islamisation of the region has led some to dismiss, discredit or dismantle their ancient histories–from early animism to medieval Hinduism and Buddhism. It seems that many chapters of history have disappeared, till evidence is unearthed and history is resurrected.

The name Bhujangga, after which Bujang Valley is named, means serpent in Sanskrit. In Malay folklore, landslides and floods were attributed to serpents or dragons who made their way to the sea via rivers after a period of solitude en route to the mountain.

While the work of archeologists has provided us with tangible evidence regarding the culture of the settlements and their trading activities, the historical narratives regarding these ancient kingdoms remains unheard and unclaimed by those who it rightfully belongs to.

The current date of the Sungai Batu civilisation in Kedah predates the founding of Rome; rendering it the oldest civilisation in Southeast Asia. The former port city is home to iron smelting sites, suggesting that it was iron that drew traders to Kedah.

The iron smelting technology discovered at the site shows that the ancient ones made use of clay furnaces and tuyere. The construction of the building foundation is rather complex and illustrates how technologically advanced the society at Sungai Batu was at that time.

The iron ingots were exported and were later used to make swords and chariots. Iranian Scholar Al-Biruni and the Tamil epic Parunkhatai both mention the use of iron ingots that were exported from the Sungai Batu region.

The discovery of iron smelting furnaces and tuyere proved that Sungai Batu was the nucleus for iron trade, not only in the region, but across the world. The forged irons were exported to both the East and West via ancient waterways using merchant ships.

They had been exported for the purpose of trade via either the river or the ocean. The iron smelting industry was supported by a network of ports for export purposes within and outside the peninsula.

The main use of forged iron was for weapons manufacturing.

Image credit: Wikwizio

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