Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Gaining knowledge through marine archaeology


The Star
By K. Saithuruka
April 18, 2005

ARCHAEOLOGISTS should be appreciated because these are the people who reconstruct the past from the physical remains or material culture found around them.

Shahriman Mohd Ghazali, 34, a maritime archaeology consultant, who teaches marine science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is of the opinion that local archaeologists are not appreciated.

It is a mind blowing experience to step on board the HMS Vasa vessel, says Shahriman.“Whenever, there are talks about wrecks discovered, the first thing people ask is how much it is worth. Material culture provides us hindsight for past human history and therefore, it cannot be measured in terms of monetary gains.

“This knowledge is invaluable and will be passed on to the future generation. It is sad to know that sometimes even people in positions do not give much thought to this,’’ he said.

What he loves about maritime archaeology is the excitement of finding a site and the uncertainties that come with it.

A marine scientist by profession, Shahriman went on to complete his masters in maritime archaeology in 1995 at the University of Southampton, UK, when there was a huge demand for such posts following the excavation works on Dutch vessel Nassau, which sank off Port Dickson about 400 years ago.

The vessel was one of four, which sank during the battle of Cape Rachardo between the Dutch and the Portuguese in their efforts to capture Malacca in 1606.

The other ships loaded with armament including cannons and mortars still believed to be buried there are the Mideleburg, which belonged to the Dutch and the Portuguese ships Sao Salvador and Don Duarte.

“UKM played the role of the observation team when the works were carried out. It was by far, the biggest and probably the most comprehensive project done in Malaysia to date, in terms of surveys and excavation works,’’ he remembers.

While pursuing his masters, Shahriman was exposed to examining wrecks in the Baltic Sea.

“The Baltic Sea is the best place on earth to study maritime archaeology.

This is simply because such wrecks are preserved well due to the biological factors and because it is less saline.
“The Baltic Sea also has low temperature during winter and its surface becomes colder. Here, a 100 year-old wreck would look like a one year-old wreck.

“In our seas, such wrecks degrades very quickly because of the warm waters, bacteria, marine organism and other biological factors,’’ he said.

In Sweden during the same time, Shahriman was impressed with the way the Swedish Government had handled the excavation and preservation of the HMS Vasa also known as the Regalskeppet Wasa, a famous ship built for the Swedish Monarch Gustavus Adolphus, the King of Sweden in 1611.

On Aug 10, 1628, the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage to the harbour of Stockholm. In the harbour, a gust of wind forced the ship on her portside, after which water started flowing in through her open gun ports, and she soon sank killing about 50 sailors.

Following this, the ship was raised and conservation on it was done using polyethylene glycol and this was done for 17 years, followed by slowly drying.

Over 26,000 artefacts have been found since then, including six original sails, still folded up.

Shariman said it was a mind-blowing experience to step on board this vessel, which was displayed at the Vasa Museum when he did his masters.

“It takes a lot of effort, money and time to conserve something like this. And to think that they were committed to this cause for over 20 years is astounding,'' he said, adding that he was also amazed with the way English warship Mary Rose was conserved.

Mary Rose was a carrack of 78 guns (91 guns after 1536), built in Portsmouth, England, in 1509–1510, thought to be named after King Henry VIII's sister Mary and the rose, the Tudor emblem.

“This shows the complexity of archaeology and the fact that it's not about getting the best part of the ship but the importance of the ship itself. The satisfaction comes from not selling the material heritage found but rather what you tell the next generation about it,'' he said.

Shahriman whose hometown is Kelantan, said it was unfortunate that treasure hunters were the destructive lot and they often salvaged wrecks at whatever cost.

“They do not appreciate the human part for the science and they go to great lengths just to obtain the items. The site if destroyed, is irrelevant to them and sometimes, they even destroy one or two of the pieces they find so that the item can fetch a higher price,’’ he said.

Shahriman said every part of a ship had a story to tell and it was important to preserve the site where the wreck is found.

“When you find a wreck, it will tell you about the technology of that time, the people and their move towards civilisation.

“When the site is disturbed and such evidence is destroyed just because people want the artefacts in the ship, it is difficult to reconstruct it again,’’ he said, adding that the site should be systematically and scientifically recorded.

Shahriman also added that once a wreck was removed from the sea surface, destruction occurs the minute it touches air with sudden change in temperature and humidity.

“Sometimes, the wreck becomes ashes within two to three days.

“This is why its important to see if the wreck needs to be excavated or not and whether conservation is something one can commit to. Otherwise it is advisable to just leave the wreck as it is, after the necessary surveys are conducted,'' he said.

And his ultimate aim would be to discover a Malay boat building tradition, which has been widely documented in the past journeys of other races.

“But till today, we have yet to find something like this. You have the Portuguese and Dutch boat building tradition, the Chinese junk but we have yet to find the Malay boat building tradition. The day I find this, I will be a very happy old man,'' he said.

Aside from teaching marine science, Shahriman also has participated in the environmental impact assessments for land reclamation works in Negri Sembilan, Bintulu Port, Pangkor Island, Lake Chini and Sungai Johor among others.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?