History of the Padang
“Padang” means “field” in Malay. In India, similar civic areas were part of early British urban planning. There they are sometimes known as medan. The Singapore Padang was set aside for public use in the early period of British occupation. Several artists painted pictures of it in the 19th century. Parts of it are leased to two athletic and social clubs. One of these, the Singapore Cricket Club, occupies the southwest half of the Padang.
When the British arrived, the Padang area was overgrown not with thick forest, but by secondary growth known as belukar in Malay. It is possible that someone had cleared the Padang area a few decades for Raffles arrived, but the soil of the Padang was very sandy and infertile, poor ground for large plants to thrive on. The vegetation consisted of kamunting (Rhodomyrtus spp.) and kadadu (Melastoma malabathricum?), myrtle and rhododendron, shrubs which are typical plants which succeed in areas where shifting cultivators have cleared primary forest. A eugenia tree grew in a clearing; coconut trees indicative of Malay cultivation grew along the riverbank. Munshi Abdullah also mentioned ambong-ambong, melpari, and bulangan trees growing near the shore. The other side of the Singapore River where Chinatown is located was a mangrove swamp with bakau, api-api, buta-buta, and jeruru trees (A.H. Hill 1955). During his brief stay in Singapore in January 1819 Raffles had a house built for himself at “Padang Senar”. The exact location of this spot is unknown; it may have been a portion of the Padang. It was a simple building made of atap (palm fronds) and would not have lasted long or left any noticeable remains (Haughton 1882.)
The excavation at the SCC revealed evidence that humans made a major impact on the soil and vegetation of the Padang in the 14th century, at least in the area of the research project conducted in 2003. The evidence for this will be presented in a following section.
In April 2003, after consultation with the SCC, it was decided to lay out a trench 5 meters long and 2 meters wide in the area between the cricket pitch and the bowling green, 22.5 meters from St. Andrew’s Road and 3.2 meters from the hedge surrounding the bowling green. This area was chosen partly on the basis that it would not interfere with the SCC’s normal sporting activities.
In the sections to follow, the original pit is termed TP (Test Pit) 1. The East Extension I is termed TP 2. The East Extension II is termed TP3. next follows a day-by-day account of the excavations, from April 16th to May 2nd, 2003.
The excavation began on April 16, 2003. The excavators had to wait to begin until 9:30 a.m. due to heavy rain. The first task was to lay out excavation unit, termed TP1 (labelled “Original Pit” on the diagram above). This task was finished by 11:10 am. TP1 was laid out perpendicular to St. Andrew’s Road. The long sides (4.5 meters long) were oriented toward 303° northwest; the short sides (2 meters long) were oriented toward 33° northeast. The West Malayan RSO map reference for the site is WR 650610/WMR 142610. The coordinates of the southwest corner of TP1 are N 1°17’22.5” and E 103°51’7.2”. Groundskeepers removed the grass turf comprising the first two-cm-thick stratum so that it could be replanted after the excavation. The next 5 cm consisted of mottled orange clay. This was not natural soil; it is a type of material used by groundskeepers of sports fields in Singapore to create level, uniform surfaces.
Excavation began by following natural layers. Between 5 cm and 12 cm the soil gradually changed to dark brown loam. This change was associated with a few colonial period artifacts such as fragments of floor tiles, Chinese blue and white porcelain of the late Qing Dynasty and Republic period, and shards of green glass bottles. In the centre of the excavation scattered pieces of charcoal were observed, but these were not associated with any evidence of specific activity. This soil probably formed over the last 200 years through normal decomposition of plants and some organic elements added by people and animals.
Between 2 and 8 cm (measured at the southeast profile of TP1), the soil consisted of rootlets mixed with yellow clay (5YR, 6/6 Munsell Soil Chart) in a loamy matrix (5YR, 3/1). Between 8 and 12 cm much charcoal was observed (5YR, 2.5/1). Between depths of 12 and 31 cm the soil gradually changed again, to a type with a different colour and a greater proportion of clay particles (10YR, 4/4). This stratum included some 14th-century artifacts.
On April 17, between 31 and 46 cm, soil consisted of sterile clay with laterite nodules (7.5 YR, 5/8). A feature was identified in the northwest corner, with a concentration of charcoal and smooth small pebbles. At a depth of 46 cm, in a layer designated Spit 5, a well-defined transition in soil type was observed. The clayey loam was found to be resting on a layer of pure black sand (5YR, 3/1). This type of soil layer was also discovered at the Parliament House Complex. The black colour was not original; it was due to intensive human activity at the site which involved the deposition of large amounts of carbon. This was probably the result both of burning wood and other organic material for various purposes, and the decay of green plant matter. This stratum was associated with unusual types of artifacts, some related to those found in other 14th-century contexts in Singapore, some of types which had not previously been found. A fragmentary Chinese coin of the Tang Dynasty found here is replicated by finds at all other 14th-century excavations in Singapore.
When it was discovered that the black sand layer was more than ten cm thick, excavation procedure changed to the spit system, which proceeded by 10-cm-thick artificial layers. The black sand layer was found to vary between 30 and 110 cm in thickness.
Artifacts were bagged and tagged by artificial layers, termed spits. Spit 1 includes artifacts from 0 to 10 cm below the datum point, corresponding to the surface of the ground, which is perfectly level across all three units (TP1,TP2, and TP3) at the site. Spit 2 includes artifacts from 10 to 20 below datum; spit 3 refers to the soil between 20 and 30 cm below datum, etc. In the deepest part of the site, the excavation reached spit 16, 150-160 cm below ground level. No artifacts were found in spit 16.
On April 18, weather was drizzly and the excavation began late because the SCC premises, where the equipment was stored, opened late due to the fact that this was a national holiday (Good Friday). Spit 6 yielded a more dense concentration of artifacts than the previous spit. These included a glass bangle which resembles others found at Fort Canning, but has a different pattern of yellow stripes on a dark red background. A carnelian bead found here was the first of this type to be discovered in Singapore; such hard stone beads had not been found in other excavations in Singapore, including Fort Canning, PHC, EMP, and CCT.
On April 19, heavy rain overnight caused some water to flow into the pit, but this did limited damage due to the construction of a dike around the pit precisely to prevent this problem. The day was cloudy, without rain. A third spit of black sand (spit 7) yielded artifacts of a different sort: rare lids of jars of Chinese porcelain of celadon and qingbai colours, and pieces of a molded white covered box. Another important new discovery which appeared in this spit consisted of an intact Chinese coin, probably of the Song Dynasty, which had been distorted by heat. This is a strong piece of evidence in favour of the conclusion that the heating had taken place on or very near this location. It has long been suspected that Southeast Asians used Chinese coins both as a medium of exchange and as a source of metal. If the coin was intentionally melted, as seems probable, this implies that some sort of industrial activity was taking place in the general area of this part of the Padang in the 14th century. Other special finds on this date included a fluted celadon lid, a qingbai lid, and a molded white box, all from spit 8.
At a depth between 90 cm and 100 cm (spit 10), the colour of the sand gradually became lighter, and artifacts became less common. Beneath spit 10, most of the sand in the excavation was pure white. This is judged to represent the natural soil of the site before humans began to occupy the Padang. This seems to have occurred around 1300, judging from the types of artifacts discovered. The oldest datable ceramics can be assigned to the 14th-century period of the Yuan Dynasty.
The discovery of a white sand layer was unexpected; such a layer had not been found in previous excavations in Singapore. The presence of pure white sand on the Padang sheds a very interesting light on the section of the Malay Annals which describes Sri Tri Buana’s decision to explore Temasek. Climbing upon a rock near a place called Tanjong Bemian, he looked across the Singapore Strait and saw “sand so white that it looked like a sheet of cloth.” He decided to go inspect the place. The Padang excavation demonstrated the fact that this was not an imagined scene; the south coast of Singapore near the mouth of the Singapore River did in fact have a beautiful white sandy beach when the first people landed here. Over the next two or three centuries, this white sand became polluted by human activity and turned black. Thereafter it was buried by more soil deposition of clay and loam, and was forgotten until it was accidentally revealed in 2003. Later excavations at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Istana Kampong Glam show that the white sand beach extended all the way to Kampong Glam. It would have been a very distinctive feature of the Padang coast, which does not seem to have existed elsewhere on the island. When the Raffles MS 18 version of the Malay Annals was set down on paper in 1612, it had been centuries since anyone had seen it. Thus the memory of the origins of Singapore were clearly recalled 300 years after the original habitation of the Padang.
On April 20, the excavation identified a small area of black sand about 50 cm in diameter at a depth of 1 meter below gray sand, 2 meters from the southeast corner along the southwest profile. Two features were identified at this level: one in the southwest corner which extended south for 90 cm and northeast for 1.5 meters, a second feature 1 meter from the southeast corner. It measured 1.23 cm along the profile, and projected for 80 cm into the pit. Artifacts in these features were labelled as originating from spits 10A, 11A, 12A, 13A, 14A, and 15A. The gray sand over and around the black sand shaded into white over a layer between 100 and 130 cm depth. The white sand was found to be sterile.Why these two areas should have had artifacts up to 50 cm deeper than in the other areas is not clear. There is no obvious sign that these were due to the intentional digging of pits.
On April 21, unit 10A of TP1 was excavated. Unusual artifacts found here included a metal wire or pin, and a handle of bronze or copper. A carnelian and a barrel-shaped glass bead were also found. A carnelian was also recovered from the screen. In unit 11A, several items associated with elaborate metal-working were found: a clay crucible and a U-shaped carved red stone, possible a trough of some kind. These were associated with porcelain including a miniature jarlet and a Song Dynasty bowl base.
On April 22, the day began hot and sunny, then became overcast by 11 am. Excavation continued as usual.
On April 23, the feature at the southwest corner was excavated to spit 16. Spit 16 became sterile at a depth of 155 cm. Spit 17 was also sterile, and the water table was reached at 164 cm, whereupon excavation was halted. At a depth of about 161-162 cm, the black sand became brown, with possible patches of decayed iron (5YR, 3/3). These were probably bog iron, ferrous concretions which occur naturally.
Test Pit 2 was laid out on this date. This unit measured 1.5 meters long and 2 meters wide, and formed an extension of the southwest side of TP1. The layer overlying the black sand stratum was removed. Artifacts in this stratum consisted of 20 ceramic sheds including a fragment of possible Ming blue and white porcelaina fragment of a Dutch (Maastricht) plate, a possible Straits Settlements ¼ cent coin, and examples of 14th-century stoneware, celadon, and qingbai.
On April 24, the team cleaned up the trench and sorted artifacts.
On April 25, a new stratigraphic unit was found at the eastern profile of TP2: a layer of yellow soil (5YR, 5/8) between orange clay and black sand. In spit 8, a sharp transition appeared from dark grey sand associated with artifacts to pure white sand. TP1 was backfilled. John Miksic met Mr. Mark James of the SCC to discuss the possibility of taking soil cores from St. Andrew’s Road to Connaught Drive in an attempt to discover where the old beach may have lain, and to trace the history of reclamation and coastal change in this area. This has not yet been carried out. Mr. James recounted the evidence that a possible granite foundation exists near the center of the Padang. This evidence consists of samples of granite found when a trenching machine was used to dig drains under the Padang. Future geomagnetic prospecting may enable this feature to be located. Excavation in TP2 reached a depth of 80 cm in most of the pit, with a maximum depth of 84 cm.
On April 26, rain in the early morning caused some collapsing, mainly along the southern profile. Artifacts from this collapsed soil were bagged separately. At 95 cm depth a sharp transition from black to white sand was found. More heavy rain in the afternoon caused flooding and the collapse of the northern profile.
April 27: Unit TP3 was laid out by leaving a baulk 80 cm wide between it and TP2. TP3 measured 2.6 meters northwest-southeast, and 2 meters southwest-northeast.
April 28: Excavation in TP3 reached spit 6. The ancient cultural layer of black sand appeared at depths between 63 and 65 cm. Some traces of red clay were identified in the lower levels of spit 5.
April 29: Numerous coins were found in spit 7 of TP3. A large friable rock-like mineral was also found there, which disintegrated upon exposure. There were some indications that this spit was mixed with later material, such as a lead or tin button or medallion bearing what appears to be Latin script, and some whitish water-worn pebbles. Spit 8 consisted of a mixture of black and grey sand, with few artifacts.
April 30: Spit 9 was excavated in the northwestern half of the unit, at which depth white sand was reached. A feature described as a “tunnel” was found in the northwest corner of the unit, consisting of white sand with an orange clay intrusion, in which was found an orange clay bead. This may represent some sort of disturbance.
May 2: The 14th-century layer of black sand was excavated into the profile. Numerous artifacts were recovered in this sand. This was the last day of the excavation. The site was backfilled by 12:15. The site was then returfed by the SCC.
The stratigraphy of the site was quite straightforward. It consisted largely of horizontal layers, with few traces of disturbance. The top of the Temasek-period layer (i.e. the stratum of black sand laid down between 1300 and 1600) was quite distinct from the overlying soil.The transition to the black sand from the yellow clay above it was quite sharp, occurring within less than 1 cm. At the bottom of the Temasek-period layer, transition in soil type and presence of artifacts was more gradual. This may be partly the result of the tendency for items to sink into sand as the result of human activities which mix up several centimeters of sand.
There were a few minor irregularities in the stratigraphy. In the northeast corner of TP2, the black sand layer was disturbed. Apparently a pit had been dug into this area through the orange clay. A layer of white sand here overlay a lens of orange clay. A lens of brown loam intruded between two layers of orange clay. This disturbance was limited to a small area. On the whole, the stratigraphy of the excavation presented no ambiguity regarding the sequence of the deposition of the soil strata and the objects found in them.