A man in the Musirawas area of Palembang district, Sumatra bought a truckload of fill dirt last Monday and was surprised to find a Sriwijayan stone artefact in the dirt pile. The artefact, a beautifully carved door cornice ornament in the form of a lion mask, is thought to date from the 12th century. From the 7th to 13th century, the Musirawas area was an important center of the Sriwijayan Empire, which had a broad and important web of influence throughout Southeast Asia.
Artefacts from the Mahayana Buddhist culture of Sriwijaya are very scarce, and few extensive archaeological sites have been identified and excavated. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the capital of Sriwijaya was built on low-lying river estuary lands, with most construction, including palaces, thought to have been built of wood, on top of large timber pilings driven into muddy river banks.
Because Sriwijayan artefacts and sites are so rare, the empire itself remains cloaked in mystery, and is all the more intriguing for that very reason. The remarkable find last Monday was pure coincidence. A local man needed fill dirt, and purchased it from another local who had recently purchased a piece of vacant land and was excavating to make the plot level. He offerend the excavated material for sale to anyone who needed fill dirt.The fellow who found the stone artefact, which is quite large, got the dirt all the way home and was moving it, when a shaped stone became visible.
He cleaned it off, and contacted the local Department of Culture, who confirmed that the artefact appears to be associated with the nearby archaelogical site known as Candi Bingin Jungut. Excavation and documentation was done a number of years ago at this site, where the remains of a near-complete candi were discovered. One of the most important artefacts from this site is a large Avalokitesvara figure carved from andesite, which is now in the Gajah Museum in Jakarta.
The now-owner (or custodian, if you will) of the stone lion mask is holding the artefact at his home, and has invited the state Archaeological Agency to do with it as they will. New laws in Indonesia guarantee near-market-value compensation to people who discover ancient artefacts, and we suppose that if the state agencies and institutions for archaeology and culture have the funds, or wish to use them, they should acquire this piece from the current owner.
One can’t help but wonder if more extensive archaeological surveys in the Musirawas area are warranted. To better understand and appreciate the kingdom of Sriwijaya would provide valuable perspectives to the people of South Sumatra regarding their ancestors and history, a sense of pride in their heritage, and . . . one hopes . . . a better appreciation of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions that have shaped their culture and still remain vestigially a part of it. Greater religious tolerace might also be a beneficial side effect of this enhanced understanding of the past.
When the lion mask was found last week, local people became uneasy, assuming it was sacred statue, and so a particularly “haram” item with deleterious energetic powers. They held a local-style Muslim “selamatan” ritual to repel bad influences and symbolically cleanse the community. The State Archaeological Body has since reassured them, that the artefact is not an idol of worship, but the ornamental (and symbolic) carved cornice of an entrance door to a candi.
One of the most informative local news items about the find can be read here (in Indonesian).