Finding history’s buried treasures Duncan Graham
It would soil this story to say that the junior high school students approached the task with enthusiasm.
Turning over the earth may be one of humanity’s most basic, tiring but satisfying tasks – but for wealthy Jakarta kids it’s a job that should be done by others,
Some handled the trowels, forks and other garden tools as though they were live rats. Others shrunk to the back of the crowd to see if they could catch a cellphone signal, for the ancient Majapahit era capital of Trowulan is full of dead spots.
Few succeeded because patrolling teacher Sharon Maminta has a keen eye for backsliders. She knows all the teenage tricks, hustling her charges to the front, frustrating their plans for Blackberry chatathons.
However some, like Kanina Anindita, 13, had no qualms about getting dirt under her fingernails. She was soon rewarded with success, the shattered shards of an earthenware pot uncovered only centimeters below the surface.
No matter that workers organised by veteran conservationist and educator Dr Suryo Prawiroatmodjo had planted the artefact. Making the students play Indiana Jones minus the heroics was part of a weeklong history, culture and the environment workshop he coordinated in East Java at the end of April.
Ms Anindita and friends plotted the pot’s location, then measured and photographed the precise spot where it was found. She drew a careful plan like a professional archaeologist and got suitably outraged when a clumsy classmate (a boy, of course) trampled the diggings.
“It’s a waste of time if we just come here, stand around and do nothing,” she said. “Learning about the kingdom of Majapahit, its strong government and the culture that blossomed here has been a great pleasure.
“I’ve also been impressed to see how some monuments have been reconstructed. I’m proud to have this as part of my past.”
At this point sceptics need to be assured that these are the Mentari International School girl’s own words spoken in flawless English with no ‘you knows’, ‘stuff like that’ and other corruptions of language so frequently found among Western teens.
“These are bright students, but till now many have not been exposed to life outside Jakarta,” said Ms Maminta while 58 young people sat on the floor of the Trowulan Museum making terracotta figures, modelled on the 15th century examples in the surrounding glass cases.
Others tried to decode inscriptions in ancient Javanese lettering etched on tombstones and moulded in clay.
Ms Maminta spent ten years teaching in the Philippines honing her disciplinary and organisational skills before moving to Indonesia three years ago to teach world history.
“They also come from privileged backgrounds,” she said “Every year we run a community study week to take the students out of their comfort zone. It gives them insights they can’t get in the classroom.
“This is an inter-disciplinary course involving science, history, geography, language, economic and mathematics. They are discovering how the Majapahit people lived and worked – even what they ate.
“The other factor is that by living together they also learn how to interact with others. It makes them better people.”
The campsite and center for most activities was distant from Trowulan. This was the sprawling ‘Integrated Outdoor Campus’ of the University of Surabaya (Ubaya) at Trawas, about two hours by car south of the East Java capital.
The two-year-old campus is on the cool lower slopes of Mount Penanggungan, summit of the sacred mountain Mahameru, transferred from India according to Majapahit legend.
Operations manager Theophilus Hermawan said he remained confused at the role of the complex he controls. “I don’t know whether we are a university campus, an outdoor training center or a tourist resort,” he said.
While he and his superiors work out the next stage the desk-bound executives come at weekends to bond and discover new muscles. Although called a campus there are no full-time students.
On weekdays schools like Mentari enjoy imaginatively designed buildings set in 38 hectares of lush bush – some of it planted, the rest left as virgin forest, ideal for adventure trails,
Thankfully absent are the standard kitsch statues common in similar attractions that owe more to Disney than the diverse culture of East Java. Ubaya has its own low-key style. At times it’s a mite over-manicured, but overall the tone works.
There’s a composting station, a flock of sheep, a flying fox, botanical gardens and ample space to explore. Accommodation includes North Sulawesi-style high-stump timber houses with solar powered hot water and composting toilets – but limited communication. Internet addicts will suffer withdrawal symptoms. For those seeking spiritual relief there are sacred spaces and much mysticism.
Some of this was provided by villagers recruited by Dr Suryo to demonstrate their ancient skills in puppet creation and music making. Elder Tri Wibowo Jayakusuma got instant Justin Bieber fame when his alleged fortune telling powers were revealed.
It was a neat reversal: The mall rats in skimpy shorts now had to listen to sarong-clad grannies, the people who are seen but seldom heard in the kitchens of city apartments. They showed how to make madu mongso (black sticky rice), a delicacy. The process is laborious. Quicker to order a pizza – even in this remote area.
More interesting to the girls was the preparation of lulur, a skin whitening cream made from leaves garnered in the forest supermarket. Vanity then, as now.
“History has long been taught by listing the names and dates of kings and battles,” said Dr Suryo. “We are reminding the students that the past also included the lives of ordinary people who went about their business as we do.
“The Majapahit, once the supreme trading force in lower Southeast Asia developed sophisticated technology to pipe water. They built with extraordinary precision that makes us wonder at their knowledge and skills.”
After almost a millennium the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom suddenly collapsed around five centuries ago for reasons not clearly understood, with many fleeing to Bali.
Dr Suryo’s education philosophy resonated with student Tegishtha Andhika Iman Soewarno (Tata), 14, whose research revealed an ancestor may have been an assistant in the Yogya court of Prince Diponegoro.
He was the Javanese guerrilla hero who took on the Dutch, only to be defeated in 1830 by being tricked into peace talks – then arrested and banished.
“Unfortunately it seems possible this ancestor may have been involved in the Prince’s betrayal,” said Tata ruefully.
“Through this experience I see the past as it was. It’s given me a new perspective. My family comes from East Java, but till now it’s been a distant place, not so important. No longer.”
(Disclosure: The author was provided with free accommodation and meals).
(First published in The Jakarta Post Tuesday 7 July 2011