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  • A View from the Highlands: Archaeology and Settlement History of West Sumatra, Indonesia, by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz
  • Anton O. Zakharov
A View from the Highlands: Archaeology and Settlement History of West Sumatra, Indonesia, by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, ed. Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020, 260 pp., ill., ISBN 978-981-4843-01-0 (paperback)

After Frederic M. Schnitger published his pioneering and substantial Archaeology of Hindoo Sumatra (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1936), archaeological investigations in this island of Indonesia radically changed. Since Independence, Indonesian scholars entered the field whereas previously international teams from the USA, Singapore, France, and Germany contributed significantly to our understanding of the Sumatran past societies. The focus of archaeologists turned from the southeastern regions of the islands where a maritime empire Sriwijaya thrived in the seventh to thirteenth centuries, to other parts of Sumatra, including its western highlands. Nowadays there is a scholarly convention that the relations between riverine and highland societies were close and essentially relevant to regional state formation.

A new monograph edited by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz elucidates recent discoveries and offers a synthesis of data obtained by the Tanah Datar Project, an archaeological campaign in the Tanah Datar region of West Sumatra in 2011–12. The territory is known because there was a capital of King Adityavarman who ruled over the kingdom of Malayapura in the fourteenth century. Adityavarman, who left several inscriptions and statues, is often regarded as the founder of the royal dynasty of Minangkabau in Sumatra.

A View from the Highlands consists of a Preface, four parts and Conclusion. In the first part, 'Research History, Methods, and Objectives', Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz describes a research history of Western Sumatra highlands, including its famous megalithic complexes. She also connects settlement archaeology and state formation by means of Bennet Bronson's dendritic model (1977) elaborated by Pierre-Yves Manguin (2002) and John Miksic (2009), grasping close ties between the highlands and plateau centres as well as showing hierarchies of settlements in river valleys of Sumatra (p. 13). Tjoa-Bonatz and her colleagues describe documentation techniques used during the excavations and surveys of the Tanah Datar area. Tjoa-Bonatz emphasizes the area surveys and aerial investigations in the work of the Tanah Datar Project. Benjamin Vining clarifies the use of the Geometric G-858 cesium vapor magnetometer and magnetic anomalies detected at Bukit Gombak—one of the Tanah Datar Project's main excavation sites.

Johannes Greger summarizes the archaeological practice of the excavations at Bukit Gombak and Bukit Kincir in 2011–12. He stresses the role of the local Minangkabau people in excavations and points to 'a strong sense of the egalitarianism' and an option 'for equal pay regardless of each worker's specific duty' (p. 24). It is worth noting that when a spring which was abandoned after [End Page 169] 1985 was discovered, an old local belief in a female spirit of the spring who seduces unmarried men sleeping near it soon reappeared (pp. 25–6). In 2011, the local workers 'extended the length of the midday break to avoid the spring during this time'; the next year, however, the spring was again 'overgrown and no longer visited' (p. 26). I would add that the locals made use of old beliefs to obtain a certain material gain: they obtained the same salary for a shorter working day. Greger also tells how the mystery of the Bukit Kincir site, according to the locals inhabited by ghosts, was gone due to archaeological research in 2011–12 (pp. 26–8).

The second part, 'Early Histories: Historiography and Archaeological Surveys', by Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz focuses on the archaeological landscape of Adityavarman's fourteenth-century inscriptions. Tjoa-Bonatz examines these inscriptions as tokens of a specific cultural area and traces their original locations and functions; she offers a primarily anthropological and archaeological perspective instead of the more habitual textual approach. Map 2.1 on p. 44 shows the sites of inscriptions, burials, settlements, and other remains. It helps to put Adityavarman's kingdom into its geographical context and to see its position in the vicinity of Mount Merapi, in the Selo and Silaki river valleys which connected the heartland of...


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