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State Formation and Social Formation in Southeast Asia

While significant scholarship has been published on the nature and development of the nation-state in Southeast Asia, as well as the issues and dynamics of social groups in the region in the contemporary era, relatively few historical studies have been carried out to develop paradigms of state and social formation in pre-modern and early modern Southeast Asia apart from the ones that had been developed in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Under this project, the centre is interested in looking at the formation of port-cities and port polities in Maritime Southeast Asia; the various modes of urban genesis and forms; the notions and nature of political centres; and the evolving nature and parameters of regional geo-politics in Maritime Southeast Asia.

Archaeological Research
One of NSC’s current endeavours under this theme is the Archaeology Unit’s Phnom Kulen project. Phnom Kulen, believed to be the site of early urbanization of Angkor, marks the foundation of a polity in a form and magnitude unprecedented in premodern Southeast Asia. This project explores the settlement patterns and urban evolution in the highlands of Northwest Cambodia.

Economic Interaction within Southeast Asia, and between Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean Littoral and the South China Sea Littoral

Economic interaction has, throughout history, been a fundamental force driving the history of Maritime Southeast Asia. This interaction includes trade or commercial exchanges, fiscal policies and currency systems, natural and value-added or manufactured products and production processes and material cultures. Equally important are the natural and man-made resources and the environmental and geographical contexts from which they have been drawn.

NSC aims to produce more detailed studies of the aforementioned aspects of economic interaction that are under-represented in the current corpus of secondary literature. This would include the development of approaches within which historical data on trade goods may be interpreted, framed and/or analysed. Additionally, the generation of usable data would be an important scholarly endeavour to further our understanding of this critical aspect of Southeast Asian history.

Archaeological Research
Noteworthy archaeological activities under this theme include the multi-year projects on the economic interaction at Banten Lama, a thriving 17th century trading port settlement in West Java, where enormous quantities of trade ceramics from China, Japan, Europe and Southeast Asia are recovered. Banten at its height was the largest city in the Indonesian archipelago, and its economic reach overwhelmed Batavia. The archaeological excavations at Banten investigate the socio-political interactions between the disparate foreign entities (such as the Dutch East Indies Company, British East Indies Company, Chinese merchants) and the local communities.

Culture and Identity

Pertinent to any understanding of societies and states located within such a communicatively dynamic region as Maritime Asia is the development and nature of culture and identity, and their evolution over time. The dialectic between trans-regional cultural phenomena, such as the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, or the adoption and use of such high languages as Sanskrit and Pali, on the one hand, versus the generation of indigenous cultural markers, co-existence of local languages and cultural hybridisation on the other, deserves significant attention, not least because much of the issues pertaining to ethnic and cultural diversity in contemporary Southeast Asia have their roots in the pre-modern era. The processes and parameters of cultural negotiation and construction also have significant echoes through time.

Four key areas that the centre is keen to further research on are: religion; art history and visual culture; diaspora and migration; and language and literature.

Archaeological Research
Manifestations of culture and identity in early Southeast Asian societies exist in both the textual and non-textual traditions. However, in Southeast Asia, the recorded past are often embedded in non-textual traditions, and are instead frequently readily accessible in the extant material culture, ceramics in particular. Southeast Asians, in fact, were among the first people in the world to implement high-fired ceramic technology.

In Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, kilns indicative of a high degree of technical prowess have been found. Southeast Asian potters were obviously aware of Chinese technology in this field, but it is important to note that each region of Southeast Asia developed its own form of kiln construction and styles of products in accordance with local needs and tastes. The study of early ceramic technology provides excellent opportunities for studying the interaction of local, regional, and long-distance communication, technology, and artistic accomplishments.

Note that while NSC recognizes the role of archaeology in providing a unique dimension in interpreting cultures through the material record, the centre also welcomes research proposals that examine both the tangible and intangible elements of beliefs, behaviours, and customs of Southeast Asian societies.

Digital databases

The Centre will create a digital repository that will help preserve, store and disseminate knowledge pertinent to research on pre-modern Southeast Asian and intra-Asian interactions. While the purview of this effort will be centred on the three key research themes identified above, their use is envisaged to extend beyond that scope, to include applications to scholarship on the Indian Ocean Littoral and the South China Sea Littoral.

NSC is developing two databases: archaeological and textual. The archaeological database will contain a collection of artefacts recovered from Temasik-period (c. 14th century) sites in Singapore, while the textual database will hold primary textual data from NSC’s research projects particularly those that involve substantial works on transliteration and translations.