Webinar on “Journey to The Centre of The World: Introduction to Spice Island Archaeology”

In the second last webinar in this webinar series, Mr Shinatria Adhityatama gives an overview of the spice route and how the local community played a role in managing the spices that were in global demand.


15 December 2021, Wednesday – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Journey to The Centre of The World: Introduction to Spice Island Archaeology” by Mr Shinatria Adhityatama, a graduate student at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research in Griffith University, Australia and previously a maritime archaeologist at the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology (PUSLIT ARKENAS). The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia Programme and was moderated by one of the programme’s conveners, Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan.

Mr Adhityatama spoke on the central role of the Spice Islands in the global system of trade in luxury goods and the arrival of the Europeans. Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Whereas previous webinars in the series focused on the archaeology of specific kingdoms in Southeast Asia in the second millennium CE, the focus of Mr Adhityatama’s talk was on the central role of the Spice Islands – the modern-day Indonesian provinces of Maluku and North Maluku – in the global system of trade in luxury goods and the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th century. Spices, in particular black pepper, cloves and nutmeg, have been prized since antiquity and archaeological evidence from Sumeria suggests that cloves were popular in Syria as early as 2,400 BCE which suggests the existence of a network that could facilitate the transfer of cloves from the Moluccas during those times.

By the first century BCE, there is more definite linguistic and archaeological evidence for long-distance maritime trade between China and the Middle East, connecting India and the Spice Islands. One key archaeological indicator for this maritime trade are boats. Mr Adhityatama showed examples of ancient watercraft that plied the Southeast Asian waters such as the 7th century Punjulharo boat and the Belitung shipwreck, noting that while much attention is paid to the ceramic cargo, spices would have been another important commodity that was in circulation.

Four important kingdoms of the Spice Islands were introduced. The Sultanates of Ternate and Tidore are probably the best-known in the Spice Islands, the former aligned to Portugal while the latter was aligned to Spain. The Jailolo Sultanate, established in the 13th century CE, was another centre of clove production and based in the island of Halmahera whose descendants continue to be customary leaders today. The Sultanate of Tanah Hitu was based on Ambon, and the island’s strategically central location attracted the Portuguese and the Dutch, the latter using it as the headquarters for the Dutch East India Company before it moved to Batavia.

The webinar rounded off with a presentation of two recent shipwreck discoveries in the waters of Tidore Island, which likely date to the 16 and 17th centuries. At Soasio, in the bay near the sultan’s palace and mosque, ceramics from two different periods of the Ming Dynasty were found, along with other Southeast Asian ceramics. At Tongowai, cannons and earthenware jars are linked to Macao and Portuguese origin.

The worldwide demand for spice as a luxury good and the resulting desire to control the production and distribution of spices from the Moluccas is why the Spice Islands can be considered as the ‘Centre of the World’. Archaeological remains show the waxing and waning influence of Islamic sultanates and Christian colonisers in this region, and today, Indonesia is promoting the cultural heritage of the Spice Route as part of its national identity.

In the Q&A session that followed the audience asked questions on literature related to the Spice Road and Japanese mercenaries in Southeast Asia. The event was attended by 131 participants.

Over 130 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)