Webinar on “The Gold Ornaments of Temasek”

While the gold ornaments found in 1928 on Fort Canning Hill have often popped up in discussions on fourteenth-century Temasek and can be found prominently on display in the National Museum of Singapore, these have yet to be examined seriously to date. In this talk, Visiting Fellow Dr Natalie Ong takes an in-depth look at the gold artefacts, sharing with the audience a detailed study of its composition, artistry, and significance. In the process, her analysis challenges long-held assumptions about these ornaments.


Monday, 30 May 2022 – Temasek History Research Centre (THRC) is pleased to host the webinar discussing the gold ornaments of Temasek. This talk was presented by Dr Natalie Ong, Visiting Fellow at THRC, who brings extensive experience in Southeast Asian art history and the material culture of Singapore’s terrestrial finds. The session was moderated by Mr Kwa Chong Guan, Associate Fellow at ISEAS and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). 

Speaker Dr Natalie Ong and moderator Mr Kwa Chong Guan. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Natalie Ong began the session by providing the historical context of the discovery of these gold ornaments on Fort Canning Hill in 1928. Dr Ong focused on two things. First, how the unearthing of the original cache of objects, namely, a pair of armlets with flexible chains, seven rings, conch ornament, and an inscribed finger ring, was covered in newspapers and articles of the time. Dr Ong showed how the gold ornaments remained in the public eye, driven in part by the reclamation of heritage by post-war nationalistic movements. Second, Dr Ong took a closer look at the literature on Fort Canning Hill. Citing quotes from John Crawfurd, and a map of the early nineteenth century, she went on to narrate how the area around Fort Canning was significantly altered by land clearance through to the early twentieth century, which led to a significant loss of information from the site. 

Despite references to the gold ornaments in several journals, it is only in 1984, when the first archaeology excavation on Fort Canning Hill led by John Miksic commenced, that a renewal of interest came about. However, Sir Richard O. Winstedt’s 1928 article remains the only study for almost a hundred years regarding the gold artefacts. Although his descriptions remain factual, he was also very much constrained by the technology and knowledge of his time. This was Dr Ong’s starting point in re-examining the ornaments and bringing a more accurate analysis to bear.  

By looking at their value in contemporary terms, Dr Ong asserted that the gold ornaments remain extremely valuable, or even more precious today. Beginning with the armlet, Dr Ong presented a fascinating and detailed study of its welding and fusing, showing how the units were inserted and moulded together. Digital microscopic pictures brought greater clarity to the topography and the composition of the materials, as well as the construction of the beads. In the process, she was able to challenge some of Winstedt’s earlier assumptions regarding the possible uses of the object, e.g., the rupture of the beads. Dr Ong then showed the depressed ends of the bead pyramids, the plaque, the split pins, and the “kala” head, explaining how each item worked and corresponded to other ornaments from the wider region. 

Of particular attention was the kala head, which forms the eye-catching and intricate face of the armband. Dr Ong explained that the term kala, which is used throughout Southeast Asia, comes from kalamukha (face of death/devourer). This is related to a celestial phenomenon or possible legend of creation, which is depicted on the gold ornament of Temasek and also well represented in other Javanese ornaments in the region. A closer inspection brings new insights. Going beyond Winstedt’s description, Dr Ong demonstrated other elements which have not been studied, such as a tiny three-pronged crown on the forehead, a flame-like shape below it, and other tiny square indents. These are discoveries based on better camera work. Other aspects highlighted were the curly eyebrows, eyelids, bulging eyes, spiral irises, a blunt nose, incisions above the lip, moustache, and horns (or flames) protruding from the sides. Dr Ong followed up this analysis by comparing the kala head of Temasek with other examples from Java. There is evident similarity, despite both variation and evolution in design. This is contrasted with those from the Majapahit period when the form of the kala head was standardized. This study thus challenges Winstedt’s assertion that it was a Majapahit-style motif. 

An analysis of tiny square indents that are not immediately evident to the naked eye. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Finally, Dr Ong showed the ear ornaments, also in gold, demonstrating how the clasp worked, since it had several moving parts. By examining the composition of the inset gems, Dr Ong was able to disprove another of Winstedt’s assumptions: the gems are topaz instead of Pontianak diamonds. In the ancient world, topaz was prized as one of the nine gems, and which could only be found in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Spectrometry also surprisingly revealed the presence of cinnabar (mercury sulfide). This detail suggests the survival of Indic practices. Scarlet materials would have been used for the mark between the brows, which corresponds to the same feature on the kala head of the gold armband. 

Dr Ong concludes that the gold ornaments are of South Asian manufacture. As mentioned, the kala head is not of Majapahit design as is formerly assumed, and the gems on the ear ornaments are topaz rather than Pontianak diamonds. Furthermore, the detailed analysis has highlighted other elements such as ruptured beads, a tripled-pronged crown, a three-petalled flower on the forehead, a flame-like mark between the eyes, which are unique features that have gone hitherto unnoticed. Even though questions remain as to their date, origin, and relation to textual sources, Dr Ong suggests that the gold ornaments seem to point to a story of a royal gift, possibly of a political marriage to Indian royalty, an account of which is also narrated in the Sejarah Melayu

The webinar was well attended with 85 counted in the audience. Many took a lively interest in the analysis being presented. Questions were asked regarding the location of these objects today and whether high-resolution images can be found. Other questions were raised regarding the context of these ornaments, especially whether the South Asian motifs on the kala head point to the presence of South Asian craftsmen in Temasek and whether their chemical compositions hint at other origin sites. The session was concluded with a nod to the value detailed research can bring, especially in challenging assumptions previously held and taken for granted.