Srivijaya: A fabled 'island of gold' lost since the 1300s is finally revealing its treasures

An 11th century gold coated bronze statue in n Malayu-Srivijayan style
An 11th century gold coated bronze statue in n Malayu-Srivijayan style | CC BY-SA 3.0

Who doesn’t like a story about a lost city of gold, right? We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies and heard the fabled stories of forgotten empires lost to the ages and hidden under the canopy of some far-flung jungle. Many such legends have inspired real-life expeditions as explorers chased their dreams and searched for the mythical.

Many of those ventures proved futile, costly and more often than not deadly. However, every so often history throws us a bone, or should we say golden nugget, which rekindles our interest in these urban legends and refreshes our hopes anew. Sometimes these tantalising clues arise from the most unexpected of places.

Within the murky depths of the River Musi, one of the world’s most polluted stretches of water, lies a treasure trove laden with gold, jewels and historical artefacts that signify the existence of a lost city – Srivijaya. Described as the last great lost civilization that no one's heard about, the ‘Island of Gold’ as it was known, was situated on Sumatra and ruled Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia for over 600 years.

It disappeared without a trace around the 14th century and its existence was all but forgotten. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a French historian, George Coedes, rediscovered its name when searching through Chinese manuscripts and stone inscriptions. Most of the information about the city came from foreign travellers who spoke of a land of gold surrounded by volcanoes of smoke and fire, man-eating snakes and colourful parrots that could mimic a multitude of languages; a tantalising glimpse into a forgotten exotic world.

A short while after Coedes’ discovery, the search for the lost city officially began although physical evidence of its existence was hard to find, mostly because Srivijaya was a floating empire.

Apart from temples and royal abodes, most of the people of Srivijaya lived on floating houses made of bamboo, wood and straw. They moved freely around on canoes and no settlement was ever permanent. To make things even more difficult for archaeologists, a volcanic event could also have buried the site of Srivijaya in the years following its demise.

With few archaeological discoveries, pinpointing the exact location of Srivijaya proved to be a historical needle in a haystack. However, that all changed in the past few years when fishermen on the River Musi began discovering glittering wonders adorning their nets. Maritime archaeologist Dr Sean Kingsley has recently released his research into their finds and says it is like an ‘Asian Atlantis’:

‘Gold rings, jewels, merchants stamps, Chinese coins by the tons, huge amounts of pottery, Buddhist bronze statues, even life-size, studded with gems,’ says Dr Kingsley as he describes some of the incredibly rich and surprising material recently unearthed.

These discoveries reaffirm the legend of Srivijaya’s wealth. Situated in a strategically key location along the Silk Road, the empire was able to control trading routes connecting east and west. No ship could reach India or China without passing Srivijaya. Gold from the empire was stamped with the flower of the sandalwood and inscribed with the Sanskrit word for ‘glory’.

Fat from the riches of maritime trade, the floating kingdom also sat on vast gold deposits along both the Musi and Batang Hari rivers. The empire was said to be so wealthy that the king of Srivijaya would wake up every morning and throw a gold brick out of the window. As Srivijaya’s wealth grew, so did its influence, funding Buddhist temples in China and India whilst trading throughout Southeast Asia.

So how did this incredibly rich, vibrant and thriving floating city quite literally disappear from the face of the earth? Historians believe that a variety of factors brought an end to the golden age of Srivijaya, including piracy along its trade routes as well as the expansion of rival Indonesian empires.

Flash forward 700 years and the golden wonders of Srivijaya are once again above water. Their discovery can finally shed light on what the ancient city was like:

‘We're starting at ground zero’, Dr Kingsley said. ‘It's like walking into a museum wing, and it's completely empty. People don't know what clothes the people of Srivijaya wore, what their tastes were, what kind of ceramics they liked to eat off, nothing. We don't know anything about them in life or in death.’

However, it seems that the newly discovered treasures will not be giving up the secrets of Srivijaya quite so easily:

‘Vast swathes have been lost to the international antiquities market. Newly discovered, the story of the rise and fall of Srivijaya is dying anew without being told,’ said Dr Kingsley.

Treasure hunters, divers and fishermen are now dodging the crocodiles to strike it rich in the River Musi. The lost treasures of the Island of Gold are being sold into the antiquities black market to be scattered into private collectors across the globe. The lack of resources devoted to cultural heritage in Indonesia has made it difficult for an official archaeological study to take place.

Without any formal excavations at the River Musi, none of the important objects are being accounted for or documented within their historical context. Artefacts sold-off piecemeal strip them of their context, which in turn makes them hard to study.

Dr Kingsley describes the situation as ‘bittersweet’ and believes Palembang, the modern Sumatran city near where Srivijaya once sat, is missing a trick:

‘In an ideal world…you’d like to see this material put into a collection and put in a museum. Why not make Palembang the centre of Srivijayan civilisation and archaeology once again? Rather than just selling everything out the back door and scattered to the winds.’

Dr Kingsley remains positive that the artefacts of Srivijaya can still be saved from oblivion but it would certainly take an international effort or the intervention of a wealthy collector to save what treasures are left from being lost once more.