Ujir: Part III

Near the bomb craters we saw our first surface scatters of porcelain and glass: mostly Qing dynasty Chinese porcelain, with some European imitations, and the typical light green or olive green bottle fragments, though the ones I saw at Ujir looked more recent than those from Kota Lama. I noticed a couple unmistakably odd fragments: one a late 19th-early 20th century French trademark on ceramic, and the other a light brown bottle base with a Scandinavian “Ø” making up part of an incomplete name. The Australian team in the late ‘90s mentioned seeing Danish bottle fragments, so this may be the same material. We think globalization is a recent development, but a surprising amount of global trade was also happening much earlier on. It was a more specialized trade than today’s distribution of every commodity across the globe; it happened at the source of unusually valuable commodities, and wasn’t universal, but the distances are still astonishing, especially considering the wooden ship that must have brought some of the earlier bottle fragments from Europe to this tiny and remote island, most likely in search of bird of paradise (cenderawasih) feathers.

From the craters we took the boat around a sandbar to the mesjid tua, “old mosque,” Ujir’s most puzzling feature. Saimin came in hot, almost holing the boat on a submerged branch. We landed next to an old, heavily calcified cannon, perhaps salvaged along with the anchor. Any inscriptions or decorations have been lost to weathering, so it would be impossible to date it precisely from looks, but it’s probably late 17th-late 18th century. The mesjid tua itself is a high stone platform with sloping walls, built out into the sungai. There are open or partially open arches in the sides, suggesting that it was once more than a solid foundation. Mandja said that before the old village was bombed, its mosque had been built atop this foundation, with more perishable materials. From the landward side, a stairway ascends to the top of the platform. There were still some sheets of corrugated metal lying among the plants that grew among the coral blocks. In places, there were hollows that also suggested empty space beneath the platform. It is not a large structure; maybe the size of a small cottage. The odd thing is where it was placed, projecting out into the sungai from the bank. It must have taken a lot of work to build a stone structure there, and for what purpose? Maybe defense:  it has a commanding view of the sungai, and the nearby cannon is another clue, perhaps reused to defend the village after salvage. On the other hand, it could have been a mosque originally, though an oddly placed one. It’s worth noting that next to Ujir’s present mosque, which is in the middle of a huge renovation, the villagers have placed another, smaller old cannon, this one painted (appallingly) green and yellow. In some parts of the Muslim world it’s traditional during Ramadan to fire a cannon at the end of each day’s fast. However, the foundation of the mesjid tua likely pre-dates the cannon nearby, so that only offers clues about later use, if any.

Mesjid Tua

Saimin's boat in the sungai, with an old cannon bottom right.

Near the structure we found a bowl or mortar ground from coral limestone—something also mentioned in the Terra Australis paper—and more glass sherds, including the base of a shot glass. It’s far easier to draw some kind of meaning from these small fragments, which, even if they have been broken, retain enough of their original form to give some idea of what they were used for in the beginning. Of course, objects get re-purposed or used in unexpected ways quite often, especially across cultures: there is some evidence that porcelain plates were set into the walls of some of Ujir’s buildings as decoration. At least, however, we know that they were shipped over as plates. With something like the mesjid tua, its origins are more enigmatic, and the possibility remains that it has been modified enough over time to obscure the original function. A thorough excavation might provide an answer, but maybe not. From the surface, not wanting to disturb the building and not having much time, I would have to content myself with guessing. This all drove home the fact that Ujir’s wealth of archaeological evidence would take vast amounts of time to make sense of—a survey could take up a whole season. The material itself is very accessible once you get there, but the logistics of arranging a survey in Ujir, let alone an excavation, are fairly hellish. In a perfect world, a research vessel with a couple fast, long-range dinghies would be ideal, but I doubt that anyone is willing to provide yachts to archaeologists in the current economy.

The villagers said that tsunamis strike Ujir occasionally, and often wash up more pieces of porcelain. Apart from the distant shipwreck that provided the anchor and cannon, which must have been quite large based on the size of the anchor, there is another old shipwreck closer to the village. I was already in a daze from the wealth of information just lying around on the surface, and now another shipwreck! The research vessel of my dreams would need a compressor.

On our way back to the village, we stopped at an old graveyard. All the graves had conical mounds of sand on top of them, fenced in with stone or concrete, and a small headstone, often with no visible inscription. Mandja had brought a bag of flowers and leaves, which he scattered on two of the graves, those of his mother and grandmother. In a far corner there was a grave with a fence of plastic netting around it, which Mandja said was the grave of an old imam. He scattered some flowers there, and gave the rest to me. “Where should I scatter them?” I asked. Richardo suggested the grave of the imam, so I stepped over the fence and placed some flowers on top of the mound. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” I said to Mandja, and he shook my hand very firmly and said he was happy I had come and paid my respects.

From there we returned by boat to the house, stopping at the partially built new mosque, which is close to the beach. The villagers were especially anxious that I publish pictures of this mosque, of which they were very proud. For such a small village it was a huge structure, three stories high, which made it two higher than any other building in Ujir. A couple men were working on it, climbing up bamboo scaffolding and mixing cement with the fine local sand. They would stop work on the mosque for Ramadan, which was coming up soon, and then resume construction once the month of fasting was over.

Ujir was unique among the places I’d visited in Aru for appearing exclusively Muslim—I didn’t notice a church there, and it is worth noting that Mandja’s peci, a traditionally Muslim hat, was one of a handful I saw in the island group. Most native Aruese are either Protestant or Catholic, though many just nominally so, the result of a 1970s effort by the Indonesian government to convert the whole country to one of a few recognized agama, “religions,” from their traditional animist beliefs, which didn’t count in the government’s eyes. Muslim missionaries were part of this effort, but Christian denominations won out, perhaps because of an already established presence in Aru, or a better fit with previous beliefs. There are some native Muslim pockets such as Ujir, and half of Kota Lama, but many of Aru’s Muslims, especially in Dobo, immigrated during one of the islands’ periodical natural resource booms.

We returned to the house, where we exchanged addresses, and I promised to send copies of the photos I’d taken. I asked if I would be permitted to return and excavate in Ujir, and the villagers responded that I should come and work there for a month next year, preferably during the dry season. I said I would start organizing the project, and keep them informed as it developed, but cautioned them that it would take time to assemble the funding and the team. It was a very kind welcome; I felt bad that I couldn’t express my gratitude as emphatically as I wanted in Indonesian, a recurring problem. I signed my name in the village’s guest book, made a small donation toward the construction of the new mosque, and said farewell to Mandja and the villagers. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had a three-hour trip through the same choppy seas and rain squalls ahead of us.

 

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