Old Town Historical Findings: Jakarta, West Java

While digging in search of an old Dutch streetcar line in Kota, West Jakarta, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Mundarjito discovered a hidden historical treasure. Twenty-five centimeters under the line, there was another one. Its existence was hitherto unknown.

“The top one has a grooved rail, while the one underneath is flat,” Mundarjito, an archeology professor from the University of Indonesia, said. “People knew there was a tramline buried under Kota. But no one knew about another one beneath it. I was surprised myself.”

However, such a precious historical discovery is not always necessarily important to the city administration. Before the archeology team of four could delve more into the discovery, the city gave it a deadline.

Thus, science had to take a step back for the launch of the Old Town Revitalization Project. The archeological exploration was halted and the grooved rail had to be prepared to be put on display at the launch, only three weeks after the discovery.

On Sept. 30, the Sutiyoso administration launched the Old Town Revitalization Project. To kick off the project, the city revamped Fatahillah square and had the tramline excavated to be put on display.

The revamping of Fatahillah square sparked protests from people directly affected by the changes; evicted street vendors complained about their slumping income at the relocation site and businesspeople operating near the square objected to the closure of a street, which caused traffic congestion.

The archeologists also had objections.

“I saw the other rail. But I could not examine it in detail because the city wouldn’t let us continue with our research,” Mundarjito said.

The other railway is now buried under a concrete waterway structure. It is now a mystery; lost amid unstoppable urban development.

“It was perhaps a railway from a different period. Further research could have revealed more about it. For an archeologist, the discovery was important. But apparently, not everyone shared the same opinion.”

He said city planners should hire archeologists before developing historical sites in the capital.

“It’s necessary to make sure they (the city) don’t damage artifacts during the construction or renovation process. The busway underpass, for example, destroyed a lot (of artifacts),” Mundarjito said, adding city planners in other countries always considered historical treasures that might be destroyed through urban development.

On launch day, then Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso said he pictured the future of Old Town as a commercial area with “boutiques and cafes”.

However, he forgot to mention the most important part of the historical site: Visitors would want to hear stories and see whatever remains from the past.

It is a good sign the city wanted the old streetcar line as one of the attractions of the historical site. However, ignoring the discovery of another streetcar line is a bad omen.

Without serious archeological and historical exploration, Old Town would only have fancy cafes, boutiques and hotels. As much as visitors need these amenities, it is the artifacts and the history that makes Old Town irreplaceable.

Without them, Old Town would be just another humid and polluted tourist site in Asia.

Evi Mariani