Sangiran Museum: Sragen, Central Java

A student group entered Sangiran Museum in Sragen, Central Java, and enthusiastically looked at the various fossils on display, which date back from hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago. All of the fossils are kept in 15 vitrines at the museum, which is also called the Conservation Center of Early Man Site.

There are mollusk fossils, fossils of water creatures like fish, turtles, crabs and crocodiles, as well as hippopotamus fossils. Other collections include fossils of stone tools and fossils of mammals like buffaloes, ancient elephants, deer, tigers, pigs and rhinoceros, and of course the Pithecanthropus erectus VIII fossil, which is the most complete hominid skull fossil ever found in the country.

Complete information about the fossils is attached on each vitrine.

“Human beings can create tools to ease their work, while animals can just use tools,” archeologist and guide Anjarwati Sri said.

In another part of the museum there is a diorama describing the life of pre-historic people who lived in caves. “They were our ancestors,” said Manik, one of the students from the University of Yogyakarta.

The visitors then went to the watch tower, from where they could view the Sangiran dome or Sangiran site underneath.

Sangiran is well-known all over the world. In that place, various ancient fossils were found, including those of ancient human beings, water, sea and land animals and plants.

Sangiran comprises two hamlets located on the border of Sragen and Karanganyar regencies. The hamlets are divided by the Cemoro River.

Many fossils have been found in the 56-square-kilometer Sangiran site, which is unique and is considered the oldest human settlement in the world, dating back a million years ago. With half of the findings comprising ancient Homo erectus fossils, Sangiran attracts experts from all over the world for research and study about the evolution of prehistoric human beings.

Sangiran began to draw scientists’ attention in 1893 when Eugene Dubois explored the area in search of the fossils of early humans. It seemed, however, that he was not that serious. Dubois found the fossils of skulls and thighs of ancient men in Trinil, Ngawi, East Java, instead. They were called Pithecanthropus erectus, which means monkeys that walked upright.

It was not until 1930 that JC van Es studied Sangiran took the exploration more seriously. His activities were continued by GHR von Koenigswald. In 1934 Koenigswald found about 1,000 tools made by people who lived in Sangiran. The tools could be used to cut, spruce spear heads and trim objects. In archeology, they are called flake tools, while Koenigswald called them the products of the “Sangiran flake industry”.

In 1936, Koenigswald found fossils of the jaws of bigger ancient men called Meganthropus paleojavanicus. The following year he found the skulls of Pithecanthropus erectus, which Dubois had been unable to find.

The findings drew both foreign and local scientists to Sangiran. Among the foreigners were Helmut de Terra, Movius, P. Marks, HR van Heekeren, Gert Jan Bartstra, RW van Bemmelen, Anne Marie Semah, Francois Semah and M Itihara. From Indonesia, there were RP Soejono, Teuku Yacob (the former rector of the University of Gadjah Mada who died recently), S. Sartono and Hari Widianto.

Several research institutes — both from inside and outside the country — also became interested in studying the site including the American Museum of National History; the Biologisch Archeolosgisch Instituut Groningen, Netherlands; Tokyo University; National d’Historie Naturelle Paris; the Center for Research and Development of Geology, Bandung; National Research Center for Archeology and the Archeology Center of Yogyakarta.

In his efforts to find the fossils, Koenigswald had enlisted the help of the chief of Krikilan village, Toto Marsono, who later deployed the villagers. They found a lot of fossils of bones and kept them in the village hall, which later became the Sangiran Museum, located in Kalijambe district.

When Koenigswald stopped his research, the villagers continued digging out the earth and got more fossils.

In 1974, the Central Java government established the Sangiran Museum in Krikilan village. Nine years later a bigger museum was built by the central government and since then more facilities have also been developed.

To protect the Sangiran site, the government in 1977 declared it a cultural conservation site. It covers part of Kalijambe district, Plupuh district and Gemolong district in Sragen regency and part of Gondangrejo district in Karanganyar regency. In 1996, UNESCO put Sangiran in the 593rd position on the World Heritage List under the name of Sangiran Early Man Site.

Anjarwati, who graduated from the University of Gadjah Mada, said that geomorphologically Sangiran was a mountainous area with a dome structure in the middle.

The dome structure had been through a “deformation process”, with breaks, landslides and erosion transforming it into a valley. As a result, all layers of the ancient land with all items and remains of the life on it were revealed.

There were four stratigraphic formations: the Kalibeng Formation, which was the oldest earth layer in Sangiran at about three million to 1.8 million years old. The 107-meter thick land was the sedimentation of the ocean bed where many mollusk, turritela and foraminifera fossils were found.

The younger formation was the Pucangan Formation, which dated back from 1.8 million to 800,000 years ago and was 100 meters thick. In this formation many fossils of vertebrata like elephants (Stegodon trigonocephalus), bulls (Bibos palaeosondaicus), buffaloes (Bubalus palaeokarabau), deer (Cervus sp) and hippopotamus were found. Fossils of pre-historic men were also found in the highest part.

The third formation was the Kabuh Formation, which dated back from between 800,000 to 250,000 years ago and was between 0.1 and 46.3 meters thick. Many hominid and mammalian fossils were found in the lower layer but none of the fossils of pre-historic men were found in the upper layer.

The last formation was the Notopuro Formation that contained gravel, sand, silt and mud. Volcanic mudflow and fossils were rarely found here.

The latest finding in Sangiran was in April when villagers found fossils of the skull of pre-historic elephant of Stegodon trigonocephalus in Dayu hamlet, Dayu village, Gondarangrejo district, Karanganyar regency.

Early examination showed that the elephant lived between 800,000 and 700,000 years ago. The fossil was 1.02 meters high, 46 cm wide and 69 cm high.

Until today 960 fossils of ancient elephants have been found. The one that was found in April was registered as finding number 13,813 among the collection of the Conservation Center of Pre-historic Men of Sangiran.

Sangiran now has guesthouses that were built by the Sragen administration for researchers who want to stay there for a long time and also for tourists who wish to see the site and enjoy the rural view.