World-renowned Malaysian archaeologist: Archaeology can shape education

When Emeritus Professor Dato’ Dr Siti Zuraina Abdul Majeed returned to Malaysia after completing her PhD at Yale University in 1978, archaeology was not widely recognised as relevant. Nevertheless, this did not deter her from pioneering and developing Malaysia’s archaeological research and academic programmes, blazing a trail for future generations.

WOU had the privilege of hosting Prof Zuraina, Malaysia’s first archaeologist and internationally acclaimed historian, at its main campus, where she addressed academics, professionals and industry leaders during the “Conversations with Thought Leaders” event on 12 September 2023.

In her talk on “Lessons from Archaeology for 21st Century Education”, she noted, “Over time, the education landscape has transitioned from specialised, cubby-holed subjects such as geography, history, and biology, to a more holistic and integrative approach that encompasses interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary learning, as seen in fields like biochemistry.”

“Archaeology has been doing that for years. We are not confined by disciplinary boundaries; we merge the boundaries between the sciences and the arts,” she added.

About 30 people from academia and industry attended the lunch talk.

Prof Zuraina pointed out that archaeology today, which pertinently encourages problem-solving, analytical and critical thinking, is relevant for any profession. “You can do anything because you have the skills, tools and mindset to apply to any job. It’s a beautiful subject that links the arts and the sciences.”

Her groundbreaking discovery of Kota Tampan, a 74,000-year-old Palaeolithic stone tool workshop in Lenggong Valley, Perak, and the 11,000-year-old Perak Man, Southeast Asia’s oldest, most complete human skeleton, stands as a testament to decades of interdisciplinary collaborations.

“When I studied the contour maps of Lenggong, I worked together with geologists. It’s interdisciplinary and no longer bound by a single discipline. This is the kind of mindset we hope to instil in today’s learners,” she emphasised.

Archaeology provides the training that is applicable to any profession, says Prof Zuraina.

“Don’t set boundaries,” she further advised, highlighting that when fellow researchers from zoology, physics, chemistry, and biology joined her, they too “blurred their disciplinary boundaries”.

“This merging of knowledge and technology is what I think is very useful for students when they confront real-world problems. You’re not just solving problems for yourself, but also contributing to other disciplines,” she explained, adding that excavations of certain animals help zoologists in updating their extinction data.

She also revealed how her findings of the Perak Man and Niah 1977 skeletons which exhibited significant congenital deformities still observed today, provided the earliest evidence and clues that are useful in medical science research.

Prof Zuraina replying to a question from Executive Director of Penang Institute, Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng.

Prof Zuraina’s discovery of Kota Tampan in Lenggong Valley filled a huge vacuum in Malaysian prehistory, providing crucial evidence that Peninsular Malaysia served as one of the migratory routes for early humans from Africa to Australia.  

She dedicated more than 20 years to excavating the sites at Lenggong Valley. In 2012, Lenggong Valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains a significant reference site for archaeologists.

“We are detectives of the past; we solve problems, so we work with a clear knowledge of what we want to solve,” she said.

Prof Zuraina with the WOU Board of Governors, from left Tan Sri Andrew Sheng, Chairman Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, Chief Executive and Vice Chancellor, Prof Dr Lily Chan, and Ms Janice Yeap.

Her illustration of the study of archaeology as blurring and merging boundaries further reinforces the need for universities to integrate knowledge from various disciplines to produce well-rounded and competitive graduates. 

In a related context, Prof Zuraina was also involved in helping the Penang state government prepare for the successful joint inscription of George Town and Melaka as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2008.

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