updated 3/6/2009 9:08:05 PM ET 2009-03-07T02:08:05

Excavations at a site in northern Malaysia have uncovered the remnants of an iron smelt dating back to the third or fourth century A.D., a find that shows the area's early people were more advanced than previously thought, an archaeologist said Friday.

Parts of a furnace used to heat iron and a structure believed to be a house or storage area were found in northern Kedah state, an area that was once home to the Bujang Valley people, said Mokhtar Saidin, the director of the Center for Archaeological Research Malaysia at the University of Science Malaysia. He is in charge of the excavation.

He said a lab in Florida carbon dated some of the material taken from the ancient site and found the sample was about 1,700 years old. He said the margin of error for the test was 40 years.

"This result ... really shows that the Bujang Valley people during that time were very high-tech," Mokhtar said.

Mokhtar said archeologists found iron rods, debris and a nozzle to pump air inside the furnace. They also discovered beads, copper bracelets and pottery at the site.

He said the findings were "totally different" from earlier discoveries of temples in the area, which did not reveal much about the daily life and commerce in the area.

Other than the Hindu and Buddhist temples that have been uncovered, little is known about the people of the Bujang Valley. There is even debate over whether they were an actual civilization.

Harry Truman Simanjuntak, a researcher at the National Research Center of Archaeology in Jakarta who was not involved in the dig, said the dating of the iron smelt to the third or fourth century appears reasonable.

But he cautioned that more evidence must be unearthed before concluding the Bunjang Valley people were an actual civilization, defined by complex hierarchical social and other structures.

"It's too early to say it is a civilization," he said.

Mokhtar argues the Bujang people are a civilization because temples imply a social structure.

Mokhtar said archeologists still had to excavate about 30 other mounds, which were mapped out in a 2007 survey of the area. He said he expected work on the two current sites to take three more months. After that another two mounds may be excavated this year.

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