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Saturday April 12, 2008

History overturned


Metallurgy and pottery have thrived in Ban Chiang, Thailand, as far back in time as any place in the world.

The archaeologists, I read on this exhibit’s explanatory plaque, scraped away 10cm layers of dirt at a time.

They first uncovered three large earthen pots, then four ceramic “impress rollers”, and lastly, a small skeleton. The child was buried in the same way most were in this pre-historic settlement – surrounded by the ceramic wares and artifacts that were intrinsic to its family’s daily lives.

The place I had come to was Ban Chiang – a small rural village in the northeast of Thailand – the region called Isan. This humble little hamlet managed to confound the archaeological world when it was confirmed, in the mid 1970’s, that a community living here was precocious enough to be manufacturing its own bronze weapons, implements and jewellery, if not before, then at least contemporaneously with Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. South-east Asian history had to be rewritten.

Ban Chiang lies some 50km east of Udon Thani, capital of the province of the same name. Like Udon Thani, the Ban Chiang you see today is relatively new. It was less than 200 years ago that a group of displaced Thai Phuan farmers from the Kwang district in Lao chose this then deserted site to make their home.

The old bits of pottery they found scattered here and there they dismissed as someone’s trash. In a sense it was. The original settlement had been abandoned – deforestation and soil exhaustion the probable reasons – some 1,500 years before. This was after nearly 4,000 years of continuous occupation.

Earthenware from 300BC-200AD is characterised by its gorgeous red-on-buff finish which is painted with exuberant curvilinear designs.

Considerable controversy has arisen surrounding the dating of Ban Chiang bronze. Independent carbon-14 and thermoluminescence dating undertaken in Japan placed the earliest pieces as far back as 4,600BC, making this the earliest bronze age culture known to man. Subsequent analysis has placed it closer to 2,500BC.

Beyond question is the fact that the Ban Chiang metallurgists achieved an astonishingly high level of craftsmanship. Among their tools were melting crucibles and bi-valve moulds made of stone and, amazingly, of baked clay. Sophisticated casting techniques such as “lost-wax” and “lost-lead” facilitated mass production of socketed adzes, spearheads and even fishing hooks.

The highest refinement is exhibited in the jewellery. Anklets and bracelets were often incised with tastefully rendered linear and curvilinear designs. Bracelets were often embellished with animal or insect knobs and bells. Mastery of iron smelting around 500BC led to successful application of bi-metallic techniques. Some quite exquisite pieces with bronze interwoven with iron have been found.

As spectacular as the achievements of Ban Chiang’s metallurgists are, it is the work of the potters that has received most international attention and acclaim. It was after literally stumbling onto a piece of Ban Chiang earthenware back in 1966 that visiting American sociology student, Stephen Young, brought the site to the attention of the world.

The piece he found was of the later period (300BC-200AD). It is characterised by its gorgeous red-on-buff finish which is painted with exuberant curvilinear designs – large spiral motifs and concentric giant fingerprint-like swirls. Nothing quite like it has been found elsewhere.

Pottery was being made at Ban Chiang from the earliest times. As far back as 3,600BC, techniques such as chord marking, appliqué, incising and burnishing beautified the vast number of blackware vessels being produced in great numbers at these times. The potters, however, never developed the wheel. Their work was done with paddle and anvil, as is still the case in the village today.

At the time when Ban Chiang was “discovered”, archaeology in Thailand was in its infancy. The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania sponsored several excavations under the direction of the late Chester Gorman. One of the most productive of these was a burial site uncovered in the grounds of a contemporary temple: Wat Po Si Nai.

The site is now an open archaeological site museum. It is the highlight of a visit to the village. Three excavation levels are displayed, representing the three distinct periods of cultural development at the centre: Early (3,600-1,000BC, Middle (1,000-300BC and Late (300BC-200AD.

Around 18 tonnes of artifactual material was collected from the various digs. From this was assembled a travelling exhibition entitled The Ban Chiang Cultural Tradition. The collection is now housed at the excellent Ban Chiang National Museum which is located in the town.

The greatest obstacle archaeologists encountered in their work was the damage done to excavation sites by unofficial diggings. International interest sparked in the centre meant that the sale of the highly prized pottery became a lucrative occupation for the villagers. Numerous objects found their way into the hands of private collectors.

The digging up, selling and possession of original material have since been banned. Visitors, however, can still purchase quite faithful reproductions of the red-on-buff earthenware made by local potters using traditional tools. These are on sale at modest prices in craft shops in front of the museum. It is also possible to watch these potters at their work. The moulding is done at the tiny nearby village of Ban Kham, and the painting at Ban Poo Loo.

Ban Chiang is the cover-name of the so-called “Ban Chiang Cultural Tradition” that flourished in Isan from around 4,000BC to 400AD. The village is but one of around 1,000 prehistoric sites known of in the region. Most still await the archaeologist’s spade.

Getting around speedily in a trishaw.

Yet to be uncovered is what might have served as a large central polity for these smaller rural outposts. If such a place existed, its discovery would throw much needed light on the origins of the people who inhabited these ancient settlements.

Evidence to date suggests they may well have been indigenous to Isan. Meanwhile, Ban Chiang remains the most informative relic of this precocious bronze-age culture that has turned South-East Asian history upside-down. We can celebrate the fact that it is there.

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies from KL to Bangkok daily. Thai Airways International flies from Bangkok to Udon Thani daily.

WHEN Come during the cool season between November and February.

ACCOMMODATION Try the Charoensri Grand Royal Hotel, www.sawadee.com/hotel/isan/charoensri, or the Ban Chiang Hotel www.sawadee.com/hotel/isan/banchiang

BRING Sun block, sun hat, repellent, light cottons, comfortable walking shoes, long trousers and long dresses for visiting temples.

CAR RENTAL Budget at Udon Thani Airport, e-mail: bracuth@budget.co.th

REFERENCE Lonely Planet’s Thailand has excellent travel and background information on Ban Chiang.

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