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This is Ancient Land of Dinosaurs,

This Ancient Land of Dinosaurs, Siamese, and Thais, Pt. III

Last month’s article concluded with the demise of the Hoabinhian people
and posed the question: “Who came next ?”.

Esarn is the north-eastern province of Thailand; a plateau stretching from the Petchaboon mountains to Laos and mostly populated by poor rice farming communities. But that was not always the case. To the very north of this province can be found a number of long, low, hummocks rising just a few metres above the natural level and many of these are the sites of present day villages. Over the years and during their day to day activities the villagers often dug up pieces of pot and the occasional human bone but nobody had ever shown the interest to investigate this. In 1966 plans were afoot to dam a tributary of the nearby Mae Khong River and it was decided to investigate these hummocks before they were lost for good to flooding. Another story has it that a young American and son of a former American Ambassador to Thailand stumbled on a tree root and found himself lying amongst pottery shards which he then showed to the Fine Arts Department of Thailand in Bangkok. Either way, in 1967 the first archaeological investigation of the area took place but nobody could have foreseen the remarkable story that was to come to light.

Work began at Baan Non Nok Tha (บ้านโนนนกทา), Puwiang district, Khonkaen province and spread around the area until centering on the richest site at the village of Baan Chiang (บ้านเชียง), Nongharn district, Udorn Thanee province. Within 2 years archaeologists had uncovered 126 human skeletons and 18 tons of artifacts including many of the buff coloured pots with striking red decorations that have since become synonymous with the site. The most remarkable discovery of all, however, was the presence of bronze grave goods; a spearhead, anklets and bracelets. These artifacts were sent to the University of Pennsylvania in America and subjected to thermoluminescence dating techniques. The results staggered the academic world and threw doubt on the development of man as we knew it. It had always been agreed that the ‘cradle of civilization’ had been in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, in the ‘fertile crescent’ valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, largely in modern day Iraq. The wheel, the first cities, the development of writing and most relevant the first use of bronze were all attributed to this region and dated approximately 3500 B.C. Now, a small village in Thailand had yielded bronze goods that had been dated to 4420 B.C., almost 1000 years earlier and suggesting that the hitherto unknown village of Baan Chiang could assume the mantle as the site of the earliest known bronze casting in human history. Major excavations took place here in 1974/75 and finds were subjected to the more accurate radiocarbon dating techniques which refined the dates to show the earliest grave at 2100 B.C. with bronze making beginning in approximately 2000 B.C. There are still those who believe in the earlier dates but they are in a minority and later excavations, such as those at Baan Noan Wat, Noan Soong district, Koraj (บ้านโนนวั", อ.โนนสูง จ.นครราชสีมา), have proved to the satisfaction of scholars that the earlier dates are not acceptable. This stole some of the thunder from Baan Chiang but its place in the archaeological map of the world had been firmly founded and it is still believed that the people here developed their technology independent of the neighbouring powerhouses of India and China.

Baan Chiang is the site most often discussed in this context but the civilization was widespread with similar artifacts unearthed at Nong harn district, Udorn Thanee province at Baan Tawng (บ้านต้อง), Baan Paak Tob (บ้านผักตบ), Baan Don Glang (บ้าน"อนกลาง), and Baan Noan Nok Tha (บ้านโนนนกทา), Puwiang district, Khon Kaen province to name but a few places. Work is ongoing in the area and it seems likely that are still sites to be discovered, maybe even extending into Laos and Vietnam. What do we know about the Baan Chiang civilization ? It seems unlikely that these people were of the ‘Tai’ race and measurements taken from the skeletal remains show that they were in fact taller than present day Thais. It has been suggested that they were descendants of the Hoabinhian people that we discussed last month or another plausible theory is that they were of the same ancestry as the modern day Polynesians who colonized the Pacific islands several thousand years ago. It appears that about 6000 years ago peoples already adapted to village life on the South East Asian lowlands moved onto the Korat plateau and settled in small groups along riverbanks. They were essentially hunter gatherers hunting pangolin, wild boar and rhinoceros with a diet supplemented by wild fruits, nuts and tubors and protein rich fish. There is also evidence of a settled lifestyle as farmers with domesticated cattle, pigs and chickens and large storage pots have been found to contain grains of rice.

The Bronze Age has become associated with city states, kings, armies, weaponry and warmongering but that is not the case here and archaeologists are still pondering over a society with sophisticated technology, little social hierarchy and no apparent warlike aspirations. Baan Chiang peoples were living in small farming communities across the plateau and using bronze to display their artistic abilities in tool making and jewelry, most evidenced from surviving grave goods. Amongst the range of bronze objects that have been unearthed are bracelets, rings, anklets, wires and rods, spearheads, axes, adzes, hooks, blades and small bells. Children in particular were often found to have been buried, in pots, wearing bracelets and anklets of bronze. The people later developed iron making capabilities and in the later years of the civilization tin-bronze. This contained 20% tin producing a metal perfect for ornamentation but requiring very sophisticated techniques to produce. Clay rollers have also been found, possibly used in textile printing, and glass bead necklaces.

It is the pottery of Baan Chiang that is now most widely admired and unlike most prehistoric styles it seems to adhere to no fixed template but demonstrates the artistic freedom of the potters. There are decorative treatments that characterize the pottery and the freehand application of abstract designs, usually simple to complex curvilinear scrolls and spirals plus geometric motifs, are incised in the early period, incised and painted in the middle period and painted only in the late period pots. There are almost no representations of people or animals.

Baan Chiang may appear to be a long way to go to see a few old pots and skeletons but for anyone with an interest in the history of mankind it would be worth the effort. At 60km from the provincial transport hub of Udorn Thanee, the village is not that difficult to reach and the museum at the site will be reward enough for your efforts. Unfortunately, when the village first sprang to worldwide attention, the site was subject to wide-scale looting but fine examples are still on display in what has been described by some as Thailand’s finest museum. The site has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1992.

Baan Chiang made the news again in January 2008 with the revelation that many of the sites artifacts were illegally held by museums in California. They are to be returned to Thailand.In its greatest and latest state of development the Baan Chiang civilization must have been a sophisticated and wealthy place to live but, 1700 years ago the record of this culture simply ends. It is not known what caused this but there is plenty of speculation. Could the decline have been a result of health issues ? A study of the human skeletons has revealed that unlike other groups who have undergone similar experiences elsewhere in the world there is no clear evidence for a decline in health over time. In fact evidence suggests a rigorous physical lifestyle with few indicators of infectious disease or interpersonal violence. Perhaps there is a link between the potters of Baan Chiang and those of Sokhothai and its exquisite pottery some 300km to the west and 800 years later. The Lawa hill people, who were the dominant hill tribe in Thailand 2000 years ago and can still be found in the Mae Sariang district, are also thought to be possible descendants of the Baan Chiang people. Perhaps they were conquered by another culture. Perhaps Thailand had a Dark Age at about the same time as that of Europe when invading barbaric tribes from Central Asia were responsible. Could these tribes have also ventured into Thailand.

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