Perspective on the past

To get a real sense of how far the human race has come, pay a visit to Ban Chiang

Published: 18/06/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Horizons

Several metres below a community of some 700 souls in Udon Thani’s Nong Han district lies one of the most important prehistoric settlements ever found in Southeast Asia, the Bronze Age village and cemetery of Ban Chiang.

In this museum exhibit a wax figure is
used to show how early residents of Ban
Chiang used to make pottery.

Discovered in 1966, the first items unearthed at the site were sherds of red-painted pottery. While the workmanship was rudimentary, the unique decorative patterns on the earthenware generated much interest in academic circles around the world.

A formal scientific excavation was conducted in 1967 during which Thai and US archaeologists discovered more pottery as well as several skeletons buried with bronze grave gifts. Two major excavations took place in 1974 and 1975 under the direction of Chester Gorman, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Pisit Charoenwongsa of our Fine Arts Department. Ban Chiang was inscribed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in December, 1992.

While the museum states definitively that the site was settled 5,600 years ago, its exact age is still a moot point and was, at times, the subject of a most acrimonious debate. Tests using the thermo-luminescence technique indicate it could date back to 4200 BC - which would make it the oldest Bronze Age settlement in the world - while radiocarbon dating suggests that the first grave was dug there circa 2100 BC.

In any case, this find was a very significant one indeed. Before Ban Chiang was excavated, archaeologists thought that the the prehistoric societies of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, were cultural backwaters of China and India. But the discovery of a fully developed bronze metallurgy in a peaceful village context has turned preconceived ideas about the development of human civilisation on their head. Ban Chiang, to quote Unesco, “marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals.”

Some of the human remains
have been left in situ.

And, except for the iron found in the later graves, that metal is copper and bronze, fashioned into bracelets, rings, anklets, wires and rods, spearheads, axes and adzes, hooks, blades and little bells. These artefacts are to be found in the indoor section of the museum along with a host of other items unearthed during the 1974-75 excavations including human and animal bones, primitive weaponry, farming implements and the now-distinctive Ban Chiang earthenware in all shapes and sizes and patterns.

Rice fragments found in the early digs suggested that the residents of Ban Chiang practised an elementary form of dry-rice cultivation. Artefacts on display prove that, apart from hunting wild animals and fishing in the rivers, these people also raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Chai, our official guide, explained that the original inhabitants also traded with neighbouring settlements and developed tools and weapons which contributed to the progress and well-being of their community.

Epidemics and natural disasters are believed to have finally forced the villagers to emigrate en masse, he said. Evidence of this exodus are necklaces, bracelets and pottery of similar shapes and colours to that of Ban Chiang which were found in other parts of what is now Udon Thani and the neighbouring province of Sakon Nakhon.

The outdoor section of the museum is located in the compound of Wat Po Si Nai, a five-minute walk away. Here, the Fine Arts Department has preserved a section of the site as archaeologists first saw it and one can observe how the original settlers interred their dead with earthenware pots and prized possessions like bracelets and glass-bead jewellery.

This young visitor was clearly
fascinated by the human remains.

Outlining the painstaking procedure followed in excavating these final resting places of the ancients, Chai remarked that those working on an archaeological digs require not only a good eye but an abundance of patience. One way used to pinpoint the location of burial plots, he explained, is that the soil above them tends to be of a darker hue than is normal for this area. Once human remains are exposed, small tools (similar to those a dentist might use), brushes and blow-dryers are utilised to slowly remove the overlying earth until the skeleton is clearly visible. Information on the condition of the bones and on any objects found around it are then recorded, with drawings made and photographs taken prior to removal.

The site is 55km east of Udon Thani town. From the provincial capital, take Highway No. 22 (the main route to Sakon Nakhon), turn left at the 50km marker and follow Highway No. 2225 for another 6km to reach Ban Chiang.

The museum mounts temporary exhibitions from time to time. For details, phone 042-208-340 or fax 042-208-341.

*Bron: Bangkok Post / *