Thailand’s Bronze Age Superburials

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The archaeologists had reached the site’s natural sandy substrate – the site was finished and their work was done. Then they noticed a surprise pot and then another pot. Then, before them, an entire, highly unusual cemetery unfolded. Site director Charles Higham reveals the latest findings from Ban Non Wat.

In 1988, Penn University’s James Muhly laid down a challenge to those working on the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia when he wrote that ‘In all other corners of the Bronze Age world …. we find the introduction of bronze technology associated with a complex of social, political and economic developments that mark the rise of the state. Only in Southeast Asia …. do these developments seem to be missing.’ Until our first season at Ban Non Wat in Northeast Thailand, excavations in Southeast Asian sites had uncovered a dozen or so Bronze Age cemeteries, but none suggested the presence of elites. Most of the dead – men, women and children – were interred with, at best, a handful of ceramic vessels, some shell beads, the occasional marble bangle and very few bronzes. At the site of Ban Lum Khao, we found over 100 graves and not one contained a bronze artefact.

All this changed on the 20 February 2003. We were in our first season at Ban Non Wat, one of the Iron Age sites of the Mun Valley. These settlements cover up to 50 hectares, and are demarcated by as many as five banks that contained wide moats. We had already worked our way through the Iron Age layers, and received our first surprise when we encountered a Neolithic cemetery. I thought then that we were virtually finished, as we were uncovering the yellow sandy natural substrate. But then we traced round the complete, red rim of a large ceramic vessel. A red rim in this region means Bronze Age. Then there was another, and a third.

We meticulously scraped the surface of the natural, and there emerged the faint line of disturbed fill. It was the silhouette of a grave. We traced its line, uncovering yet more vessels, until we reached the southern edge of our square. Already the burial was over 2m long. Then came another surprise. We found human long bones not articulated, but in a neat stack, supporting, half in and half out of the square, a human skull with its eyes facing the rising sun. It was now decision time: should we stop for the season, or take out another square to excavate the complete burial. I decided to extend, and a fortnight later, we had before us a grave 5m long, containing at least 20 unusually large and fine pots, and just part of a human skeleton in proper anatomical position beside the elevated skull and replaced limb bones. Yet there was more concealed to the east, for we had not yet completed the circuit of the grave cut.

We had to wait then for a year before returning for the second season. When we finally uncovered the complete superburial, as we had come to call this grave, we found that it measured 5m by 3.5m, with a second skeleton occupying the central position. This man had been interred in a wooden coffin surrounded by rows of ceramic vessels. But he, too, had been partially exhumed after burial: we could see the axe marks above his knees and at his neck where his body had been uplifted, leaving in place only his head and lower legs. The bones had then been replaced, interspersed with thousands of shell beads, many fragments of broken shell bangles and a fine marble bangle. A bronze socketed axe lay between his ankles.

Rich revelations

This is the sort of discovery that encouraged my team to return for six more seasons, and in due course, to open a uniquely large area of such a settlement. Our second superburial soon came. This time, it contained the remains of two women, one of whom had been partially exhumed and replaced. She too was accompanied by a socketed bronze axe, and in a bizarre twist, a rat had been buried beside her left ankle, under a clay pellet bow of the sort still used to hunt small birds and animals. The second woman lay undisturbed, so we could uncover her belts of shell beads, and many strands of shell bead necklaces. We prised away the soil from 12 shell earrings before afternoon tea, and then a matching set on the other side of her skull after. Her lower arms were covered in massive tridacna shell bangles.

During our last three seasons, the superburials came thick and fast. One row contained infants, each in graves far too large for the tiny body, but filled with offerings. A red painted design on one vessel turned out to be a stylised human face. Even infants were buried with bronze axes. One man in this group had three bronze axes, one of which was a miniature. A second man had a set of what look like carpenters’ tools in bronze, including an awl and chisels to complement his two axes. In this part of the world, bells were thought to belong to the Iron Age, but we came across the grave of an infant who wore 30 bronze bells attached to its anklets.

Further to the east came another row of graves. Mineralised wood and a straight line of clay revealed that these men, women and children had lain in coffins, beside which their pots had been placed in straight lines, while clusters of pots were found beyond the head and feet. Some infants were found in this group within pots embellished with sophisticated curvilinear painted patterns. Two giant graves lay to the north. One man had again been partially disinterred and replaced. When I closely examined his ceramic vessels, I saw faint red painted lines. My Thai colleague Dr Warrachai Wiriyaromp reconstructed these patterns and painted reconstructions of each vessel. Over a thousand years earlier than the widely publicised Iron Age painted pots found at the site of Ban Chiang, these are remarkable examples of early Southeast Asian art. Again we sought the tell-tale signs of a grave cut seen in changes in soil colour and texture and, in February 2007, came across the longest grave of all, so long that I couldn’t photograph it all in one image without a wide angle lens.

The drama of the Bronze Age

By assessing the positioning of these early Bronze Age aristocrats, I was able to identify three distinct phases of burial, which I have termed Bronze Age 1, 2 and 3. There are five graves in the earliest, all contain a distinctive form of socketed bronze axe, and pots that are slightly evolved from the local latest Neolithic. Dramatically, with the Bronze Age came much more elaborate burial rituals. One of our early five was interred in a very deep grave, within a wooden coffin fashioned with a pointed prow, resembling a boat. Another skeleton was covered with a layer of gastropod shellfish. Then come the large superburials, but these were covered by a further set or row of Bronze Age 3 graves in which the men and women wore up to 40 shell bangles on each arm, not to mention massive imported marble bangles, thousands of beads and more large pots. I now had to face the vital issue of chronology as a prelude to assessing how the beginnings of the Bronze Age affected the social order of the day.

Dating the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia has been a thorny issue since incredible claims were made in the 1970s, on the basis of the sites of Non Nok Tha and Ban Chiang, that it was the earliest in the world. While the exaggeration and hyperbole have subsided, there are still claims that bronze reached Thailand by 2000 BC. The techniques of radiocarbon dating, however, have moved forward fast. With OxCal 4.0, we can now combine a large series of dates with Bayesian statistics in order to refine a site’s sequence, identify transitional periods and estimate the duration of phases. Last year, my son Thomas, at Oxford’s radiocarbon dating laboratory, gave me a copy of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal special supplement, which I read while flying to give some lectures in the Canary Islands. It was a revelation. On my return, I decided, irrespective of the cost, to process a further 40 radiocarbon samples. Choosing what material to date turned again on the advice of my son. We decided on the freshwater bivalve shells that were placed with the dead as mortuary offerings. These, we felt, would not have the inbuilt age associated with charcoal, and should be intimately related to the date of burial.

Re-dating the past

Receiving a set of determinations is always a tense time, and this was no exception. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, the results seemed at first sight to make sense. Thomas then flew round the world to work on the OxCal program with me in New Zealand, and we concluded in our resulting paper that the 75 determinations from the 12 phases of the site’s prehistory were consistent with the known sequence. What we found is that at Ban Non Wat, the Neolithic and Bronze Ages were later then even I, a conservative, had predicted. The initial settlement of the first Neolithic rice farmers began in the 17th century BC. The second Neolithic phase belongs to the 13th-11th centuries. When we turn to the three early Bronze Age phases, we find that the first five graves date to about 1000 BC, and represent one, or at the most two, generations. The second phase lasted in the region of six generations, beginning in about 950 BC. Stage 3 lasted for little more than a generation in the mid 9th century BC. After the initial starburst of social display and ostentatious wealth in mortuary behaviour, the last two stages of the Bronze Age settled down, and for four centuries, we find fewer grave goods and only the rare bronze.

We have learned a lesson at Ban Non Wat: in order to edge closer to reality in prehistory, you have to commit yourself to a long period of research at one site. We have excavated at Ban Non Wat for nearly two years, and the impact of these results on our understanding of Southeast Asian prehistory is revolutionary. In a recent paper, Penn University’s Joyce White has concluded that nine radiocarbon determinations from the site of Ban Chiang, one from rice residue in a pot and the rest from rice chaff used as a tempering agent in pots, indicate that the Bronze Age there was under way by about 2000 BC. Yet the technique of rice chaff dating is highly suspect due to the probability of contamination from the clay matrix. She, herself, has rejected two of the nine determinations as being spuriously early. There is a further problem with this excavation: the area opened was so small, that any inferences on social order in prehistory will almost inevitably be wrong. Moreover, these two sites are only 270km apart. It is hard to imagine that knowledge of metallurgy took 40 generations to cover such a short distance. White has proposed a heterarchical social order for Bronze Age Southeast Asia that lasted for at least 1,500 somnolent years before the Iron Age.

The results of our excavations at Ban Non Wat present a very different picture. It is one of a Bronze Age that lasted for only six centuries, where those initially acquainted with this marvelous new substance, metal, showed no inhibitions in advertising their wealth and status. Archaeology is full of surprises, and archaeology in Thailand is still young. We have very little information to inform us. Perhaps the Neolithic and Bronze Age at Ban Non Wat was unusually late, and indeed, the casting of copper and tin was much earlier a little to the north. Exploring this possibility is our next objective in the field. On the basis of current evidence, however, I think and hope that we can now lay Muhly’s anxieties to rest, and that by devoting seven seasons to opening a very large area of Ban Non Wat, we have tracked down in Southeast Asia a complex of social, political and economic developments that led ultimately to the rise of the state.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 35. Click here to subscribe

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