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Ban Chiang, Thailand

Bronze Age Village and Cemetery

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In the northeastern part of Thailand, at the confluence of three small tributary streams in Udon Thani province, lies the Bronze Age village and cemetery site of Ban Chiang.

Legend has it that Ban Chiang was discovered by a clumsy American college student, who fell in the road of the present town of Ban Chiang, and found ceramics eroding out of the road bed. The first excavations at the site were conducted in 1967 by archaeologist Vidya Intakosai, and this and subsequent excavations by the Fine Arts Department in Bangkok and the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Dr. Chester F. Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa have revealed evidence of prehistoric occupation beginning possibly as early as 3600 B.C. and continuing, probably intermittently, until about A.D. 200.

The site is among the largest prehistoric Bronze Age sites in this part of Thailand, measuring at least 20 acres (8 hectares) in size. Ban Chiang is remarkable in that before its discovery, mainland southeast Asia was considered a cultural backwater during the Bronze Age; archaeological research at the site has revealed a fully developed Bronze Age metallurgy, but lacking the weaponry so often associated with it in Europe and the rest of the world.

Like many long-occupied cities of the world, the present day town of Ban Chiang was built on top of the cemetery and older village remains; cultural remains have been found in some places as deep at 13 feet (4 meters) below the modern day surface. Because of the relatively continuous occupation of the site for perhaps as long as 4,000 years, the evolution of premetal to Bronze to Iron age can be traced. Artifacts include distinctive highly varied ceramics known as the "Ban Chiang Ceramic Tradition." Ceramic decorative techniques found at Ban Chiang include black incised and red painted on buff colorations; cord-wrapped paddle, S-shaped curves and swirling incisions motifs; and pedestaled, globular, and carinated vessels, to name just a few of the variations. Also included among the artifact assemblages are iron and bronze jewelry and implements, and glass, shell, and stone objects. With some of the children's burials were found some intricately carved baked clay rollers, which purpose nobody at the moment knows.

Ban Chiang is also among the earliest multi-disciplinary efforts in archaeology, with experts in many fields cooperating to produce a fully realized picture of the site.

While the chronology at Ban Chiang is somewhat controversial (some of the earliest dates for the Bronze Age occupation are 1,500 years earlier than any other in Thailand, and roughly equivalent to the date for the Chinese Bronze Age), the site is without a doubt one of the more important sites in southeast Asia, providing us a glimpse into the peaceful village life of a bygone age.

Update

The excavation at Ban Chiang in 1974-5 was followed by an article by Chester Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa, claiming evidence for the earliest dates in the world for bronze casting and iron working. This led to an at times acrimonious debate, between those who accepted these dates, and those who did not. Subsequent excavations, including that at Ban Non Wat, have now shown that the proposed early dates for Ban Chiang are unacceptable. However, the early claims are still repeated in the secondary literature.

Gorman, C.F. and Charoenwongsa, P. 1976. Ban Chiang: A mosaic of impressions from the first two years. Expedition 8(4):14-26.

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