Ban Chiang would be merely one of counteless little, meaningless villages in Thailand's northeastern region Isan, if there weren't a single difference. The place became inhabited in the 1830s after the forced migration of larger parts of the Laotian population from the east of the Mekong River to the lands west of it.
From the beginning of modern Ban Chiang on the new inhabitants found traces of an earlier settlement by their farming activities. It still lasted until 1966 when the scientific world became aware of the peculiarity of Ban Chiang.
Ban Chiang is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in Southeast Asia. It 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.
UNESCO World Heritage Committee
A typical village road in Ban Chiang, here next to Wat Pho Sri Nai. All the houses are built individually, but following a similar pattern. The ground floor is built in brick, the upper floor in wood. The roofs are wooden, too, and nowadays more and more foreroofs appear for sheltering tools, sitting places or vehicles. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2015
The nowadays village of Ban Chiang has roughly some 3,000 inhabitants. There are a few streets with these typical semi-traditional Thai houses, the basement built in stone (bricks) and the second floor in wood, a wooden or tin roof put on top.
The prehistorical site is an ancient human settlement and burial site. It's an oval-shaped mound which spans 1,350 meters in length and 500 meters in width, leveled 8 meters higher than the surroundings. Farmers lived here at least since 1,500 BCE, who did wet rice cultivation, kept farm animals like chicken, dogs and water buffalos, created ceramics and manufactured bronze and later iron tools. The total area covers more than 67 hectar of which are merely 0.09% excavated until 2012, according to the UNESCO.
Palaeoenvironment of Ban Chiang
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is situated on an elevated, artificial terrace on the northern part of the Khorat Plateau. The terrace has been formed over generations and centuries. The original state of the site and the deeper surroundings were dominated by boondocks. There were probably more swamps and rivers than there are today. The climate was monsoonal, similar as today, and the tropical rainforests suffered annually a longer dry period.
Over the generations, after the establishment of the settlement, the surroundings became more and more a cultural landscape, minted very much by partial deforestation and the maintainance of many small rice paddies and vegetable cultivation. Aquatic animals as fish and shells still remained an important source of food for the inhabitants.
Image by Asienreisender, National Museum of Ban Chiang, 12/2015
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is seen to be the most significant prehistoric settlement in Southeast Asia, particularly because it seems to be the first place in which wet-rice cultivation happened and developed from the very early beginnings to becoming the principal agricultural activity in the world region. It's distinctive from anything we know about prehistoric man in Southeast Asia so far. Developments in agriculture, animal domestication, pottery and metal technology are all recorded in the archaeological traces of the site. It seems that with the technological development also an increase of prosperity happened to the prehistorical community over the generations and the ages. Most evident for this process seems to be the developing richness of grave goods.
The prehistoric people of Ban Chiang are described as medium-tall people; men reached a size of 162cm to 172cm, women between 147cm - 155cm. That's, by the way, probably not much smaller than the people of Ban Chiang are today. However, some of the given informations in the museum are contradictory. Another table claims that the ancient people were even a little taller than those who live here nowadays. The skulls can be described as large with prominent cheekbones, as to recognize on the images. The teeths of the ancient people were not very different to those of the contemporary people. In the museum is also a genetical relationship claimed between the prehistorical inhabitants of Ban Chiang and the contemporary population. However, that does not mean that these people were a kind of pre-Thai or pre-Laotians, since the Tai tribes migrated into the area more than a millenia later.
Since the burial rites of these people included the addition of grave goods, they probably believed in any kind of afterlife. Most of the offerings were ceramic pots filled with food, textiles, also ornaments and other decorating items. At later times bronze items were offered.
Since the medical knowledge and capacities were very limited and hygiene was an almost unknown concept, the ancient people suffered sometimes pain and couldn't make sense of the origins of it. As at other prehistorical sites in the world, in Ban Chiang was the practice of skull drilling applied, in the believe that there was a bad spirit in the head causing the pain and the hole would allow him to leave the body. A tragical error. The hole in this skull is pretty large, more than a centimeter in diameter.
The skull dates back to the early period between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE. Image by Asienreisender, National Museum of Ban Chiang, 12/2015
The first skeleton (1) is that of a women which died in the age between 25 to 35 years. Her skeleton was excavated at Wat Pho Sri Nai; she lived in the early period of the settlement. The museum gives an age of 5,600 to 3,000 years; that's probably much exaggerated. It's rather from the time between 1,500 to 1,000 years BCE. The second skeleton (2) is from the same excavation site and of the same period, but it's the skeleton of an adolescent.
Image (3) shows the remains of a grave of a child younger than 6 months, who were buried in a jar of which the shards are left.
The offering of pots differt over the time. Particularly in the middle period the offerings became more generous, probably because of a general rise of prosperity. Partially the pots were put around the corpse, unbroken and filled with food and drink (4 particularly predominant in the later period). In other cases the pots were smashed and the shards placed around and below the corpse (typical for the middle period). Image (5) shows the skeleton of an about 35 years old woman with at least six red-on-buff painted pots. She was found in an extended position aligned in an northwest-southeast direction.
Image (6) shows the skeleton of a 6 months to 18 months old child which was buried in a big red-on-buff painted pot. A bronze item was added. Image (7) shows a bronce bracelet which was found in one of the graves.
The pot of item (8) is an example for the late period, between 300 BCE to 200 CE, while image (9) shows a pot of the middle period (about 1,000 BCE to 300 BCE).
The life expectation of the people in the early period was merely 27 years, while it rose to 34 years in the late period. That is probably mostly due to the infant mortality, which was first higher, while the invention of new technologies made it possible to raise more children successfully up. There were few individuals found who reached an age of 46 years or older.
It is very remarkable that there were no obvious traces found for epidemics and unnatural deads, particularly not deads caused by human violence. War might have not happened at this stage of human development, and ingroup competition was apparently on a low level and didn't include much of physical force or the application of weapons.
Therefore were in not few cases traces of anemia and other blood anomalities found. That can be explained as an adaption of the human immune system against malaria diseases. Many contemporary people in Isan show still the same anomalities as the old people partially did. Other diseases were paradontial diseases and caries. Also cases of osteroarthritis and bone tumors were found at skeletons.
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is also a landmark in Southeast Asian archaeology, for it provides the largest number and variety of artefacts. It gives a scale for the development of a prehistorical society over a large time span with significant technological inventions. The site was then abandoned and covered under a thin earthen layer for almost two thousand years. Probably the area was then forested over most of the time.
The stuff, of which legends are: a young anthropologist finds the largest prehistorical settlement in Southeast Asia by stumbling and falling with his nose on an ancient artefact. Sketch seen in Ban Chiang National Museum. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2015
In 1966 Steve Young, the son of the then American ambassador in Bangkok and a student of anthropology at Harvard College, spent a time in Ban Chiang. He spoke Thai language and worked on a series of interviews for his senior honors thesis. Once Young stumbled on the root of a tree and fell on the ground. That made him discovering some ancient shards on who he had a closer look. Later he checked the findings in Bangkok showing them to some professionals in a museum and in the Fine Arts Department of Thailand. Samples were sent to the University of Pennsylvania for dating. The finding triggered then an enormous interest first in the academic world and became later widely known in the general public. Ban Chiang was apparently the site of a prehistoric settlement.
A first scientific excavation in 1967 brought evidence of an ancient people who lived here over a timespan from the neolithic (late stone age) via bronze age to the iron age. Several graves were discovered with grave goods of the different ages, among them a lot of shards and some pots who were still (almost) intact. Also traces of rice were found which gives reason to believe that the here living people already cultivated rice and did early farming.
Several excavations followed in the coming decades and brought more knowledge of the site.
Dating is a very difficult problem in archaeology. The available methods are all under criticism and lack accuracy. The first datings showed results of a first habitation in the timespan between 4420 BCE to 3400 BCE and reached probably too far back into the past, leading to claims that the site at Ban Chiang was the first in the world where people applied bronze casting. This first dating even topped in age the sites in Mesopotamia, who are being considered the first human settlements ever. The informations given in Ban Chiang National Museum still claim dates who reach much further back than newer results do.
Carbon-14 is a radioactive element that accumulates in plants and animals over the course of a lifetime. After the death of the organism, the element gradually decreases - half the quantity every 5,730 years, called the radioactive element's 'half-life'. The amount of carbon-14 left in a bone can determine how long before the animal had died. This dating method can apply to all organic matters including charcoal.
The thermoluminescence dating of pottery is a method calculating the amount of radioactive elements present in pottery by grinding and heating sample materials. The process produces light called 'thermoluminescence', which is proportional to the amount of radioactive elements stored since the time of firing, and can be used to date objects.
The explanations are almost a quotation of those in the museum. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2015
Newer datings claim the oldest grave back to 2,100 BCE and the latest to 200 CE. Bronze fragments found in Ban Chiang indicate according to these datings that the technology of bronze making was applied here from 2,000 BCE on.
Another, later applied dating method (OxCal 4.0) by Prof. Thomas Higham at Oxford University showed younger results. Following this analysis, the oldest traces of Ban Chiang's settlement date back to 1,500 BCE, while the transition to bronze age began around 1,000 BCE. It indicates also that the first inhabitants were already rice farmers.
The site became known worldwide and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage in 1992. Samples of Ban Chiang pots and shards are now in the British Museum in London, in the Museum fuer Indische Kunst in Berlin and other museums in the western world, particularly in the USA.
Where came the people of Ban Chiang Archeological Site from? I didn't find an answer to that yet. It will probably never fully discovered, because the traces of those humans who came here are forever gone. Ban Chiang marks the transition from nomadic life of humans to the first establishment of a firm place to live permanently or, at least at the beginning, periodically.
Why did the place has been abandoned? It's not known. Speculation is, that a climate change happened in the early first millenium in the region, and the basics of the local economy were altered. Life as it happened couldn't go on anymore.
It's also remarkable that the first civilization in Southeast Asia, with a fortified city, a clear division of labour and a significant hierachical social stratification, evolved not in this world region itself but was (most probably) imported (a trade colony) from India. That was the civilization of Funan in the Mekong Delta.
Ban Chiang has a national museum which is defenitely worth to be visited, for the site is really special. It's not a small one and one can calculate some two to three hours to have a closer look on the rich exhibition.
Some of the bones of animals found at the archaeological site show significant differences to those of wild forms. Apparently the animals altered over generations after living with humans as live stock. Among the animals kept by the ancient people were cows, chickens, dogs, pigs, and, last but not least, the lovely water buffalos. Dogs were part of the diet, as they are still in some parts of Southeast Asia.
Remarkable are the findings of water buffalo skeletons, who proof a physical alteration due to farm work and the use as pack animals. The water buffalos at the time were already close to those today, who are considerably smaller than the wild form. Since the transition of a species lasts a long time, the question is raised when the domestication of water buffalos already began.
Image by Asienreisender, National Museum of Ban Chiang, 12/2015
The first part, however, is filled with palace propaganda. Everything in Thailand with symbolic or public relevance is occupied by the palace in many ways. Here it focuses on a visit of the royal couple to Ban Chiang Archaeological Site in 1972. Quite a lot of photos of this visit are displayed in the museum's first section.
The next part shows some pots and tools of the archaeologists and explains some of their basic methods. In the ground is a life-sized model of the excavation site on which one can look down from above and later enter it at the lower level.
Following that a number of skeletons is shown, together with illustrations of the morphology and pathology of the ancient inhabitants of Ban Chiang. A greater and well-done section is that which displays the palaeoenvironment of neolithic Isan in this region. Life-sized models of people in their village environment respectively in the prehistorical forests are shown. Also the invention of farming, bronze and iron casting, domestication of animals, textile making and the art of pottery are explained.
In the last parts of the museum one sees some pots and other items with an uncertain origin, for they were gained from the black markets or by confiscation. In capitalism anything is a commodity, and art thefts and dealers do a great harm to original artefacts and therefore science. The very last section is a spaceous room with many more artefacts, mostly pottery. Unfortunately do they lack explanation.
Over the time and the periods the pots and their ornamentic became more sophisticated. In the last period also animal drawings appeared. The pot up left is the oldest among the shown, from the middle period, the next one is anyhow between the first and middle period, the third clearly from the middle period. Those below are younger and date from the last period.
The pots were shaped by clay plates, threads and pieces. They were dried in the sun and then fired outdoor by burning rice straw and wood, reaching temperatures between 500 and 700 degree celsius. The colour was made from hematite soil and mucilage glue.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2015
The museum has also a cinema. When I asked the guards if I could see a film, they showed me a short documentary of about 10 minutes. A great part of it was again palace propaganda. The part on Ban Chiang and the excavations was relatively poor and the comments came up again with the very exaggerated datings and even claim that Ban Chiang was permanently inhabited over a time span of 5,000 years. That's by all means wrong; after the latest dating of artefacts it was inhabited from 1,500 BCE to 200 CE, what is a timespan of 1,700 years. A very long time, nevertheless.
Oh, by the way: entrance fees are 150 Baht for foreigners, 30 Baht for Thai People. However, few people come here, sometimes a couple on a daytrip from Udon Thani. Most of the visitors are apparently Thai pupils who come in large groups with their teachers and I saw one day the village filled with a large group of Thai Village Scouts.
Well, the artefacts of Ban Chiang cover the whole timespan from the neolitic ages via bronze age to iron age. The tools made of bones (1) were certainly among the oldest humans used, for it's an easily accessable material and one can shape it quite well.
The invention of bronze therefore is a much more sophisticated technologie.
Metal melting requires high temperatures. The here used technique was probably the heating by a charcoal fire above the metals (copper and tin) who were deposed in a pit, while air was blasted into the fire to raise the temperature up to 1,083 degree Celsius. After the metals became liquid, they were poured in preformed moulds. After the clay mould was removed from around the cooled and still soft metal, it was in many cases aftertreated by hammering. However, that made the metal somewhat brittle. This flaw could be repaired by reheating the objet to a high temperature and leaving it cooling down again then slowly.
The findings of iron smithing slag in the excavation sites point out that iron forging was an applied technology at the site. Heating iron until it get's red glowing is followed by hammering it into a shape. When the shape is fine it has lost much heat. It gets heated up again until it glows and then is plunged into cold water. This makes the iron becoming a hard and edurable tool.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2015
Bronze is an alloy of mostly copper (in early Ban Chiang the blend consisted of 85% to 90% copper, later the copper proportion was reduced to 80%) and secondary tin. The casting of bronze was done by melting the metals at a high temperature and pouring it in a before prepared clay form (5). The clay form has been formed inside by a wax model which was then covered in the clay, followed by the heating of the whole thing which made the wax flowing out of the form, leaving a hollow shape inside the clay. The metal alloy was then poured into the form which got smashed after the metal cooled down. That sounds easier as it is in pratice. The metal had to be afterprocessed as well.
The area around Ban Chiang has no copper nor tin. So, the raw materials have been brought from further away. One source of copper was a mine at Phu Lon in Nong Khai Province, also in Isan, and not too far away from Ban Chiang. Another mine was at Khao Wong Phra Chan Valley in Lopburi Province. That's much further away and requires a long way, overcoming separating mountain chains in the west.
Tin might have been brought from the tin mines around Vientiane or from further north, from the tin rich areas around Luang Prabang. Another possible source was in Ratchaburi Province, where are also rich tin mines, although the distance to this place at the upper part of the Malay Peninsula is much longer. One has to keep in mind that metals weight much and had to be transported over land. It's highly probable that the ancient people of Ban Chiang already used water buffalos as pack animals, for there are traces of the use of water buffalos as carriers and as farming animals.
The produced items were spearpoints, axes, arrowpoints, fish hooks, necklaces and many more items (2). We see here even a dipper (3). The information tables in the museum claims still that the technologie of bronze casting was invented already 2000 BCE, what would make Ban Chiang the first place in world history, so far we know, where humans ever used this technology. Other datings go back to 1000 BCE.
The long time use of bronze might have led much later to the acquisition of skills to work with iron as well. Iron casting is a much more difficult procedure and requires higher temperatures than that of bronze. There has been a number of iron tools discovered in Ban Chiang (6), but there is no evidence supporting the idea that the iron was really melted in Ban Chiang. So it could be that the local blacksmiths got iron which was melted elsewhere and they applied it only secondary. Nearby iron mines where in Phu Thong Daeng and Phu Hin Lek Fai, both in Loei Province, north Isan.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2015
There have been undertaken several excavations on the ancient mount at different spots. Alltogether about 400 graves have been discovered. About a kilometer east of the National Museum lies an excavation site on the temple ground of Wat Pho Sri. It has apparently been the largest and most prominent of all of the excavation sites, and the most findings have been made here. The Fine Arts Department decided not to close the pit but to conserve it for the public. Meanwhile it's in the state of a second, an outdoor museum where one gets a lively impression of the excavation activities. No entrance fees are due here.
Wat Pho Sri Nai's ordination hall is over a century old and represents a classical Thai viharn. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2015
According to information given in the outdoor museum, a village doctor who dug in the year 1957 a hole in his garden near the temple in order to build a new toilet, found three earthen, painted pots. He gave them to the head of the village school. This event is seen as the beginning of the collection of the artefacts of Ban Chiang.
The first excavation happened in 1967, followed by several more. They were undertaken in cooperation with archaeologists from Pennsylvania University, USA.
In the graves were grave goods found like iron tools, bracelets, bronze collars, pig jaws, pig skulls, parts of cows and buffalos, deer and turtles, rice and, above all, plenty of pottery.
The whole timespan of the settlement can be devided into three periods: the early, middle and late period. However, there is still the difficulty with the datings. In the outdoor museum as well as in the national museum the dating reaches probably much too far back. Here they date the early period from 3600 BCE to 1000 BCE. The later dating would set it between 1500 BCE to 1000 BCE. There is also a classification of subdating different kinds of pottery.
The middle period is given with 1000 BCE to 300 BCE. That is in accordance with the newer datings. There are clear differences in the burial styles and the grave goods over the time. The late period was then between 300 BCE to 200 CE. The pots of this period were those who are mostly seen in the village as tourist souvenirs and on posters etc. They have more and more sophisticated and aestetic red paintings on either blank or white backgrounds.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 12/2015