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.
This is an extract from the full article published in CWA 35