Tracking early man in southeast Asia

If it accomplishes nothing else, the Ban Chiang exhibition currently on view at the University of Pennsylvania's University Museum should dispel once and for all the notion that archaeology is as dry a discipline as ''dem bones'' it unearths.

Described by one scholar as ''an archaeological detective story of the best kind,'' the discovery of Bronze Age artifacts in Ban Chiang, a village in northeast Thailand where excavations took place during the late 1960s and early '70s, has revolutionized the prevailing view of prehistory and of Southeast Asia's role in the development of civilization.

The Bronze Age, so-called because it marked the inception of metallurgy, is considered as momentous a cultural milestone as the Industrial Revolution. Prehistorians and archaeologists researching the period have traditionally focused on sites in the Near East, India, and China, ignoring Southeast Asia as a ''cultural backwater.'' As late as 1966 historian Georges Coedes mused, ''It is interesting to note that even in prehistoric times, the autochthonous peoples of Indochina seem to have been lacking in creative genius and showed little aptitude for making progress without stimulus from outside.'' The further assumption was that even if prehistoric material had existed, it could never have survived the tropical climate.

But as a result of the bronze artifacts, pottery shards, and bits of stone and bone discovered at Ban Chiang, Gregory Possehl, associate curator in the South and Southeast Asia section of the University Museum, trumpets the following note of ethnic validation in the special issue of the museum's archaeological and anthropological quarterly, Expedition, devoted to Ban Chiang:

''Ban Chiang has already proved to be a major instrument in the reevaluation of Old World prehistory, and particularly the interpretation of the prehistory of the eastern regions of Asia. In a region until recently considered a mere recipient of cultural developments from India and China (hence the name 'Indo-China'), the excavations at Ban Chiang and related sites have revealed a hitherto unknown vital and innovative prehistoric cultural tradition.''

''Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age,'' which will remain on view at the University Museum through Jan. 30 and then travel to other museums, represents the first comprehensive introduction to the public of the extraordinary findings at Ban Chiang. The core of the exhibition consists of more than 150 objects from Ban Chiang, supplemented by loans from the National Museum in Thailand. On display are examples of the astonishingly sophisticated pottery; bronze tools and ornaments, such as spearpoints, adzes (a kind of ax head), and bracelets; glass bead necklaces; ceramic figurines; and carved wooden rollers that may have been used for imprinting textiles.

According to Joyce C. White, research associate at the museum and curator of the exhibition, artifacts from the early period date back as far as the 4th century BC and range from approximately 3600 to 1000 BC. Miss White added that ongoing excavations in Thailand and Vietnam may yield even older relics. Age is determined by radiocarbon dating of the strata in which the artifacts are found, a more reliable method than the thermoluminescence dating of pottery shards, which at first misled both the public and scholars into thinking that the pots were as old as 6000 BC and that Ban Chiang was the ''cradle of civilization.'' But the corrected dates for Ban Chiang still secure Southeast Asia a position in prehistory as prominent as that of the Middle East, China, and India. Miss White avers that the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia was also as ''technologically comparable. The inhabitants of Ban Chiang worked in tin-bronze and exploited a range of supplementary techniques. They were aware of the basic mechanical and chemical properties of metals.''

There are, however, differences in the kinds of objects produced by the various cultures. Ban Chiang is unique in that a Bronze Age culture sprang up within a village environment and produced primarily utilitarian objects, in contrast with the urban societies in Mesopotamia and China, where ceremonial and militaristic objects are typical.

For tracing the direction that influences flowed between China and Southeast Asia, Miss White cautions, ''An either-or approach is overly simplistic. It's clear there is regional interchange. Rice cultivation traveled from south to north, for example. There is also linguistic evidence that China borrowed metallurgical terms. But the bronzes of Southeast Asia don't look like the bronzes of China. They have a distinctive regional integrity. But perhaps this applies only to Ban Chiang. We won't know until there is more research in other parts of Southeast Asia.''

The discovery of a Bronze Age civilization at Ban Chiang is a perfect illustration of the frequent symbiosis between science and chance. The story begins in the 19th century, when a few scholars proposed tropical East Asia as a likely site first for early plant domestication and later the earliest agriculture (Carl Sauer in 1952). But it was not until the late '60s, according to Miss White, that a team of ''maverick archaeologists'' from the University of Hawaii undertook the first serious investigations in Southeast Asia. Working in sites in northern Thailand, they unearthed evidence not only of incipient plant cultivation but of Bronze Age technology in Non Nok Tha.

A short distance to the northeast, in the unremarkable village of Ban Chiang, even more remarkable discoveries were taking place almost simultaneously. For some time villagers in the process of digging their gardens or building their houses had been unearthing painted pottery which they threw out, used to feed their pigs, or kept for good luck. In 1960 an official from the Thai Fine Arts Department even inspected the site, but at that time there was little interest in archaeology of pre-Buddhist periods.

Then occurred one of those extraordinary circumstances that altered the face of history, or at least prehistory: A young man literally stumbled upon the Bronze Age. Miss White recounts: ''In 1966 Stephen Young, then a junior at Harvard University and the son of the United States ambassador to Thailand, visited Ban Chiang in the course of sociological research. One day while walking down a village road, he fell over the root of a kapok tree and came face to face with a hard round circle emerging from the ground - the rim of a pot. Looking about, he saw that these pot rims were eroding out all along the road, and he realized he was standing on an archaeological site. Since the shards were unglazed, he assumed that they were quite old. Young brought samples back to Bangkok and showed them to officials at the Thai Fine Arts Department . . . [ which] conducted test excavations at the village in 1967 that uncovered stone tools and bronze as well as pottery.''

Elizabeth Lyons, a fine arts consultant for the US State Department, arranged to have sample shards sent to the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology at the University Museum, where the somewhat exaggerated thermoluminescence dates created such a stir. The combination of the prehistoric bronze artifacts and pottery at Ban Chiang persuaded the University Museum, then directed by Froelich Rainey, and the Thai Fine Arts Department to collaborate on the excavation of the village, which seemed not only the most promising but the most imperiled site because of the looters who invaded it in search of the coveted painted pottery.

In 1975 the joint Northeast Thailand Archaeological Project was launched, co-directed by Chester Gorman, the University Museum's representative and a former member of the University of Hawaii team, and Pisit Charoenwongsa, selected by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand. Mr. Gorman, whom one colleague lauds as ''the chief source for the drive and inspiration behind prehistoric research in Southeast Asia today,'' passed on in 1981. This exhibition, which he initiated to present the discoveries at Ban Chiang to the public as well as to scholars, also serves as a tribute to his zealous quest.

Mr. Charoenwongsa particularly credits Mr. Gorman with ''instituting a multidisciplinary approach to the development of the site of Ban Chiang.'' This is no small compliment, for the task of organizing and interpreting the prodigious amount of material excavated at Ban Chiang was in itself an awesome feat, which required the cooperation of a variety of scholars from various disciplines and nations. During fieldwork in 1975 (as well as preliminary excavations in 1974), the archaeologists uncovered 123 burials, from which they extracted a staggering 18 tons of material. More than 200 pots, along with 1.25 million pottery shards in 5,000 bags, were sent to the museum, in addition to 2, 000 other artifacts.

The diversity of articles in the issue of Expedition on Ban Chiang suggests not only the range of scholarship brought to bear on Ban Chiang but the complexity of contemporary archaeological research. In this regard the exhibition fulfills a dual educational purpose. It introduces the visitor to equally startling manifestations of Bronze Age technology and 20th-century scientific method.

Among the scholars who published their findings in this issue are:

* An ethnobotanist who wrote an essay on the probability of rice cultivation in Ban Chiang, based on the residue of rice husks embedded in the pottery.

* A physical anthropologist who analyzed skeletal and dental remains to draw conclusions about the physical appearance of the people and their patterns of existence.

* A research associate at the museum who administered the daunting computer project that coded and programmed all the information on Ban Chiang.

There were also the scientists who dated the objects; who extrapolated theories about the environment from bone and shell fragments; and who pieced together the pottery shards.

One of the most impressive achievements of the exhibition is that it similarly pieces together the fragments of knowledge we have about this culture into a nearly recognizable shape. Most of the bronze artifacts and pottery shards were found in graves, and the exhibition endeavors to set the objects both in context of their discovery and of the culture. Fiber-glass models of key burials unearthed at Ban Chiang suggest the culture's attitude toward the afterlife as well as toward the individual during his lifetime.

The reconstructed Vulcan, for example, so-called because he was buried with an adze and bronze pellets, appears to have contributed a special utilitarian skill to the society. Of particular poignancy are the photographs and remains from the unusual number of infant burials, which imply that the prehistoric inhabitants placed a surprisingly high value on human life. A more tantalizing mystery is the ''scatter burials'' of the middle period, characterized by shards of pottery deliberately broken over the remains of the deceased.

In other sections of the show, animal bones and even human jaws are displayed as clues to the ecology, and photomurals focus on steps in the archaeological process, such as analysis of plant remains, thermoluminescence dating, shard rebuilding, excavation, and even looting.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint the most rewarding section of the exhibition is the pottery. The ceramics of the early, middle, and late periods possess their own distinctive styles, ranging from the black, cord-imprinted, and incised pots of the early period to the celebrated red-on-buff painted pottery of the late period. The pottery in general is most impressive for the elegance and grace of its design and its intricate abstract decoration.

Amazingly, the paddle-and-anvil technique used by prehistoric potters still prevails in Ban Chiang today. For exhibition visitors, the lines between past and present blur. While viewing the objects carved and painted with such dexterity, one at times feels almost intimately connected with the sensibility of the distant inhabitants. At other times they seem as remote from our understanding as their dates - an anomaly on the human continuum.

Further confusing one's reaction is the fact that special-interest groups, if one may call them that, react to Ban Chiang in such different ways. To archaeologists Ban Chiang is a kind of priceless relic, to be analyzed and preserved down to the smallest fragment. To historians it's a revision, and to tourists it's an attraction. To collectors it's a new market, and to looters it's paradise.

What significance is Ban Chiang to the Thai people? Mr. Charoenwongsa wrote an essay in Expedition on the effect of the prehistoric discoveries on the villagers and the Thai people in general. Ironically, most of the people are indifferent to the significance of Ban Chiang except as it affects their livelihood. And to be fair, it is difficult to imagine why a woman making a pot today in the village of Ban Chiang, using the same technique as her ancestors almost 5,000 years ago, should feel otherwise. Instead she continues making her pots, which are in much better condition than those being dug out of the ground, and wonders what all the fuss is about.

The exhibition is organized jointly by the University Museum, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), and the National Museums Division, Department of Fine Arts, Thailand. After closing here it will travel to the Science Place in Dallas (March 1-May 31), the Museum of History and Science in Louisville, Ky. (July 1-Sept. 30), the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington (Nov. 1-Jan. 31, 1984), Boston Museum of Science (March 1-May 31, 1984), American Museum of Natural History in New York (Nov. 1-Jan. 31, 1985), and the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles (March 1-May 31, 1985).

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