The Mekong River is one of the world’s great rivers, but very little is known about its prehistoric human settlement. The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP), conceived in 2001, seeks to investigate human settlement of the Mekong Valley with a research program beginning in Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Since 2005, MMAP has conducted a groundbreaking collaborative research program of international researchers in this area, including surveys that have identified 69 archaeological sites and excavations at three cave sites. This archaeological fieldwork has yielded thousands of stone and ceramic artifacts, human skeletal remains, and other evidence from over 11,000 years of human habitation in the area. MMAP seeks to resolve long standing archaeological debates on when and how metallurgy and agriculture came to Southeast Asia. This joint project of The Penn Museum and the Department of Heritage, Laos is also helping budding Lao archaeologists and museologists to build capabilities for Lao cultural heritage preservation, by offering training in archaeological disciplines concurrent with research activities.
This season in Laos, the MMAP team will be excavating a cave site called Tham An Mah that was used as a Buddhist temple and, judging from its location and surface finds, also has the potential for good prehistoric material. A team of international experts will be researching other facets of the site.
Climate Change Research
Two experts from UC Irvine (Kathleen Johnson) and Australia (Michael Griffits) will be conducting speleothem research in the deep caves around Luang Prabang. Speleothems are the technical name for what us nongeologists call stalagmites, stalagtites and other formations. They will be drilling into the speleothem layers and then examining the thickness and mineral content of the individual layers in an attempt to reconstruct thousands of years of climate and climate change data.
The team will be doing flotation on the soil from Tham An Mah so that we can extract and identify seeds and other plant remains from prehistoric contexts.
The team continues to train Lao archaeologists, not only in excavation, but in survey and analysis. The goal is to be able to leave the Laos with a working database system and training so that they can do their own survey work when we are gone and put the new site data into the same tables. This will allow them to maintain a comprehensive and standardized system for site recording.
When I say I’m going to Laos, many people have intoned a long aspirated “Oh” that borderes on a “Wow” and diminuendoes into a kind of verbal question mark. “You’re going to Thailand?” a few people asked. “Isn’t Laos the country from Vietnam?” someone said, meaning the war Vietnam, not the country Vietnam.The MMAP team will be studying caves in the World Heritage site of Luang Prabang in the heart of the middle Mekong River basin, in northern Laos. China is to the north, Vietnam to the north and east, and Thailand to the south and west. As an area at the core of Southeast Asia, yet one that is virtually an archaeological terra incognita, northern Laos can provide some missing puzzle-pieces in several theories on how settled societies developed in the region.