Penn Museum Received $300,000 Grant from Henry Luce Foundation to Conduct a Four-year Collaborative Research Program in Laos and Thailand

01 AUGUST 2008, PHILADELPHIA, PA—The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has received a four-year, $300,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to organize and run a cross-borders, international collaborative research program in Laos and Thailand. “Strengthening the Future of Southeast Asian Archaeology: Investigating the Prehistoric Settlement of the Mekong Middle Basin,” will be directed by Dr. Joyce White, Senior Research Scientist in the Asian Section at Penn Museum, co-Director of the Middle Mekong Archaeology Project since 2001, and Director of the Museum’s Ban Chiang, Thailand Project since 1982.

The grant, which runs from July 2008 through June 2012, was made through the Foundation’s Luce Initiative on East and Southeast Asian Archaeology and Early History. It is one of only 13 institutional grants awarded since the inception of the highly competitive program, and the only collaborative research grant awarded for work in South East Asia. It is also a challenge grant: Penn Museum must raise almost $400,000 in matching funds over the three-year grant period.

Several factors encouraged the Luce Foundation to launch the Archaeology Initiative in 2005, according to Program Officer Helena Kolenda. “First, as a consequence of rapid economic development, the volume of archaeological discoveries being made in East and Southeast Asia is significant and these finds have great potential for shedding new light on the human past. Second, Asian archaeology is seriously underrepresented in the academy in North America, with fewer than three percent of American archaeologists listing Asia as a specialization. Third, in Asia, research and training opportunities for archaeologists are often limited by a lack of funding and institutional resources.”

“This grant provides the Penn Museum with a great opportunity to engage globally in one of the most exciting—and understudied—archaeological regions of the world,” noted Dr. Richard Hodges, the Williams Director of the Penn Museum. “The scope of this project allows us to do what we do best—groundbreaking field research, and education, in this case, the education of future world archaeologists and scholars.”

The institutional partners of the new research program are the Penn Museum, the University of Washington, the Department of Museums and Archaeology in Laos, and Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Thailand. Over the next four years, partner institutions will develop increased research capacities for Southeast Asian archaeology—a relatively unexplored region of the world—through their collaborative multidisciplinary work and training.

The new project in Laos and Thailand builds upon four decades of pioneering archaeological research by Penn Museum in mainland Southeast Asia. The project is a continuation and expansion of the Middle Mekong Archaeology Project (MMAP), led by Dr. White, with co-director Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth, Deputy Director at the Lao National Museum. The first archaeological project in Laos by a United States-led team, MMAP carried out surveys to find prehistoric sites and most recently, conducted test excavations at cave sites near Luang Prabang, Laos, in July 2007 and March 2008.

Central to MMAP’s success has been a sensitivity to local needs and issues, manifest in careful attention to following local protocols and asking permission for access to each area of exploration at every level, as well as in fostering opportunities for Thai and Lao archaeologists to work together – a vitally important component of the collaboration. Through the team’s work, strong relationships are being formed, along with the enhanced language skills and the specialist skills needed to enable the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia to take the future of archaeology forward in the region.

Penn Museum also conducted excavations at the important early metal age site of Ban Chiang in northeast Thailand in 1974 and 1975. Ban Chiang was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

The project seeks to shed light on the origins and implications of the technological, economic, and social transformations that happened during the region’s active, yet little-studied, middle Holocene period, roughly 6000 to 2000 BCE. During this period, communities transitioned from game hunters and wild-plant gatherers to settled communities practicing plant cultivation, shifting from primarily hunter-gatherer to primarily agricultural lifestyles. Distinctive agrarian societies, including the Ban Chiang cultural tradition, emerged at the end of this period, but scholars are yet to fully understand the historical influences that shaped these societies.

The project team will focus on collecting middle Holocene evidence to help fill in gaps in current understanding of Southeast Asia prehistory. In addition, the project hopes to find evidence of early metallurgy that will help solve the puzzle of where the early bronze in Southeast Asia came from. The team will also study regional ceramic variation and distribution in northern northeast Thailand, looking for clues to help explain the development of early agrarian social and economic systems.

The development of a web-accessible archaeological database is a key component of the project, which aims to create greater access to the archaeology of Southeast Asia for the international partners, other scholars, students, and the public alike.

The Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time magazine. Today, the Foundation includes grant-making programs that support higher education, American art, environment, theology, women in science and engineering, and increased understanding of Asia. In addition to the Archaeology Initiative, in 2005 the Foundation launched another multi-year commitment: The Henry R. Luce Initiative in Religion and International Affairs. Additional information is available at www.hluce.org.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.

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