Report from the Field: Luang Prabang 1

December 20, 2012

In late December 2012, the fourth and final phase of the $300,000 Penn Museum Luce Program to Strengthen Southeast Asian Archaeology begins. Its focus is Luang Prabang Province, Laos, where the Museum’s Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP) has conducted surveys, test excavations and related multi-disciplinary studies since 2005.

Nattha Chuenwattana, a Thai PhD student from the University of Toronto, is a new member of the MMAP 2013 team and the first collaborating researcher to arrive in Luang Prabang for this season. Her focus is archaeobotany, the study of plant remains found in archaeological contexts. For MMAP, this means Nattha is sorting through soil sediment samples excavated at 4 cave settlement sites in Luang Prabang province. Her work could tell us a lot about what prehistoric people in northern Laos were eating 11,000 years ago. It may also help us identify whether plant remains found there are from wild or domesticated plant varieties, an indication of whether people in a settlement were simply gathering plant foodstuffs that grew naturally, or were actively cultivating a particular food crop.

So far Nattha has found some Canarium seeds (see photo below), as well as others. Canarium is a group of rainforest trees found in Southeast Asia whose nuts (seeds) are edible. Canarium seeds are a recognized prehistoric food source: Evidence of several wild and cultivated species has been found in archaeological contexts in mainland and island Southeast Asia.


Stay tuned for future updates on this research! Nattha will take samples of MMAP plant remains back to Toronto for further study, possibly with the SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) there. She’ll report on her findings in a joint paper (with Joyce and Dr. Jill Thompson) at the April meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Dr. Joyce White and Nattha Chuenwatana
Caption: Nattha Chuenwatana looks at sediments from previous MMAP excavations through a magnifying glass, while Joyce White observes.

P1330433MMAP 2013--Archaeobotany
Caption: Here Nattha is assisted by long time MMAP team member, Kon Keo Phannasy from the Artefact Protection Office, Luang Prabang Province, Department of Information and Culture, Lao PDR. They have collected food plants currently available in Luang Prabang, with the intention of harvesting nuts and seeds.

P13305MMAP 2013--Archaeobotany
Caption: A useful way to identify archaeological evidence of plants and seeds – commonly found as charred remains – is to compare these fragments with current-day plant materials. Here Nattha has charred the remains of recently collected nut and seed fragments for comparison with archaeological remains.

This week Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton (Research Coordinator, Ban Chiang and MMAP) arrives in to Laos and the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) portion of our work will start, after she recovers from the twenty-eight hour flight!

For more information, please visit the MMAP website.