Ban Chiang in Retrospect

What the Expedition Means to Archaeologists and the Thai Public

By: Pisit Charoenwongsa

Originally Published in 1982

View PDF

Without the accidental discoveries in 1957 by a local villager and the subsequent archaeological work [beginning in 1967), Ban Chiang would have remained an ordi­nary village like thousands of others in dusty, impoverished northeast Thailand. There would be no T-shirts bearing the now familiar painted pottery motif; there would be no replicas of ancient urns for sale in the shops; there would be no tour­ists either from within Thailand or from distant parts of the world: it is possible there would have been no looting and therefore no decimation of the archaeologi­cal treasures which once lay beneath the town.

Ban Chiang with a population around 4,000 people is a growing tourist attraction; even local industries such as traditional weaving have benefited financially from the influx of visitors. Other changes include improvement of streets and the establish­ment of the first national museum to be built in a Thai village (all other national museums maintained by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand are in major cities).

Some of the changes occurring in Ban Chiang within the last fifteen years demon­strate the impact of archaeology on every­day life as well as within the academic community. The experience of Ban Chiang clearly shows that archaeologists today cannot function as isolated scholars, that they must plan to educate and to cooperate with the local population.

Of Pride and Shame

At the time of the visit to Ban Chiang of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Thailand in March 1972, much publicity had been given to the intensified competi­tion between scholars and spoilers who were anxious to extract as many artifacts for their own personal advantage as possi­ble before they would become the property of the nation.

Their Majesties visited Ban Chiang to see for themselves what was really happen­ing. After a brief presentation by the Fine Arts Department Director-General, the King raised a number of questions. He was interested in some specific issues, such as the type of shells found in the excavations, whether the sites were habitation or cemetery locations, whether the pottery was painted before or after firing, etc. His Majesty pursued the question of reliable scientific dating of the artifacts and was told that the process was very expensive.

The King said: It appears to me that this kind of discovery and information would be important to people all over the world and not merely to the people of Thailand. Many institutions may be interested in these materials and he willing to aid in obtaining chronological dating.” He was also inter­ested in any possible relationship between the ancient peoples and those who had settled in Ban Chiang only two hundred years ago, and wondered whether we could learn the reasons for the settlement and abandonment of the site at various times.

The King urged the archaeologists to work closely with the local residents, to win their confidence and thus, perhaps, reduce the indiscriminate looting of buried artifacts.

He added: If the local people under­stand the significance of our task we may anticipate greater cooperation and further support from other sources.” He cited the late Princess Vibhavati Raugsit as an inter­ested person who had given some financial assistance to supplement the funds of the Fine Arts Department.

The Organization

When I was a first year undergraduate at Silpakorn University in Bangkok it was my privilege to participate in the first system­atic research into archaeology in Thailand with the Thai/Danish Expedition team. In other words, the development of the scien­tific study of archaeology in my country coincides with my own 21-year involve­ment with the discipline. At first, Thai members of the various expeditions acted primarily as interpreters and aides to the foreign experts; it was not until the work at Ban Chiang began that Thai archaeologists were prepared to function as equal partners with their foreign colleagues.

In response to the invitation of the Thai Ministry of Education. The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania sent Chester Gorman to work with mem­bers of the Fine Arts Department in devel­oping a systematic excavation of the site at to the looters, we still had enough to represent it substantially in all respects. The overall aim should not be merely to rescue the site, but also to understand the everyday life of prehistoric people, and the way in which that life was affected through time and space by such developments as plant and animal domestication, and metallurgy. Such organization is quite common these days in the West, but I have to give Chet full credit for instituting a multi-disciplinary approach to the develop­ment of the site of Ban Chiang in Thailand.

A large and ever-growing organization inevitably resulted in the disorganization of its organizers. Quite often we became lost in our own setup; people came and went; there were training of students, guided tours, immediate journalism, book­keeping, correspondence with scholars and the bureaucracy of institutions involved in Thailand, etc. The multinational team made Ban Chiang quite a community with fun, and, of course, confusion on the part of the locals too. We share a common scientific tradition; yet, we do differ in our own interests. We collect different impressions and perhaps develop different theories. In fact it is almost impossible to find two’ experts to agree with each other. To get around the problems with villagers I found it astonishing at how fast those forcing (western colleagues) took to the way of life of the local community; they could

Ban Chiang. Gorman was not a stranger to his Thai colleagues; his findings in the excavation of Spirit Cave in northwest Thailand had raised some questions regard­ing the origins of plant domestication in eastern Asia.

I had worked with Chet earlier in Kanchanaburi where construction of a new dam threatened the destruction of archaeo­logical sites. In fact, he was my first really close farang friend. He successfully talked the Thais into accepting that it was proper to work closely with a team of qualified experts at the start. Even if we lost the site

even drink rice whiskey in the morning at the weddings before a day’s work! In short, we were very tactful with each other throughout those unforgettable two years (1974-1975).

The Outcome

The impact the Ban Chiang Project has so far made on the archaeology of Southeast Asia is undeniably appreciable. The first phase (1974-1979) has been effectively completed. The first two years at Ban Chiang resulted in the excavation of two hundred square meters to a depth of 4-5 meters in a stratigraphic sequence dated by C-14 from the fourth millennium B.C. Later surveys have also turned up a great number of sites related to Ban Chiang, some of which have been or are being excavated. However, the death of Gorman inevitably caused delays in certain labora­tory analyses, particularly the pottery, of which there is about six thousand kilo­grams. Eventually, a series of publications constituting a final site report may have to be postponed for a year or two. Analyses to date have nevertheless established north­east Thailand as a major center of innova­tive cultural development in its own right. During this phase of our work and over­lapping with the second, training programs for Southeast Asian and American students have also been set up both at the site and at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Otago in New Zealand, under the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation and the JDR 3rd Fund. Southeast Asian students in the programs include those from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma; (there were some Vietnamese and Cambodians trained at the site).

The controversy over the dating of the earliest bronzes remains unresolved at present. But it cannot be emphasized too strongly that this question is only one of many to which the Ban Chiang excavations have contributed: the importance of the site does not rest only on the chronology of its metal artifacts but on the broad range of evidence it provides for East Asian prehistoric development. Moreover, direct scholarly questions aside, the Ban Chiang Project has been of immense importance in accelerating the development of archaeo­logical research in the whole of Southeast Asia. In the very near future we hope and expect to see trainees of this project help­ing to put the archaeology of Southeast Asia on a firm professional footing, the equal of archaeology anywhere in the world.

Cite This Article

Charoenwongsa, Pisit. "Ban Chiang in Retrospect." Expedition Magazine 24, no. 4 (August, 1982): -. Accessed February 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to