Ban Chiang

A Mosaic of Impressions from the First Two Years

By: Chester Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa

Originally Published in 1976

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Only a decade ago, Southeast Asia was regarded as a prehistoric cul-de-sac; that it might have been an important area in the development of early civilization was an unthinkable notion. In 1966, two most emi­nent scholars of Southeast Asian cultural history, Coedes and Groslier still accepted the standard theory that early sophisticated stone tools, pottery and metallurgy were derived from China and India.

Coedes writes, “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.”

As late as 1971 Grahame Clark’s revised edition of World Prehistory contains the following quote: “Neither Southeast Asia, Indonesia nor the Philippines experienced a phase of technology fully comparable with the Bronze Age in certain parts of the world. Yet, while stone tools continued in general use into the Christian era, a certain number of bronze artifacts found their way over these territories during the latter half of the first millennium B.C.; and in the richer graves of Annam these were sometimes accompanied by objects made of iron.”

In two brief seasons of work at the site of Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand, the University Museum, Philadelphia—Thai Fine Arts Department, Northeast Thailand Archaeological Project has produced suf­ficient evidence to challenge this long-held assumption that Southeast Asia played only a minor and derivative role in prehistoric development. Data now under analysis at the University Museum are generating a major revision of the Bronze Age prehistory of East Asia, perhaps of even all of the Old World.

Plenty of clues did exist that should have cast doubt on the diffusion hypothesis, but the material, rather random assemblages of stone tools, pottery and metal, was inter­preted primarily on the basis of European cultural sequences. Also, until recently, there were no genuine, scientific excavations to provide the kind of reliable data that would be internationally acceptable. With the excep­tion of Thailand, Southeast Asia was the colonial province of the French, Dutch and British. Early scholars, generally more in­terested in “High Civilizations” than rude prehistory, were fascinated by the great monuments of the area, the architectural marvels of Angkor Wat or the Borobudur, and seem to have had very little interest in searching for the origins and background of the cultures which had created them.

Not until the late 1960’s when Wilhelm G. Solheim of the University of Hawaii and his two graduate students, Donn Bayard and Chet Gorman, began to publish the results of their work, begun a few years earlier at the sites of Non Nok Tha and Spirit Cave in Thailand, was there any well-grounded argument for re­thinking the traditional belief that lava Man’s descendants had squatted in their caves until they were taught the rudiments of civilization by more intelligent outsiders.

The swift rise of interest in archaeology by local Southeast Asian peoples is most certainly bound up with the nationalism of recently independent nations and their deter­mination to organize their own excavations and perhaps, quite literally, to dig up their own identities. In 1960, there was very little local interest in prehistoric archaeology and not more than a handful of trained Southeast Asian archaeologists. Yet within the last decade, every Southeast Asian nation has developed an archaeological program or expanded its existing facilities.

It is within this context of archaeological research and development that the University Museum and the University of Pennsylvania entered the Southeast Asian field, and it is this background that has shaped their program of joint expeditions, with a strong emphasis on assisting their local colleagues to further their own professional education within the context of a genuine sharing of work, expenses and knowledge.

Ban Chiang is a small village in Northeast Thailand, an area considered as “depressed” by the Thai government because of its generally sparse and certainly underde­veloped resources. In 1960 or ’61, a Fine Arts Department officer stopped in the village during a Northeast inspection tour and picked up a handful of small sherds which he found unusual. These fragments of pottery were unique in terms of what was then known of the Thai prehistoric sequence, yet their significance was not to be fully realized until many years later.

Ban Chiang remained archaeologically undisturbed until July, 1966 when Stephen Young, an American student, visited Ban Chiang during the construction of a village road. From the fresh road cuts he retrieved for scientific interest several large fragments and a few nearly complete pots painted with handsome and intricate red-on-buff spiral designs. Elizabeth Lyons, then working as a consultant to the Fine Arts Department, photographed and studied them and could find no parallels with other Southeast Asian pottery or that of China and India. This puzzle now interested the Fine Arts Department and in April 1967, the then Director General, Dhanit Yupho, sent Vidya Intakosai to conduct test excavations at Ban Chiang. He reported that the pottery, plain ware and painted, was in burial association with bronze artifacts which led Lyons to give one of the sherds plus two from Vidya’s earlier excavation at the Iron Age Lopburi Artillery Site to a Philadelphia visitor, William Kohler, who offered to hand carry them back to Philadelphia for dating at MASCA. This was ,done in 1968 and the thermoluminescence analysis of the Ban Chiang specimen gave a date of around 4000 B.C. which, at that time, did not seem credible. Somewhat later, George Dales, then working in Thailand, was given two more sherds from Ban Chiang for testing by MASCA. This was done in 1971 and gave dates falling within the fourth millennium B.C.

While this was by no means enough proof for conscientious archaeologists, it was a good indication that great surprises might lie under the soil of Northeast Thailand and it began to stir University Museum curiosity about the site.

Then, in late 1971 and early 1972, new construction in the Thai village suddenly produced a large number of painted pots, so unusually handsome that they immediately became a prize for collectors.

It was now obvious that Ban Chiang was a rich and extraordinary site and also that it would be a tight race between a small group of archaeologists interested in acquiring all possible knowledge about it, and a large group of collectors avid for the objects. The Thai Fine Arts Department, spurred on by the concern of their king and some private citizens, succeeded in getting funds to do two excavations directed by Pote Keakun and Nikom Sutiragsa. Added to this attempt in 1972 was a joint excavation at Ban Chiang by the Faculty of Archaeology, Silapakorn Uni­versity and the Faculty of Social Welfare of Thammasat University. During this period the Thai Fine Arts Department also managed to have laws passed protecting the area and forbidding further private digging or trading of the artifacts.

In 1973, the University Museum’s Direc­tor, Froelich Rainey, who had kept in touch with these developments, visited Ban Chiang and examined the artifacts along with a number of surprisingly large skeletons. He was impressed and, in fact, startled by the amount of bronze and the pottery recovered by the Fine Arts Department, and also by the quantity stacked up in the villagers’ houses or even casually used as food dishes in the chicken yard. After looking at several other sites in the region where the pottery was also being found, he was convinced that it was a site of great extent and most probably one of international importance. An agreement was then negotiated with the Thai Fine Arts Department providing for a long-term in­vestigation of Northeast Thailand under the co-direction of Pisit Charoenwongsa of the National Museum, Bangkok, and Chester Gorman of the University Museum.

The material already retrieved from the Thai excavations and known from the villagers’ industrious diggings was incredibly rich and varied: layer upon layer of stratified human burials were found to contain black pottery incised with complicated geometrical patterns, handsome red-on-buff painted pottery, a profusion of metal tools, weapons, ornaments, carefully placed animal bones, stone and glass beads, curious cylindrical rollers, and miscellaneous objects.

If the site were to yield all possible information necessary to explain this material it would have to be meticulously excavated and, above all, carefully analyzed. Everyone involved agreed it would be necessary to have a long-range program and the help of a number of professional specialists.

Planning by Gorman and Charoen­wongsa, Captain Sompop Piromya, Director General of the Fine Arts Department; Froe­lich Rainey of the University Museum, and Elizabeth Lyons, Project Specialist of Art and Archaeology for the Ford Foundation; resulted in an inter-disciplinary program designed to strengthen the Faculty of Archaeology, Silapakorn University, Bangkok; to train senior Thai students and junior professionals; to bring in collaborating scientific specialists for short-term research topics, and to involve archaeologists from other Southeast Asian countries. In short, it was a multi-discipline, multi-national attack and it took patience and organization by Gorman and Charoenwongsa to manage this very diverse field crew.

Excavation began in the early spring of 1974 and this was considered as an ex­ploratory beginning on the complicated problems presented by this rich and complex site. In order to compile as broad a spectrum of information as possible, the Ford Founda­tion provided funding for the participation of a number of specialists: Charles Higham, University of Otago, New Zealand, concen­trated on faunal remains; Leslie Groube, ex-Australian National University, shared his considerable stratigraphic excavation skill; Michael Pietrusewsky, University of Hawaii, undertook a complete analysis of the human skeletons; Teuku Jacob, physical anthropologist from Gaja Mada University, Indonesia, was on hand for a brief collabora­tion with Pietrusewsky; Santhad Ro­janasoonthon, a quaternary soils morphologist, and his colleague Chatchai Romson from Kasetsart University, Bangkok, are continuing their study of the soil stratigraphy at Ban Chiang, Douglas E. Yen, ethnobotanist at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, is concentrating on the plant remains with a primary focus on the early domestication of rice. Matsuo Tsukada, palynologist from the University of Washington, Seattle, took core-borings from the nearby marshy swamps that will allow the reconstruction of the vegetational history over the past millennia. Gary Carriveau, research physicist, then at MASCA, now a specialist on physics and archaeology at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Robert Maddin, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Metallurgy, both came into the Field to advise on archaeological metallurgy. Carriveau and Maddin, now joined by Tamara Wheeler, University of Pennsylvania, are continuing their study of the metal artifacts in their respective laboratories.

Apart from the scientific specialists, a considerable number of individuals con­tributed their expertise and talents to the Ban Chiang excavations. In order not to interrupt this narrative more than necessary we have decided to append a list of our participating colleagues and students, with apologies for the brief mention and for any absent-minded omissions.

The material results from two seasons of work in the field comprise some 18 tons of pottery, stone and metal artifacts, now at the University Museum laboratories; 126 human skeletons are being analyzed by Pietrusewsky at the University of Hawaii, and a con­siderable amount of faunal remains are being worked on by Charles Higham and his Thai student, Amphan Kich-ngam, at the Universi­ty of Otago.

It is obvious that a definitive report cannot be issued at this time. Much remains to be done in analyzing the material at hand and in placing it within a larger spatial and temporal framework. We know from the 1975 survey undertaken by William Schauffler that there are several other sites in the immediate vicinity of Ban Chiang village. Of even greater consequence was Schauffler’s wider ranging survey which—in conjunction with Fine Arts Department records—has enabled us to pin­point a concentration of Ban Chiang-like sites lying in a wide arc around Northeast Thailand’s northern Korat Plateau (see the following contribution by Schauffler). Ban Chiang, itself, appears to be only one small, but important, site of what we are now calling the Ban Chiang cultural tradition. By the beginning of the 4th millennium B.C., this tradition was firmly established across the northern Korat Plateau of Northeastern Thailand; during the next 4000 years the story of its social and technological advancement is clearly recorded in the layers of numerous mounded sites known to exist across the rolling plains of this old plateau.

When MASCA released the first series of thermoluminescence dates for the Ban Chiang sherds, we were startled and certainly skep­tical. While the dates seemed to corroborate the finds of early bronze from the previously excavated site of Non Nok Tha, we had misgivings over the lack of precise data concerning the association of the Ban Chiang sherds with bronze implements. Was it possible to have sophisticated painted pottery from Southeast Asia earlier than that already documented from China, and tin-bronze as early, or earlier than any known from the Near East?

If our picture of prehistoric man in Thailand is still far from mirror clear, we do have enough evidence to know that we are uncovering the remains of a technically innovative, and for the 4th millennium B.C. amazingly advanced, society. The initial settlers of Ban Chiang were already adapted to a lowland, rice agricultural technology; they were skilled hunters, craftsmen, potters, and, before the end of this initial phase, had either developed or somehow gained access to the technology of bronze metallurgy. The wealth of bronze, the astounding number of pots, the scarcity of weapons of war, and the ritual slaughtering of animals during funerary rites, all of which occur throughout the site, attest to a long period of economic prosperity, security and stability.

We have been able to set up a tentative working chronology which divides the 4 to 5-meter deep Ban Chiang sequence into six well-defined funerary phases spanning a period from 3600 B.C. to about 250 B.C. Two definite occupation surfaces were exposed within the lower prehistoric layers, and the uppermost prehistoric phase is sealed over by two late historic occupations (constituting Phase VII) reflecting intermittent settlement of the mound within the last 400 years. The present inhabitants emigrated from Laos about 200 years ago; at that time, the mound was covered with light, tropical forest vegeta­tion, and only a few historic boundary stones indicated its earlier phases of settlement. Within the seven phases, we have some 126 human burials richly furnished with pottery, metal, bone and ivory artifacts. Burial through all phases of Ban Chiang was a custom involving considerable ritual and preparation.

The mound is large, and modern con­struction in combination with destruction by looters imposed severe constraints in select­ing areas for excavation. In 1974, we ex­cavated over 115 square meters to a depth of 3 meters in a private yard; in 1975, we ex­cavated some 100 meters to a depth of 4.5 meters under the surface of a village road. The two areas are some 100 meters apart. Our 1974 excavations produced a sequence of four major phases; in 1975, working nearer the center of the mound, we uncovered six major phases—one upper phase only slightly represented in the 1974 sequence, and a lower, definitely “habitation” phase, not present in the 1974 sequence. Each phase contains highly distinctive pottery types and all burials within a phase are oriented in the same direction and lie within a fixed absolute depth below our datum plane.

We are now carrying out a detailed analysis of material from each phase and examining the similarities and dissimilarities within and between each phase in the two excavations. A technical report on the results of this analysis, with the series of associated radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dates. will be available late this year. At this time we would like to make a few statements outlining the highlights of the last two years’ excavations, and elaborate a little on the material illustrated in this article.

The lowest levels of Ban Chiang, Phases I and II, contain both supine and flexed burials in association with both a highly diagnostic, black to dark grey polished and incised pottery and extremely rare “beaker” shaped vessels. From the 1974 sequence of 18 Carbon-14 determinations the oldest material from these basal phases dates back to 3600 B.C.; an additional three dates fall within the mid-4th to the early 3rd millennium B.C. In 1975, in direct association with a low-lying flexed burial, we recovered a well-made, cast and hammered bronze spearhead. Analysis by Maddin and Wheeler, at Penn’s Laboratory for Research into the Structure of Matter, shows it to be most probably a low tin content bronze alloy. This, with two other finds of bronze (bracelets and anklets on two different supine burials), attests to the presence of bronze metallurgy during the initial Phase I/Phase II occupation of the mound. The bronze technology is already highly sophisticated, and this, plus the abundant presence of rice tempering in the black pottery, makes us believe that the group had already adapted to an agricultural life on the Korat Plateau. How long a period of trial and error elapsed before the various technologies (metallurgy, pottery, plant husbandry, etc.) coalesced to form the mature complex record­ed in Phase I at Ban Chiang is still unknown. Continuing survey and excavations will undoubtedly answer this and other such questions; we have little doubt, however, that we will eventually trace bronze metallurgy well back into the early 4th millennium B.C., perhaps finding its origins in the mountain ranges abutting the edges of the Korat Plateau, areas known today and in antiquity for their rich tin and copper deposits, the natural ingredients necessary for man’s first step into the Bronze Age.

While the background to the earliest metallurgical development awaits further excavation, the experimentation which that development records continued. The early Ban Chiang smiths soon became acquainted with iron. Above the varied ceramics of Phases I and II is a thick grey layer with cord-marked and burnished ceramics and supine burials. The surface of this layer showed evidence of occupation—post-hole alignments and erosional surfaces strewn with artifacts—tentatively dated to about 2000 B.C. This correlates well with Phase III best defined during the 1974 excavations and characterized by large, cord-marked vessels with incised curvilinear designs which were also dated to about 2000 B.C. by associated radiocarbon samples.

Above this phase, in both the 1974 and 1975 excavations, we encountered Phase IV, a rich funerary phase yielding perhaps the most distinctive pottery characterized by incised curvilinear and geometric designs, the areas outlined by these incised designs then being painted red. This pottery was associated with burials rich in bronze artifacts.

Five Carbon-14 dates from the 1974 excava­tions dated this phase to 1600-1200 B.C. This phase was again encountered during the 1975 excavation, and while we expected the wealth of bronze, we did not expect to recover iron in association with the incised and painted pottery. The iron artifacts are as distinctive in their appearance as the pottery; three spearheads with long smelted and forged iron blades are mounted in cast-on bronze sockets. (A comparable composite type of metal artifact appears in late Shang Dynasty Chinese contexts several hundred years later.) A juvenile was buried wearing two bracelets; on the left wrist he or she wore a wide bronze bracelet with an outside wrapping of iron—the rare and valued metal?—and an intricately woven mass of iron, once a delicate bracelet, was recovered from the right wrist.

The three, almost identical bi-metallic spearheads attest to a certain standardization in the treatment of iron, and yet the ornamen­tal use of iron, placed on the outside of bronze, suggests the initial appearance of the new and presumably rare metal. Interestingly enough, in the phase above this, iron becomes plen­tiful and is used for agricultural implements while bronze is reserved for ornamental use.

The exact date for this early appearance of iron will be determined this year from Carbon-14 samples collected during the late 1975 season. On typological grounds the associated pottery corresponds to our 1974 phase which is firmly dated between 1600 and 1200 B.C. (Dates 1200 and 700 B.C. for iron were also reported several years ago by Thai archaeologists.) The metallurgical sequence at Ban Chiang now emerges as a progression from early bronze artifacts (both weapons and jewelry) in the lowest phases to bi­metallic objects where iron is used either for important working edges or as ornamental additions, until finally, in the upper phases, iron is used for more commonplace agri­cultural implements and bronze resumes its status as the primary ornamental metal. Such a long-term, evolutionary trend in the use of iron may well be the first clue that we are indeed dealing with an in situ Southeast Asian development.

The wealth of material from Ban Chiang copiously illuminates a number of the every­day activities of the early villagers: hunting, animal husbandry, metallurgy, pottery mak­ing, etc. In the 1974 Phase III dated to c 2000 B.C. we excavated the grave of an extremely tall, muscular male, promptly christened “Nimrod” by our students after the Biblical hunter. “Nimrod” was buried some 4000 years ago in a manner befitting a hunter; at his left hand was a long, beautifully fashioned, tanged bone spearhead, at his left shoulder the antler of a young deer; a long polished bone pin beneath his skull must once have fastened his long hair, and, perhaps most im­pressive, was the necklace of tiger claws worn around his neck.

In the upper layers of both years’ ex­cavations we found a number of curious clay rollers deeply carved with patterns of geometric and/or curvilinear designs. When these are rolled over a flat surface they produce complex, often interlocking, cur­vilinear designs. Some bear traces of red or blue pigment, supporting our assumption that these were used to print patterns on woven or matted textiles. We also found a number of small, crude representations of pig and buffalo, one rather well done figurine of a rhinoceros, and other small figurines not easily identified. Quantities of both stone and glass beads along with bronze bangles, earrings, bracelets and anklets decorate the skeletons of the uppermost two burial phases. Above the incised-and-painted pottery phase (Phase IV), lies the now famous red-on-buff painted pottery phase (Phase V) with its intricate and sophisticated red curvilinear designs. Above this is the last prehistoric phase (Phase VI) dated to 250 B.C. and characterized by large, often thick and rather crudely made red-slipped pottery.

The Ban Chiang area has yielded an enormous amount of pottery and bronze. The Thai Fine Arts Department has registered over 7,000 pots and no one can guess how many have been smuggled out of the country. We might add that many of the latter are the products of clever reconstruction and reproduction which is now a thriving in­dustry.

We have achieved a beginning, but several more years must be spent on analysis and survey, and many more sites must be investigated before we will have a satisfac­tory understanding of this extraordinary creative prehistoric society. Explanations involving diffusion, migration, and/or in­dependent invention as possible mechanisms or agents of the cultural changes we are witnessing in the Ban Chiang sequence, must be approached with theoretical and methodological precision. Are the technological innovations we see entering our archaeological sequences the reflections of similar earlier developments taking place elsewhere and, through some form of early contact, spreading into culturally receptive areas on the Korat Plateau? Such an explana­tion presupposes the existence of a highly developed “donor” culture bordering this part of Southeast Asia; to date, no such culture has been archaeologically defined. The Ban Chiang cultural tradition seems, interestingly enough, to be a product of its own Southeast Asian plateau development.

The University Museum feels fortunate to be involved with Thai archaeologists in these early stages of discovery. The Thai government has allotted a considerable sum of money for the expenses of the project which has recently been included in the National Development Program of the coun­try. It has also built a site museum, a guest house, a storage depot and a new all-weather access road, and it has issued a postage stamp to send the image of Ban Chiang around the world. Finally, the government has provided scholarships for two Thai students, Sihawat Naenna and Pthomrerk Ketudhat to obtain M.Sc. degrees at the University of Penn­sylvania. They will eventually join Gorman and Charoenwongsa who will return to Thailand in early 1977 to continue the investigation of the controversial Ban Chiang culture.


Many people have given unstintingly of their time and talent to insure the success of the 1974 and 1975 excavations and surveys around Ban Chiang. We would, at this time, like to record our special appreciation of the following: Nai Chin Yon-di, general consult­ant from the Fine Arts Department and Nai Somsak Ratanakul, Chief of the Archaeology Division. Elizabeth Lyons, as representative of the Ford Foundation, Bangkok has been instrumental in every phase of our work—her early recognition of the importance of Ban Chiang was a major impetus in initiating the over-all project. Lee and Linda Bigelow of the American Consulate, Udorn, and Ambassador Charles Whitehouse in Bangkok provided us with personal and official support above and beyond that required by their office.

Major financial support continues from the Thai Fine Arts Department and the Expeditions Committee of the University Museum. Specialists’ participation was fund­ed by a grant from the Ford Foundation; a second Ford grant to Dr. Gorman and Professor M.C. Suphadradis Diskul, Silapakorn University, funded the participa­tion and training of a number of Thai students. Equipment and some staff support supplied by a U.S. National Science Founda­tion Grant (Grant #GS-29133) and already in use in Thailand was partially transferred to the Ban Chiang project. To Otto and Dorothy Haas who, through a private contribution to the Museum in 1973, sponsored the first year of our Museum’s participation, a very special thanks is in order. The staff of the National Museum, Bangkok, and the University Museum, Philadelphia, whether on the site, or replying to telephone calls or cables, were always the base support necessary to an expedition in the field.

In the squares, down in the ground at Ban Chiang, we were similarly fortunate. Field assistants to Charoenwongsa included Thai archaeologist Vidya Intakosai (who had the very first excavations at Ban Chiang), Pacharee Komolthiti, administrator and archaeologist from the National Museum, Bangkok, and Sod Daeng-iad, a graduate in archaeology from Silapakorn University. An earlier Ford grant to the University Museum provided funding for William Schauffler of the University of Pennsylvania during both years, and for Jean Kennedy, a University of Hawaii graduate student who concentrated on the human skeletal material during most of the 1975 season. Schauffler’s major contribu­tion 1 he second season was his carefully planned survey and test excavations; his Ph.D. thesis now in preparation is based on this research. Deborah Kramer, then of Sarah Lawrence College, took major responsibility during both seasons for drafting all sections and plans; under a Marshall Scholarship she enters Cambridge University this fall for graduate work in Southeast Asian prehistory. Lionel Chiong, lecturer in archaeology, Silliman University, Philippines, archaeological trainees Ponn Chhavann of Cambodia and Nguyen Van Luan of Vietnam spent one to several weeks at Ban Chiang on work/study tours funded by Ford Foundation travel/study grants. Three Vietnamese and four young Cambodian archaeologists joined us for several weeks following the completion of their participation in the UN/University of Otago Mekong Archaeological Survey pro­ject.

Various teams of Thai archaeology students from Silapakorn University took part in the Ban Chiang projects during both years. Penpim Kaesuriya and Saengchan Traikasem worked at Ban Chiang during 1974 and returned during 1975 to assume major roles in the survey program.

During the 1975 excavations a number of Thai students including Surin Phookajorn, Supapan Nakban, Sukit Tiangmanikul, Pathom Rasitanond and Amphan Kich-ngam attended a long term training program at Ban Chiang. Amphan under a Ford Foundation SEAFP grant is now continuing graduate study under Professor Higham at the Univer­sity of Otago.

The villagers of Ban Chiang through their hospitality, trust, and spontaneous good humor made not only our research but also our leisure time in Ban Chiang a very unforgettable experience. Visitors appeared with unerring accuracy from almost every corner of the world: they were generally advised that after one day’s grace they were liable for corvee duty in the pot-cleaning and bagging shed.

Finally we would like to acknowledge the role of one person whose imagination, drive and optimism united our two museums in this continuing research effort, Froelich Rainey, Director of the University Museum.

Cite This Article

Gorman, Chester and Charoenwongsa, Pisit. "Ban Chiang." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 4 (July, 1976): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

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

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