Penn Museum in Laos

Penn Museum in Laos

By: Elizabeth Hamilton

Originally Published in 2010

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Two intact adult skulls, one female and one male, were found in a jar that probably dates to the Iron Age.
Two intact adult skulls, one female and one male, were found in a jar that probably dates to the Iron Age.
mmap1
Elizabeth Hamilton and a group of Lao schoolgirls look on as Lao team member Souliya Bounxaythip carefully excavates the burial pot.
MMAP team member Stephanie Howden of Australia emerges from a narrow gallery.
MMAP team member Stephanie Howden of Australia emerges from a narrow gallery.
Michael Griffiths, Kathleen Johnson, and Michael DeWald investigate a stalagmite.
Michael Griffiths, Kathleen Johnson, and Michael DeWald investigate a stalagmite.

The Middle Mekong Archaeological Project (MMAP), a pioneering archaeological project led by Penn Museum staff member Dr. Joyce White, wrapped up its ninth year in Laos in the winter of 2009–2010. MMAP is one of the very few Western archaeological projects operating in Laos, whose prehistory is barely beginning to be known. The Luce Foundation has generously funded MMAP from 2009–2012, so MMAP has been able to accomplish much work in the last two years in survey, excavation, and training Lao members of museum and culture heritage government departments in all aspects of archaeological research.

In January 2010, Joyce White, MMAP co-director Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth, and other scholars from the United States, Italy, Ireland, Australia, England, Thailand, the Philippines, and Laos conducted a short but intensive excavation at a rock shelter site named Tham An Mah (Horse Saddle Cave). This site had been used in historic times as a temple. Paintings of seated Buddas remained on the walls. Human and animal bones were found scattered on the ground and in niches in the rock. Not far below the surface the excavators found a large, nearly intact jar, extensively decorated and probably dating to the Iron Age (ca. 600 BC–AD 300). It contained bones from three individuals: two adults and a small child. Bones from another adult and other long bones were found beneath the pot. This burial appears to be unique in Southeast Asian archaeology. It was a multiple secondary burial, i.e. the bones from the four individuals were gathered together after the flesh had largely decomposed and placed in and under the pot. Inside the pot, the two adult skulls, belonging to a woman and a man, were intact, and looked as though they had been arranged so they could look up at the sky.

The excavation was by no means the only activity of the winter. Survey in the riverine areas near Luang Prabang, which had begun in 2001, continued. In 2010, we concentrated on the area around Tham An Mah, attempting to fine-tune our knowledge of settlement patterns around the site. Although we had only four weeks to conduct our survey this season, 15 new sites were recorded for a total of more than 80 sites found by MMAP in Luang Prabang so far. Dr. Gillian Thompson of the University of Bradford in England conducted flotation and seed analysis. She and the Lao team floated 28 samples from Tham An Mah for a total of 44 samples from MMAP excavations of four sites.

In addition, Dr. Kathleen Johnson, of the University of California at Irvine, and Michael Griffiths, of the University of Newcastle, Australia, conducted speleothem research in the deep caves around Luang Prabang. Speleothem is the technical term for what non-geologists call stalagmites, stalactites, or flowstone. Armed with headlamps, cave suits, and hard hats, they explored far into caves with long meandering galleries, taking samples and encountering pythons. Back in the lab at Irvine, they will measure the oxygen isotope ratios of the individual layers in an attempt to reconstruct thousands of years of Holocene climate and climate change data.

MMAP’s efforts at public outreach were taken to a new level when Amy Ellsworth, the Digital Media Developer at the Penn Museum, arrived at the beginning of January to document the season. See her entertaining blog at http://middlemekong.wordpress.com/ and YouTube videos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HWrJ8lhVCI

Cite This Article

Hamilton, Elizabeth. "Penn Museum in Laos." Expedition Magazine 52, no. 2 (July, 2010): -. Accessed June 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/penn-museum-in-laos/


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