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Reviewed by:
  • And through Flows the River: Archaeology and the Pasts of Lao Pako
  • Joyce C. White
And through Flows the River: Archaeology and the Pasts of Lao Pako. Anna Källén. Studies in Global Archaeology 6. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2004.

The excavations at Lao Pako represent a pioneering chapter in Southeast Asian archaeology—one of the first prehistoric research programs in Laos since the country began opening up to the world of modern archaeological research in the late 1980s. It is not easy being among the first outsiders to work in a country with little infrastructure or history of archaeological research. The project is remarkable for being a sustained effort over the course of eight years by a gutsy Swedish graduate student, Anna Källén, who in this volume presents a synthesis of her efforts.

Some Southeast Asian archaeologists will enjoy Källén's approach to Lao Pako, perhaps especially members of the younger generation. Other archaeologists may feel provoked, such as those over 50 years of age. Many readers will experience a continuously changing range of reactions, from thoughtful stimulation to irritation to eyebrow raising. The reactions will reflect as much on the reader as on the text, as the personal realms of reader and writer are deliberately included in Källén's interests: "I do not aim for my archaeology to be safe, but instead thought-provoking, debating and challenging" (p. 184, emphasis added). The topics challenged are not limited to dominating theoretical frameworks during the relatively brief history of the modern discipline of Southeast Asian archaeology. They even touch upon aspects (albeit selectively and in passing) usually addressed over drinks at the bar—such as the impact of the social organization of dominant players in that research and views of Lao government officials on the purpose and value of the archaeological research. Källén aims quite self-consciously to raise her treatment of Lao Pako out of the well-worn route of how to write an archaeological dissertation.

Yes, this volume is actually a Ph.D. dissertation, even if it is presented as the sixth volume in the series Studies in Global Archaeology. Except for a preliminary report in BAR (British Archaeological Reports, Källén and Karlström 1999), this is the first book-length treatise on a prehistoric site in Laos, a country at the heart of Southeast Asia that is a virtual archaeological terra incognita. As such it should be widely read, irrespective of the reader's comfort with the theoretical orientations or discursive style of the author. I recommend reading the text from beginning to end (i.e., not as a reference to "look up" a fact of personal interest). By maintaining an open mind throughout and allowing one's mind to be stimulated by the views of a member of the coming generation of Southeast Asian archaeologists on an important and fascinating site, the reader will likely experience a variety of shifts in his or her perceptions of Mainland Southeast Asian archaeological research.

Lao Pako is a late Iron Age site (first half of the first millennium A.D.) along the Ngum tributary to the Mekong in Vientiane Province. It is one of those rare Southeast Asian prehistoric sites that is only [End Page 102] a single phase, small (1 hectare), and "rich." The single phase means that issues of sorting out chronology and sequence that often dominate other site reports in the region are minimal, in comparison with the multiphase, often multimillennia sites more commonly excavated. The compact size means that a dissertation-sized project is able to get a reasonable sense of what is there. That the site is rich—in the sense that within the smallish site a dense deposition of a wide range of intact or re-constructible material remains from deliberate interments, as well as deposits left from specific activities, particularly metal production—means that vivid visual evidence was recovered that helps to engage the archaeological imagination regarding the significance and place of the site in understanding Southeast Asia's past.

Many aspects of this report, from excavation methodology to data presentation to theoretical framework, could evoke extended discussions. The use...