- A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times by Michael Aung-Thwin, Maitrii Aung-Thwin
This book was written just as Myanmar began to come out of the shell in which it had reposed for 50 years. During that period, historians and archaeologists had little contact with foreign scholarship. Some foreign archaeologists maintained contact with their counterparts, but they ran the risk of being condemned for appearing to support the military regime. There was a brief thaw in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Myanmar Historical Commission sponsored a number of international conferences. During that time, a number of scholars including such major prehistorians as Ian Glover and Charles Higham (and others including the author of this review) were invited to the site of Nyaung-gan in central Myanmar to inspect the first large excavated site of a late prehistoric burial. A reshuffle of leadership led to the end of this brief period of openness. This isolation and the dearth of funds devoted to historical and archaeological research have been correlated with looting of major sites such as Sri Ksetra (Prome) and hasty reconstruction of many important ancient buildings at early cities such as Sri Ksetra, Beikthano, and especially Bagan (formerly transliterated as ‘Pagan’ in English).
The Pyi School of Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology at the University of Yangon are two important institutions involved in the effort to rectify the neglect of archaeology that characterized the period of colonial rule, when Myanmar (as Burma) was governed as an appendage of India. While the new generation of archaeologists could still benefit from external help, they are rapidly becoming able to collaborate as equals. In 2014, the Department of Archaeology at the University of Yangon admitted its first undergraduate class in 20 years. This positive situation increases the likelihood that Myanmar will agree to more collaborative projects with foreign archaeologists in the near future, although this engagement is likely to evolve slowly.
Interestingly, in the brief interval between the time A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times was published in 2012 and the writing of this review in 2014, the greatest advances in our knowledge of premodern Myanmar have been made by archaeologists. No new discoveries have been made that would support the theory that Homo erectus once lived in hinterland Myanmar, nor has new light been shed on the Anyathian lithic industry, but the work of Myanmarese and foreign archaeologists at prehistoric sites has illuminated the beginning of the metal-using period there. Thus, future editions of this book could contain a much longer chapter 2 (“Prehistory”) than the ten pages devoted to it in the current version.
Although the Myanmar government successfully campaigned for the inscription of “Pyu cities” on the World Heritage List, [End Page 226] chapter 3 of this book, “The Urban Period,” abjures the use of the term “Pyu Period” for the era from 200 b.c. to the ninth century a.d. for the most archaeological of reasons: artifacts should not be equated with a particular ethnolinguistic group. There are also good historical grounds for avoiding the term “Pyu.” The old Chinese term Piao may not have meant the same as the Burmese term Pyu, a word that first appears in Old Burmese inscriptions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in reference to individuals, not groups. The Chinese Piao was a kingdom, not an ethnic group. Chinese texts note that the people of Piao called themselves something that can be transcribed as “Tircul,” a word found in Old Mon inscriptions of the twelfth century at Bagan. Aung-Thwin and Aung-Thwin thus call this the Urban Period, terminology that many archaeologists would approve.
The authors classify over twelve settlements stretching from Halin in the north to Winka, on the Gulf of Muttama in the south, from this period as “urban.” Most are located in the Irrawaddy River drainage. This development, which as the authors note is contemporaneous with the formation of similar sites in Funan, Champa, Dvaravati, Tambralinga, and Srivijaya, is...