- Ancient Southeast Asia by John N. Miksic and Geok Yian Goh
This book provides readers with the most comprehensive overview of Southeast Asia’s archaeological history since C.F.W. Higham’s (1989) seminal book, The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia. Moreover, Ancient Southeast Asia is the first synthesis to encompass not only the mainland regions but also Island Southeast Asia from Sumatra and Borneo to the Philippines. A work of such breadth and scope demands rich scholarship, which has been guaranteed by the authors’ enormous knowledge of the different regional contexts and their acquaintance with the material and textual evidence and the latest discoveries. The result is a highly useful compilation, which will enable readers to understand the dynamics of social-cultural evolution in a vast and geographically fragmented region.
The well-structured content of the book constantly shifts between close perspectives on certain social or political units and an interregional perspective that highlights the entanglement of important cultural, political, or economic processes for almost all periods. Thus, the attempt to define mainland and island Southeast Asia as a key historical region is successfully justified. The authors draw several parallels to other key regions in world archaeology, including adjacent China and India as well as ancient Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica in their comparative perspective. This approach is of great import as it stresses the relevance of Southeast Asia’s past in the context of global history. Several black-and-white illustrations and maps provide further useful information, though their necessarily restricted selection is unable to encompass the immense amount of archaeological finds and monuments mentioned in the book. It is the profound text, not the pictures, that guides readers through Southeast Asia’s fascinating premodern history.
The book is divided into eight chapters. The first two chapters serve as a general introduction to the history and arts of Southeast Asia, including its environments, languages, cultures, and people. The following six chapters review the archaeological periods in chronological order: “Prehistory” (2,000,000–2000 years ago), “Protoclassic” (1–600 c.e.), “Early Classic” (600–900 c.e.), “Middle Classic” (900–1200 c.e.), “Late Classic” (1200–1400 c.e.), and “Postclassic” (1400–1600 c.e.). This periodization is based on the development of art styles that appear to have occurred independently in many areas. As true of the overarching systems of periodization used for other parts of the world, this system has a slightly simplifying effect. Without further reflection, it risks suggesting that linear evolution occurred in the region, although in reality there are many instances of lagging or contrary developments. For example, while people in the lowlands of Sumatra joined the production of Hindu-Buddhist influenced artworks in the first millennium c.e., peoples in the highlands of the same island erected monuments (megaliths) with a completely different iconography. Coinage, which was introduced to mainland Southeast Asia early in the first [End Page 311] millennium c.e. later disappeared, but it continued to be used in Java long after it was introduced toward the end of the same millennium.
In any case, the authors did well by avoiding a system of periodization based on social-technological developments. Divisions into different stages of metal production, for example, are not very useful because they are not applicable to demarcating cultural stages throughout the whole region. The subdivision into periods built around the term “Classic” seems useful since it indeed matches with important changes in the cultural and socio-political landscape of Southeast Asia. It should not be understood as judgmental, however, especially with respect to the use of the terms “Protoclassic” and “Postclassic.” Neither of these periods should be described as marginal, primitive, or descended from an earlier period. They all are significant in their complexity and lasting importance for the history of Southeast Asia. This becomes even more evident if the interested reader manages...