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  • Ban Chiang, Northeast Thailand, Volumes 2A and 2B:A Review Essay
  • Charles Higham (bio)

introduction: the site of ban chiang

Joyce C. White and Elizabeth G. Hamilton's Ban Chiang, Northeast Thailand volumes 2A (2018) and 2B (2019) are the first two of four projected volumes reporting on the origins, timing, and social impact of metallurgy in Southeast Asia with particular reference to the site of Ban Chiang in Northeast Thailand. Ban Chiang is a village located in the northern reaches of the Khorat Plateau in Thailand. In the late 1960s, lavishly painted prehistoric pottery vessels came to the attention of the villagers at the same time as a nearby base was occupied by the American military during the war in Vietnam and Laos. This unfortunate conjunction led to intense looting by villagers and countless pots being returned to the United States as souvenirs. News of the scale of destruction spread widely. In response, the Thai Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture organized two excavations, one in the temple grounds in 1972, the other in an unlooted lane a year later. The latter revealed a lengthy prehistoric cultural sequence, but no burials or associated offerings were removed for analysis. Early attempts to date the pottery vessels by thermoluminescence provided incredibly early dates. One sample, sent to the University Museum, Philadelphia, returned a date of ca. 7000 B.P. (Loofs-Wissowa 1983). This was found in association with bronze, giving credence to an indigenous origin for metallurgy in Northeast Thailand (Solheim 1968). Ban Chiang was becoming a site of world significance.

Reports of these early dates came to the attention of Froelich Rainey, Director of the University Museum in Philadelphia. Incooperation with the Thai Fine Arts Department, he sponsored two further excavations in 1974 and 1975, directed by Chester Gorman from the University Museum, Philadelphia, and Pisit Charoenwongsa of the Thai Fine Arts Department. The first took place in an intact garden and covered an area of 72.3 m2; the second was adjacent to the previous excavation in the lane and involved 58.5 m2.The Ban Tong, Ban Phak Top, and Don Klang sites located in the same region were also investigated in 1974 and 1975 with test squares of between 9 and 12 m2.

This fieldwork followed the 1966–1968 excavations at Non Nok Tha, 115 km to the southwest, which had already fuelled claims for the world's earliest copper-base metallurgy (Bayard 1971; Solheim 1968). Following the two seasons in the field, [End Page 208] Gorman and Charoenwongsa (1976) claimed confirmation of this startling discovery on the basis of charcoal radiocarbon determinations from Ban Chiang, placing the earliest evidence for bronze at ca. 3600 b.c. and for iron at ca. 1600 b.c. An article soon appeared in Time magazine in 1976 with the headline "Turning the Clock Back," repeating these dates (Time 1976). White's (1982) illustrated guide to the site that accompanied a travelling exhibition was then entitled "Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age," despite extensive literature in French published over a century earlier that already described Bronze Age sites in Southeast Asia (Noulet 1879). All this publicity divided the interested academic community into those prepared to accept the early dates from those who were not. After Chester Gorman died in 1981, Joyce White, then a young graduate student, was placed in charge of the analysis and publication of the 1974–1975 excavations the following year by the Directorate of the University Museum, Philadelphia. Two of the four volumes reporting on the metal remains have now been published. I comment on them below as a member of the excavation team who spent a month during both seasons at Ban Chiang.


In the first two chapters of volume 2A, White reiterates the contents of my summary on the nineteenth century identification of prehistoric copper-base metallurgy in Southeast Asia following the establishment of French colonial government over Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (Higham 1996:17–28). This is the background to the pioneer fieldwork in Northeast Thailand that led to the excavation of Nok Tha and Ban Chiang...


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