restricted access 6. A Thousand Years before Bagan: Radiocarbon Dates and Myanmar's Ancient Pyu Cities
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6 A Thousand Years before Bagan: Radiocarbon Dates and Myanmar’s Ancient Pyu Cities Bob Hudson There are now sufficient radiocarbon dates for the walled cities of Halin, Beikthano and Sriksetra to suggest that they were all functioning by the early centuries ce. In the light of the new data, approaches to the periodization and interpretation of Myanmar’s early urban system may need to be modified. If you want to know the exact date of an ancient object or structure, find an inscription. In the 11th–13th century Bagan period, stone inscriptions give the founding year of dozens of pagodas. Some inscriptions, motivated by an urge to commence building at an auspicious moment, go so far as to nominate the day, hour or even minute when construction began (see, for example, Luce 1932). From Bagan onward, these absolute dates have provided a vital chronological framework for historical and archaeological analysis. When monks and scholars sat down in King Bagyidaw’s “Glass Palace” in 1829 to try to bring together the often contradictory narratives of earlier chronicles, pagoda histories and religious commentaries, they recognized the value of inscriptions for their dates as well as for their dedicatory content (Pe Maung Tin and Luce 1923). 17-J02381 06 Bagan and the World.indd 88 9/10/17 8:47 AM Radiocarbon Dates and Myanmar’s Ancient Pyu Cities 89 A “scientific” date, generally from carbon, can also provide an accurate time for a past event, but the time is within a range of centuries, not a specific year. However, radiocarbon dates can also go back many thousands of years before inscriptions. So far there have been relatively few samples from Myanmar tested to provide carbon dates, but the results of carbon dating so far show, among other things, that construction and other economic and cultural activity was taking place between the 1st and 3rd centuries ce at Sriksetra, Halin and Beikthano (figure 6.1). These date ranges help provide a framework within which we can view changes in art styles, palaeography, architecture and expressions of religious ideas in text or sculpture during the early urban period, before inscriptions appear. Radiocarbon Dating Radiocarbon dates tell us when the material being tested was alive. The material is usually wood which, before it rotted away in the ground, was converted to charcoal by burning and was thus preserved. During its lifetime the wood took in an isotope, Carbon-14 (written as 14 C). When the tree or other carbon-based organism died, it stopped absorbing atmospheric carbon. Over time the proportion of 14 C in the dead organism decreased as the 14 C decayed into 12 C, a stable isotope. By measuring the proportion of 14 C to 12 C that remains, the elapsed time since death of the organism can be estimated. This is done by several different laboratory methods (Scott, Aitchison et al. 1990; Bayliss, McCormac et al. 2004), but the result is that we end up with a radiocarbon date, stated in years BP, Before Present (radiocarbon “present” is arbitrarily chosen as 1950), with a possible degree of error. These data can be converted to a range of historical years allowing for the error, and calibrated more finely according to variations in the past of the amount of 14 C in the atmosphere. The dates in this chapter are calibrated at 95.4 per cent (also called 2 σ) probability using computer programs such as Oxcal and the most recent calibration data available (Bronk Ramsey 2002; Reimer, Baillie et al. 2009). Beikthano Anumber of archaeological reports on this site have been published (Aung Thaw 1968; Bronson 1969; Aung Thaw 1972; Stargardt 1990; Thaw Kaung 1998; Myo Theingyi Cho 2003; Hudson 2004, pp. 129–32; San Shwe 2004), 17-J02381 06 Bagan and the World.indd 89 9/10/17 8:47 AM 90 Bob Hudson FIGURE 6.1 Source: Bob Hudson. 17-J02381 06 Bagan and the World.indd 90 9/10/17 8:47 AM Radiocarbon Dates and Myanmar’s Ancient Pyu Cities 91 including a vigorous discussion about the degree of imported versus local influence on the site, between Janice Stargardt, who favours indigenous development, and Peter Bellwood, who suggests that Indian influence is paramount (Bellwood 1992, 1993; Stargardt 1993, 1994). Four radiocarbon dates, covering two sites within the city walls, were acquired in the 1960s. Three more radiocarbon results, for site BTO 32, a brick complex outside the south wall of the city, and for timber found below the...