Ban Chiang - Bronze Age Village and Cemetery in Thailand

Chronological Debate at Thailand's Bronze Age Village and Cemetery

Ban Chiang Vessel with Spiral Decorations
Ban Chiang Vessel with Spiral Decorations (Middle Ban Chiang). Ashley Van Haeften

Ban Chiang is an important Bronze Age village and cemetery site, located at the confluence of three small tributary streams in Udon Thani province, northeastern Thailand. The site is one of the largest prehistoric Bronze Age sites in this part of Thailand, measuring at least 8 hectares (20 acres) in size.

Excavated in the 1970s, Ban Chiang was one of the first extensive excavations in southeast Asia and among the earliest multi-disciplinary efforts in archaeology, with experts in many fields cooperating to produce a fully realized picture of the site.

 As a result, Ban Chiang's complexity, with a fully-developed Bronze Age metallurgy but lacking the weaponry so often associated with it in Europe and the rest of the world, was a revelation.

Living in Ban Chiang

Like many long-occupied cities of the world, the present day town of Ban Chiang is a tell: it was built on top of the cemetery and older village remains; cultural remains have been found in some places as deep at 13 feet (4 meters) below the modern day surface. Because of the relatively continuous occupation of the site for perhaps as long as 4,000 years, the evolution of the premetal to Bronze to Iron Age can be traced.

Artifacts include distinctive highly varied ceramics known as the "Ban Chiang Ceramic Tradition." Decorative techniques found on pottery at Ban Chiang include black incised and red painted on buff colorations; cord-wrapped paddle, S-shaped curves and swirling incisions motifs; and pedestaled, globular, and carinated vessels, to name just a few of the variations.

Also included among the artifact assemblages are iron and bronze jewelry and implements, and glass, shell, and stone objects. With some of the children's burials were found some intricately carved baked clay rollers, which purpose nobody at the moment knows.

Debating the Chronology

The central debate at the core of Ban Chiang research concerns the dates of occupation and their implications about the onset and cause of the Bronze Age in southeast Asia.

Two main competing theories about the timing of the southeast Asian Bronze Age are called the Short Chronology Model (abbreviated SCM and based originally on excavations at Ban Non Wat) and the Long Chronology Model (LCM, based on excavations at Ban Chiang), a reference to the length of period noted by the original excavators compared to that of elsewhere in southeast Asia.

Periods / LayersAgeLCMSCM
Late Period (LP) X, IXIron 300 BC-AD 200 
Middle Period (MP) VI-VIIIIron 900-300 BC3rd-4th c BC
Early Period Upper (EP) VBronze1700-900 BC8th-7th c BC
Early Period Lower (EP) I-IVNeolithic2100-1700 BC13th-11th c BC
Initial Period ca 2100 BC 

Sources: White 2008 (LCM); Higham, Douka and Higham 2015 (SCM)

The main differences between the short and long chronologies stem from a result of different sources for radiocarbon dates. LCM is based on organic temper (rice particles) in clay vessels; SCM dates are based on human bone collagen and shell: all are to a degree problematic. The main theoretical difference, however, is the route by which northeastern Thailand received copper and bronze metallurgy. Short proponents argue that northern Thailand was populated by a migration of southern Chinese Neolithic populations into mainland southeast Asia; Long proponents argue that the southeast Asian metallurgy was stimulated by trade and exchange with mainland China.

These theories are bolstered with discussion of the timing for specific bronze casting in the region, established in the Shang Dynasty perhaps as early as the Erlitou period.

Also part of the discussion is how the Neolithic/Bronze age societies were organized: were the advances seen in Ban Chiang driven by elites migrating in from China, or were they propelled by a native, non-hierarchical system (heterarchy)? The most recent discussion on these and related issues was published in the journal Antiquity in Autumn 2015. 

Archaeology at Ban Chiang

Legend has it that Ban Chiang was discovered by a clumsy American college student, who fell in the road of the present town of Ban Chiang, and found ceramics eroding out of the road bed. The first excavations at the site were conducted in 1967 by archaeologist Vidya Intakosai, and subsequent excavations were conducted in the mid-1970s by the Fine Arts Department in Bangkok and the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Chester F.

Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa.

Sources

For information on on-going investigations at Ban Chiang, see the Ban Chiang Project webpage at the Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology at Pennsylvania State.

Bellwood P. 2015. Ban Non Wat: crucial research, but is it too soon for certainty? Antiquity 89(347):1224-1226.

Higham C, Higham T, Ciarla R, Douka K, Kijngam A, and Rispoli F. 2011. The Origins of the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. Journal of World Prehistory 24(4):227-274.

Higham C, Higham T, and Kijngam A. 2011. Cutting a Gordian Knot: the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia: origins, timing and impact. Antiquity 85(328):583-598.

Higham CFW. 2015. Debating a great site: Ban Non Wat and the wider prehistory of Southeast Asia. Antiquity 89(347):1211-1220.

Higham CFW, Douka K, and Higham TFG. 2015. A New Chronology for the Bronze Age of Northeastern Thailand and Its Implications for Southeast Asian Prehistory. PLoS ONE 10(9):e0137542.

King CL, Bentley RA, Tayles N, Viðarsdóttir US, Nowell G, and Macpherson CG. 2013. Moving peoples, changing diets: isotopic differences highlight migration and subsistence changes in the Upper Mun River Valley, Thailand. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(4):1681-1688.

Oxenham MF. 2015. Mainland Southeast Asia: towards a new theoretical approach. Antiquity 89(347):1221-1223.

Pietrusewsky M, and Douglas MT. 2001. Intensification of Agriculture at Ban Chiang: Is There Evidence from the Skeletons? Asian Perspectives 40(2):157-178.

Pryce TO. 2015. Ban Non Wat: mainland Southeast Asian chronological anchor and waypoint for future prehistoric research.

Antiquity 89(347):1227-1229.

White J. 2015. Comment on ‘Debating a great site: Ban Non Wat and the wider prehistory of Southeast Asia’. Antiquity 89(347):1230-1232.

White JC. 2008. Dating early Bronze at Ban Chiang, Thailand. EurASEAA 2006.

White JC, and Eyre CO. 2010. Residential Burial and the Metal Age of Thailand. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 20(1):59-78.

White JC, and Hamilton EG. 2014. The Transmission of Early Bronze Technology to Thailand: New Perspectives. In: Roberts BW, and Thornton CP, editors. Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective: Springer New York. p 805-852.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ban Chiang - Bronze Age Village and Cemetery in Thailand." ThoughtCo, Nov. 30, 2015, thoughtco.com/ban-chiang-bronze-age-village-thailand-167075. Hirst, K. Kris. (2015, November 30). Ban Chiang - Bronze Age Village and Cemetery in Thailand. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ban-chiang-bronze-age-village-thailand-167075 Hirst, K. Kris. "Ban Chiang - Bronze Age Village and Cemetery in Thailand." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ban-chiang-bronze-age-village-thailand-167075 (accessed December 16, 2017).