Ban Chiang

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Wat Pho Si Nai - UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque.JPG
Type Cultural
Criteria iii
Reference 575
UNESCO region Asia-Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription 1992 (16th Session)
Ban Chiang is located in Thailand
Ban Chiang
Location of Ban Chiang in Thailand.

Ban Chiang (Thai: แหล่งโบราณคดี บ้านเชียง) is an archeological site in Nong Han District, Udon Thani Province, Thailand. It has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992. Discovered in 1966, the site attracted enormous publicity due to its attractive red painted pottery.

Ban Chiang pottery in the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin-Dahlem


Villagers had uncovered some of the pottery in prior years without insight into its age or historical importance. In August 1966 Steve Young, an anthropology and government student at Harvard College, was living in the village conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. Young, a speaker of Thai, was familiar with the work of Wilhelm G. Solheim and his theory of possible ancient origins of civilization in Southeast Asia. One day while walking down a path in Ban Chiang with his assistant, an art teacher in the village school, Young tripped over a root of a kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. Under him were the exposed tops of pottery jars of small and medium sizes. Young recognized that the firing techniques used to make the pots were very rudimentary, but that the designs applied to the surface of the vessels were unique and wonderful. He took samples of pots to Princess Phanthip Chumbote who had the private museum of Suan Pakkad in Bangkok and to Chin Yu Di of the Thai Government's Fine Arts Department[1] Later, Elisabeth Lyons, an art historian on the staff of the Ford Foundation, sent sherds from Ban Chiang to the University of Pennsylvania for dating.


During the first formal scientific excavation in 1967, several skeletons, together with bronze grave gifts, were unearthed. Rice fragments have also been found, leading to the belief that the Bronze Age settlers were probably farmers. The site's oldest graves do not include bronze artifacts and are therefore from a Neolithic culture; the most recent graves date to the Iron Age. Pots and sherds from the site are now found in museums across the world, including the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin and the British Museum in London.[2]

Dating the artifacts[edit]

The first datings of the artifacts using the thermoluminescence technique resulted in a range from 4420 BCE to 3400 BCE, which would have made the site the earliest Bronze Age culture in the world. However, with the 1974-1975 excavation, sufficient material became available for radiocarbon dating, which resulted in more recent dates. The earliest grave was about 2100 BCE, the latest about 200 CE. Bronze making began circa 2000 BCE, as evidenced by crucibles and bronze fragments.[3] Bronze objects include bracelets, rings, anklets, wires and rods, spearheads, axes and adzes, hooks, blades, and little bells.

The date of 2100 BCE was obtained by Dr. Joyce White on the basis of six AMS radiocarbon dating crushed potsherds containing rice chaff temper and one on the basis of rice phytoliths. The potsherds came from mortuary offerings. This method of dating is now known to be unreliable, because the clay from which the pots were made might well itself contain old carbon. Specialists in radiocarbon dating now discourage use of this dating method. A new dating initiative for this site has been undertaken by Professor Thomas Higham of the AMS Dating Laboratory at Oxford University, in conjunction with Professor Charles Higham of the University of Otago. This has involved dating the bones from the people who lived at Ban Chiang and the bones of animals interred with them. The resulting determinations have been analysed using the Bayesian statistic OxCal 4.0, and the results reveal that the initial settlement of Ban Chiang took place by Neolithic rice farmers in about 1500 BCE, with the transition to the Bronze Age about 1000 BCE. These dates are a mirror image of the results from the 76 determinations obtained from a second and much richer Bronze Age site at Ban Non Wat. The mortuary offerings placed with the dead at Ban Chiang during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages were in fact, few and poor.

A diorama of an ancient Ban Chiang lady painting pots, Ban Chiang National Museum
Wat Pho Si Nai is about a kilometer from the Ban Chiang Museum. It is the only original archaeological site in a cluster that has not been built on by the encroachment of the village. The site that pots were buried with people during funeral rites.

US legal case[edit]

The site made headlines in January 2008 when thousands of artifacts from the Ban Chiang cultural tradition and other prehistoric traditions of Thailand were found to be illegally in several California museums and other locations.[4] The plot involved smuggling the items out of Thailand into the US and then donating them to museums in order to claim large tax write-offs. There were said to be more items in museums than at the site itself. This was brought to light during high profile raids conducted by the police after a National Park Service agent had posed as a private collector. If the US government wins its case, which is likely to take several years of litigation, the artifacts are to be returned to Thailand.[5] In 2014 the case was won and the artifacts were to be returned [6]

See also[edit]


Black ceramic jar, Ban Chiang culture, Thailand, 1200-800 BCE.

NOTE: The excavation at Ban Chiang in 1974/75 was followed by an article by Chester Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa, claiming evidence for the earliest dates in the world for bronze casting and iron working. This led to an at times acrimonious debate, between those who accepted these dates, and those who did not. Subsequent excavations, including that at Ban Non Wat, have now shown that the proposed early dates for Ban Chiang are unlikely. However, the early claims are still repeated in the secondary literature.[7]

After Dr. Gorman's death in 1981, Dr. Joyce White continued research and publications as Director of the Ban Chiang Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.[8] Dr. White's research endeavors have included analysis and publication of Penn's excavations at Ban Chiang in Thailand in the mid-1970s; ecological field research at Ban Chiang in 1978-1981 including investigations of how local people identified and used plants; lake coring and ecological mapping for palaeoenvironmental research in several parts of Thailand during the 1990s; and since 2001, survey and excavation in northern Laos, especially in Luang Prabang Province. However, no final report on the 1974-1975 excavations has been forthcoming.


  1. ^ Southeast Asia: A Past Regained, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia 1995, pages 25–32
  2. ^ British Museum Collection
  3. ^ "White, J.C. 2008 Dating Early Bronze at Ban Chiang, Thailand. In From Homo erectus to the Living Traditions. Pautreau, J.-P.; Coupey, A.-S.; Zeitoun, V.; Rambault, E., editors. European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Chiang Mai, pp. 91-104." (PDF). 
  4. ^ Metcalfe, Tom (2016-04-20). "The legacy of Ban Chiang: Archaeologist Joyce White talks about Thailand's most famous archaeological site". The Isaan Record. Retrieved 27 April 2016. 
  5. ^ Vitale, Katherine D. (April 1, 2009). "The war on antiquities: United States law and foreign cultural property.". Notre Dame Law Review. The Free Library. Retrieved April 18, 2011. 
  6. ^ Felch, Jason (June 10, 2014). "Victory for Thailand in US". The Art Newspaper. Allemandi Publishing. Retrieved March 8, 2015. 
  7. ^ Gorman, C.F.; Charoenwongsa, P. (1976). "Ban Chiang: A Mosaic of Impressions from the First Two Years". Expedition. 8 (4): 14–26. 
  8. ^ "Joyce White Honored at Opening of Ban Chiang National Museum". Institute for Southeast Asian Archeology. Retrieved 10 November 2015. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Higham, Charles, Prehistoric Thailand, ISBN 974-8225-30-5, pp 84–88
  • Higham C.F.W. and T.F.G. Higham 2009. A new chronological framework for prehistoric Southeast Asia, based on a Bayesian model from Ban Non Wat. Antiquity 82:1-20.
  • Higham C.F.W. 2011. The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia: new insight on social change from Ban Non Wat. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21(3): 365-89
  • Higham C.F.W., R. Ciarla, T.F.G. Higham, A. Kijngam and F. Rispoli 2011. The establishment of the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia. Journal of World Prehistory, 24 (4),227-274:
  • Higham C.F.W., T.F.G. Higham and A. Kijngam 2011. Cutting a Gordian Knot: The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia, timing, origins and impact. Antiquity 85:583-98.
  • White, J.C. and Hamilton, E. G. 2009. The Transmission of Early Bronze Technology to Thailand: New Perspectives World Prehistory (2009) Vol. 22. Pp 357–397
  • White, J. C. (1995). Incorporating Heterarchy into Theory on Socio‐political Development: The Case from Southeast Asia. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 6(1), 101-123.
  • Pietrusewsky, Michael; Douglas, Michele T. (Michele Toomay) (Fall 2001). "Intensification of Agriculture at Ban Chiang: Is There Evidence from the Skeletons?" (PDF). Asian Perspectives. Project MUSE: University of Hawai'i Press. 40 (2): 157–178. doi:10.1353/asi.2001.0023. ISSN 0066-8435. e-issn 1535-8283. Retrieved 21 September 2011. Abstract: Human skeletal remains excavated in 1974 -1975 at Ban Chiang, a premetal to Bronze/Iron Age site located in northeastern Thailand, are used to examine the health effects of sedentism and agricultural intensification. The archaeological sequence provides evidence for the introduction of iron and water buffalo in the Middle period, suggesting the beginning of intensified agriculture. The effects of this agricultural intensification on the paleodemography, health, and patterns of traumatic injury of Ban ChiangÕs early inhabitants is examined. The skeletal and dental attributes examined include palaeodemographic parameters, dental caries, dental enamel hypoplasia, cribra orbitalia, stature, skeletal infections, and trauma. The results of this analysis are mixed. There are decreases in life expectancy and mean age-at-death that are consistent with a decline in health over time, but evidence for an increase in fertility, expected with intensified agriculture, is not found. Expected temporal increases in dental enamel hypoplasia and adult cribra orbitalia are documented. However, the expected decline in adult stature and expected increases in dental caries, cribra orbitalia in subadults, skeletal infection, and traumatic injury are not found. Overall, the skeletal indicators support continuity in Ban Chiang health, suggesting continuous reliance on a broadly based subsistence system. These findings do not fit the typical pattern demonstrated for other human groups experiencing the transition to sedentism and intensified agriculture and may support the contention that Southeast Asia's archaeological sequence differs markedly from those studied elsewhere in the world. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 17°32′55″N 103°21′30″E / 17.54861°N 103.35833°E / 17.54861; 103.35833