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HomeSpecial EventsShanghai Archaeology Forum 2013
The Origins of the Civilization of Angkor
From:Chinese Archaeology  Writer:  Date:2013-09-01

In the late 16th century, Portuguese missionaries came across a deserted city in Northwest Cambodia. They reported their discoveries to the authorities in Lisbon, and some speculated on its origins. The foundation of the école Francaise d'Extrême Orient in the French colonial empire of Indo-China led to the examination of the remains of Angkor. With little if any knowledge of the prehistoric societies of this area, they suggested that the civilization was implanted from India into an unsophisticated Neolithic population.

Our research in the upper Mun Valley in Northeast Thailand began in 1992, when fieldwork in Cambodia itself was impossible. However, the Mun Valley was part of the kingdom of Angkor, and it was from our study area that the founding king of the third dynasty, Jayavarman VI, originated. There is a dense concentration of prehistoric settlements both in the Mun Valley and adjacent Cambodia, easily identified by their surrounding banks and moats. We have excavated five of these sites. The longest sequence comes from Ban Non Wat, where the initial settlement by Neolithic rice farmers took place in the 17th century BC. This was followed by a further Neolithic phase, six phases of the Bronze Age (1050-420 BC) and four of the Iron Age, ending in AD 600. The site of Noen U-Loke has all four Iron Age phases, while Non Muang Kao and Non Ban Jak were initially occupied during the latter half of the Iron Age.

The essential foundation for the pathway to states is rice agriculture. The domestication of rice in the lower Yangtze region, as seen at Tianluoshan, reached a critical tipping point in the 4th millennium BC, which stimulated outward population pressure. Originating ultimately in the Yangtze region, the first rice farmers reached Northeast Thailand in the second half of the second millennium BC, and brought with them, their distinctive mortuary practices, ceramic designs, weaving, and domestic rice, pigs and dogs. We have a cemetery of this settlement phase at Ban Non Wat.

By the 11th century BC, an interaction sphere embracing Southeast Asia and Lingnan brought the knowledge of copper base technology to the Mun Valley, while in Central Thailand, the copper mines were being exploited. The social impact of metallurgy is measured in the elite, one could say princely burials of the Early Bronze Age at Ban Non Wat, where men, women and young people were interred with unparalleled wealth that included a new range of ceramic vessels, copper base axes and ornaments, multiple marine shell jewellery and marble bangles and earrings. This we interpret as a rapid rise of aggrandizers who controlled and deployed the ownership of prestige valuables and were interred with lavish mortuary rituals including feasting.

This dramatic rise declined just as rapidly as it began after about eight generations. The later Bronze Age burials while adhering to the same basic rituals, were much poorer. The transition into the Iron Age at Ban Non Wat again saw the same mortuary tradition, but now there was a new range of offerings including iron spears, tools, hoes and ornaments, and glass, carnelian and agate ornaments that reflect the development of a new maritime trade network linking Southeast Asia with India and China.

The sequel during this vital Iron Age millennium is seen at Noen U-Loke. In the second mortuary phase there (100 BC – AD 200), the dead were interred with novel bronze ornaments, carnelian beads and whole pigs, in graves that had been filled with rice. The third phase (AD 200-400) witnessed a combination of highly significant emergent qualities. Burials were now placed in sealed graves filled with rice, associated with multiple bronzes, gold, silver, glass, agate and carnelian ornaments, eggshell thin ceramics and iron knives. One man was interred with a heavy socketed iron ploughshare of a form precisely matched at the site of Non Ban Jak. At this juncture, the banks were constructed round the settlements in order to retain and manage water. There is growing evidence for the presence of fixed, bunded rice fields. Iron weaponry proliferated, one young man was found with an iron arrowhead lodged in his spine. A valued local resource, salt, was being processed on a major scale. Lake sediments indicate that this was also a period when the intensity of the monsoon waned, and there was increased aridity.

Taken in conjunction, these changes would have stimulated powerful changes in society. Ploughing increases agricultural productivity tenfold when compared with manual labour. Improved fields can be owned by elites. There was a need to organize labour on a considerable scale to construct the water engineering facilities. Conflict encourages the rise of powerful leaders. Moats or reservoirs round the sites not only provided abundant aquatic food, but could also have irrigated rice fields when the rains faltered.

The latest phase in the Iron Age overlaps the 6th and 7th centuries, a period when we can turn to three new sources of information: indigenous inscriptions, archival Chinese accounts and archaeological examination of a new range of sites. The inscriptions describe and confirm what we have found in the late Iron Age: leaders with control over water resources, a range of local crafts including potting and weaving cloth, and a division of labour with rice fields workers at one end of the spectrum, and kings with divine names at the top. While Iron Age moated sites were abandoned, new settlements were founded that centred on impressive brick temples dedicated to indigenous and Indic gods. Impressive Sanskrit names were taken by dynasties of kings. There was not one but a number of competing city states engaged in endemic warfare. Towards the end of the 8th century, one such king, Jayavarman II, was able to defeat his rivals and have himself consecrated cakravartin, supreme leader on earth, in a ceremony on the Kulen upland north of Angkor. His new and splendid city has just been identified by a Lidar survey able to penetrate the jungle and map his capital.

Charles Higham (University of Otago)
Rachanie Thosarat  (Fine Arts Department of Thailand)

Biographical Sketch
Dr. Charles Higham is a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Otago, New Zealand. He was born and educated in England, and studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University where he completed his Ph.D. in 1966. Following the completion of his doctorate, Higham accepted a lectureship at the University of Otaga and was appointed Foundation Professor in the Department of Anthropology in 1968. He began his archaeological fieldwork in Southeast Asia in 1969 in the Roi Et and Khon Kaen provinces of Thailand. His fieldwork has continued in Southeast Asia until today, excavating at a series of sites dating between 3000 BC and AD 600 such as Ban Na Di (1981-2), Nong Nor (1989-92), Ban Non Wat (2002-7) and Non Ban Jak (2011-2). He is currently a member of the research programme From Paddy to Pura: the Origins of Angkor (directed by Dr. D. O’Reilly and Dr. L. Shewan), directing the excavation of Non Ban Jak in Northeast Thailand. He is also collaborating with Professor T. Higham of Oxford and Dr F. Petchey of Waikato University to establish a firm chronological framework for later Southeast Asian prehistory through the dating of human bones and teeth from a variety of key prehistoric sites in the area. Dr. Higham is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Fellow of St. Catharine’s College Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Additional, he was awarded the Grahame Clark medal of distinguished research in archaeology by the British Academy in 2012. Dr.Rachanie Thosarat was educated at Samsen School in Bangkok, before studying archaeology at Silpakon University. As a student, she joined the excavations at Ban Chiang in 1975, and on graduating, was offered a scholarship by the Ford Foundation to study for the M.Sc. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. On returning to Thailand, she took up a position with the Thai Fine Arts Department, and joined Professor Charles Higham as co-director of the excavation at the site of Khok Phanom Di. This led to a second Ford Foundation award in order to undertake her doctoral research at the University of Otago. The successful synergies of the fieldwork with Professor Higham has led to further cooperation as co-directors at the site of Nong Nor. In 1992, Dr Thosarat was appointed to a regional post at Phimai in Northeast Thailand, ending as the Director of the Phimai Historic Park. This led to the co-direction of further excavations on the Origins of Angkor project, involving the sites of Ban Lum Khao, Noen U-Loke and Ban Non Wat. In 2005, she resigned from the Fine Arts Department to work fulltime on this project, and currently she is field director of the excavations at the site of Non Ban Jak.

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