Study Contradicts Top-Down Theories on Ancient Thai Metal Production

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Study Contradicts Top-Down Theories on Ancient Thai Metal Production

Archaeometallurgy, the study of metals and their past production and usage by humans, is a fascinating discipline that is a fixture of both archaeolog

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Archaeometallurgy, the study of metals and their past production and usage by humans, is a fascinating discipline that is a fixture of both archaeological and historical sciences. A groundbreaking new study focusing on ancient Thai metal production has subverted the long-held top-down approach applied to material history.

Penn Museum Issues Contradictory Findings for Thai Metal Production

When it comes to the interpretation of jewelry, tools and weapons, archaeology has traditionally analyzed metal artifacts from the perspective of the ruling elite and their dominant control over resources. Instead, researchers from the Penn Museum have rejected this pervasive approach since the 1980s. They have now published their conclusions about ancient Thai metal production in an open access format in Archaeological Research in Asia .

Discoveries at Ban Chiang have provided clues about ancient Thai metal production. The bronze bangle on the left was discovered on the left arm of the burial shown on the right. ( Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology )

“A progressive view of human development originating in 19th century perceptions of cultural evolution gets told over and over again. But it doesn’t work well when you look at areas in closer and finer detail,” says co-researcher Joyce White, director of Penn Museum’s  Ban Chiang Project  and an adjunct professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology. “We should be looking at cultural development in fine-grained ways analogous to genetics, natural selection, the nitty gritty mechanisms by which cultures evolved.”

White and her co-researcher Elizabeth Hamilton argue that, unlike Western society, Southeast Asian societies have traditionally been communitarian and closely-knit, following a bottom-up approach. Here, the decisions on how to divide and use precious resources were community-driven, with no one from the ruling classes telling them how and when these resources should be used.

Map showing distinct technological systems for early copper-base metallurgy, or Thai metal production, in different parts of Thailand. (White & Hamilton / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Map showing distinct technological systems for early copper-base metallurgy, or Thai metal production, in different parts of Thailand. (White & Hamilton / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 )

Bronze Age Metal Production in Ancient Thailand

The Bronze Age in Thailand occurred 2,500 years ago, reaching a rather advanced stage of metalworking in the civilization’s development. The first evidence has been found in the Ban Chiang archaeological site located in the Nong Han District in northeastern Thailand, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bronze artifacts from here have been dated to 2100 BC, including graves with bronze items and rice fragments from the same period which suggest settled agriculture and social differentiation (yet, not from the Neolithic period). These bronze items include ornaments, spearheads, axes and adzes, hooks, blades, and little bells.

Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper, and has been correlated traditionally with the rise of social hierarchy. The elite have always been fascinated with the appropriation of a hard and beautiful metal, that also has a high degree of functionality. In Southeast Asia, copper and tin are found easily, making it difficult for any one social group to exercise control over it.

In fact, there are no historical records from this period that point to any form of elite control over either of these two metals, and thereby, control over the production of bronze. Traditionally, European scholars, from societies unlike those in Southeast Asia, have been unable to contend that such complex metalwork was, in fact, conducted by “non-urban, non-warring, non-hierarchical societies” explained Joyce White.

In northern northeast Thailand, bracelets like these were by far the most popular metal object, and almost all of them were made of a tin-bronze alloy. (The Ban Chiang Project/ Penn Museum)

In northern northeast Thailand, bracelets like these were by far the most popular metal object, and almost all of them were made of a tin-bronze alloy. ( The Ban Chiang Project / Penn Museum )

Ban Chiang and Local Village Metal Production

White supports and furthers her argument using the example of bracelets found at Ban Chiang, which were the most popularly made metal item, using a tin-bronze alloy. Just a few hundred kilometers south at another prehistoric site, there is no use of jewelry anymore, but instead, little paddled shaped adzes (an ancient edging and cutting tool), which were made of copper rather than tin-bronze.

The lack of uniform production and lead isotope evidence of villages and communities manufacturing their own metal artifacts shows that there was production of locally specific items. Each village was therefore linked to different metal supply lines, and not linked to a one unified supply chain functioning as a large emporium of sorts. As they explain:

“The detailed studies, integrated with evidence from other metal age consumer and producer sites in the middle Mekong and Chao Phraya basins, have revealed the importance of community choices in parameters ranging from local stylistic preferences in metals and metal products, to local networks that shaped the distribution of metals and metal products, and the transmission of metal technological knowledge. Consumer and community choices are now shown to be clearly variable in the quantities and kinds of metal objects incorporated as grave goods.”

Going forward, the archaeologists hope that the findings at Ban Chiang will help scholars to recognize the fallacies embedded within traditional top-down approaches in the fields of archaeometallurgy, not just in Europe and other Western countries, but locally as well. When it comes to scholarly debate and conversation related to differentiated local production and community diversity, Southeastern Asian scholars are expected to provide huge insights, particularly in relation to metal production and other crafts.

Top image: A metal spearhead discovered at Ban Chiang is just one of many metal artifacts that have helped turn traditional theories about Thai metal production on their head.          Source: The Ban Chiang Project / Penn Museum

By Rudra Bhushan

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