Intensive Archaeological Survey in Southeast Asia: Methodological and Metallurgical Insights from Khao Sai on, Central Thailand

Article excerpt


Intensive surface surveys are by now a common and well-established approach to understanding the archaeological landscapes of many parts of the world. However, they have hitherto remained relatively rare in Southeast Asian archaeology. In this paper we assess the potential contribution of such surveys in Southeast Asia, particularly with regard to archaeometallurgical landscapes. We also report the results of a short but intensive survey in the environs of Khao Sai On, in Changwat Lopburi, central Thailand (Fig. 1), that underlines some of the major strengths and weaknesses of this kind of approach in a Southeast Asian context. (1)

Located at the southern end of the Loei-Petchabun Volcanic Belt, the Lopburi area has long been known for its extensive evidence relating to early copper production (Natapintu 1988). During the last 30 years, Metal Age (2) evidence for mining, smelting, and/or founding activity, often with associated settlement and funerary finds, have been reported at a range of different locations (Fig. 2). Of the metallurgical assemblages from these sites, however, only two (from the substantially larger sites of Non Pa Wai and Nil Kham Haeng, at c. 5 ha and 3+ ha respectively), have been subject to comprehensive technological analysis, first by Anna Bennett (1988, 1989), and more recently by the lead author with a reconstructed evolution of local metallurgical behaviors from competent copper-base founding c. 1300 A.D., to experimental smelting c. 500 A.D., to standardized and intensive production by c. 500 A.D. (Pryce 2009; Pryce et al. 2010). Non Pa Wai and Nil Kham Haeng also provided a substantial body of the evidence for Joyce White and Vincent Pigott's influential article (1996) on "community" contexts of copper production in pre-state Thailand. While our understanding of ancient metallurgy and associated ways of life in the Lopburi area is far more detailed than anywhere else in Southeast Asia, the sample remains problematic, as it is both small and biased toward the largest sites.


Metal production and exchange was probably a substantial sector of the pre-modern Southeast Asian economy (see e.g., Bronson and Charoenwongsa 1994), and almost certainly a significant element of the human experience within the Lopburi area. We thus consider it a topic worthy of study in its own right. However, the comparative analysis of Eurasian metallurgical traditions has long constituted a valuable proxy for long-range cultural exchange, due to the dispersed resources and considerable skill required for successful metallurgy and the close and cooperative training environments needed for the high-fidelity transmission of these technologies (e.g., Chernykh 1992, 2008; Chernykh et al. 2000; Childe 1954; Chiou-Peng 1998; Grushin 2005; Linduff and Mei 2009; Mei 2000, 2004; Mei and Li 2003). Within the Southeast Asian arena there has been a recent spate of such modeling (Ciarla 2007i>; Higham 1996; Higham et al. 2011; Pigott and Ciarla 2007; White and Hamilton 2009), all of them linking early regional metallurgy to the general Eurasian debate, albeit with contested chronologies, routings, and social interaction mechanisms. These hypotheses can be probed in terms of theoretical framework and methodology (Pryce 2009; Pryce et al. 2010), but their critical weaknesses are data density and quality, as they rely on evidence from metallurgical assemblages separated by hundreds if not thousands of kilometers, which have for the most part not been studied in substantial detail. Therefore, our pilot landscape study was also indirectly motivated by the regional need to develop methodologies for the discovery of ancient metal production sites of all sizes, which would constitute the "stepping-stone" comparanda required to substantiate or reject the competing models for early Southeast Asian metallurgy. At local scales, a more holistic appreciation of site hierarchies in metal production landscapes will also serve to provide a clearer understanding of the social context of those industries. …