Bronze Age Myanmar (Burma): A Report on the People from the Cemetery of Nyaunggan, Upper Myanmar

Article excerpt

The site and its excavation

A prehistoric cemetery in Upper Myanmar was excavated during two field seasons in 1998 and 1999, by staff from the Mandalay Division of the Department of Archaeology of the Union of Myanmar, under the directorship of U Pauk Pauk, Director of Research. The site is named Nyaunggan after a near-by village. It is on a slight slope within metres of the rim of a shallow volcanic crater, in a rural area to the north of the city of Monywa, near the Chindwin River (FIGURE 1).

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On the basis of the style and composition of surface-collected artefacts, the site was identified as potentially Bronze Age. The objective of the excavation was to confirm whether this was the case. The reason for a particular interest in this was the inference that technology in prehistoric Myanmar had by-passed the stage of copper and bronze working and had passed directly from the Neolithic to iron working (Stargardt 1990: 14; cited in Nyunt Han 1999: 29). No radiocarbon dates are available for the site but on the basis of the presence of technologically and stylistically advanced bronze artefacts and the absence of any iron artefacts, the site is deemed to represent the Bronze Age in Myanmar. Since the excavation, a number of other similar sites have been located in the region by staff from the Department of Archaeology (Pauk Pauk pers. comm.).

The site measures approximately 200x85 m, with the long axis parallel to the crater rim. The excavations involved five pits located within an area of 490 sq. m, with a large area of 360 sq. m exposed. The depth of the excavation ranged from a few cm to ~3 m, with burials located at depths between 10 cm and 1.5 m.

During the excavation 43 burials were identified, many with numerous pots of a variety of styles and shapes, ranging in size from large (diameter 55 cm) to very small (diameter 4 cm). Some had bronze, terracotta, stone and shell artefacts, and animal bones. The bronze artefacts totalled 11 socketed items, mainly spear heads and axes. There was no bronze jewellery but 11 polished stone bangles of a variety of sizes and shapes, including distinctive square and triangular, and beads of stone, shell and terracotta were present. A number of burials had no visible human skeletal remains but were identified on the basis of accumulations of large numbers of pots and occasional animal bones.

Excavation of test pits to considerable depth (~3 m) in areas of the existing excavation squares where there were no burials did not reveal any deeper skeletons. There was very little superposition, and only one instance of definite disturbance of a skeleton by a later burial. The true depth of the cemetery could only be confirmed by removal of the exposed burials and further excavation, but the evidence suggests the cemetery represents a single, short period of activity. There was no cultural stratigraphy and no evidence of habitation remains (Pauk Pauk 1999; Nyunt Han 1999; Kyaw Han 1999).

The site has been left with the burials in situ, as a `site museum' and the area designated as a protected archaeological zone. There is a caretaker living on site. The excavation pits have been covered with shelters of split bamboo, with walkways around the interior walls and fences to prevent visitors from entering the pit itself (FIGURE 2). A tour company has been contracted to bring tour groups to the site and a shelter has been built for giving talks to tour groups, together with other facilities. The artefacts other than pottery and some stone bangles have been removed from the site for safe-keeping and replaced by resin replicas. Many of the skeletons are on raised pedestals of soft soil, which have been supported with wooden retaining walls. An effort has been made to preserve both the bones and the surrounding matrix using chemical preservatives.

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The human skeletons

In January 1999 an international group of scholars was invited to visit the site during the course of a workshop on the Bronze Age Culture of Nyaunggan. …