Recent Developments in the Archaeology of Myanma Pyay (Burma): An Introduction

Article excerpt

WE ARE PLEASED TO WELCOME readers to this special issue of Asian Perspectives that focuses on the archaeology of Myanma Pyay (Burma). (1) Six papers present findings from archaeological research on different aspects of Burma's history and prehistory. They draw from recent field research, collections analysis, technical studies, and reports circulated within the country's boundaries. In addition, two of the leading archaeologists of mainland Southeast Asia, Professor Charles Higham and Professor lan Clover, have graciously agreed to comment on these papers and to share their perspectives on the archaeology of Burma. The time has come for a reckoning of our knowledge of Burma's archaeology and to establish a foundation for the growing number of research projects that have been launched, and will begin in the near future. In these introductory comments, we first explain the origins of, and justification for, a special issue devoted to a single country's archaeology. We then tack between general concerns in the archaeology of Burma and issues that the following papers raise.

One afternoon in April 1999, as a group of us walked toward the anthropology department on the campus of the University of Hawai`i to hear Bob Hudson give a lecture on his doctoral research in Burma, we decided that the time was right to produce a special issue on Burma's archaeology. From a research perspective, Burma's location makes it a key player in cultural developments that occurred in mainland Southeast Asia (as well as in eastern India and southwestern China), and we discuss this point later in our introduction. From a topical perspective, Burma has begun to welcome foreign archaeologists to undertake work within its borders. Currently, Burmese archaeology forms the focus of postgraduate research for several students in Australia, the United States, and Singapore. In July 1998, several Burmese scholars attended the 16th Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Melaka, Malaysia; they presented reports on a possible Bronze Age site in Burma to a standing-room only audience. In April 1999, one of us (MAT) organized a successful session on Burma called "Burma Studies: The Next Generation" for the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies that included two reports on archaeological research in the country.

One reason for this increased interest stems from Burma's academic leadership, which is genuinely interested in its archaeological heritage. In January 1999, Burmese archaeologists hosted a conference on prehistory that was inspired by excavations at a new Bronze Age site called Nyaung-gan (described in this issue by Moore and Pauk Pauk). The country has also recently opened up to tourism and certain fields of scholarship, including (and surprisingly) political science. A new national museum was constructed in the 1990s, which now displays prehistoric artifacts once stored in dusty boxes in an obscure archaeological department. Even the national archives have now been opened for research, boasting a digitized index of holdings, scanners and printers, and computers for those using the archives. A new manuscript archive was opened in the year 2000 with similar electronic equipment meant for public use. And, what had once been an onerous ordeal at the airport now had been largely alleviated by the use of FECs (Foreign Exchange Coupons) that give market rates for visitors' dollars, used as such or exchanged for kyats at market rates almost everywhere.

Thus it seemed to us on that spring afternoon that the time had come to publish work on the archaeology of Burma for both academic and infrastructural reasons. Yet, in 1999 one could also count the number of Burma prehistorians on one hand. For various reasons, most of them are out of touch with new techniques and methods and sorely in need of modern equipment and adequate funding. If our group, which was genuinely interested in disseminating information on Burma's prehistory to the rest of the field--with access to funding, to modern equipment and techniques, and a solid grounding on conceptual issues--did not do something, who would? …