The Past, Present and Future of Prehistoric Archaeology in Burma. (Commentary)

Article excerpt

I OFFER SOME PERSONAL reflections on the archaeology and prehistory of Burma arising out of my reading of the various papers in this volume and from some thirty years teaching on the (mainly) prehistoric archaeology of Southeast Asia to cohorts of students in London. I feel unequal to the task of writing any substantial account of Burmese archaeology since I have been to Burma on only four occasions, and although I have read almost everything I could find on its early archaeology, I could make little coherent sense from what I have seen and read: too much was missing from the narrative. Documentation on all early sites was sparse and too widely spaced in place and time to relate them to each other.

In 1978 I visited Taungthaman (south of Mandalay) where a few seemingly late prehistoric burials had been dug and briefly reported, but there was no reliable dating, no analysis of the materials, and nothing to relate them to. In early 1999 I was privileged to spend a day at the newly discovered cemetery site at Nyaung-gan described here by Moore and Pauk Pauk. That is the sum of my personal experiences of prehistoric archaeology in Burma. Clearly the country has many significant archaeological sites, some, such as Beikthano (Aung Thaw 1968) had been competently excavated and published. Other reports, such as that on the Padah Lin Caves (Aung Thaw 1971), hinted at a long sequence of occupation from mobile hunter-gatherers to settled Neolithic villagers, although details were lacking and the documentation on the contexts of the finds, on the stratigraphy and chronology, lacked authority. Beyond these quite unrelated sites there was little other than stray finds reported in the Journal of the Burma Research Society, The Archaeological Survey of Burma, and geological reports (see Aung-Thwin, this issue).

I should emphasize that the above and subsequent comments are almost all on prehistoric archaeology and I am far more ignorant than I should be on the archaeology of the historic periods, from Pyu into later times. Of all the great cities of old Burma, I have visited only Pagan, and that only once and more as a tourist than as a scholar. I will thus restrict most of my comments to the prehistory of Burma.

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF PREHISTORIC ARCHAEOLOGY IN BURMA

The six articles in this issue of Asian Perspectives make a significant contribution to our knowledge of the archaeology of this country. That this should be so--that only six rather short chapters should be of such significance--tells us quite a lot about the rather backward state of Burmese archaeology.

This has not always been so, because investigation into the early history of humans in Burma started early, as the chapter by Michael Aung-Thwin tells us. In the late nineteenth century there was much pioneering and thoughtful research into the Palaeolithic in Burma by geologists such as Noetling, Cotter, Clegg, Evans, Pascoe, Sanson, Smith, and Stamp, among others, who, although their framework for Quaternary geology can now be seen to be flawed, recognized the tools of early man in ancient geological contexts and brought them to the attention of their colleagues.

In Burma, as in many other Southeast Asian colonial territories, geologists pioneered archaeological research. Later generations should remember with gratitude the work of Wray in Malaya; Mansuy, Colani and Patte, Fromaget, and Saurin in Indochina; and Van Es in Java. In Burma itself this research, which was always marginal to the main interests of the researchers, was continued in the 1930s by T. O. Morris, who should properly be remembered as the "Father of Burmese Archaeology." Morris recognized the significance of the flaked stone tools eroding from the various terraces of the Irrawaddy River and sent some specimens to the British Museum where they were studied by the Keeper of the Prehistoric Department, the redoubtable Reginald Smith. This contribution led to the first piece of sustained archaeological field research by Hallam Movius and Helmut de Terra in the late 1930s, which yielded the first, and still rather lonely monograph on the early prehistory of Burma (de Terra and Movius 1943). …