Iron and Cloth across the Bay of Bengal: New Data from Tha Kae, Central Thailand

By Cameron, Judith | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Iron and Cloth across the Bay of Bengal: New Data from Tha Kae, Central Thailand


Cameron, Judith, Antiquity


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Introduction

Southeast Asian archaeologists have long recognised that the earliest archaeological evidence for iron in mainland Southeast Asia coincides with the earliest evidence for interregional maritime trade and exchange (Glover 1989; Higham 1996; Bellwood 1997; Bellina & Glover 2004). As Higham (2010) explains, the combination of iron and exotic artefacts at sites such as Ban Don Ta Phet (first identified by Glover [1990]), highlighted central Thailand's early exposure to the growing exchange with Indian societies across the Bay of

Bengal. These excavations revealed a society deploying iron technology for both conflict and husbandry.

Notwithstanding the competitive advantage iron technology gave to prehistoric groups engaged in warfare and agriculture, iron must surely also have had other functions, albeit less readily discernible in the archaeological record. This paper focuses on iron artefacts recovered during the joint Thai/Italian excavations of the site of Tha Kae and suggests that iron may also have had a role in cloth production late in the Iron Age of central Thailand. There is also sufficient evidence to suggest that both iron and new fibres such as cotton were introduced into this strategic area of Southeast Asia long before the Dvaravati period (sixth--thirteenth centuries AD). Moreover, such highly specialised iron tools enable very specific parallels to be elucidated for the first time between Iron Age sites in central Thailand and others across the Bay of Bengal in Tamilnadu.

Tha Kae

Tha Kae is one of several moated sites located in central Thailand, c. 10km from Lopburi City. The site was excavated by the joint Thai-Italian Lopburi Regional Archaeology Project (LoRAP) team led by Roberto Ciarla (Ciarla 1992; Rispoli 1992) over five seasons commencing in 1988. As well as charting the growth of moated sites, the LoRAP excavations produced evidence for the cultivation of rice and domestic buffalo, decorated pottery with firm parallels at archaeological sites in Vietnam and south China, and metallurgy. The investigations (Ciarla 1992) indicated that Tha Kae was occupied from the end of the first millennium BC to the late first millennium AD with some usage in the Ayutthaya period (AD 1351-1767).

Evidence for spinning

The material evidence for spinning at Tha Kae consists primarily of 90 fragments of spindle whorl, the greatest concentration of which came from mid and late Iron Age layers (third century BC--third century AD) of OP 1 (Figure 1). There was a high degree of standardisation in material composition: most whorls in the assemblage were made of terracotta (Figure 2), although a possible lead whorl is currently being investigated further. The whorls measured between 12 and 37mm in diameter. Most were well-fired with red, black, brown, grey and buff wares represented. Some were slipped (black or red) and/or burnished. The forms were varied, the most common being biconical (Figure 3). There was also an unusual type, named for its shape by Narong Saikondee (pers. coram.) as the 'door knob' whorl (Figure 4; and see below).

The assemblage also produced evidence that linked spinning with the use of iron. Three broken terracotta whorls (TK10701, TK10711 and TK10725) showed traces of iron remaining inside their central perforations, implying the use of an iron spindle. Indeed, the finds elsewhere included three iron rods which have the functional attributes of spindles (Figure 5). All of them are dated to the period between the third century BC and the third century AD. T#1399 measures c. 120mm in length and is sufficiently narrow in diameter to take a spindle whorl. They all have straight sides, slightly thicker in the centre, and are tapered towards the end. Although relatively short, experimental archaeology (Martensson et al. 2005-2005) has demonstrated that short spindles spin very small whorls well, particularly bead-like whorls.

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