Cutting a Gordian Knot: The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia: Origins, Timing and Impact

By Higham, Charles; Higham, Thomas et al. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Cutting a Gordian Knot: The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia: Origins, Timing and Impact


Higham, Charles, Higham, Thomas, Kijngam, Amphan, Antiquity


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Introduction

There are two irreconcilable models for the timing and origin of the Bronze Age in Southeast Asia. One is based on the site of Ban Chiang, the other on Ban Non Wat, both located in the Khorat Plateau of north-east Thailand. This paper cuts the Gordian Knot by redating the former site, and then reviews the cultural implications.

Ban Chiang

The first model is founded on the 1974-75 excavations at the site of Ban Chiang (Figures 1 & 2). As members of the research team, we (CH and AK) opened two areas, one of which began with Neolithic occupation and graves before the transition into the Bronze Age, while the 1975 season encountered a Bronze Age cemetery in the basal layers (Table 1, Figure 2). White and Hamilton's model (2009) is anchored in a set of radiocarbon determinations from ceramic vessels placed as mortuary offerings (White 1997, 2008). The seven dates were selected from 20 determinations, which formed the basis of a pretreatment experiment on the direct dating of pottery (Glusker & White 1997). White and Hamilton (2009) state that these place the transition to the Bronze Age at about 2000 BC. They further identify, as supporting evidence, the chaff-based determinations from Non Nok Tha potsherds (Higham 1996: 191) and a bronze bar from Ban Mai Chaimongkol, a site with no radiometric dates.

How did this complex technology reach the site of Ban Chiang as early as 2000 BC? It cannot have involved Chinese states because their bronze technology was established too late to have any bearing on origins at Ban Chiang. So they turn to the Seima-Turbino metallurgical 'transcultural phenomenon' (Chernykh 1992:218). Sites of this grouping centre on the Urals, with related sites reaching west into Finland and east to the Altai (Gorodtsov 1916). While dating remains fugitive (Mei 2003), one radiocarbon date from the site of Satyga suggests that the bronzes were being cast in the vicinity of 2000 BC (Hanks et al. 2007). The Seima cemetery has yielded socketed spearheads and decorated axes, knives decorated with cast animals on the hilts and rings. From Turbino come tanged chisels, knives decorated with cast-on sheep and horses on the pommel, and a range of spearheads often with a ring on the hilt to facilitate hafting. Some aspects of this repertoire are similar to the socketed copper-base tools cast in Southeast Asia, but many others are missing.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

White and Hamilton then follow Mei (2003) in identifying Seima-Turbino influence in the metallurgical tradition of the Qijia culture in Gansu. This culture has for long been seen as seminal in the transmission of a metallurgical tradition into China (Higham 1996). It is at this point in their argument that White and Hamilton propose that bronze founders moved south to Thailand, a distance of at least 2500km along the eastern foothills of the Himalayas, to the site of Ban Chiang. This great march evidently had no impact on any known Neolithic community in China, nor at any other site in Southeast Asia. Again, Haimenkou, Yinsuodao and Yeshishan, the earliest Bronze Age sites on the line of this march in Yunnan, are 1000 years later than the proposed date of 2000 BC for Ban Chiang (Chiou-Peng 2009).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Ban Non Wat

The second model is based on Ban Non Wat, located 280km south of Ban Chiang (Figure 3). The cultural sequence here began with late hunter-gatherers, and then proceeded through two Neolithic, six Bronze Age and three Iron Age phases (Higham & Kijngam 2009). The chronological framework for this sequence is based on 76 radiocarbon determinations modelled using a Bayesian approach with OxCal. 4.0 (Bronk Ramsey 2009; Higham & Higham 2009). Neolithic settlement began in the mid seventeeth century BC and lasted in the vicinity of 150 years, while the Neolithic 1 burials date from about 1460 cal. BC, and lasted for about 50 years. …

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