Archaeology in Myanmar: Past, Present, and Future. (Commentary)

By Higham, C. F. W. | Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Archaeology in Myanmar: Past, Present, and Future. (Commentary)


Higham, C. F. W., Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific


IN A RECENT PAPER, Hudson (2001) has compared the present position of archaeology in Myanmar with that in Thailand 30 years ago. As one who was confronted with a tabula rasa in Thailand during the 1960s, the similarities are indeed intriguing. At that juncture, I wrote a brief paper entitled "Initial model formulation in terra incognita," in which I stressed the importance of first establishing a coherent cultural and chronological sequence before proceeding to more interesting issues thereby raised (Higham 1973). The subsequent history of research into Thai prehistory and early history has had its ups and downs, and it is important in pondering the future of archaeological enquiries in Myanmar to avoid the latter. The high points in the past three decades of research in Thailand have undoubtedly been in the intensive investigation of single sites, each one of which has added greatly to our understanding of the potential information still be to secured. It is an unusual and exciting experience to open a site with a particular model to be tested, and on virtually every occasion, to find a quite different outcome to that predicted. Moreover, at least in the earlier stages of this process, every site added considerably to our quantum of knowledge.

The low points have largely involved resolving the dating controversies that have been generated by hyperbole in a quest for the remarkable. This has been a long and tedious business, one that has taken up far too much energy and time, and one which has not been devoid of rancor (Bayard and Charoenwongsa 1983; Loofs-Wissowa 1983; Solheim 1983).

The papers presented here provide most timely summaries of some of the main issues that now make Myanmar such an exciting country in which to engage in archaeological research. Myanmar, unlike Thailand, was subject to colonization. While this period in its history undoubtedly engendered much hardship and loss of dignity on the part of its people, at least in terms of archaeology, it brought about many important discoveries. Myanmar was incorporated then within the wide reach of the Archaeological Survey of India, and annual reports of the survey regularly published information on fieldwork there. I note that none of the papers included in this volume reference the archaeological fieldwork of Charles Duroiselle. Yet his investigations opened a major vista on the potential of excavations in early urban sites, which were particularly favored by the possibility of examining religious monuments before all were destroyed by treasure seekers.

This period of initial discovery is usefully described by Michael Aung-Thwin. For a time, Myanmar was a focus for early research on the Palaeolithic period, particularly following the fieldwork of Hallam Movius (1948). The paper begins, however, with a view that has often been expressed, that employing descriptive terms based on the European Three Age System in Southeast Asia is unwise. He links this stricture with the point that these periods, when used, imply an irrevocable conclusion that there must be change and progress within the archaeological record. No examples are given, however, of instances where prehistorians in Southeast Asia have opened their intellectual baggage to reveal that differences imply change, and change implies progress. This is an interesting situation, and one which I have addressed on several occasions. Take, for example, the period in mainland Southeast Asia between about 500 B.C. and A.D. 200, when iron forging became widespread. It has been described under many different labels, including General Period C (Bayard 1984), Mode 2 (Higham 1983), the muang period (Bayard 1992), the High Bronze Age (Hutterer 1991), the Late Bronze Age (von Dewall 1979), the Iron Age (Charoenwongsa 1988; Penny 1984), the High Metal Age (Ho 1992), the Late Metal Age (Bronson 1992), the late Prehistoric (Glover 1991), and the Formative (Welch 1985). The same proliferation of titles could be listed for the period when agriculture was established in small autonomous communities, or the timespan when copper-based artifacts were being cast. …

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