Twelve Centuries of Occupation of a River-Bank Setting: Old Sisatchanalai, Northern Thailand

Article excerpt

The story of a city that was built dose by a river must be a watery one. Here is an archaeological and geomorphological study of a medieval Thai city that experienced flooding and sedimentation throughout its life.


The early Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, in the northern part of the Central Plain of Thailand, rose to power in the 13th century AD and lasted until about the middle of the 14th century when the capital transferred to Ayuthaya in the southern Central Plain (Bruneau 1973; Charoenwongsa & Diskul 1978; Gosling 1991; Vickery 1991). Sukhothai was the kingdom's capital and Sisatchanalai operated as its sister city (Gosling 1991; Vickery 1991).

Old Sisatchanalai has been traditionally identified with the cluster of ruins about 50 km north of Sukhothai on the right bank of the Yom River at Kaeng Luang (the 'Royal Rapids') (Bruneau 1973; Charoenwongsa & Diskul 1978; Gosling 1991). The rapids are formed where the Yom crosses a ridge of bedrock hills that also partially enclose the city. The old city follows the Yom for 2 km to the east, to the ancient site popularly known as Wat Phra Prang. Vickery (1991) has argued that this cluster represents the remains of the urban centre Chaliang--Sawankhalok and that the remains of the city of Sisatchanalai are the deserted habitation areas and ruined temples 20 km to the south, on the Fakradan River. This argument awaits resolution and we continue to use 'old Sisatchanalai' for the whole cluster of ruins from Kaeng Luang to Wat Phra Prang (WPP) and 'WPP' for the locality enclosed by the large meander loop.

Five kilometres north of the old city lies Ban Ko Noi, the major 10th-16th-century ceramics production site (Hein et al. 1986; Hein & Barbetti 1988; Barbetti & Hein 1989). A clear evolutionary sequence can be discerned in the ceramics and kilns as the industry grew from a small concern, serving a local and then domestic market, to a large, presumably well-integrated operation serving export markets stretching from the Middle East to insular Southeast Asia (Barbetti & Hein 1989; Guy 1989). Despite the regional depopulation which would have accompanied the demise of the ceramics industry (Bruneau 1973; Bishop et al. 1992), the old city was apparently occupied (and attacked and defended) into the late 16th century, even though the focus of political power had long shifted to Ayutthaya.

In this paper, we discuss the physical setting of this ancient site, and present evidence for the date of establishment of Yom flow through Kaeng Luang and for major flood flows through the city. The ages of these flows are constrained by the ages of the city buildings and walls that the floods appear to have affected. Our discussion is built around many new radiocarbon age determinations and an integration of geomorphological and reconnaissance archaeological evidence.


The alluvial plains setting of the old city

The principal landscape elements of the area are alluvial (riverine) floodplains and terraces of the Yom River, the Yom's ancient channels and the strike ridge of bedrock hills that project through the sediments (Bishop 1987; Bishop et al. 1992; Bishop & Godley 1994; Godley et al. in press). The Yom has not always flowed through the bedrock hills at Kaeng Luang and past the old city. It previously flowed around the western end of the bedrock hills and on to the south through a series of ancient channels (FIGURE 1; Bishop & Godley 1994). The former channels, which do not currently act as an integrated drainage network, have been exploited by canals that interconnect the channel remnants for transport and irrigation, and were perhaps dug when the ceramics industry operated (Bruneau 1973; Supajanya 1980; Godley et al. in press).

The oldest of the former Yom channels southwest and south of the bedrock hills has been dated to more than 4000 years ago (Bishop & Godley 1994). …