Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

At the Dawn of History: From Iron Age Aggrandisers to Zhenia Kings

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

At the Dawn of History: From Iron Age Aggrandisers to Zhenia Kings

Article excerpt

This article seeks to identify and understand the structural changes in late prehistoric societies that generated rapid state formation. It is geographically restricted to the Mun Valley of northeastern Thailand and the adjacent lowlands of northern Cambodia. This entails dovetailing two sources of information. There is a growing corpus of archaeological data with which to review the prehistoric Iron Age. However, with the early historic period, defined as that commencing with the earliest texts, epigraphic, architectural and art historical approaches combine with the archaeological evidence. As in all such reviews, it is essential to establish the chronological framework. A new set of 51 radiocarbon determinations from the site of Non Ban Jak (23 in fig. 2) now divides the final period of the Iron Age occupation into four phases between c.300-750 CE. Since the earliest inscriptions date to the second half of the fifth century CE, there was a significant overlap in the region under review between late prehistoric occupation and the establishment of the first small states (fig. 1).


Appreciating the profound social changes that occurred is encapsulated in a comparison between the early Iron Age cemetery at Ban Non Wat (26 in fig. 2) in the Upper Mun Valley of northeast Thailand and the establishment of a state centre at Sresthapura near the confluence of the Mun and Mekong rivers. Excavations at the former, which dates from about 420 BCE, revealed 143 early Iron Age burials with no unusual mortuary wealth nor evidence for a relatively differentiated social order. (2) Less than a millennium later a magnate with the resounding Sanskrit name of Devanika, a great king of kings, established a city at Sresthapura. I will first summarise what is known of this and other early states of the southern part of the Khorat Plateau and adjacent regions of Laos and Cambodia, before turning to the prehistoric record to propose an explanatory model for the rapid social changes that took place.

The early historic period

The earliest state-like polities in Southeast Asia concentrate in coastal regions that had early access to the seaborne trade routes that linked them with India and China. That which occupied the Mekong Delta is known from Chinese records as Funan, and it was already flourishing when visited by a Chinese delegation in the third century CE. (3) The archaeological record for Funan incorporates large cities, such as Oc Eo and Angkor Borei (1 and 2 in fig. 2), linking canals, and a handful of inscriptions that mention kings and queens with Sanskrit names (fig. 2). Situated athwart the lower reaches of the Mekong River, it commanded ready access to the interior of Southeast Asia. This article is restricted to the interior region, for the importance of this route is evidenced in the establishment of a second early state where the Mekong has its confluence with the Mun River system to the west, and a series of other rivers that flow westward from the Truong Son Cordillera. It was here that inscription K.365 discovered at Wat Luang Kao (3 in fig. 2) records the presence of the exalted king Sri Devanika at Lingapura. (4) The style of the script places this text in the sixth century CE. Michel Lorrillard, noting the architectural evidence that survives at this site, has described it as an ancient city comparable to Sambor Prei Kuk, the preeminent urban complex of Pre-Angkorian Cambodia that dates to the late sixth and early seventh centuries CE. (5)


Archaeological research in this inland region centred on Wat Luang Kao is reporting an increasing number of sites, mostly on the basis of the bricks and lintels of severely disturbed sacred structures and associated reservoirs. Lorrillard has described, for example, 24 Pre-Angkorian sites on the Champassak Plain, while the Se Kong Valley also contained a series of sites dated, on the basis of the style and content of the lintels, to at least the seventh century. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.