Nyaung-Gan: A Preliminary Note on a Bronze Age Cemetery near Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Article excerpt

THERE IS NO DATED BRONZE AGE material from Myanmar and the distribution of Bronze Age sites remains virtually unexplored. Even nonprovenienced bronze tools are rare in comparison to the abundance of lithic material (Morris 1938). Given the country's wealth of nonferrous ore deposits, a long sequence of prehistoric metallurgy is a reasonable expectation.

In January and February 1998, the Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Culture, carried out preliminary excavations south of Nyaung-gan Village, 120 km northwest of Mandalay. Four pits yielded a series of inhumation burials. Ceramic vessels comprised the predominant grave goods, and some large pots were possibly secondary burial urns. Bronze tools but not ornaments were found on some of the skeletons. Freshwater shells were also present. Stone artifacts included rings, beads, and tools. No iron was recovered, although six lead rolls were among the surface finds.

The site, in the country's arid zone, is located on the edge of a crater, one of a line of volcanoes spanning the Chindwin River. The area, traditionally known as Tampadipa or "land of copper" has abundant copper deposits. The Nyaung-gan cemetery is presented here as a Bronze Age site, and the finds are discussed in relation to material from both earlier and later periods. The bronze, stone, and ceramic goods from Nyaung-gan provide provenienced and typologically specific assemblages to begin to inform us about the mortuary culture of Bronze Age Myanmar.


The Nyaung-gan cemetery site lies 107 m above sea level at 95 [degrees] 04'E, 22 [degrees] 24'N (Fig. 1). It covers some 75 by 180 m, and is 2.4 km southwest of Ywatha Village in the Nyaung-gan Village tract (Ni Ni Myint 1998). Nyaung-gan Village takes its name from the Nyaung, one of the many species of Ficus or banyan tree and is situated in Budalin Township, Sagaing division, Lower Chindwin district. The area is bounded to the west and south by the Chindwin River and the Pondaung-Ponnyadaung ranges; to the east by the Mu and Irrawaddy rivers (Burma Gazetteer 1912: 1). The Chindwin is navigable for some 400 km north from the site, while the Irrawaddy is navigable year round to Bhamo (Penzer 1922:3-4).


Rainfall in the region is low, averaging 675 mm per annum, virtually all of it falling between May and October. Between November and March there is seldom more that 1.3 cm of rain. This regime mirrors that of Pagan, Myingan division (Burma Gazetteer 1924: 13, 1925: 12). The soil is light alluvial, with groundnuts and other oil crops such as sesame (Burma Gazetteer 1912:78). Many fields of sunflowers are seen today, and in the area around Nyaung-gan, numerous bananas. The zone is also planted with millet, particularly suited to the light soil and arid conditions (Dobby 1950: 170).

The cemetery south of the village is on the edge of a shallow explosion-crater without a lake and is in the same line as the crater of Twin, east of the Chindwin (Burma Gazetteer 1912: 215). The Nyaung-gan crater is the most northerly of a line of volcanoes aligned southwest to northeast described as late Cenozoic (Hutchison 1989:225; Stephenson and Marshall 1984). The formation has long been noted, with early twentieth-century reports describing eleven craters, a ridge of volcanic rock crossing the Shwezaye defile of the Chindwin River, and two located near Ok-aing, south of Nyaung-gan (Burma Gazetteer 1912:8).

The nearest crater to the site, Twindaung, has a diameter of just over a kilometer, similar to Nyaung-gan (Fig. 2). However, the Twindaung peak is higher and the crater deeper than Nyaung-gan. Twindaung reaches a height of 229 m, falling to 68 m at lake level, with the lake another 30 m deep. In comparison, Nyaung-gan drops only some 50 m from crest to crater floor. The green water of the Twindaung crater is caused by sulphate of soda. The twin-po insect found in the lake is dried and used as a condiment in pickled tea. …