Communities of the Past: A New View of the Old Walls and Hydraulic System at Sriksetra, Myanmar (Burma)

By Hudson, Bob; Lustig, Terry | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Communities of the Past: A New View of the Old Walls and Hydraulic System at Sriksetra, Myanmar (Burma)


Hudson, Bob, Lustig, Terry, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The community of interpretation that makes up Myanmar's archaeologists is small. Prior to independence, there were few scientific studies in Myanmar by trained professionals who specifically targeted human settlements. Most finds were byproducts of geological research related to the search for oil by geologists. But at least in one case, a professional pre-historian accompanied one of these expeditions, which resulted in preliminary conclusions of a 'Paleolithic' and a 'Neolithic' culture in Myanmar called the anyathian (from anya or upper Myanmar). This kind of naming stone cultures with local geographic and cultural terms is not new and is found throughout the world, and did not necessarily imply that these stone cultures were related to the current inhabitants.

During the height of the colonial period, most of the 'archaeological' research conducted consisted of surface finds by colonial administrators and / or scholars assisted by their native proteges, virtually none of whom, as far as I can tell, was trained, as archaeologists are trained today. Subsequently, the independence period produced only three (perhaps more) Burmese who were trained as archaeologists: U Myint Aung in Allahabad, India; U Nyunt Han, at the University of Pennsylvania in the US; and U Aung Thaw at the University of New Delhi. They, in turn, trained several others within Myanmar. They focused mainly on the early urban period of Myanmar's history that we have come to call the Pyu, dated approximately between the second century BC and the ninth century AD.

Recent decades have added a handful of foreigners trained in archaeology conducting research in, or about Myanmar, who have also focused on this 'Pyu' period. Three of these scholars have published important works in English: Bob Hudson, Elizabeth Moore, and Janice Stargardt, while one, Shah Mam Zaini, is a Ph.D. student in the process of completing his degree.

During the past several years, cooperative research and / or shared information amongst domestic and foreign archaeologists have uncovered bronze, copper, and iron artefacts. They are thought either to have belonged to the Pyu or preceded them. If these metal cultures were, in fact, part of the Pyu culture, the latter period will have to be pushed back to about the seventh or eighth century BC, which means that 'cultural continuity' between the Pyu and Burmese culture will also have to be dated earlier.

Although these finds have implications for the notion of Myanmar in terms of their continuity, one cannot find that issue being raised by this small 'community of interpretation'. Their work simply assumed 'Myanmar' to be the geo-political and cultural context in which the pre-historical material is placed. One of the reasons the notion of Myanmar was simply not a compelling priority to them is that archaeological work in Myanmar is a daunting task just in itself, so that simply extracting evidence scientifically and properly required the utmost attention. Another is that such issues as 'the notion of Myanmar' is a kind of question far more important to post-modern concerns than to the kinds of issues important in archaeology; so it received little or no attention.

That is not to say that Myanmar archaeologists assumed that the stone and metal cultures and the urban settlements in which they appeared belonged to the current inhabitants of the land, although that these cultures 'belonged' to the geographic entity known as Myanmar was not questioned either. Indeed, that even the Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures were called anyathian suggests a local lineage for those cultures, since the word is not only a geographic but a cultural-historical term related to the Burmese speakers. What was being (perhaps inadvertently) implied, then, was that those cultures were in fact the ancestors of Burmese speakers, even though the first evidence we have on the latter shows their initial appearance to be no earlier than the ninth to tenth centuries AD. …

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