The Origins of the Civilization of Angkor

By Higham, Charles; Thosarat, Rachanie | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Civilization of Angkor


Higham, Charles, Thosarat, Rachanie, Antiquity


The transition to states in mainland Southeast Asia began during the first centuries AD, and has commonly been ascribed to the adoption of Indian religious and political ideas which arrived on the maritime silk route. Recent research on the Khmer language inscriptions dating from 611 AD has revealed strong local traditions underlying the Indic veneer. In assessing these trends to increased social complexity, however, we have lacked insight into late prehistoric culture.

In order to redress this situation, we investigated the Iron Age communities of the Mun Valley in Northeast Thailand, an area in which relevant sites are densely distributed. Our objective was to excavate a sufficiently large area to illuminate prehistoric culture on the eve of the transition to the state. We focused in particular upon the social organization, the evidence for technological innovation, craft specialization, innovations in the economy, expansions in exchange networks, warfare and the possibility that prehistoric communities were involved in water management.

Following an intensive site survey in the study area, we identified two sites for excavation. Most Iron Age sites comprise large mounds, covering up to about 50 hectares, ringed by what have been interpreted as moats. Noen U-Loke was the principal focus of excavations. An area of 210 sq. m was opened to a depth of 5 m. The sequence in the excavated area covered nearly a millennium from 400-500 BC, the beginning of the Iron Age. We recovered 126 inhumation graves within five mortuary phases together with abundant evidence for local industrial activity, the economy, palaeo-environment and exchange relationships.

The mortuary record changed markedly over time while retaining the established practice of inhumation. Even the earliest graves included iron tools, weapons and ornaments, but a recurrent feature was the proliferation of bronzes. By the fourth mortuary phase, which is dated within the first few centuries AD, burials were disposed in clusters, each containing the remains of men, women, infants and children. …

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