Expedition Volume 43, Number 2 Summer 2001
Bronze from Ban Chiang, Thailand: A View from the Laboratory
by Elizabeth Hamilton, Post-Doctoral Research Assistant
An American college student’s famous stumble over a tree root that led to the discovery of the Bronze Age culture of Ban Chiang also led to a complete revision of then-current ideas about the technological sophistication of prehistoric Southeast Asians. Before the 1970s, the prevailing scholarly opinion held that the earliest metal use in Southeast Asia was no older than ca. 500 BC. Southeast Asia was considered rather a technological backwater.
Excavations at Ban Chiang were conducted by the late Chet Gorman of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Pisit Charoenwongsa of the Thai Department of Fine Arts. This work, plus survey and excavation at sites such as Non Nok Tha, Ban Pak Top, Ban Tong, and Don Klang, have demonstrated that Southeast Asia had a sophisticated metallurgical industry as early as the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. This is over a thousand years earlier than was previously suspected and long before traces of any societies more complex than simple egalitarian villages show up in the archaeological record of the area.