Thailand Archaeometallurgy Project (TAP)

The fieldwork of the Thailand Archaeometallurgy Project (TAP) was born of the desire to understand the technological nature and societal impact of the coming of copper/bronze metallurgy in the cultural context of ancient Thailand. Interest in this subject was stimulated by the results of the excavations at the prehistoric village site of Ban Chiang in northeastern part of the country that indicated the use of copper/bronze was much earlier than previously thought in Southeast Asia. At Ban Chiang metal use is now known to date circa 2000 B.C. and later.

In early 1984, in collaboration between the Thai Fine Arts Dept. and The University of Pennsylvania Museum, a TAP team undertook a site and orebody survey in mineral-rich Loei Province. It is located along the western periphery of the Khorat Plateau where copper/bronze using sites of the Ban Chiang Culture Tradition had been excavated. Instrumental in making the survey a success was Thai geologist, Udom Theetiparivatra, of the Dept. of Mineral Resources. Thanks to his detailed knowledge of regional economic geology, we were able to document the prehistoric copper mining complex at Phu Lon located on the banks of the Mekong River. Initial test trenching and a radiocarbon date provided the essential data that facilitated the next stage in the research.

In January 1985 TAP returned to Phu Lon to conduct extensive excavations of mine shafts, galleries and ore processing loci at this 1st millennium B.C. (if not earlier) copper mining site. We have argued that, based on artifacts and technological links between Phu Lon and Ban Chiang related sites, the mine may well have been supplying copper ore (malachite), copper, and bronze to these settled villages further downstream along the Mekong. Short-term mining expeditions may have been dispatched from the villages to Phu Lon for the express purpose of obtaining vital ore and metals.

Following its successful research at Phu Lon in the north, TAP moved its fieldwork efforts well to the south, to the small copper-rich Khao Wong Prachan Valley, not far from the major town of Lopburi in central Thailand. Here, thanks to extensive regional site survey undertaken by TAP Co-Director Surapol Natapintu (then affiliated with Thai Fine Arts Dept.), several prehistoric sites associated with large scale copper production had been located.

Three major sites have been excavated thus far: Non Pa Wai, Non Mak La, and Nil Kham Haeng.

Laboratory research strongly suggests that the ancient metalworkers at the above sites were utilizing, perhaps inadvertently, a co-smelting operation involving mixed oxidic and sulfidic ores. During smelting this mixture would result in the direct one-step production of a matte-rich copper metal, thus avoiding the deleterious side-effects of the presence of sulfur in the ores.

The Thailand Archaeometallurgy Project is Co-Directed by Surapol Natapintu (Dept. of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, Bangkok, Thailand) and Dr. Vincent C. Pigott (Research Associate, MASCA and Honorary Visiting Professor, Institute of Archaeology, University College London). TAP research has been generously supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and certain private individuals.

To find the most up-to-date references on TAP research, please use the Southeast Asian archaeological bibliographic database: http://seasia.museum.upenn.edu

For more on the status of Ban Chiang research, please go to: http://www.penn.museum/research-asian-section/504-banchiang.html

Subsistence Changes and Community-based Craft Production in Prehstoric Central Thailand

Penn Museum | 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 | www.penn.museum