|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Location||Udon Thani, Thailand|
|Inscription||1992 (16th session)|
|Buffer zone||760 ha|
Ban Chiang (Thai: , pronounced [bâ:n ta]) is a renowned archaeological site in Nong Han District, Udon Thani Province, Thailand. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1992. Discovered in 1966, the site attracted enormous publicity due to its attractive red painted pottery. It gained additional international attention when the United States Department of Justice developed a major case, beginning in 2003, concerning the smuggling of Ban Chiang antiquities.
Villagers had uncovered some of the pottery in prior years without insight into their age or historical importance. In August 1966, Steve Young, a political science student at Harvard College, was living in the village conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. Young, a speaker of Thai, was familiar with the work of Wilhelm G. Solheim and his theory of possible ancient origins of civilization in Southeast Asia. One day while walking down a path in Ban Chiang with his assistant, an art teacher at the village school, Young tripped over a root of a kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. Under him were the exposed tops of small and medium-sized pottery jars. Young recognized that the firing techniques used to make the pots were very rudimentary, but that the designs applied to the surface of the vessels were unique. He took samples of pots to Princess Phanthip Chumbote who had the private museum of Suan Pakkad in Bangkok and to Chin Yu Di of the Thai Government's Fine Arts Department. Later, Elisabeth Lyons, an art historian on the staff of the Ford Foundation, sent sherds from Ban Chiang to the University of Pennsylvania for dating.
During the first formal scientific excavation in 1967, several skeletons, together with bronze grave gifts, were unearthed. Rice fragments have also been found, leading to the belief that the Bronze Age settlers were probably farmers. The site's oldest graves do not include bronze artifacts and are therefore from a Neolithic culture; the most recent graves date to the Iron Age. Pots and sherds from the site are now found in museums across the world, including the Museum für Indische Kunst in Berlin and the British Museum in London.
This site has often been called "the cemetery site," but recent research has suggested that the deceased were actually buried next to or beneath dwellings. This practice is called residential burial.
The first datings of the artifacts using the thermoluminescence technique resulted in a range from 4420 BCE to 3400 BCE, which would have made the site the earliest Bronze Age culture in the world. However, with the 1974-1975 excavation, sufficient material became available for radiocarbon dating, which resulted in more recent dates. The earliest grave was about 2100 BCE, the latest about 200 CE. Bronze making began circa 2000 BCE, as evidenced by crucibles and bronze fragments. Bronze objects include bracelets, rings, anklets, wires and rods, spearheads, axes and adzes, hooks, blades, and little bells.
A date of 2100 BCE was obtained from rice phytoliths from inside a grave vessel of the lowest grave. A dating program for this site has involved dating the bones from the people who lived at Ban Chiang and the bones of animals interred with them. The resulting determinations have been analysed using the Bayesian statistic OxCal 4.0, and the results suggested that the initial settlement of Ban Chiang took place by about 1500 BCE, with the transition to the Bronze Age about 1000 BCE.
Ban Chiang, along with other surrounding villages in northeast Thailand, contains many bronze artifacts that demonstrate that metallurgy had been practiced in small, village settings nearly four thousand years ago. This is of interest to archaeologists, as ancient Southeast Asian metallurgy flourished without the presence of a militaristic or urbanized state, unlike many other ancient societies that had mastered metallurgy.
Recently, Joyce White and Elizabeth Hamilton have co-authored a four-volume Ban Chiang metals monograph, the most extensive of its kind in Ban Chiang scholarship. The work presents metals and related evidence from the site as well as three other sites in northeast Thailand: Ban Tong, Ban Phak Top, and Don Klang. It is the second installment in the Thai Archaeology Monograph Series, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and distributed for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
In the monograph, White and Hamilton catalogue and classify metal artifacts as well as contribute to the Ban Chiang chronology discourse. They analyzed the metals comprehensively through innovative technological perspectives in order to understand ancient metals in their social contexts. To do this, they make systematic assessments by typological range, variation in metal composition and manufacturing techniques, evidence for on-site production activities, and contextual evidence for deposition of metal finds. White and Hamilton also write that regional variation in metalworker know-how and choices can reveal past networks of communities of metallurgical practice that could have important ramifications for economic and social networks of the time as well as how those changed over time. One of their major findings is that most copper alloy products were cast in local villages and not at large centralized workshops.
Joyce White, a leading scholar on Ban Chiang, directs an organization, the Institute of Southeast Asian Archaeology, that manages the Ban Chiang Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The Project runs an open access metals database that presents the data on metal and metal-related artifacts found at Ban Chiang and surrounding sites. The metal artifacts are classified into nine groups: bangles, adzes/tillers, blades, points, bells, wires/rods, flat, amorphous, and miscellaneous. The three metal-related groups are crucibles, molds, and slag. The metals database also records the time period in which the artifacts were created and the technical analyses performed on each artifact.
The Ban Chiang museum is located by the protected excavation site and provides general information for the public about the site and its importance for human history. Staff there act both to inform visiting members of the public about the site, as well as to monitor the condition of the site and to provide resources for academics.
The site itself was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 under criteria iii, which describes a site that "bear[s] a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or has disappeared."
Included in the museum's collection is the traveling exhibit curated by Dr. Joyce White, titled Ban Chiang, Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age, which toured the U.S. and international sites following Penn Museum excavations and became part of the Ban Chiang Museum permanent exhibit in 1987. The museum also includes "displays and information that highlights the three main periods and six sub-periods" as well as the site's general and excavation history. The site and museum have been well-reviewed by several travel publications, including CNN, TripAdvisor, and the official tourism site of Thailand.
The site made headlines in January 2008, when thousands of artifacts from the Ban Chiang cultural tradition and other prehistoric traditions of Thailand were found to be kept illegally in at least five California museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, the Pacific Asian Museum in Pasadena, the Charles W. Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum. The complex plot functioned as a crime ring and involved smuggling the items out of Thailand into the U.S., and then donating them to museums in order to claim large tax write-offs. There were said to be more items in the museums than at the site itself.
The case was brought to light during 13 high-profile raids conducted by federal law enforcement officers on various California and Chicago museums, shops, warehouses, and homes of private art collectors; it was the culmination of a five-year federal undercover investigation called Operation Antiquity. A National Park Service special agent had posed as a private collector and documented the case. The agent bought looted antiquities from two art dealers and donated them to various California art museums like the ones listed above. He found that museum officials had "varying degrees of knowledge about the antiquities' provenance" and agreed to the donations. In total, the federal government seized more than 10,000 looted artifacts, many of which were from Ban Chiang.
The alleged smuggler of the trafficking plot imported all the Southeast Asian antiquities illegally. He entered the business during a 1970s trip to Thailand, buying antiquities from Thai middlemen and flipping the items to California museums for a small profit. His frequent clients included Beverly Hills home decor shops and private art galleries like the Silk Road Gallery. Based on the smuggler's interactions with the undercover agent, federal agents obtained warrants to search the 13 properties that held the looted artifacts. The smuggler was arraigned in court in 2013 and pleaded not guilty and his trial was scheduled for November 2016, but was continued numerous times until he died in May 2017. Other alleged major players in the trafficking ring died from various causes before ever going to trial.
However, the case still yielded fruitful results, including convictions. Jonathan and Cari Markell, owners of the Silk Road Gallery, pleaded guilty to antiquities trafficking charges in 2015. Jonathan Markell was sentenced to 18 months in prison for trafficking looted archaeological artifacts and falsifying documents, as well as a year of supervised probation. The couple was also sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation for tax evasion. Additionally, they were fined approximately $2,000 restitution and must pay to ship more than 300 artifacts seized from their home and now-closed gallery back to Southeast Asia at an estimated cost of $25,000.
Some of the museums discovered to possess trafficked and looted artifacts have returned them to Thailand. The Mingei International Museum has repatriated 68 artifacts, while the Bowers Museum has returned 542 vases, bowls, and other objects. By doing so, the museums avoided prosecution. The Markells themselves are expected to give back 337 antiquities as part of their sentencing agreement. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum are also expected to work on repatriation procedures. This case is nationally significant for two major reasons: it was a U.S. government-led crackdown, as opposed to being a result of complaints by foreign governments; and it also set precedent for a new level of accountability for museum officials who deal with stolen cultural property, as per the National Stolen Property Act and Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
The excavation at Ban Chiang in 1974/75 was followed by an article by Chester Gorman and Pisit Charoenwongsa, claiming evidence for the earliest dates in the world for bronze casting and iron working. This led to at times acrimonious debate between those who accepted these dates and those who did not. Subsequent excavations, including that at Ban Non Wat, have now shown that the proposed early dates for Ban Chiang are unlikely. However, the early claims are still repeated in the secondary literature.
After Dr. Gorman's death in 1981, Dr. Joyce White continued research and publications as Director of the Ban Chiang Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Dr. White's research endeavors have included analysis and publication of Penn's excavations at Ban Chiang in Thailand in the mid-1970s; ecological field research at Ban Chiang in 1978-1981 including investigations of how local people identified and used plants; lake coring and ecological mapping for palaeoenvironmental research in several parts of Thailand during the 1990s; and, since 2001, survey and excavation in northern Laos, especially in Luang Prabang Province. For Ban Chiang, White, along with Elizabeth Hamilton, has published a monograph through the University of Pennsylvania Press on the ancient metallurgy of Ban Chiang and nearby sites. The first two volumes were published in 2018 and 2019.