Thai community archaeology project boosted thanks to grant

Pang Ma Pha district, in the Mae Hong Son province of Thailand is benefiting from a grant by the US government to support an archaeological research project focusing on the local caves. The project is run by Dr. Rasmi Shoocongdej from Silpakorn University.

I heard Dr. Shoocongdej presenting her Mae Hong Son work at a conference last year. Unlike most archaeological projects, this one really involved the community in managing the site, to the extent of teaching school kids about the prehistory of the region, as well as training guides within the community to help boost local tourism work. It’s a fine example of community archaeology.


photo credit: Michael Scalet

Preserving the Past
Bangkok Post, 04 March 2008
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Preserving the Past

A research grant from the US government has helped sustain the Banrai archaeological site and the Tham Lod rock shelters in Mae Hong Son’s Pang Ma Pha district, which were at risk from mismanagement, poor conservation and unsustainable tourism.

In Oct 2006, then US ambassador Ralph Boyce handed over a 1.3-million-baht grant to chief researcher Rasmi Shoocongdej from the Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, to support a research project on the pre-historic site under the supervision of the Fine Arts Department.

The grant was made under the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, established by the US Congress in 2001, and enables American ambassadors to support the efforts of host countries to rescue cultural heritage sites thought to be in danger of destruction.

Kenneth Foster, first secretary and cultural attache at the US embassy, said it is important that exploration and excavation activities at the archaeological heritage site be allowed to continue, as they would help shed light on the mystery of Banrai and the Tham Lod rock shelters.

Also, it is necessary to preserve national treasures, which are being threatened by unsustainable tourism practices and poor management, said the envoy at the recent opening of an exhibition on archaeological heritage management at the site.

Pang Ma Pha district chief Suchart Teekasuk believes that to properly manage the site, community assistance also has a vital role to play.

Assoc Prof Rasmi said the local community and the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department would cooperate in their efforts to conserve the two places.

He said the Banrai archaeological site and the rock shelters date back nearly 10,000 years. A male skeleton, thought to be from the Stone Age and more than 9,000 years old, was also discovered at the site.

There is also a large, ancient teak coffin dating back more than 2,600 years and thought to contain the remains of an important person.

However, Assoc Prof Rasmi is concerned over the possibility of over-exploitation of the archaeological site to promote tourism.

In his opinion, the site should be turned into a community museum to serve as a “natural laboratory” for ecological, ethnic and cultural research.

The archaeological site and the rock shelters are also rich in rock paintings.

Pang Ma Pha is home to various ethic groups such as the Shan, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong and Lua.

The project is aimed at helping the minority groups develop sustainable tourism in order to minimise the risk of damage to the rock shelters.

A history of aid
The Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation was established by the US Congress in 2001. It allows American envoys to support efforts in their host countries to rescue cultural heritage sites that are fragile and in danger of being lost forever. Each year since its inception, the fund has helped preserve Thailand’s cultural heritage.

In the first year, it supported Kamthieng House at the Siam Society in Bangkok’s Asoke area. In 2002, the Antique Textile Collections at the National Museum in Bangkok received assistance. In 2003, the fund contributed to the preservation of traditional Thai textile patterns and weaving techniques at the Golden Jubilee Royal Goldsmith College at the Grand Palace.

In 2004, the fund supported the creation of a digital archive of Thai-Muslim architecture in the South.

Last year, the fund turned north to preserve the murals at Wat Bann Koh, in Lampang province, with a grant of more than two million baht. This past year 1.3 million baht was used to preserve the archaeological heritage of the prehistoric Banrai and Tham Lod rock shelters.

Related books:
Caves of Northern Thailand by P. Sidisunthorn, S. Gardner and D. Smart

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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