The first portable art from Southeast Asia

The Cambodia Daily report about recent excavations at Laang Spean focuses on the possible cannibalistic angle, but I am more intrigued by the discovery of what seems to be the first instance of portable rock art in the region: a stone tool with deep etchings on it.

Bone fragments from Laang Spean. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160409
Bone fragments from Laang Spean. Source: Cambodia Daily 20160409

Ancient Skull Points to Possible Cannibalism
Cambodia Daily, 9 April 2016

A French-Cambodian archaeological team has unearthed tantalizing new artifacts from beneath a cave in Battambang province that may prove to be the earliest signs of human occupation and art in the region—and the first indication of cannibalism.

The artifacts were discovered beneath the floor of Battambang’s Laang Spean cave during a February dig by the French-Cambodian Prehistoric Mission, a collaboration between archaeologists from the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum of Na­tural History in Paris. The team has found 71,000 years worth of human remains during past visits to the site.

The latest discoveries include a palmsized stone tool buried deeper than any other artifact found at the site to date, a stone with what appears to be deep etchings, and fragments of what may be a shattered human skull found amid prehistoric food scraps.

Full story here.

Hints of a pre-Angkorian Cambodia outside of Phnom Penh

Numerous finds from a hill in Kandal province hint at a rich archaeological potential spanning to possibly the pre-Angkorian period, but there are insufficient funds to look deeper.

Crucibles from Preah Neak pagoda. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20160405
Crucibles from Preah Neak pagoda. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20160405

Pre-Angkorian trove of artefacts found in Kandal
Phnom Penh Post, 05 April 2016

The discovery of hundreds of ancient artefacts – most likely spanning several eras – at a pagoda outside of Phnom Penh this month could shed new light on the poorly understood pre-Angkorian period, a Royal Academy of Cambodia archaeologist said yesterday.

“These finds are the historical evidence for our Khmer-ness,” said Thuy Chanthuon, deputy director of the academy’s Institute of Culture and Fine Arts, who is analysing the findings from the Preah Neak pagoda, located on a hill about 30 kilometres from Phnom Penh in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district.

The artefacts, which included a copper seal buried with a sword, dozens of apparently pre-Angkorian stone tools and coins from the early 1900s, were found just 2 metres or less below the surface.

“The best item is the seal,” said Chanthuon. “It is from the Oudong era, between 300 and 400 years old. The seal and metal sword were likely buried with a man who must have had a high position in the society, [like] an oknha or provincial governor.”

Full story here.

Hominid stone tools found in Vietnamese central highlands

Vietnamese and Russian archaeologists announce their discovery of stone tools, thought to belong to early hominids, from Gia Lai province.

Stone tools from Vietnam. Source: Thanh Nien News 20160405
Stone tools from Vietnam. Source: Thanh Nien News 20160405

Traces of ancient humans found in Vietnam’s biggest archaeological discovery
Thanh Nien News, 04 April 2016

In what has been described as a breakthrough, Vietnamese and Russian archaeologists have found valuable artifacts in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai that they say belonged to ancient humans around 800,000 years ago.

The traces of homo erectus or “upright man,” including fossils and more than 200 stone tools, were discovered at 12 locations around An Khe Town, according to the findings announced by the scientists on Friday.

It was “the biggest and most important” archeological discovery not only for Vietnam but Asia, Dr. Nguyen Giang Hai, chief of Vietnam’s Institute of Archeology, told Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Full story here.

Brahma heads returned to Cambodia

In addition to the statue of Rama, two more sculptures – heads of Brahma – from Koh Ker were returned to Cambodia last month.

Returned Brahma head from Koh Ker. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20160331
Returned Brahma head from Koh Ker. Source: Phnom Penh Post 20160331

More looted antiquities welcomed home
Phnom Penh Post, 31 March 2016

For the second time in less than a week, the National Museum held a ceremony yesterday marking the homecoming of priceless Angkorian artifacts looted during the civil war.

Two 10th-century Brahma heads, looted from a temple at the Koh Ker archaeological site in Preah Vihear, were added to the museum’s collection of antiquities, alongside a 10th-century Rama statue returned by an American museum on Monday.

The heads, which had formerly belonged to an unnamed private collector in Paris, were discovered by Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong in 1994 while he was the Cambodian ambassador to France, according to the release.

Full story here.

Hobbits older than expected

A new paper in Nature has revised the dates of the Hobbit, once thought to be 12,000 years old, to be an older 50,000 years old. This period roughly coincides with the time modern humans started appearing in the region, and while it’s tempting to think the two events are related it’s still too early to tell.

Excavations of Holocene deposits at Liang Bua
Archaeological excavations of Holocene deposits at Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores are seen in progress in this undated handout picture courtesy of the Liang Bua Team.
Photo: Reuters

Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia
Sutikna et al.
Nature, doi:10.1038/nature17179

Suspicious: Hobbits Vanish When Modern Humans Appear
Discovery News, 30 March 2016

Indonesian ‘Hobbits’ may have died out sooner than thought
Griffith University, 30 March 2016

A decade ago, researchers reported that evolutionary cousins of modern humans, nicknamed hobbits, lived until fairly recently in an Indonesian cave
AP, via US News, 30 March 2016

The ‘hobbit’ was a separate species of human, new dating reveals
Science, 30 March 2016

Scientists: New evidence Indonesian ‘Hobbits’ disappeared 50K years ago
KVAL, 31 March 2016

Diminutive ‘Hobbit’ people vanished earlier than previously known, scientists say
Reuters, via Malay Mail, 31 May 2016

Homo Floresiensis: A Profile Of The Extinct ‘Hobbits’ Of Indonesia
Tech Times, 31 May 2016

New Homo Floresiensis Dates May Quash Cryptozoology Theories About ‘Hobbits’
Forbes, 31 May 2016

The ‘hobbits’ were extinct much earlier than first thought
The Conversation AU, 31 March 2016

‘Hobbits’ extinct much earlier than first thought
Australian Geographic, 31 March 2016

Forget Tolkien, the scientific tale of real-life “hobbits” is even more complex
Ars Technica, 01 April 2016

‘Hobbit’ people were no match for the unstoppable juggernaut of modern man
Tech Insider, 04 April 2016

The Hobbit gets a little older, and science a little wiser
The Conversation AU, 05 April 2016

Homo floresiensis, a primitive hominin species discovered in Late Pleistocene sediments at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia), has generated wide interest and scientific debate. A major reason this taxon is controversial is because the H. floresiensis-bearing deposits, which include associated stone artefacts and remains of other extinct endemic fauna, were dated to between about 95 and 12 thousand calendar years (kyr) ago. These ages suggested that H. floresiensis survived until long after modern humans reached Australia by ~50 kyr ago. Here we report new stratigraphic and chronological evidence from Liang Bua that does not support the ages inferred previously for the H. floresiensis holotype (LB1), ~18 thousand calibrated radiocarbon years before present (kyr cal. BP), or the time of last appearance of this species (about 17 or 13–11 kyr cal. BP). Instead, the skeletal remains of H. floresiensis and the deposits containing them are dated to between about 100 and 60 kyr ago, whereas stone artefacts attributable to this species range from about 190 to 50 kyr in age. Whether H. floresiensis survived after 50 kyr ago—potentially encountering modern humans on Flores or other hominins dispersing through southeast Asia, such as Denisovans12, 13—is an open question.

Nature paper here.

Authorities rap Red Bull for unauthorised filming at Borobudur

Energy drink manufacturer Red Bull filmed an advertisement at the World Heritage Site of Borobudur, featuring a parkour sequence with people jumping off the walls of the ancient monument. The authorities, needless to say, were not amused. Not cool, Red Bull!

Red Bull lambasted for unlicensed filming at Indonesia’s Borobudur temple
Jakarta Post, 23 March 2016

The Borobudur Conservation Agency (BKB) is preparing an official complaint against the manufacturer of energy drink Red Bull regarding an advert that has aroused the ire of the citizenry and netizenry of Yogyakarta.

BKB head Marsis Sutopo said the video was shot at the world heritage Borobudur temple without the permission of the Culture and Education Ministry.

‘€œEngaging in parkour at Borobudur temple is absolutely not recommended as it could damage the stone formation and the temple’€™s structure. It fails, moreover, to show respect for the sacred building,’€ Marsis said.

Full story here.

Torajan death rituals

Archaeologists have an intrinsic relationship with the dead, since we deal with the past. So this story of the death rituals of the Toraja of Sulawesi should give us some pause for how we think about death and their archaeological signatures.

Death rituals of the Toraja. Source: National Geographic 201603
Death rituals of the Toraja. Source: National Geographic 201603

When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye
National Geographic, March 2016

This Community in Sulawesi, Indonesia Keeps the Dead in Homes for Years
Inverse, 25 March 2016

Cultures and societies respect the dead differently all around the world. Every year on my father’s side of the family, all my relatives gather at the cemetery where my ancestors are buried to take part in the Chinese ritual called Qingming, or Cleaning of the Grave. We lay out a full meal of chicken, duck, and rice, pour beer and tea, light candles, and even burn paper money so our deceased loved ones are comfortable in the afterlife. For the people living in the region of South Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands just east of Borneo, death is a long and sacred process — one where death does not come until the body leaves the home.

The Toraja of Sulawesi keep the bodies of the deceased in their homes for as long as a few years, believing “that a dead person who is still at home is not dead.” National Geographic documented the culture’s sacred tradition in a video, revealing their lavish celebrations for the dead. When a loved one passes away, the family members treat the body as if the person were still alive. They describe death as prolonged sleep. Torajans take the utmost care of the body, cleaning it and brushing off dirt, changing its clothes, praying with it, feeding it, and leaving the lights on in the evening.

Full story here.
Video here. [Warning: Imagery of the dead]

Celadon kiln found in Myanmar

Japanese researchers announce the discovery of a kilm site producing celadons in the southern Myanmar city of Mawlamyaing.

Celadons from Mawlamyaing. Source: Asahi Shimbun 20160328
Celadons from Mawlamyaing. Source: Asahi Shimbun 20160328

Ancient site in Myanmar offers clues to trade with Middle East
Asahi Shimbun, 28 March 2016

An archaeological site in southern Myanmar may be the missing link in a chain that explains how sublime celadon porcelain from Asia ended up as far as the Middle East centuries ago.

Celadon pottery, distinctive by its jade green celadon color, was highly prized by China’s imperial court in ancient times.

Researchers at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, as well as Kyoto University, recently joined a team from Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture, along with specialists from the archaeology department at the University of Yangon, to excavate the site on privately-held land.

The Kyoto University team was led by Mamoru Shibayama, director of the ASEAN Center at the university. The Feb. 3-6 dig was at a kiln operated in Mawlamyaing, now the capital of Mon State in southern Myanmar that faces the Andaman Sea.

Full story here.

Prof. Ashley Thompson Inaugural Lecture – Double Realities: The Complex Lives of Ancient Khmer Statuary

Readers in London may be interested in Ashley Thompson’s lecture in early May. Booking required.

Prof. Ashley Thompson Inaugural Lecture – Double Realities: The Complex Lives of Ancient Khmer Statuary
Date: 5 May 2016
Venue: Brunei Gallery
Time: 6.30 pm

The Angkorian empire produced one of the most remarkable sculptural traditions in human history. Starting from Hindu and, to a lesser extent, Buddhist models, Khmer artists invented bold new techniques and sophisticated aesthetic principles that underpinned their exploration of anthropomorphic statuary. And yet the representational presuppositions of Western aesthetics only cloud our understanding of this innovation: perhaps art, in this context, does not stand in a mimetic relationship to the world, but rather itself constitutes an ‘original’, an embodied and multivalent reality that calls for a different relationship with its ‘viewer’.

This lecture will begin with a reflection on the Khmer ‘portrait statue’, considered in the traditional art history of ancient Cambodia to have been a late and peculiar invention of the reign of the last of the great Angkorian kings. However I will challenge this view, and indeed take the double ontology of these sculptures – embodying at once gods and people – to in fact constitute the baseline reality of essentially all Angkorian and post-Angkorian statuary.

Nothing is as it seems: even Angkor itself, this exemplary outlier of the Sanskrit ‘cosmopolis’ that flowered in the late first and early second millennia CE, is construed both as a fiercely singular local dominion and a universal kingdom. Microcosm and macrocosm are each set off against and magnified in the other. Within this context, a number of otherwise incongruous phenomena can be understood as manifestations of an underlying bifid structure: from the fluid ambiguity in the gendering of certain anthropomorphic representations to the determination with which religious practitioners, then as now, experience their own lives as participating in a larger cosmic life variously conveyed by art.

More details and booking information here.

The Southeast Asian Archaeology Repository of Knowledge (SEA-ARK)

A new resource from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre:

This resource page disseminates published and unpublished reports pertinent to the pursuit of Southeast Asian Archaeology. This includes:
(1) Rare, unpublished, and/or out of print research materials;
(2) Papers and/or research publications when given explicit permission by the authors;
(3) The translations of research summaries originally written in a Southeast Asian language into English.

View the resource here.