[Talk] Mystery of the Prehistoric Log Coffin Culture in Highland Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son Province

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Readers in Bangkok may be interested in this talk at the Siam Society on Thursday by Prof. Rasmi Shoocongdej.

Mortuary practice is an important indicator of past ideology and its analysis can be developed by classifying burials into specific types, a method which can limit our understanding of mortuary variability, particularly the horizontal and vertical scales of social organization. Research in Highland Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son province, on the Thai-Myanmar border, has revealed the unique features of log coffins placed on posts inside caves atop limestone cliffs. The log coffin culture dates to 2,200-1,000 years ago and bears similarities with the hanging coffins of the extant local inhabitants, the Yue, who are associated with the Tai peoples of Yunnan, South China. This talk will present an overview of Log Coffin culture in Thailand in relation to China and Southeast Asia, through a cross-cultural approach. It will also examine the cemetery organization from the Ban Rai Rockshelter and Long Long Rak Cave sites of Highland Pang Mapha, through a temporal and spatial analysis of the archaeological evidence, to assess the stylistic approach and mortuary practice as units of analysis for the symbolic and cultural landscape, cemetery organization and social memory. The resulting analyses will help our understanding of mortuary and social organization of ancient Highland communities and the complex interactions between South China and Southeast Asia.

Source: Mystery of the Prehistoric Log Coffin Culture in Highland Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son Province. A Talk by Rasmi Shoocongdej

[Talk] Disjuncture, Interference and Critical Heritage: Reflections from the Field

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Readers in London may be interested in this event at SOAS on July 4, a conversation between SOAS Centenary Fellow Rasmi Shoocongdej and others

Disjuncture, Interference and Critical Heritage: Reflections from the Field

The projection of historical continuity through the designation ‘heritage’ always betrays, in one way or another, its very opposite: historical disjunctures and interference in local affairs. Join SOAS Centenary Fellow, Professor Rasmi Shoocongdej, along with five respondents, to examine this paradox at the heart of the notion of ‘heritage’ and its ‘management’ today. Professor Shoocongdej, an archaeologist specializing in mainland Southeast Asian prehistory, will address the pressures of research harnessed to the promotion of ‘Thai Cultural Heritage’ in sites characterized today by multiple cultures and ethnic minority groups.

Professor Shoocongdej’s fieldwork focuses on borderlands between Thailand and Myanmar. Her research on prehistory is complemented by incisive contributions to important debates at the nexus of archaeology and the public sphere. Her pedagogical career, based at Thailand’s premier arts university, Silpakorn, has been devoted to training Thai and other Southeast Asian archaeologists through interregional programmes to assume positions of intellectual and ethical responsibility vis-à-vis their regions and their international partners. She is a crucial role model for Southeast Asian archaeologists and, more broadly, for Southeast Asian women considering pursuing academic careers.

Professor Shoocongdej will address her twofold experience as a ‘Thai female archaeologist.’ On the one hand she represents the ‘elite centre’ – Bangkok’s Silpakorn – in researching prehistoric cultures of Thailand’s peripheral ‘highlands’, negotiating at once relations – or non-relations – between local communities and their prehistoric site surroundings, and the attendant expectations of nationalist historiography emanating from the entangled academic and political realms. On the other hand, she represents ‘indigenous perspectives’ to the international archaeological community intent on reconstructing Southeast Asia’s past, and dominated still by Euro-American actors and modes of inquiry.

Source: Disjuncture, Interference and Critical Heritage: Reflections from the Field | SOAS University of London

Thai Log Coffin Culture in Archaeology Magazine

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If you get the chance, pick up this month’s issue of Archaeology Magazine which features an article on the Log Coffins of Mae Hong Son Province in Northern Thailand. One of the archaeologists involved in the project, Dr Rasmi Shoocongdej, kindly shares the article with us here. You can also read previous articles about the Highland Archaeology Project at Mae Hong Son here.

Letter from Thailand: Mystery of the Log Coffin Culture
Archaeology, Sep/Oct 2009
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Profile of Dr Rasmi Shoocongdej

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I met Dr Rasmi Shoocongdej at a conference last year when she presented her work on community-driven heritage management and archaeology at her project in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand; the Bangkok Post carried a feature on the archaeologist from Silpakorn University last week.

Digging up the past
Bangkok Post, 04 September 2008
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Thai community archaeology project boosted thanks to grant

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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
Link is no longer available

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Live from ‘Sharing Our Archaeological Heritage’

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I’m writing from Johor Bahru, Malaysia, where sessions at the international archaeology seminar organised by the Association of Malaysian Archaeolgists are underway. Monday’s been pretty packed filled with session after session of presentations from the different parts of Southeast Asia – this seminar’s theme is ‘Sharing Our Archaeological Heritage’.


Keynote speech by Dr Stephen Oppenheimer

Yesterday’s sessions began with the keynote speech by Oxford’s Stephen Oppenheimer about Southeast Asia’s role in the various waves of human migration. Explaining from a genetic perspective, he suggested the strong genetic evidence for a single southern route (by hugging the coast via India) out of Africa into Southeast Asia and Asia some 80,000 years ago. In more recent times, he also suggested indigenous expansions of local populations within Southeast Asia instead of a single ‘out of Taiwan’ theory to explain human migration into Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia.

Other presentations that caught my ear today was Dr Rasmi Shoocongdej’s work in Northwestern Thailand – I had a nice chat with her during lunch about conducting my fieldwork surveys in Thailand next year and also received some advice from her. Of course, homo floresiensis had to pop up – and from Dr. Harry Widianto’s presentation. I heard why he didn’t consider the hobbit to be a new species. It seems to me that the divide on opinion is very much based on nationalistic lines – with the Indonesians very much denying that homo floresiensis is a new species.

Another day of presentations on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, we go on an archaeological tour of Johor!

Spotlight on Sabah's stone age culture

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22 April 2007 (New Straits Times) – Today’s NST features a special spotlight on the stone age culture – past and ethnographic present. The first story is about the prehistory ceramics industrial site at Bukit Tengkorak (Tengkorak Hill).

New Straits Times, 22 Apr 2007

SpotLight: Stone Age Potters

Tampi villagers today don’t think twice about using clay from the foot of Bukit Tengkorak and nearby areas in southeastern Sabah for their pottery, digging wells for fresh water, burning wood for fuel and eating a wide range of fish, shellfish and molluscs.

But most of them are unaware that from about 3,000 until 2,000 years ago, people at the summit of the 600-foot hill did the same–when the Semporna peninsula was a late Stone Age population hub and craft centre.

Experts from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the Sabah Museum Department and the Department of Natural Heritage have found millions of sherds which show that the site about five kilometres from Semporna town was one of the largest, if not the largest, pottery making sites in Island Southeast Asia (SEA) and the Pacific during the Neolithic era (the last part of the Stone Age, beginning 8,000 BC).

Their findings have overturned some theories about how prehistoric people lived and traded in the region.

Until the excavations here, archaeologists believed that long-distance sea trade and migration of people in insular SEA and the Pacific moved east from Melanesia (near Papua New Guinea) to Polynesia, leaving behind what is known as the “Lapita culture” of pottery, stone tools and ornaments.

“Our research at Bukit Tengkorak shows that 3,000 years ago, people were not only moving east towards New Britain in Melanesia but also westwards towards Sabah,” explains Dr Stephen Chia of USM’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia, who based his PhD thesis on the site.

“This is one of the longest trading routes in the world during the Neolithic period,” says the archeochemist who found obsidian (a volcanic glass used to make tools) at the site and traced it chemically to Talasea in New Britain, 3500 kilometres away. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia also found stone tools and pottery similar to Bukit Tengkorak in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago and Sulawesi.

The second story covers the Bajau people who live in the vicinity of Bukit Tengkorak on the Semporna peninsula of Sabah – the clay stoves produced by the Bajau are remarkably similar to the 3,000-year-old stoves unearthed nearby, implying an unbroken ceramics manufacturing tradition.

New Straits Times, 22 Apr 2007

Bajaus carrying on a long tradition

The finished handiwork of this Bajau woman in Sabah’s southeastern Semporna peninsula looks exactly like the 3,000-year-old stove unearthed at nearby Bukit Tengkorak.

“Pottery has been made like this for hundreds of years,” says Rogayah. “Each house has a stove to grill fish or satay and cook rice.”

“The way of life of the Bajaus today and the food they eat are similar to what we found on site,” says Dr Stephen Chia of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Archaeological Research Malaysia.

“We think that the nomadic Bajau Laut may have landed here to trade, mend their nets, dry fish and bury their dead, but it was the settled coastal Bajaus who made the pottery.”
However, he cautions: “The people of Bukit Tengkorak could also be a totally different group of maritime people who shifted here and then moved on.”


Related Books:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood

10,000-year-old caves discovered

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10 December 2006 (The Nation) – A series of caves in North Thailand prove to yield significant archaeological material. The location of the caves remain undisclosed, but are slated for research and eco-tourism in the future.

10,000-year-old caves discovered

Exploration uncovers 176 caves, which can provide answers about life in the North

Scientists have recently made significant cave discoveries in the Pang Mapha district of Mae Hong Son.

They are excited about the geological, ecological and archaeological importance of the finds.

A few of the caves will be opened to tourists but most will be preserved for research.

Silpakorn University archaeologist Dr Rasmi Shookongdej said finds from the caves and their surrounding areas were important. After three years the team still has much to study.

“The traces we found tell us how people in the area used caves in their age, which is more than 10,000 years ago. We found burial sites, skeletons and stone and iron tools,” Rasmi said.

The 176 caves have been divided into three categories – tourists can visit 15, 112 will be saved for research and 49 have yet to be classified.

The 15 tourist caves have been divided again – seven are for adventure tourists, four for general tourism and another four have religious significance.

Of those set aside for research, dozens could be opened to visitors later, Kasem added. But, priority was study.

Digging up the past – Developing the Community

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1 June 2006 (Citylife Chiang Mai) – A feature on community-involvement archaeology project in northwest Thailand.

Digging up the past – Developing the Community
How archaeology makes a difference in Northwest Thailand

The Highland Archaeology Project in Pangmapha (HAPP) is a microcosm of the new directions of contemporary Thai archaeology. One important detail is that the project is run by a woman, Rasmi Shocoongdej, currently Assistant Professor at Silpakorn University.

The main results so far are the recording of nearly 100 sites from the Stone Age and Metal Age scattered across the district, as well as the excavation of two major rockshelter sites with evidence of over 20,000 years of habitation and several human burials.

The aim of the HAPP camp was to cultivate in the children, and hopefully their families, a sense of the value of the remains of the past and the importance of preserving them. By giving them a narrative of their unique local past – a past that they encounter the evidence of everyday – rather than a homogenising national past, they can feel a more positive sense of belonging and connection to [t]heir heritage.