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
Thailand’s far northwestern corner is rippled with mountains, lush at their bases and craggy on top, where the limestone outcrops graze the sky. This landscape stretches for hundreds of miles through villages of ethnic Shan and animist hill tribes that farm their fields on both sides of the Thailand-Burma border. Clusters of bamboo-and-thatch huts cling to the mountainsides. I’ve traveled here before–pursuing stories as well as fresh air and lazy vacation days–and the people have welcomed me with sticky rice, tea, and stories of their ancestors. This time, I am visiting Ban Rai Rock Shelter–better known to locals as Tham Pi Maen or a “spirit” cave–500 feet up from the valley below, to see the remains of 15 giant teak coffins where a little-known culture left their dead more than a thousand years ago.
Some 600 miles northwest of Bangkok, this undulating terrain, crisscrossed by rivers, has a climate cooler than that of Thailand’s flat plains to the south. Known as the “lime hills” in the Shan language, the region has yielded some of Thailand’s most important archaeological finds, including the oldest wood carving in the country and the earliest human remains in northern Thailand. American archaeologist Chester Gorman began investigating this area in 1965, and found seeds of domesticated plants dating between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago. But then, as now, much of the area’s archaeology remained unexcavated and poorly understood. This is clearly evident in the case of the Log Coffin Culture.