Public Lecture: Putting the metal into Metal Age Southeast Asia

Readers in Canberra may be interested in this upcoming lecture by Dr. Oli Pryce.

Putting the metal into Metal Age Southeast Asia
Venue: Australian National University, Coombs Lecture Theatre
Date: Thursday, 12 April 2012
Time: 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM

Being a technology that: requires geographically dispersed and geochemically differentiable resources; has a firm thermodynamic envelope but offers enormous variety for the expression of technological style in production; offers a range of characteristics (e.g. castability/ductility/malleability/strength/toughness/lustre/sonority) over which consumers may exercise choice in typological style; and, allowing for a certain spectrum, has a skill requirement for production such that the high-fidelity transmission of a technique implies close, cooperative, and extended interactions within and between social groups; metallurgy is a major archaeological resource for robust and precise empirical data linking metal-producing/using peoples through space and time. Exceptions include the “Thailand Archaeometallurgy Project”, but in general it is fair to say that in comparison to other parts of the world, archaeometallurgy has been woefully under-developed in Southeast Asia; a culturally, ecologically, and geologically diverse arena that is, ironically, highly suited to such an approach.

Since 2009, I have been trying to remedy this with the “Southeast Asian Lead Isotope Project” (SEALIP) to elucidate diachronic metal exchange networks as proxies for Southeast Asian social interactions c. 1000 BC to c. 500 AD. To date SEALIP’s published outputs have: established isotopic discrimination between regional primary production centres, substantiated Sino-centric models for the origins (doh!) of regional metal technologies, identified unsuspected exchange systems between Iron Age Cambodia and Laos, confirmed suspected exchange systems with Han China, resolved sub-regional chronologies, and begun to unravel the social significance of prehistoric metallurgy. In this lecture I will present the full dataset of c. 200 samples (many of which come from ANU excavations) along with my current interpretations of the economic and political interdependencies between fuel and mineral resource-rich uplanders, agrarian state-forming lowlanders, and mercantile coastal populations, which saw material, technologies, and people redistributed over tens, hundreds, and thousands of kilometres as Southeast Asia’s economy, connectivity, and social complexity accelerated over the course of the Metal Age period.

Needless to say, the story doesn’t stop here. 200 analyses is totally insufficient for such an area and timescale (Europe, relatively equivalent, has many thousands). We still don’t have a production signature for northern Vietnam, where enormous quantities of bronze are excavated, and whilst Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines host some of the world’s largest active copper mines, we know practically nothing about the long-term economic and political history of these resources. It doesn’t have to be like this. SEALIP continues as an ever more collaborative enterprise but multiple research teams are the logical and desirable outcome. Reaching out especially to advanced undergraduate and early postgraduate students, if you harbour a passion for post 1000 BC Southeast Asia / materials science / geochemistry / or plain industrial waste (slag), please come along. We have work to do.”

More details here.

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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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