Rock art and sacred sites in Mainland Southeast Asia

Starting off the week with a post about what I’ve been up to the last six weeks – I’ve been in Thailand and Laos to conduct some fieldwork at rock art sites. I was particularly interested in the connection of rock art with religious (typically Buddhist) sites.

The team at Khao Chan Ngam, in Nakhon Ratchasima province in Thailand
The team at Khao Chan Ngam, in Nakhon Ratchasima province in Thailand


The work took us to Northeast Thailand – Nakhon Ratchasima Province, and then to Udon Thani Province at the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park. We also had a look at a potential site in Laos in Luang Prabang province. The unifying factor in all these sites is that they contain (presumably prehistoric) rock art and religious shrines of later religions, and I’m wondering if these are co-appearances are coincidences or symptomatic of a long history of occupation and use. The site in the above picture, for example, is a rock shelter housing a Buddhist shrine and rock art thought to be of the prehistoric period.

A rock shelter in Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, with Buddhist offerings and rock art
A rock shelter in Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, with Buddhist offerings and rock art
The Pak Ou Caves in Luang Prabang Province in Laos, a Buddhist cave with cave paintings
The Pak Ou Caves in Luang Prabang Province in Laos, a Buddhist cave with cave paintings

Most of the work involved making detailed recordings of the rock art at these sites – using the iPad system and photography, and also trying to reconstruct life histories of the sites by talking to the local people, particularly the monks from the temples that were associated with the shrines. Part of the resulting outputs from this work is detailed recordings of each site, that will serve as baseline recordings for future conservation work. A large problem, as with all rock art studies, is the inability to directly date the pigments. But a consistent theme from all the talks with locals is that the rock art predates the existing shrines, so that’s a good sign.

Namtarn and Jane, two students from Silpakorn University who were assisting with the work
Namtarn and Jane, two students from Silpakorn University who were assisting with the work
Talking to one of the forest monks about a rock art site we recorded.
Talking to one of the forest monks about a rock art site we recorded.

Still much work to be done, quite a fair bit of fieldwork left to do!

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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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