For my last post of the year, I wanted to highlights some of the major archaeology news stories in Southeast Asia in 2022. This year has been quite an exciting year for archaeologists, especially coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic and it looks like field projects are resuming in a big way. Here’s the rundown of the most popular news stories, month-by-month:
January: In Vietnam, 23 new national treasures were recognised by the state, including a Dong Son drum found in Lao Cai province and a pedestal at the My Son Sanctuary. In Indonesia, the restructure of all the national research centres into the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) leads to the formation of three centres looking at various aspects of archaeology and heritage. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice of the southern district of New York announced the forfeiture of artefacts linked to Douglas Latchford with the intent to repatriate them to Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The spectre of Latchford’s legacy will continue as a theme throughout the rest of the year.
February: Angelina Jolie surprises fans by making a visit to Angkor Wat – no doubt, to capitalise on the lower tourist numbers during the post-pandemic period. also at Angkor Wat, the Apsara Authority embarks on a new project to restore the Buddha images of the Bakan. In Indonesia, archaeologists report the discovery of an inscription said to date to the Mataram Kingdom.
March: After delayed by the pandemic, the new Borneo Cultures Museum opens its doors to the public, representing Sarawak and the island of Borneo’s rich cultural and archaeological heritage. More signs of tourism recovery in Angkor as tourists flock to Angkor Wat to witness the solar equinox on 21 March, when the sun rises directly above the central tower. The Quang Ngai Museum hosts an exhibition on shipwreck finds from Vietnam.
April: Stone jars, an entire forest of them, were reported discovered in the northeast Indian state of Assam and are thought to be related to the ones found in Laos. Research is still ongoing. This exciting discovery is tempered by more sobering news from Myanmar, where the looting of sculptures from the Unesco World Heritage site of Bagan was reported.
May: Archaeologists announce new discoveries from Oc Eo site of Vietnam, more importantly signalling the intention to eventually nominate the site for Unesco World Heritage. Similarly, Malaysian authorities announce that they are also on track to eventually nominate the Niah National Park is a Unesco World Heritage site. A university from Flinders University announces a new project that looks at trade ceramics in Southeast Asia and how they might be repatriated to their place of origin.
June: A small controversy around Borobudur erupted when a minister announced intentions to raise the entry fee to Borobudur to US$100, as well as to drastically limit the number of visitors to the site. The announcement was quickly walked back after much public uproar. Thailand reported the repatriation of a Lanna-period gold crown from the US. The repatriation was significant, but the details surrounding who had the crown before it was repatriated remains vague.
July: Korean researchers working in Laos report new discoveries from Hong Nang Sida temple near Vat Phu, including a large number of gold relics. We have a couple of investigative pieces about the antiquities trade in Southeast Asia, and how dealers like Douglas Latchford (not the last time his name is going to appear in this roundup) facilitate the looting and smuggling of artefacts, and how they end up in museums worldwide – see here and here. On a related note, a team from Cambodia sets up meetings with museums in the UK (including the British and V&A Museum) to inspect their collections for potentially looted artefacts.
August: Looted antiquities from Cambodia take centrestage again in two seperate stories, the first involving photographs of a billionaire’s home featured in the Architectural Digest, which were digitally altered to remove Khmer sculptures which are suspected to have been looted; the second involving the identification of looted antiquities in the collections of The Met, and the museum unwilling (or unable) to prove that their collections were not looted. On the other side of the world, Australian authorities were able to repatriate artefacts that were salvaged from the Tek Sing shipwreck back to Indonesia. Vietnamese archaeologists announced the discovery of the remains of a Cham Tower in Binh Dinh province, with finds as old as 1,500 years. Finally, Malaysian archaeologist Prof. Datuk Zuraina Majid and curator of the British Library Dr. Annabel Gallop are recognised for their contributions to Malaysia with a Merdeka Award.
September: Philippine archaeologists announce the discovery of human habitation in Palawan during the Last Glacial Maximum (more commonly known as the ice age), while in Chiang Mai, Thailand, heavy rains caused part of the reconstructed ancient city wall to collapse. This will not be the only ancient architectural feature in Chiang Mai to collapse because of the rains.
October: The rainy seasons wreak havoc on cultural sites across Mainland Southeast Asia – floods are reported in Hoi An, Ayutthaya and Hue, while another ancient chedi in Chiang Mai collapses because of the heavy rain. The problem of looted antiquities, colonialism and museums gets another spotlight through John Oliver in his popular show Last Week Tonight; Cambodia signals its intention to inspect more museum collections around the world, including the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore while Indonesia formally requests for the return of cultural objects from the Netherlands, including the Java Man fossils. In Taiwan, the discovery of a Negrito skull confirms oral accounts of a pre-Austronesian population that lived on the island.
November: Archaeologists across Southeast Asia and Greater Southeast Asia gathered in Chiang Mai for the 22nd Congress of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, a long-awaited event that was for many the first in-person conference to be held after Covid-19. The week-long event was attended by some 750 participants, with many side activities such as cultural tours, workshops and formal and informal getherings. SOAS announced a new project looking at the repatriation and restitution of artefacts in Southeast Asia, while a joint nominaton by Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand hopes to include the kebaya as part of Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage.
December: This month began the same way it started, with a look at the legacy of Douglas Latchford and the looting and smuggling of Southeast Asian cultural heritage. The Denver Post ran a three-part investigative story on Emma Bunker, one of Latchford’s closest collaborators and the Denver Museum of Art’s role in laundering stolen antiquities, as well as an unresolved issue of Thai bronzes found at the museum. I am sure this is not the last we will hear about the problems of looting and the repatriation of artefacts from museums; if anything, it will dominate the headlines for the next few years as it has this year – and I’ll be sure to index the stories as they pop up. We end this year’s roundup with two happy occasions – the official inscription of the Plain of Jars into Unesco World Heritage, three years after it was announced in 2019, and the 30th anniversary of Angkor’s inscription as Unesco World Heritage also happens this month.
I will end this roundup with some ‘special mentions’ – a list of some of the most popular posts and pages that were visited by readers this year:
- Archaeology of the Philippines, Unesco World Heritage in Southeast Asia, Archaeology of Malaysia: These were the three most visited resource pages this year. I have been updating these pages progressively with maps, and it seems like the pages with maps have become more popular – by next year all the country resource pages will have maps in them!
- China kept this 800-year-old shipwreck a secret for decades: One of the most popular posts this year was about the Nanhai No.1 shipwreck, this is a link to the National Geographic feature about the shipwreck which was recovered from the ocean in its entirety and housed in a purpose-built museum.
- Digital Historical Maps of Southeast Asia: A new digital resource by Yale-NUS with historical maps from Southeast Asia.
- What’s in my Archaeology Field Kit? (June 2022, Light Survey Edition): Want to know what I pack for an archaeologial survey? This was my field kit for a short survey in June, I will be posting an update to my field kit in February 2023
That’s the end of my 2022 roundup of archaeology in Southeast Asia. I will be taking a break for the rest of year, and I’ll resume posting news stories in 2023. If you found this site useful and you have the means to help support it directly, consider Buying Me a Coffee which will help to defray the costs of running this website – you can read my fundraising appeal here. Merry Christmas for all who celebrate it, and to all, a Happy New Year!