Greetings everyone! I usually reserve my last post of the year for a massive roundup which I put on the website. This year I am shaking things up a little and releasing the Year in Review post on to my readers on Substack first. The Substack Newsletter has become one of the major significant changes to the way I run Southeast Asian Archaeology; it used to be that I would post the news on my website and an automated process would send the news out every few days or so. New technical constraints meant I could no longer do this, and so I created this weekly newsletter that, while taking me a little more time to put together every week, seems to be responding well judging by the steady increase in readers throughout the year.
Through this newsletter I’ve even been able to go a little viral through my 2,000-year-old curry, my attempt to recreate an ancient curry based on a paper describing the spice residues found in a mortar from Oc Eo in Vietnam. I was also able to revive the Wednesday Rojak, a monthly collection of stories that are not related to archaeology or Southeast Asia, but also kinda are. And also, for the first time in the 17 years of running this site I have experienced the perfect week – a week where there are news stories from every country and region in Southeast Asia. Needless to say, it has been a momentous year running Southeast Asian Archaeology. Here are the highlights:
2023 in Review
Kicking off the year, researchers in Thailand launched the country’s first cultural map, showcasing over 2,000 cultural sites, covering aspects from architecture and artifacts to languages and festivals. February brought a tense situation in Papua New Guinea, where an Australian archaeology professor, Bryce Barker, and three researchers were taken hostage in the highlands. The group, including local researchers and a project manager, were conducting fieldwork in a remote area when they were captured by armed criminals demanding ransom. A delicate and complex rescue operation ensued, eventually leading to their safe release after more than a week in captivity. In March, the Denver Art Museum made a significant decision in the wake of revelations about the illegal antiquities trade. The museum removed the name of Emma Bunker, a longtime donor and board member, from its walls and returned all her contributions. This move came after evidence surfaced of Bunker’s involvement with Douglas Latchford in the looting and laundering of Cambodian relics. The late antiquities dealer cast a long shadow throughout the whole year, so much so that I had to dedicate an entire section to him (read below). In March, a remarkable natural and cultural phenomenon revealed itself when the Mekong River’s receding waters revealed a 700-year-old stupa, Phra That Klang Nam, in Nong Khai province. This submerged stupa, believed to house relics of the Buddha, drew large crowds of tourists eager to witness this rare historical emergence.
April witnessed the emergence of fresh evidence in the search for descendants of Australia’s little-known overseas settlement, linked to Indonesia. This revelation revolved around the story of a young woman who disappeared from a remote Australian beach and was later found to have moved to Makassar, Indonesia, marrying and starting a family there. This discovery shed light on the historical connections between the two regions. May saw a significant underwater find with the discovery of two ancient shipwrecks in the South China Sea, believed to be from the mid-Ming Dynasty. These shipwrecks, containing over 100,000 cultural relics, mark a pivotal moment in understanding the history of Chinese overseas trade and navigation. June brought more underwater discoveries with over 800 ancient artifacts, including pots, jars, and plates, found off the southern coast of Cambodia in Preah Sihanouk province. These artifacts, believed to be over 500 years old, hint at a rich history of maritime trade in the region. There are something like 15 known shipwreck sites in Cambodia now, and the kingdom is the only contry in the region that is signatory to the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. Additionally, a controversial situation unfolded as an Indian businessman reportedly found a pair of artifacts, a supposed 10,000-year-old trident and a 3,000-year-old Vajra, during mining in the Philippines. This discovery raised questions about the legality of artifact removal and whether the discoveries were authentic to begin with. There seems to have been no further updates on this matter though.
The third quarter of 2023 was marked by a mix of controversy, technological advancements, and significant UNESCO recognitions. In July, a Philippine celebrity stirred controversy by wearing centuries-old gold jewelry at a gala event. The jewelry, thought to be made from funerary masks from Butuan and Surigao, raised concerns about the ethical implications of using potentially looted artifacts for fashion. August witnessed a technological leap in archaeological exploration at Si Thep Historical Park in Thailand. Lidar analysis in the vicinity Khao Klang Nok’s Great Stupa unveiled new ancient sites and activities, suggesting the area was more than a religious place, possibly even a center of learning. September was a momentous month as three Southeast Asian sites were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List: Cambodia’s Koh Ker, Yogyakarta’s Philosophical Axis and Thailand’s Si Thep Historical Park. Additionally, significant archaeological finds were made in Malaysia at the Bukit Choras Archaeological Site in Kedah. Researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and the National Heritage Department uncovered two near-perfect statues, an ancient Pallava inscription, and the largest temple structure to date, believed to be from the eighth or ninth century AD.
The Bujang Valley remained in the spotlight when October saw a heated academic debate over the dating of ancient Kedah’s true age. Two academics disputed the age of Sungai Batu, with one arguing for an earlier date of 788 BC based on outlier dates from carbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence techniques, while the other supported a timeline between the 2nd and 10th century AD based on Bayesian Chronological Modelling. The issues surrounding these dates are more problematic as the vast majority of the dates have never been published in any reputable archaeological journal, and so the data has never been truly verified or scrutinised. In November, Vietnam announced a remarkable archaeological discovery: the excavation of the oldest known human remains in the region, dating back 10,000 years. This significant find in the northern province of Ha Nam offers unprecedented insight into prehistoric human life in Southeast Asia. Malaysia also honored a significant figure in its archaeological history by awarding Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Zuraina Majid, the nation’s first professionally trained archaeologist, an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in recognition of her pioneering work in preserving Malaysia’s rich prehistoric past. Yet another controversy erupted when a paper claimed that Indonesia’s Gunung Padang was 25,000 years old, suggesting it could be a man-made structure. However, these claims are met with fierce skepticism, myself included, due to the absence of direct evidence of human activity and reliance on radiocarbon dating of “organic soil”. The evidence in the paper simply does not support the conclusions and yet the paper was published, hence the criticism. The year rounded off with fascinating developments in China, where new archaeological findings offered profound insights into the origins of the Austronesian peoples in Southern China. And finally, the Metropolitan Museum made headlines by returning 16 invaluable Khmer artifacts to Cambodia and Thailand. The museum’s involvement in the looted antiquities trade in Cambodia was highlighted in a 60 Minutes episode that came out just after it announced the repatriation of artefacts.
The Shadow of Douglas Latchford
I bookended the year in review with the news of Emma Bunker and the repatriation by the Metropolitan Museum of Art quite deliberately. Throughout 2023, there were numerous stories related to the looted antiquities associated with Douglas Latchford, and how they made their way from war-torn Cambodia to the most prestigious museums around the world. Starting in February, about 80 pieces of Angkorian jewelry linked to Latchford were returned to Cambodia. This remarkable trove, dating back to the 7th century, included pieces previously unknown to experts, marking a substantial addition to Cambodia’s cultural heritage. The story of Latchford’s rise and fall was further explored in the podcast Dynamite Doug released in February, shedding light on his involvement in the theft and sale of Southeast Asian antiquities, implicating major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In March, an investigation revealed the Met’s collection practices, spotlighting hundreds of artifacts linked to convicted traffickers, including items from Cambodia. This revelation emphasized the need for greater scrutiny and ethical practices in the acquisition of cultural artifacts. June saw the U.S. authorities reaching a $12 million forfeiture agreement with Latchford’s daughter, Julia Copleston, marking a significant step in combating the illicit trade in cultural heritage. This settlement included the forfeiture of a stolen bronze statue and monetary assets.
The National Gallery of Australia’s return of three 9th-century Cham sculptures to Cambodia in August highlighted the global dimensions of Latchford’s network. These artifacts, believed to be looted and sold illegally by Latchford, were returned following an extensive provenance investigation, contributing to the healing of Cambodia’s cultural identity. An Australian documentary aired in August further underscored Cambodia’s efforts to repatriate its stolen artifacts, a mission that has become a symbol of national resilience and cultural reclamation.
The repatriation narrative continued with the voluntary return of 33 Khmer antiquities by the Lindemann family to Cambodia in September. This collection, encompassing significant pieces from the 10th and 12th centuries, represented another stride towards righting the wrongs of the past. In September, a stolen 7th-century Durga statue was returned to Vietnam by Latchford’s family, a gesture that acknowledged the widespread impact of his activities beyond Cambodia. Finally, the 60 Minutes documentary highlighted the role of former looters in aiding Cambodia’s quest to reclaim its stolen heritage, exemplifying a transformation from exploitation to preservation.
These stories collectively represent a turning point in the handling of looted antiquities, with a growing recognition of the need for ethical stewardship and the restitution of cultural heritage to its rightful communities.
Here’s an overview of some of the most notable papers published this year, each contributing significantly to our understanding of the region’s past. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of all the research published in 2023, but a selection of studies that stood out:
- Early Presence of Homo Sapiens in Southeast Asia: Research from Tam Pà Ling in Northern Laos, published in Nature, pushes back the arrival of Homo sapiens in Southeast Asia to around 86,000 years ago. This discovery challenges previous timelines and suggests an earlier dispersal of our species into the region, providing new insights into human evolution and migration patterns.
- The Invisible Plant Technology of Prehistoric Southeast Asia: A paper in PLOS One by Xhauflair et al. discusses 39,000-year-old stone tools from Tabon Cave, Philippines. These tools exhibit microscopic damage indicative of plant fiber use, hinting at advanced fiber technology for making baskets, traps, ropes, and composite tools by ancient communities. This study highlights the significant role of fiber technology in the late Pleistocene.
- Moluccan Fighting Craft on Australian Shores: Published in Historical Archaeology, this paper by Ruyter et al. explores rock art from Awunbarna, Arnhem Land, Australia, depicting watercraft believed to be from eastern Maluku Tenggara in Indonesia. This discovery provides evidence of diverse maritime interactions between northern Australia and Island Southeast Asia, expanding our understanding of historical trade and cultural exchanges.
- The So-Called ‘Kāla Head’ Armband of Temasek: Dr. Natalie Ong, in The Temasek Working Paper Series, reexamines a gold armband found in 1928 in Singapore. Previously attributed to Javanese Majapahit culture, her research suggests a connection to northwest South Asia, challenging long-standing assumptions about the armband’s origin and symbolism.
- Secondary Burial Practice at Megalithic Jar Site 1, Plain of Jars Laos: A paper in Asian Archaeology by O’Reilly et al. revisits the Plain of Jars Site 1 in Laos. The study reveals evidence of secondary burial practices dating to the 8th to 13th centuries, confirming the site’s use as a communal burial ground.
- In Search of a Musical Past: A study published in Antiquity by Campos et al. examines two deer antlers from Go O Chua in Vietnam, potentially the earliest examples of chordophones in Southeast Asia. This discovery suggests a long tradition of musical instruments in the region, opening new avenues for archaeo-musicological research.
- Tug-of-War: Bones and Stones as Scientific Objects in Postcolonial Indonesia: Published in Isis, A Journal of the History of Science Society, Paige Madison’s paper delves into the early controversy surrounding the discovery of Homo floresiensis. It examines the cultural and scientific disputes over the LB1 bones, offering insights into postcolonial perspectives in scientific collaboration.
In Memory of…
As we reflect on the year gone by, it is with a heavy heart that we remember and honor our friends and colleagues in the field of Southeast Asian archaeology who have passed away. Their contributions have indelibly shaped our understanding of the region’s rich and complex history, and their absence leaves a profound void in our community.
Damian Evans (Passed away on September 12 in Paris, France): Best known for his transformative work on the LiDAR survey of Angkor and other regions in Southeast Asia, Damian Evans was a pioneering figure whose efforts revolutionized our comprehension of Angkorian settlement patterns. An alumnus of the University of Sydney, Damian played a pivotal role in the Greater Angkor Project. His extensive use of remote sensing and ground surveys expanded the known map of Angkor, redefining our understanding of the Khmer Empire’s occupation and hydraulic systems. His direction of two extensive LiDAR missions in Cambodia, including one that resulted in the world’s largest LiDAR data capture, positioned Southeast Asia at the forefront of global archaeological research. Remembered for his collaborative spirit, relentless work ethic, and good humour, Damian’s legacy extends beyond his academic contributions, touching the lives of many through his generosity and friendship.
Alastair Lamb (Passed away on April 6, 2023): Alastair Lamb, known for his dual career as a diplomat and archaeologist-historian, made significant contributions to the understanding of Southeast Asian history. While his diplomatic work led him to shed new light on the Kashmir conflict, his earlier archaeological endeavors in Malaya, including the Bujang Valley, were groundbreaking. Lamb’s multifaceted career showcased his ability to traverse diverse fields, contributing valuable insights into the cultural and political landscapes of Southeast Asia.
Edmund Edwards McKinnon (Passed away on June 23, 2023): Renowned for his archaeological work in Kota Cina, Sumatra, and other parts of Indonesia, Edmund Edwards McKinnon was a figure deeply embedded in the study of Southeast Asian archaeology. His discovery of Kota Cina in 1972 and subsequent research on regional archaeology, trade, and trade ceramics have been seminal. McKinnon’s contributions extended beyond his academic achievements, as reflected in his deep connections within the Southeast Asian Studies Council of Southeast Asia (SEACS) and with colleagues and friends who remember him fondly. His extensive work and publications continue to be a valuable resource for researchers and enthusiasts alike.
As we honor these remarkable individuals, we are reminded of their enduring impact on the field of Southeast Asian archaeology. Their legacies continue to inspire and guide us in our quest to uncover and understand the rich tapestry of Southeast Asia’s past. We extend our deepest condolences to their families, friends, and colleagues. May their memories and contributions forever enrich our understanding and appreciation of Southeast Asia’s archaeological heritage.
New Books in 2023
As with most years, there were a few new books released, some which you can even get for free. Here are some titles that were released this year. These are affiliate links, and I may get a commission if you click on them and make a purchase.
- Southeast Asia: A History in Objects (British Museum: A History in Objects) by Alexandra Green
- Muslim Cultures of the Indian Ocean by Stephane Pradines
- A Maritime Vietnam: From Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century by Tana Li
- Shipwrecks and the Maritime History of Singapore by Kwa Chong Guan
- Chiang Mai between Empire and Modern Thailand: A City in the Colonial Marginsby Taylor Easum
I am currently reading Bali: An Early History by John Cooke, written as an introductory overview to the Island of the Gods. I hope to have a quick review up in the coming year.
A Big Thank You
… and finally, a big thank you to YOU, you who are reading and following Southeast Asian Archaeology. This newsletter goes out to over 1,800 people every week; this year the website received 82,000 visitors; and over 9,100 and 7,600 followers on Facebook and Instagram respectively. Running a website about Southeast Asian Archaeology started out as a hobby, and by a happy accident I also work in Southeast Asian Archaeology in my professional life, which if anything has been a positive feedback loop.
My endeavours on this site has been aided greatly through supporters who have contributed financially, either by being a member on Substack, or by Buying Me a Coffee. This year, I would like to thank specifically Phil Ashill, Ginevra Boatto, Colin Brown, Alison Carter, Ya-Liang Chang, Nick Coffill, Aedeen Cremin, Mary Connors, John Cooke, Craig D., Erika Daum-Karanitsch, Jim Fitton, Tom Flemons, Eberhard Frieß, Rosey Guthrie, Valerie Hansen, Janos Jelen, Helen Jessup, Anitha Komanthakkal, Kat, Kwa Chong Guan, Louise Macul, Loyola de Mello, Marion Milliet, Chris Morrison, Natali Pearson, Martin Polkinghorne, Mas, Gulapish Pookaiyaudom, John Powell, Kerza Prewitt, John S., Mary E. Scott, Dionysius Shankar Kumar Sharma, Leonie Stevens, Ian Tan, Linda Villiers, Mathew Welch, Patricia Welch, Spencer Wells, and at least 7 others who have chosen to remain unnamed. I cannot express enough how grateful I am for your support.
And that brings us to the end of this year in Southeast Asian Archaeology. See you again next year, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!