Archaeology of Myanmar

Myanmar represents the western edge of “Southeast Asia”, bordering Bangladesh and India to the west, and China, Laos and Thailand to its east.

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar was isolated from the world for most of the 20th century. Myanmar’s most famous archaeological sites are the Pyu Cities of Halin, Sri Ksetra and Beikthano, and the massive temple complex of Bagan. Other notable sites include the Padalin Caves in Shan State and Mrauk U in Rakhine State. The Myanma people are most commonly Buddhist but there are also Muslims, Christians, Hindus and various other monuments that have survived from earlier times.

This page covers the archaeology of Myanmar as a whole, and you can find more details about the other countries in their respective pages or explore the Resource Guide for thematic areas. There’s also the Virtual Archaeology page where you can visit Southeast Asian archaeological sites online, learn something from the Online Lecture Library, or find recent academic papers for more up-to-date research. In this page:

Relatively little is known about the prehistory of Myanmar, at least in English sources. The earliest Homo sapiens known from archaeological evidence date to about 25,000 BP. Stone tools are found in Pleistocene river terraces and in caves sites along central Myanmar and in Shan State. One of the most famous prehistoric sites in Myanmar is the Padalin Caves in Shan State, which contains rock art and polished stone tools. Bronze and iron working appears around the same time as the rest of Southeast Asia, begin from around 1,500 BCE.

In the first millennium of the Common Era, migrations from other regions led to the establishment of urban settlements; notably, a people speaking a Tibeto-Burman language now known as the Pyu came from Yunnan and established walled cities across upper Burma. Three of these cities, Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra are now World Heritage sites. The Mons arrived into Lower Burma around 4th century CE, likely as an expansion of Dvaravati culture, and developing their own polities. In the west, the Arakan region (Rakhine state) the Dhanyawadi kingdoms emerged in the 6th century CE as part of the Indian Chandra Dynasty.

From around the 9th century CE the Bamars (a group who spoke a Sino-Tibetan language) appeared into the landscape, migrating from the Nanzhao Kingdom in present-day Yunnan into the Irrawady valley. Over the next 200 years they expanded their territory and unified as an empire under Anawratha in the 11th century. As the first Burmese Empire, Pagan became a major power in the first half of the second millennium, unifying the Irrawady Valley and expanding to the southeast, at times extending its influence to northern Thailand and the Khmer lands. By the 13th century the empire was weakened by an inability to raise revenue while facing revolts within and incursions from the Mongols. Pagan split into smaller kingdoms – Pinya, Myinsaing and Ava, each of which is today a town in Central Myanmar. After the fall of Pagan there was a period of political instability and many independent states emerged and fought for political control in the region.

At the start of 16th century, the small kingdom of Taungoo broke away as a vassal from Ava. The landlocked state in what is today Central Myanmar quickly expanded to absorb surrounding states of Hanthawaddy in the south and Pagan in the north, becoming the second Burmese Empire. With access to the sea and firearms from the Portuguese, the Taungoo Dynasty was able to control vast areas of Mainland Southeast Asia, with areas covering parts of modern-day India, Laos and Thailand. Taungoo’s quick expansion was unsustainable and fraught with rebellions from its tributaries, including Ayutthaya and Lan Xang. The succeeding Konbaung Dynasty was the last dynasty that ruled over Burma in the 18th and 19th centuries. Defeating its predecessor the Taungoo, the Konbaung Dynasty managed to consolidate its terrirory but ultimately were unable to defeat the British which resulted in Burma becoming a province of British India.

As a province of British India, archaelogical work was carried out under the auspices of the Archaeolgical Survey of India. When Burma was separated from British India in 1937, the Archaeological Survey of Burma was established as a subgroup of the ASI. It was not until independence in 1950s that Burmese archaeology was led and conducted by Burmese archaeologists. Strict military rule in the second half of the 20th century, meant that few outside researchers were allowed into the country, while local scholars were unable to access new and updated information.

Archaeology in Myanmar expereienced a renaissance following democratic reforms in 2011 which led to the opening of country. The Pyu cities of Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2014, and Bagan in 2019; and a younger generation of archaeologists were able to study overseas. This renaissance has been cut short – at the time of writing, the elected government has been toppled by a military coup, and the situation in Myanmar remains uncertain.

 

Recommended Books

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There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Myanmar (Burma), and the list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library or have read, and easily available. There are some local-language publications that are not available in the internet, and newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.

Image Gallery

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Myanmar Archaeology in the News

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The news reports indexed below usually link to external sites that were active at the time of posting; sometimes websites may be temporarily down or may have reorganised their underlying architecture or have even closed down – in these cases the links may not be available. Most of the news articles archived are in English; this is largely because I do not have a working competency in Myanma, although when I am made aware of stories in this and other languages I try to index them.

Looking for something specific? You can also use this search box:

These are links to external sites and unless stated, I have no connection with the organisations or entities in these links or control over their content. They are sorted alphabetically, but you should also explore the Resources page which have links sorted by themes. If you have a link to suggest, please get in touch!

  • Association of Myanmar Archaeologists – A blog run by archaeology students in Myanmar
  • Department of Archaeology, Museum and Library – The Myanmar department of archaeology falls under the Ministry of Culture.
  • E. Moore Library – The E.Moore Library is a specialist collection focusing on the art, archaeology, anthropology, history and religion of Southeast Asia and neighbouring regions.
  • IRAW@BAGAN – Project website for the Integrated Socio-Ecological History for Residential Patterning, Agricultural Practices, and Water Management at the Medieval Burmese Capital of Bagan, Myanmar.
  • Myanmar Archaeology Association –  The Myanmar Archaeology Association was established to fill the gap between NGOs concerning cultural heritage issues and the governmental sector including the academic institutions such as universities and schools.
  • Myanmar-Singapore Archaeology Training Project (MSATP) – Project site hosted under NUS Press, focusing on ceramics. In English and Burmese.
  • Tea Circle – Forum for new and emerging perspectives on Burma/Myanmar during its current period of political and economic transition
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