Archaeology of Thailand

The Kingdom of Thailand has a rich archaeological record and has been intensively research by both foreign and local archaeologists.

Located in the centre of Mainland Southeast Asia surrounded by Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, Thailand has had the distinction of not being colonised by Europeans. Several archaeological sites are listed as Unesco World Heritage: the prehistoric site of Ban Chiang, as well as the historic capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Archaeological work in Thailand is overseen by the Fine Arts Department, a division under the Ministry of Culture.

This page covers the archaeology of Thailand 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:

Fossils of Homo erectus have been found in Northern Thailand, possibly dating as old as a million years old. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans come from Pleistocene layers at Lang Rongrien Cave in Krabi, dating 27,000-42,000 years. Stone tools and rock art sites across the country suggest that early humans were extant across Thailand during the Holocene and Neolithic. From around 2,000 BCE settlements can be identified in central and northeast Thailand, perhaps associated with the migration of peoples from China into Southeast Asia. Early settlements were established in coastal and estuarine locations exemplified by Khok Phanom Di in Chonburi province. With the emergence of permanent settlements also came the development of bronze and iron working, and the appearance of long-distance trade goods. Another important prehistoric archaeological site is Ban Chiang, located in Khorat plateau in Udon Thani Province, northeastern Thailand. Evidence of human settlement at Ban Chiang dates back to approximately 2300–2000 BCE and continued until 600 BCE. The inhabitants cultivated rice, domesticated animals such as cattle, water buffalo and pigs, made black pottery and developed bronze casting for tools and weapons.

From around the 6th century CE, the appearance of coins with inscriptions referring to “the King of Sri Dvaravati” suggest the existence of a Mon polity in central Thailand. Archaeologically, we see from this period a loose grouping of fortified settlements and moated sites which featured the adoption of Buddhism (and to a minor extent, Hinduism). They shared a similar material culture and extended as far inward as the Khorat Plateau in Northeast Thailand.

The ancestors of the Thai people today were likely descendents of Tai populations who moved southward from China around the 8-10th centuries CE. They absorbed the Mon Hindu-Buddhist culture and power structues and in 1238 CE, the first unified Thai state, Sukhothai, was established. Sukhothai’s founder Ramkhamhaeng is also considered the first Thai king to adopt Buddhism, and to introduce the religion to the Siamese people. Sukhothai was superseded by the southern kingdom of Ayutthaya and Lan Na in the north. The former emerged during the decline of the Khmer empire and became an important trading centre, establishing links with the west and even developed diplomatic relations with France and the Vatican in the 17th century.

Burmese expansionism made Lan Na a tributary in the 16th century and caused the sacking of Ayuthaya in 1767. The successive Siamese kingdoms of Thonburi and Rattanakosin established the capital in present-day Bangkok and exerted control to the Malayan peninsula in the south and Lan Na in the north, as well as parts of modern-day Cambodia and Laos. Treaties with western powers solidified the borders into its present state, and for most part Siam experienced rapid economic development and growth without coming under the direct control of any foreign power. In 1932, Siam turned into a constitutional monarchy and was renamed Thailand.

Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, archaeology was not a colonial endeavour and associated with royal figures. One of the earliest archaeological investigations in Siam was attributed to King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1804-1868) who excavated the Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom Province and discovered the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, described as the first known example of Thai script. In the early 20th century, Prince Damrong Rajanupab (1862-1943) was known as a historian and was known to have visited many ruins in the country and written extensively about archaeology and art history. During the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI 1881–1925) established the Fine Arts Department in 1911, which today remains the government agency oversseing the management of museums and archaeology in the country.

Thai archaeology flourished after World War II. The establishment of the Faculty of Archaeology at Silpakorn University was responsible for the creation of a number of notable Thai scholars and archaeologists. More recently, many Thai archaeologists have gone on to receive advanced education overseas, and returned to lead archaeological projects here. Besides research, which is mainly organised under the Fine Arts Department and Silpakorn University, archaeology and conservation have an important role in cultural tourism through the role of its museums, historic parks and Unesco World Heritage sites.

Recommended Books

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There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Thailand, 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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Thai 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 Thai, 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!

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