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.

To cite this page: Tan, Noel Hidalgo (2021, updated 26 January 2023) Archaeology of Thailand. Southeast Asian Archaeology. Available at: https://www.southeastasianarchaeology.com/thailand-archaeology/
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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.

Overview
Overview
Map
Map
Recommended Books and Readings
Recommended Books
Most Popular Posts
Most Popular Posts
News Archive
News Archive
Links to other websites
Links to other websites
Online Lecture Library
A searchable collection on publicly-available lectures
Virtual Archaeology
Archaeological sites and museums you can visit online
Archaeological Projects in Southeast Asia
A list of past and present archaeological project websites
Journals and Scholarly Research
Scholarly research and a list of Southeast Asian archaeology journals
Tools and Software
Field work equipment and digital tool recommendations, with many available for free.
Job postings, scholarships and funding opportunities
Job postings, scholarships and funding opportunities

Overview

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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.

Notable Archaeological Sites in Thailand

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Archaeologists have had plenty of opportunities to explore the long and fascinating history of this Southeast Asian nation in all its splendour. Here is a list of some of the more significant archaeological sites in Thailand. Not all of these sites are open to the public, and the locations marked on the map may not be exact. For more information about museums in Thailand, check out the museum page here.

  • Ayutthaya: The kingdom of Ayutthaya ruled over Central Thailand and surrounding regions from the 14-18th century. The major monuments can be found in the Ayutthaya Historical Park, with notable sites such as Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chaiwattanaram and Wat Ratchaburana.
  • Ban Chiang: A significant prehistoric site not just of Thailand, but for Southeast Asia. Excavations at Ban Chiang brought to attention the introduction of wet rice agriculture, with a rich stratigraphy to show societal change over the Neolithic to the Iron Age.
  • Ban Kao: An important Neolithic site in western Thailand, known for its distinctive tripod pottery. A branch of the National Museum of Thailand now sits at the site.
  • Chiang Saen: Ancient walled city in Chiang Rai province which was ruled at various times by the Lanna Kingdom, and then the Burmese, and then Thailand. The city houses several ancient temple sites and a branch of the National Museum.
  • Haripunchai: Lamphun, the capital of the province of the same name, was the capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom which ruled what is now northern Thailand from the 7-12th centuries. The ancient city’s moats can still be seen, and the city has a branch of the National Museum of Thailand.
  • Kamphaeng Phet: Several archaeological sites along the Ping River in Kamphaeng Phet province are designated as the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park, and considered part of the Sukhothai World Heritage property.
  • Nong Ratchawat: A long-running project by the Fine Arts Department of Thailand have uncovered over 100 burials in this site, spanning from the Neolithic to Bronze Age.
  • Phanom Rung: A Saivite Khmer temple located in Buriram province dating to between the 10th and 13th centuries.
  • Pha Taem National Park: Bordering Laos at Ubon Ratchathani province, the cliff face overlooking the Mekong River contains four rock art sites, the largest of which appear to depict the river with fishes, fish traps and elephants.
  • Phangnga Bay Rock Art: Over 10 rock art sites have been identified across Phangnga Bay, covering the provinces of Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi. The red rock paintings are typically located on clifff faces and associated with the sea.
  • Phanom Surin Shipwreck: Sometime between the 9th and 10th century, an Arab-style dhow sunk in the Gulf of Thailand. The remains of this shipwreck were discovered in 2013 in Samut Sakorn province and is being carefully studied by the Fine Arts Department.
  • Phimai: Connected to Angkor in Cambodia by way of an ancient royal road, the Phimai temple is in a similar style of Angkor Wat and dates to roughly around the same period – around the late 11th to 12th century.
  • Phu Phra Bat: This archaeological landscape in Udon Thani province consists of many rock shelters and boulders. Human interventions on them suggest that humans interactions over a long period of time, from rock art, the later Dvaravati and Lanna-period Buddhist shrines.
  • Si Satchanalai: One of the ancient towns associated with the Sukhothai Unesco World Heritage site, Si Satchanalai in Sukhothai province was another major urban centre of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
  • Sukhothai: The stunning ruins of the historic city of Sukhothai are found in what is now northern Thailand. Sukhothai was one of the most important cities in Siam, and the site has many beautiful temples, including those of Wat Mahathat and Wat Chang Lom.

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.

Last update on 2023-01-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Most Popular Thai Archaeology Posts

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These links are dynamically generated and are based on the most viewed posts in the last 30 days.

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.

Other Thai Archaeology Sites

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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!