The Geographic and historic of Thailand

The Geographic and historic of Thailand

Cover with finial in the form of a bird, from Ban Don Ta Phet. Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

The Geographic and historic of Thailand

The focus of any study of the art of Thailand must be the great cities of the lower Chao Phraya basin—Bangkok, and its predecessors Ayutthaya, Lopburi, and (west of the Tha Chin River) the ancient Dvaravatl city today called Nakhon Pathom. The culture of the first millennium, seems to have extended no further north than the province of Nakhon Sawan, where the Ping River branches. Much less is known about the inhabitants living further north, in the upper plain, either at that time or earlier. Yet it was this upper plain that with the flowering of Sukhothai in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries became a region of crucial importance.

The Ping River leads to Lamphun, or Haripunjaya, which was a Mon center of the eleventh-thirteenth centuries, and then to Chiang Mai, the capital in subsequent centuries of an independent Lan Na.
The eastern boundary of this region does not not coincide with the modern Cambodian border. There is a separate area along the border, comprising Aranyaprathet and other districts, in which the rivers flow east rather than west, and where the ties to Cambodia were especially strong. The region even further south—the southeast coast— is one that has not played much of a role in art—or in other history—save for the appearance in the seventh century of lintels in Cambodian style.

Figure 1. Prehistoric ceramics: incised designs. (a) Ban Kao. (b) Ban Chiang. (c) Ban Chiang, burial 40. (d) Non Nok Tha, layer 21. (e) Non Nok Tha, layer 9.

Figure 1. Prehistoric ceramics: incised designs. (a) Ban Kao. (b) Ban Chiang. (c) Ban Chiang, burial 40. (d) Non Nok Tha, layer 21. (e) Non Nok Tha, layer 9.

The map divides the entire Northeast into two great sections, one comprising the Mun-Chi basin, the other smaller tributaries that flow northward or eastward into the Mekong. In the Sakon Nakhon basin created by one of these tribuaries, the Songkhram, the prehistoric Ban Chiang culture flourished. A different ceramic sequence characterizes another important prehistoric site, Non Nok Tha, one hundred thirty kilometers to the southwest. It also seems to be the case that the Buddhist-boundary-stone culture of the first millennium A. D. was somewhat less established in the northern area draining directly into the Mekong than it was along the Chi and its tributaries—at sites extending from the river’s very sources almost to the point where it joins the Mun.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the accessibility of the Mekong gave to the far Northeast a character different from that of the Mun-Chi basin. The key site of the more northerly half was at the end of the first millennium the city of Fa Daet, standing not far from the point where the Chi River, flowing west to east, joins the Lam Pao and turns southward. Characterizing the southern half are the sites that lie between the southern tributaries of the Mun, as it traverses, west to east, across the entire Northeast. This is a region that has been strongly shaped by its proximity to Cambodia. The conquerors who established the Cakravartin dynasty of Cambodia were active at both ends of the Mun—at its mouth and in Si Thep—in the years before 600. Later, the Khmer expansion northward in the tenth century resulted in three hundred years of construction in a Cambodian idiom. In the border areas, Khmer is spoken today.
On the western edge of the Chao Phraya basin are two separate regions. The mountainous, northerly one drains into the Salween— and makes almost no appearances in art history. The Mae Klong River system, on the other hand, is particularly interesting for its role both in prehistory and during the course of the first millennium. At the head of the Khwae Noi (“lesser branch”) is the Three Pagodas Pass, one of the most accessible routes into Burma. Along the river are important prehistoric sites—most particularly Ban Kao— and the important DvaravatI town of Khu Bua. Although there are no physical barriers between the Tha Chin River and the lower Mae Klong, there are good reasons to suppose the area of the river’s watershed had a distinctive identity both in prehistoric times (with boat coffin burials not yet found elsewhere, and ceramics with links to wares found in Malaysia) and later (with Khu Bua’s terracottas and rectangular city plan unmatched to the east).

Figure 2. Bracelet, pot, and cattle figurine, from burial 38, Ban Na Di.

Figure 2. Bracelet, pot, and cattle figurine, from burial 38, Ban Na Di.

Prehistoric Thailand
Dramatic increases in our knowledge of prehistoric Thailand, beginning in the 1960s, were accompanied by equally dramatic disagreements among prehistorians about the proper interpretation of the evidence that had been uncovered.
The shape of the discussion in the pages that follow, nevertheless, was determined by an attempt to come to grips with the contending views of the 1960s and 1970s, and to provide an art- historical perspective on both the issues and the data. There are few citations to publications of the 1990s.
Much of the prehistory that archaeologists have presented makes social development its core subject—even though the gulf between this concern and the data immediately presented by an excavation may be a broad one. Some scholars have looked for an internal dynamic, such as an interest by a growing elite in status symbols. Sometime around the middle of the second millennium B. C., in the course of the second half of the first millennium B. C., of Indian etched glass beads, which have been found at a number of sites.
As in every historical situation, the relationship between internal developmental trends and outside stimulus was a delicate one. Outside forces impinging upon a world of scattered speakers of indigenous languages belonging to the Austroasiatic family were several in number, some better attested than others. First were the seaborne movements of Austronesian speakers. These may first have become a factor in the third millennium B. C., as speakers of languages ancestral to the Malagasy, Malay, Tagalog, and of the island world stretching from Madagascar to Polynesia began their long seaborne voyages. They remained a factor long after, not only bringing the installation of ancestors of the Cham and various Montagnard in Indochina, but serving as a means of coastal communication, linking southern China to coasts along the entire peninsula and throughout the islands. Linguistic evidence also makes it possible to speak of a second outside force, but with somewhat less certainty. Austro- Asiatic speakers spread into Burma and from there to India, a legacy being the present-day speakers of Munda languages. They may be imagined as providing a landborne link to the subcontinent. Finally, there is another pathway for contact, one that is the most speculative in nature: this is the path that leads north, to Kunming, Chengtu, Kansu province (along the edge of mountains at China’s western borders). This is a pathway that raises the spectre of diffusionism and the possibility that the movement of Central Asian nomads might actually have had repercussions in Southeast Asia. Nomadic influence is present in the art of the kingdom of Tien in Yunnan at the end of the first millennium B. C., and such elements cannot be overlooked in assessing outside forces.
Cord- marked ceramic shards appear in the upper layers of a site that had been visited for thousands of years previously by people making stone tools of a Hoabinhian type. The cord-marked ceramic tradition has been considered by some to have characterized most of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia at the same time and for several millennia thereafter.

Figure 3. Ceramics from Ban Chiang painted designs.

Figure 3. Ceramics from Ban Chiang painted designs.

Neolithic and Bronze Age Design
Where and when this pattern was broken is not known. The extant archaeological record appears to begin with sites in northeastern Thailand in which the earliest ceramics have incised and impressed decor, as can be seen in fig. 1b-d. None of these sketches depicts what throughout the ages has been the most common type of vessel in Thailand, a globular cooking pot. At the site of Ban Chiang, a spherical cord-marked pot with smooth everted lip, probably dating from toward the end of the second millennium B. C., has been described as looking much like the pots made in Ban Chiang today for steaming rice or cooking soup. The traditional pot generally has an upper part differentiated in some way from the round-bottomed lower part, which might have a cord-marked surface. Differences among pots lie in the breadth of the mouth, the profile of the lip, the shape of the upper part (which may be concave in silhouette), the treatment of its surface (perhaps polished), and the nature of the union between upper and lower parts (perhaps cari- nated, joining at a sharp angle). A number of the interred vessels are cooking pots or look like cooking pots, but there are also vessels which because of their elaborate decor or shape would appear to be presentation vessels or objects made especially for interment. Yet habitation and burial sites have not been compared sufficiently to be able to define a separate class of mortuary ceramics. Of the two pieces from Ban Chiang in fig. 1, fig. 1b did not come from a grave while fig. 1c is a fragment of a jar that held the bones of an infant.
The pedestal bowl from Ban Kao, Kanchanaburi seen in fig. 1a is from a burial that has been placed in a neolithic phase of 1800-1500 B. C. The site of Ban Kao was one of the first Thai sites to be systematically excavated, beginning in 1961. The pedestal bowl shares with the Ban Chiang jar in fig. 1b at least two features: both vessels stand on a conical ring foot, though the Ban Kao one is considerably taller, and both bear similar ornament, in the form of a twisting S or snakelike device with incised border and interior pattern, created by impressing a comb (Ban Kao) or by what has come to be called rocker stamping (Ban Chiang). There is also a small molding in the Ban Kao vessel at the union of foot and bowl, though it is not nearly so prominent a feature as the flange that separates neck from body at Ban Chiang. The cord-marked bowl, and the decorated upper part has been emphasized by the applique flange.
The presence of the ornament distinguishes fig. 1a from all the other ceramic objects excavated at Ban Kao, which are notable for their smooth polished surfaces and lack of ornamentation. Per Sorensen. who excavated the site, believed that the Ban Kao population was intrusive and that the culture did not grow out of an earlier stone- age culture. There is not yet enough evidence, however, to indicate the displacement of any population. Sorenson saw a land-based connection with China. The distinctive tripod vessels—a pot resting on three tall conical legs— are similar to ones found in Surat Thani province and western Malaysia. The Ban Kao economy cannot be fully reconstructed, but it is likely that there, as elsewhere in Thailand, steps were taken toward the development of rice agriculture. The earlier cultures had probably been dependent on root crops.
The snakelike design that ornaments the conical foot of the Ban Kao pedestal bowl would appear to be an intrusive element. The two types may be either complementary aspects of a single tradition or, more probably, two distinct traditions that met and intermixed at certain sites. Among smooth-surfaced wares, a significant type is a pedestal bowl with proportions similar to those of fig. 1a. At both Khok Charoen and Non Nok Tha, the examples were coated with a red slip and polished.
The most rectilinear of the patterns, illustrates a section of a jar identified as coming from a layer immediately below the earliest metal-bearing layer at Non Nok Tha. The fragment in fig. 1d belongs to the same period. The Ban Chiang version (fig. 1c) takes a somewhat freer approach and would appear less likely to belong to a repertory of established patterns. The two Non Nok Tha examples must also be judged to have greater aesthetic interest, evincing sensitivity toward the pleasure of opposing the round to the zigzag, or of giving springiness to a curved form (by not pressing it too hard against something fixed, for example).

Figure 4. Impressions from ceramic rollers from Ban Chiang.

Figure 4. Impressions from ceramic rollers from Ban Chiang.

These two Non Nok Tha fragments are in fact atypical for the site and may have been made elsewhere. The triangle hooks seen in fig. 1d constitute a pattern that can be seen in related form in Vietnam, at the site of Phung Nguyen in the Red River delta region. It might be possible to think of such a pattern—ultimately descended from painted designs on the neolithic pottery of China—as representing a southwestward migration of a Phung Nguyen motif. Whether the Ban Chiang S-spiral (fig. 1b) is a local development of such a motif, as fig. 1c appears to be, is another matter. There is, after all, the parallel with Ban Kao. Other sites demonstrate the spread of incised-and-impressed curvilinear patterns without necessarily shedding light on the direction of the dispersal. At Khok Phanom Di (Phanat Nikhom district, Chonburi), near the eastern shore of the northernmost part of the Gulf of Thailand, beautifully executed lustrous black ceramics with incised decor appeared on the site in fully developed form, in a spot where an earlier ceramic tradition had been one of cordmarking. The interior of a finely made bowl is decorated with a design related to the triangle hook of fig. 1d, but there is a field-ground reversal (something which can also be seen at Phung Nguyen). Simple geometric devices are more common than scrollwork at Khok Phanom Di, and the patterning between incised lines appears to be pricked or rouletted rather than rocker- stamped. Despite the absence of bronze at the site, which yielded radiocarbon dates ranging from about 2000 to 1400 B. C., the characteristic incised black ceramics may belong to a slightly later period than the examples in fig. 1.
More directly relevant is Tha Khae, Lopburi, where incised-and- impressed curvilinear patterns related to the types seen at Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha (figs. 1c, d, e) have been uncovered in strata that apparently predate 1500 B. C. Other sites in Lopburi province have yielded related wares, including ones in which the treatment might be more like that of the Ban Kao “snake” of fig. 1a. Curvilinear incised and impressed patterns can also be seen on vessels from the site of Khok Charoen, Lopburi, possibly of the late second millennium B. C. It has been asked, however, whether these patterns might have a connection with Yunnan. Fig. 1 illustrates a single vessel from western Thailand and four from the Northeast, but in fact incised and impressed ceramics were made in intervening locations as well. The nature of the historical connections is not known, and some prehistorians may even question that they exist, preferring to see independent local traditions. “In no part of Southeast Asia familiar to the present writers is the prehistoric pottery well enough understood for stylistic or technical details to be a reliable guide to the chronology of newly discovered sites and those that lack datable carbon,” Bronson and White have written. But due to the fact that the association between carbon and artifact—especially at burial sites—can be a tenuous matter, the radiocarbon dates are contradictory and subject to dispute.
All of the examples in fig. 1 may belong to more-or-less the same period—just before and around the same time as the earliest appearance of bronze artifacts. The first bronze dates from before 1000
B. C., probably before 1500, and possibly before 2000. It may have remained absent in central Thailand even after its introduction in the Northeast, and custom may have prevented its deposit in graves, thus distorting the archaeological record. Even after the relative dates for the objects in fig. 1 are clarified, it may be difficult to determine the direction of the flow of influences: along the Red River, between northern Vietnam and Yunnan; from the Red River southwestward and south into Thailand; from northern Vietnam to Thailand and the Philippines (and back again), following sea routes. Bringing Yunnan into consideration brings to mind the existence of a north- south corridor along China’s western edge and the argument that an antler discovered in a Ban Kao grave is evidence of the presence of a shamanism that might be related to a Siberian type.

Figure 5. Drawings of rock paintings on faces of the giant boulder, Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok complex, Udon Thani. (a) Eastern shelter. (b) Northern shelter. (c) Western face.

Figure 5. Drawings of rock paintings on faces of the giant boulder, Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok complex, Udon Thani. (a) Eastern shelter. (b) Northern shelter. (c) Western face.

From the Bronze to the Iron Age
Sites in central Thailand may yet provide the fullest picture, but it is the Northeast from which the greatest amount of evidence has come. At the end of the early period at Ban Chiang, toward the end of the second millennium B. C., red pigment distinguishing field from ground was added to the pots with incised curvilinear designs (paralleling a similar development in the late Jomon wares of Japan). It continued to be made in the middle period, after 1000 B. C., when it was joined by a distinguished white pottery in the form of tall carinated jars. Broken over the bodies of the deceased, these jars have been painstakingly reconstructed by the excavators. Much evidence about the developments of the first millennium B. C. comes from the site of Ban Na Di (Nong Han district, Udon), about twenty kilometers southwest of Ban Chiang and just beyond the limits of the Songkhram watershed. According to the elaborate report published in 1984, Ban Na Di was for about the first seven hundred years of the first millennium B. C. a cemetery for a peaceful bronze- age population. Three items from a single grave of this period appear in fig. 2: a pot, a bronze bracelet, and a typical if fragmentary hand- modeled figure of a bull, in which the clay has been stretched out and manipulated to evoke the lean curves of the animal’s back and at least a part of its sinuous horns.
The Ban Na Di evidence suggests that decisive changes did not occur until the late centuries B. C., with the coming of iron and the introduction of the water buffalo and, if not earlier, of wet rice agriculture. At Ban Na Di these developments were probably due to “expansive pressures from another social group,” and a period of increased warfare and political complexity began. At Ban Chiang, the late period (300 B. C.-200 A. D.) is characterized by the well- known painted pottery (fig. 3). The pot illustrated in pl. 1, of exceptionally large dimensions, is not an excavated example and may have been made at another site in the region. Its elegant curvilinear scroll can be seen as a descendant of the early incised scrolls like the one in fig. 1c, despite the absence of intervening objects in the archaeological record. Other patterns may somehow be descended from the less regular motif seen in fig. 1b. Such patterns were classified by Penny van Esterik as “sigmoid designs.” They bear a resemblance to the letter S and can be made to look like snakes, genital organs, or human figures but are not necessarily to be regarded as inherently representational. Most of the Ban Chiang repertory can be generated, it seems, from the interaction of scrolls and Ss. On the other hand, occasionally, motifs appear that look like direct borrowings from contemporary Han China.
In some of the pots with sigmoid designs there is a tendency toward bilateral symmetry. Examples appear in fig. 3. There are even instances in which two snakes appear to be attached at the tail. This sort of pattern permits more limited readings than do the curvilinear designs in fig. 1: there is the suggestion of a central point of bifurcation and thus of something, if only a point, that is not a snake, that might even be opposed to snakes, and therefore of a relationship ultimately akin to the bird-and-serpent opposition of historic times.
Not much, however, can be said about the connections between Ban Chiang and historic cultures. There probably were sites in the region continuously inhabited until later historical times, but no undisturbed ones have been identified and excavated. The modern descendants of the painted designs—if they exist at all—seem to lie in textile designs (as in supplementary warp banners) of the same region. This connection, which can be sensed in the stylized bisymmetrical human figures around the rim of the pot in pl. 1, directs attention to the ceramic rollers found at Ban Chiang (fig. 4). Although they look as if they could have been used to decorate fabric, they probably never were. They are found in children graves, and so perhaps they were charms—but probably charms with personal or family associations. They could be used, say, to make marks in mud in the course of a children’s game. They also evoke a mode of pattern- making that has much in common with certain kinds of textile design, ikat especially. The excavations have revealed evidence of silk and hemp. Even more fascinating than the rollers are the many small bronzes found in clandestine excavations at Ban Chiang and other sites across the Northeast, but, scattered as they are in private collections, they await systematic study. These go beyond decorative objects such as more elaborate forms of the bracelet seen in fig. 2 (which are widespread, and characterize a site as far away as Ban
Yang Thong Tai in Chiang Mai province). From Ban Don Tan (Don Tan district, Mukdahan) have come ladles and bracelets upon which stand three-dimensional human and animal figures, in a fashion reminiscent of the Tien bronzes of Yunnan, which date from the second century B. C.
Around the turn of our era there is some evidence of the growth of larger political units and a good deal of evidence of the increased importance of longer-range and more regular trade, but the local cultures varied in nature. Ban Chiang was just one development among many. Further south, in the upper Chi valley, at Non Chai (Khon Kaen district, Khon Kaen) ceramic finds included among large quantities of red-slipped and plain-finish shards a red-on-buff pottery that superficially resembles the painted pottery of Ban Chiang but in fact is different in style, the preference being for simple geometric designs of parallel or cross-hatched lines, sometimes with dots. Clay molds for bracelets apparently indicate the use of lost-wax casting techniques (contrasting with the bivalve stone molds used earlier to cast bronze implements). A survey of two adjacent sites about fifty-five kilometers south (in Ban Phai district, Khon Kaen) indicated the presence of buff ceramics painted with radiating red lines, burial urns (probably for secondary burials), and upright stones (either prehistoric memorial stones or later Buddhist boundary stones). Secondary burials—in which the buried skeletons have been disinterred and placed in urns—are characteristic of the site of Sa Huynh in Vietnam. Sixty-five kilometers to the southeast of Non Chai, in the middle Chi valley, a key site is Ban Chiang Hian (Maha Sarakham district, Maha Sarakham), situated adjacent to the low-terrace level suitable for wet rice cultivation and eventually moated. In the 1500-1000 B. C. period, red-on-buff painted ceramics had been produced here that appear unrelated to Ban Chiang or Ban Na Di wares of the same time. The bronze bells and bracelets from the end of the first millennium B. C., however, are similar to those of Ban Chiang’s late period.

Figure 6. Menhirs (the solid blocks) around a rock shelter, tambon Ban Muang Phan, Udon Thani.

Figure 6. Menhirs (the solid blocks) around a rock shelter, tambon Ban Muang Phan, Udon Thani.

Along the Mun River itself, there is an intriguing mixture of painted pottery with simple designs, burial urns, and bronze artifacts. At Ban Kan Luang (Ubon district, Ubon), a site near the eastern end of the Mun dated on comparative grounds to the period 500 B. C.—A. D. 100, exquisitely made bronze bracelets were discovered, related to those belonging to the late period at Ban Chiang. The primary excavated materials at Ban Kan Luang were urns which contained small cord-marked pots (but no painted ones). From sites in Surin province there is some evidence that in the course of the first millennium B. C. painted and white wares were produced that bear a relationship to the pottery of Ban Chiang Hian. Rims with red and brown stripes are common, and the placement of skulls in urns suggests the practice of secondary burial. To the west, just north of the Mun at the eastern edge of Nakhon Ratchasima province, is Ban Krabuang Nok, where at the lowest level, along with bronze ornaments and iron slag and implements, was discovered a pottery with simple cross hatching in red, similar to that found at Non Chai and Ban Chiang Hian. Jar burials were associated with a subsequent
phase.
Further west, another 70 kilometers upstream, lies the later temple site of Phimai. Archaeological investigations in the environs of Phimai have made possible some broad conclusions about developments in the area. There is no evidence of settlement before the first millennium B. C. Iron came into use sometime between about 800 and 400 B. C. At the same time, potters began to use rice chaff as the primary temper (rather than sand and grog), suggesting that wet-rice agriculture had become fully established. Sometime around 200 B. C., a new type of burnished pottery, of much technical finesse, was introduced. In Phimai black ware, as it is called, the insides of bowls are decorated with streaks produced by pulling a blunt object over the surface, and the shoulders of pots are frequently decorated, sometimes with impressed circles. Phimai black ware, which might bear a relationship to contemporary Indian polished black pottery, appears to have been produced in a single spot and traded to outlying areas. In this period (200 B. C.-A. D. 300), the moat around Ban Tamyae, one of the excavated sites, was probably dug.
The number of moated sites in the Northeast extends to 800 (of a total of 1200 in Thailand), and they are especially common in the valley of the Mun River and its tributaries, the elevation of settlement varying from the flood plain itself to the surrounding high or middle terrace, where there was greater access to timber, salt, and the laterite that was a source for iron ore. The moats provided water during the dry season; the moated Ban Chiang Hian might have accomodated as many as 2,000 people. It is not known at what point in the first millennium B. C. the first moats were dug.
As interesting as these developments about two thousand years ago along the Mun River are those far to the north, in Laos. Nothing precisely like the Hua Pan menhirs (mid-first millennium B. C.?) or giant stone vessels of the Plain of Jars (early first millennium A. D.
and later?) has been found in the Northeast, though the stone vessels may be the functional equivalent of burial jars. One type of associated artifact is worthy of note. This is comb-incised pottery, with parallel and wavy lines juxtaposed. The ware may be descended from a type produced in Vietnam at the end of the second millennium B. C. Rarely a Ban Chiang-type painted jar appears with wavy lines imitating comb incision, but the significant point is how distinctive the Ban Chiang and Plain of Jars cultures were. On the other hand, the same sort of comb-incised pottery was an important component in the Mekong delta seaport assemblage at Oc-eo in the early centuries A. D., and there are also Malayan connections. All this suggests a mosaic of regional styles, with unpredictable links among them.

Figure 7. Drawing of the engraved design on a bronze bowl from Ban Don Ta Phet. Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

Figure 7. Drawing of the engraved design on a bronze bowl from Ban Don Ta Phet. Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

Rock Paintings
Someone traveling northwest from Ban Chiang will encounter hills— and a more monumental aspect of prehistoric culture—after about 100 kilometers. Near Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok (Ban Phu district, Udon) there is a fascinating group of rock formations—massive boulders perched on smaller rocks, perhaps as a result of excavation in prehistoric times. Extending for a distance of twenty-three kilometers along the north-south range, moreover, are rock shelters with prehistoric paintings. They cannot be dated exactly, but the use of red pigment and the generic similarity of some of the non-repre- sentational designs to those on the painted jars of Ban Chiang suggest that the paintings and the jars date from about the same period.
One of the most interesting groups of paintings is that on the sides of a gigantic boulder 15 by 27 meters (and four meters high). The eastern and northern sides of this boulder slope outwards, creating rock shelters. The paintings in the eastern shelter (fig. 5a), which is known as Tham Wua (“Cattle Cave”), depict six cattle, of various dimensions, moving northward or counterclockwise—a calf, three humped cattle, a cow and calf below, together with what may be tree branches and two unidentifiable animals. (To the left, not appearing in fig. 5a, are two animals walking in the opposite direction [southward]; one may be a chevrotain, a small deerlike ruminant.) Around the corner, within the northern shelter (Tham Khon, “People Cave”), is a group of seven or eight human figures (fig. 5b). the one on the left facing the others, but the group as a whole seeming to move clockwise, or in the direction of the cattle of fig. 5a. The figures move their arms, and their legs are spread apart, as if engaged in a ritual dance of confrontation. Around the farther corner (fig. 5c) on the western face of the boulder is another person; pulling something with his left hand, it seems, he walks towards a geometric construction. While this man is painted in red, as are the others, the ladder-like form in front of him is white.
Presumably these paintings recorded or assisted in the carrying out of some ritual activity. In the vicinity is a group of menhirs (fig. 6) surrounding another rock shelter; these may be memorial stones, and “megalithic” beliefs should provide clues to the meaning of the paintings. The great boulder, for instance, memorializes a chieftain, and a sacrifice of cattle ensures that the spirit of the chief, lodged in the boulder, will be a beneficial influence come harvest time. Alternatively, a cattle sacrifice culminates three days of festive license and initiates the New Year, recreating the world after a time of chaos. Of course there can never be a definitive interpretation. One intriguing matter is the meaning of the ladder-like white form in fig. 5c. If it is a space in which to travel—as seems possible—does it lead to some desirable place (as in a shaman’s voyage, or in the same sort of climb-to-heaven symbolized by the thread squares hung up at graves by the Lawa), or does it merely trip up undesirable spirits (in Lao thought, spirits and the dead move in straight lines, people at right angles)? Of course, it may do both. Some of the nearby shelters have paintings with far more elaborate and extensive geometric constructions. These, too, look like spaces to wander in or, to put it another way, like maps, so much so that it might even be asked if they could be maps of real places rather than of just imaginary ones. Somewhat similar “maps” have been found in Vietnam, and they may be roughly contemporary.
Some of the prehistoric paintings of Thailand have been found on the walls of caves or of rock shelters in which tools of a Neolithic type have been found. Unfortunately, this association does not provide conclusive evidence of the date of the paintings, and it can be argued that most if not all are products of the metal age, roughly contemporary to those in Ban Phu district. Paintings have been found to the west of Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok in Phu Kradung district of Loei province, as well as on the opposite edge of the plateau, along the Mekong River in Don Tan district.

The Geographic and historic of Thailand

Jar with spiral design, human figures below the rim. Fine Arts Department of Thailand

Further down the Mekong lies an important group in Khong Chiam district, Ubon. Other significant sites are those in Sikhiu district, Nakhon Ratchasima (where there are men with antlers, and a dancing figure may be dressed as a rooster); at Khao Pla Ra, Ban Rai district, Uthai Thani (where a man with a sash around his waist and feathers in his hair leads a bull, part of whose body is depicted in X-ray fashion); and at two sites in the Mae Klong basin, Tham Rup and Tham Ta Duang (where ithyphallic men appear to be carrying suspended drums). There are also sites on the peninsula.
A loose bundle of traits connects these paintings. Some features suggest the existence of beliefs preserved among the Lawa: the “maps” resemble the cobweb-like thread squares; the presence of drums recalls their use to announce a death; and the possible association of menhirs parallels the erection of wooden memorial pillars. Feather headdresses suggest a connection with Dong Son culture, for they appear on the bronze drums of the second half of the first millennium B. C. At the same time, the inclusion of humped cattle in the murals indicates the possible involvement of cattle traders. No definite connection with Indian cave paintings can be established, although there are generic similarities, perhaps most apparent in the paintings in Uthai Thani. A speculative explanation would attribute the spread of the painting styles to cattle traders moving across Burma, traders with ties to the tribals responsible for the Indian murals and to the ancestors of the Lawa, all speakers of Austro-Asiatic languages. If the paintings date from the late first millennium B. C., however, these traders did not speak a language parent to both Munda and Lawa, for such a language can only have been spoken long before 500 B. C.
Central Thailand
By 1000 B. C., suggest ceramic finds from Khok Phanom Di (Chonburi) and Khok Charoen (Lopburi), the interest in elaborate curvilinear patterns (such as those seen in fig. 1) had diminished, and simpler geometric devices, especially triangles, had become a more prominent element in ceramics bearing decoration. A parallel development seems to have taken place in Vietnam. In the course of the first millennium B. C. connections can also be made with Vietnam, especially with Sa Huynh culture (ca. 800-300 B. C.). The links can be demonstrated by related types of pattern making as well as by imported objects. Significant sites include the Artillery Center, Lopburi and Khok Phlap (Ratchaburi), south of Nakhon Pathom, where wares with narrow bands of incised and pricked triangles have been found. At the “sawmill site” in Kanchanaburi a rectangular box, identified as a coffin, with incised rectilinear bands separated by pricked zigzags was uncovered. Both types of object suggest connections with the pottery of the Philippines and at Sa Huynh. These connections are even more obvious in the case of jewelry—like a double-headed nephrite pendant found elsewhere in Ratchaburi province—belonging to types well known in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Visnu, from Chaiya. National Museum, Bangkok.

Visnu, from Chaiya. National Museum, Bangkok.

The subsequent centuries brought additional significant contacts abroad. The Ongba Cave (on the Khwae Yai branch of the Mae Klong) was the site for the burial of at least ninety wooden boatshaped coffins. Similar burials have been found in Szechwan (China), Niah Caves (Borneo), Palawan (Philippines), and at the Dong Son- type sites of Vietnam itself. Six bronze kettledrums were deposited in pairs in the cave, two near a burial dating from about 300 B. C. All the drums apparently figured in burial rituals. An analysis of their decoration indicates that the drums were of disparate age, were probably manufactured in Vietnam rather than Yunnan, and were not new when they were deposited. At the same time, the use of boat coffins and—possibly—the local representation of drums in paintings (at Ta Duang, as mentioned above) suggest that the local people were adherents of Dong Son beliefs. More than a dozen ancient drums have been found on the peninsula, others in Uttaradit and Suphanburi provinces and in the Northeast, but none comes from so rich a context. Far rarer than drums are large backpackshaped bronze urns, with ornament consisting of elements such as interlocking scrolling Js. Only six are known—three found in Indonesia, one in Cambodia, and one in Chaiyaphum province in Thailand. Although they share certain elements with the drums and may have been made at about the same time, they were probably produced at a different, unknown center, and then distributed as items of prestige.
It is a journey of about eighty-five kilometers downstream from Ongba Cave to the confluence of the two branches and the modern town of Kanchanaburi. About twenty kilometers northeast of Kanchanaburi, toward U Thong, lies the cemetery of Ban Don Ta Phet (Phanom Thuan district), which was first excavated in 1975. One of the most extraordinary objects from the site—uncovered by villagers before the official excavations—is the fragment of a bronze bowl (fig. 7). Eventually nearly 300 bronze containers—primarily bowls with a diameter of 20-25 centimeters—were found in the course of excavations in 1975, 1980-81, and 1984-85. Other outstanding objects include a lion pendant of orange carnelian (which has been compared to a crystal lion found in Taxila) and bronze finials in the form of birds (pl. 2). The technical similarities of the bowls to some found at Indian sites raised the possibility that the Indian examples were imported from Thailand. The sheer number of the Ban Don Ta Phet bowls, their high tin content of 20-31%, suggesting a local or peninsular ore source, and additional technical studies all appeared to confirm that they must have been made in Thailand. The place of Ban Don Ta Phet in a system of worldwide trade was also born out by the approximately 3,000 beads found in the graves, of both glass and precious stone, a sizable proportion of which must have been of Indian manufacture. The bronze bird finial of pl. 2, which was excavated at Ban Don Ta Phet in the 1980-81 season, may provide evidence of a movement of techniques and styles from Southeast Asia to India. This object must be related to Han-dynasty censers with openwork covers and bird finials, and the form has survived in the ceramic censers of the Batak of Sumatra. At the same time, it is not without connections to southern Indian metalwork of ancient times In this forceful cock, which has what may represent a stone disc around its neck, the simplified mass of the head balances the elegant curves of the individual tail feathers, the head and tail projecting from a miniaturized body that is supported by tautly poised and angled legs.
From one point of view it must be considered a stylistic descendant of the decor on Dong Son-type bronze drums. Attesting to a connection are the juxtaposition of figure with architecture (however hard to read) and the use of circles with a central dot. In one of the drums from the Ongba cave, such circles (in the drums, cast, not engraved) serve as nodes on bird-figures but also are disembodied, floating elements, somewhat as they are here. The first A. D., of which there is also evidence from Lach-truong in Vietnam. There is an even stronger relationship, however, with an incised high-tin bronze jar from Kulu in northwestern India, of about the second or first century B. C. Fragments of bowls in an identical style discovered at other sites since 1975 strengthen the Indian aspect of the Ban Don Ta Phet bowl: in one of these, a woman is similarly seen next to an architectural construction (depicted both from the front and, diagonally, from the side), but more of her body is visible, and she conforms to the Indian ideal of narrow waist and broad hips. Around the side of the same vessel is an elephant, overlapping a deer that faces the opposite direction. Among the animals that appear on still other bowls are a horse, a horned ram, a humped cow, and a buffalo. The designs bear a relationship to a largely lost Indian secular art of about the first century A. D. that has left traces in the Begram ivories and in aspects of the art of Amaravati. Although the excavators proposed a date in the fourth century B. C., one no earler than the first century B. C. fits better with patterns of development in India and China.
Beads provide another means to trace the patterns of trade. Perhaps the most striking of the Ban Don Ta Phet beads were the more than fifty examples of carnelian and agate with white stripes created by chemical etching or staining. Evidently of Indian manufacture, they are most fully paralleled among the finds at Taxila. Many of the glass beads are faceted, in imitation of gemstones. Another important archaeological site for glass beads is Ban Around Sathing Phra on the peninsula onyx beads and glass also provide evidence of early trading connections with India and ultimately the Mediterranean. Polished stone (a seal) incised with eight letters in an Indian Brahmi-like script have all been found there. At a certain point in time, craftsmen at the site started to produce both glass and stone beads.
It too may have been a kind of enclave, dependent on sustained relations with overseas traders for cultural sustenance. If, on the other hand, the people buried in the Ban Don Ta Phet cemetery were an integral part of a local society, then one would expect archaeological research to eventually uncover more traces of the Indianized society that flourished in the first five centuries of our era.
Ethnic Identification
Nearly all the present-day inhabitants of Thailand speak one or another dialect of Thai. Two thousand years ago the situation was quite different. In Dvaravatl times the vernacular of both the central plains and the Northeast was apparently Mon. As the modern Mon of the central plains have come from Burma in recent times, scholars assumed that the Dvaravatl language had disappeared from Thailand until Gerard Diffloth identified a linguistic descendant in the language of the Nyah Kur, who live in the region of the Pa Sak River valley. “Proto-Old-Mon,” the language immediately ancestral to that of the Dvaravatl inscriptions, was probably spoken two thousand years ago in the central plains and perhaps even more widely. What other languages were spoken within the borders of Thailand is not certain.
Within the Mon-Khmer division are twelve languages, one of which Khasi. The Khasis of Assam seem to have preserved certain cultural traits evidenced by the stone vats of the Plain of Jars in Laos. If in fact the Khasis are the descendants of the Plain of Jars people, the implication is that displacement has been considerable and that there is no obvious place to look, say, for the descendants of the Ban Chiang population. It is possible to imagine the inhabitants of Thailand two thousand years ago as speaking various Mon- Khmer languages but lacking cultural uniformity. The evidence is least clear on the peninsula, but given the fact that the peninsular Negrito languages are part of the same Mon-Khmer family, the Dvaravati-like character of some early peninsular sites, and the presence of Mon-language inscriptions, a good case can be made for a Mon identity.
Mon-Khmer languages have been associated with populations susceptible to anemia because of the presence of hemoglobin E. Evidence for such anemia has been found among the skeletons of both Ban Kao and Ban Chiang. The two populations nevertheless differ. The peoples of Southeast Asia and Oceania can be considered varying mixtures of Mongoloid and indigenous Australoid strains. The Ban Kao people, like modern Thais, were strongly Mongoloid—an aspect that might be connected with the Austronesian aspects of their culture. The people of Ban Chiang seem to have been less Mongoloid, and rather more like modern Polynesians.
The clearest legacy of the movement of Austronesian speakers is the presence of the Cham language in Vietnam, and the ancestors of the Cham were quite probably responsible for the Sa Huynh culture of the first millennium B. C. One region of interest is the Mun River basin, with its jar burials of two thousand years ago; the question arises as to whether Cham influences of the period around the ninth century A. D. should be understood against the background of earlier cultural connections. Another key area is that of the Mae Klong River; perhaps Ban Kao’s connections with the peninsula and the island world also left a legacy, pulling the inhabitants toward seaborne relations and away from their neighbors to the east, who eventually became the people of central Dvaravati. Ban Don Ta Phet could be understood in such a light. At any rate, the fundamental importance of these people is suggested by the fact that the Dvaravatl word for “iron” was borrowed from an Austronesian language.
The Karen, whose language is probably Tibeto-Burman in origin, make bronze drums that descend from the drums of Dong Son and Tien, but their own legends affirm that they learned the art from another ethnic group in the distant past. Possibly it was another Tibeto-Burman language, related to modern Lolo. Tai speakers must have played a role in linking Tien to Dong Son, along the course of the Red River, where they were then living. There are good reasons for considering this region, now home of the Black Tai, a kind of staging area for speakers of all the languages of the southwestern branch of Tai, of languages now spoken southwest of the Red River. Proto-Southwestern Tai probably came to be spoken in this area in the course of the first millennium A. D.