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Letter From thailand

Fragments of giant teak

coffins of the Log Coffin
Culture of northern
Thailand cover the ground
of Ban Rai Rock Shelter.

Mystery of the Log Coffin Culture

Recent investigations raise more questions about an enigmatic people

T hailands far northwestern by Karen J. Coates But then, as now, much of the areas
corner is rippled with moun- archaeology remained unexcavated
tains, lush at their bases of 15 giant teak coffins where a and poorly understood.
and craggy on top, where the lime- little-known culture left their dead This is clearly evident in the case
stone outcrops graze the sky. This more than a thousand years ago. of the Log Coffin Culture. There are
landscape stretches for hundreds Some 600 miles northwest of more than 60 coffin sites in the Pang
of miles through villages of ethnic Bangkok, this undulating terrain, Mapha district of Mae Hong Song
Shan and animist hill tribes that crisscrossed by rivers, has a climate province, evidence of a culture that
farm their fields on both sides of the cooler than that of Thailands flat flourished between 2,100 and 1,200
Thailand-Burma border. Clusters plains to the south. Known as the years ago. Many of the sites are
of bamboo-and-thatch huts cling to lime hills in the Shan language, high on open-air ledges or tucked
the mountainsides. Ive traveled here the region has yielded some of inside caves, and often require
beforepursuing stories as well as Thailands most important archaeo- mountaineering gear and dangerous
fresh air and lazy vacation days logical finds, including the oldest climbs to reach.
and the people have welcomed me wood carving in the country and the Most of what archaeologists
with sticky rice, tea, and stories of earliest human remains in northern know about the coffins comes from
their ancestors. This time, I am visit- Thailand. American archaeologist the Highland Archaeology Project
ing Ban Rai Rock Shelterbetter Chester Gorman began investigat- supervised by Rasmi Shoocongdej,
known to locals as Tham Pi Maen ing this area in 1965, and found a short, sprightly, fast-talking
or a spirit cave500 feet up from seeds of domesticated plants dating scholar with Bangkoks Silpakorn
the valley below, to see the remains between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago. University. Rasmi is one of few 49
An ancient log coffin still stands high
on a cliff in Coffin Cave. There are more
than 60 log coffin sites in the Pang
Mapha region of northern Thailand.

become more complex over time, and

that different styles were employed
simultaneously, leading the research-
ers to suggest the carving styles might
reflect the status or ethnic affiliation
of the dead.

T he Highland Archaeology
Project finished excavations
at Ban Rai and Tham Lod
in 2006. Because she didnt find any
Log Coffin Culture habitation sites,
Rasmi is still not certain where or
archaeologists in Thailand to focus Most coffins are between 16 and how these ancient people livedshe
on the countrys mountains rather 23 feet long, with some reaching only knows where and how they
than its fertile lowlands. 30 feet, and most were originally buried some of their dead. Nor is she
Between 2001 and 2006, Rasmi supported several feet off the ground certain whether Thailands modern
and her team, which also included by cross beams. But today, many inhabitants are descended from the
anthropologists, geologists, dentists, of the coffins and their supports Log Coffin Culture people. And now
and forest scientists, excavated two have fallen. The wood is worn and that she is involved in a widespread
coffin sitesBan Rai and a nearby weathered, resembling the splintered effort to survey and preserve north-
rock shelter called Tham Lodand remnants of boats that have suffered ern Thailands many threatened
surveyed dozens of others. Den- too many storms; the supports tilt archaeological sites, she has neither
drochronology, dental analyses, and like broken piers. Human teeth and time nor money to excavate further
DNA all were undertaken to study bone fragments, usually all thats left in the area.
the age of the coffins and their occu- of the coffins occupants, are scattered But Rasmis dedication to the
pants, and further analysis examined in the dust and dirt around some region has not waned, and she
the styles in which they were carved. of the coffins, giving the sites a very continues to work with locals to
The Highland Archaeology Project eerie feeling. preserve the sites. She also wants
began with so little information The ends of the coffins are carved them to understand the history at
about these sites that researchers with headlike shapes, some with stake. Villagers have not viewed the
hoped to answer basic questions. human facial features and others sites as their own, though they have
Who were these people? Where did resembling animals. After years of deep-seated beliefs and superstitions
they come from? Do they relate to weathering, many of these carvings about them. Traditionally they avoid
the areas modern-day inhabitants? are hard to make out and archae- the coffins, believing them to be the
Who was buried in the coffins? ologists are not at all sure what the
Many answers remain elusive. designs mean. One of the tree-ring
Tree-ring studies showed that the studies conducted by Natsuda Pumi-
teak logs used at Ban Rai were 80 jumnong of Mahidol University as
to 100 years old when they were cut part of the Highland Archaeology
down. They were then left to dry for Project tested the hypothesis that the
a year, before each log was split in carvings became more complex over
two and hollowed to form a coffin. time, indicating development in style
The team also determined from the and technique. She examined more
woods growth rings that the trees than 100 wood samples from dozens
had come from level land rather than of coffins and supporting posts at Ban
from the slopes around Ban Rai, so Rai, and 71 wood samples from cof-
the Log Coffin people would have fins and supporting posts at a nearby A carving that appears to represent a
had to lug those massive logs up to cave site called Bo Khrai. The dating dogs head adorns the handle of a coffin
the mountainside rock shelter. revealed that the carvings did not from Bo Khrai Cave.

50 Archaeology September/October 2009

School of Archaeology
Rasmi Shoocongdej is director & Ancient History
of the Highland Archaeology
Project, which is devoted to
studying the Log Coffin Culture. Where archaeology
and ancient history
is exhausting, and a torrent of
tropical sweat makes splotch- meet your world.
es on my notebook. I cant
imagine many tourists mak-
ing this trek to the coffins; its With the highest ranking for
easier to raft the rivers and teaching and research and modules
ride motorcycles on winding developed for the specific needs of
distance learning students, supported
highways before filling up
by top academic authorities, well
on pad thai and Singha beer deepen your interest in your
while relaxing at bamboo bars specialist area.
and riverfront bungalows.
No, they dont come up
here, admits Fon Nittim, a
domain of Pi Maen, a term that refers student of prehistory and employee
to the Log Coffin Culture and the of Rasmis working at Ban Rai, who
coffin sites themselves. Everybody is is accompanying me on my hike. And Distance Learning
afraid of Pi Maen log coffins, says Jee Thai people dont love to walk a lot, programs
Kamsuk, an ethnic Shan who lives she adds.
in the fertile valley at the base of Ban By the time we reach the rock
MA in Archaeology & Heritage
Rai. When I was young I also was shelter, my shirt is drenched and I feel Accepted as a qualification for
afraid, he adds, but now I am not slightly dizzy, but I am elated. Its late members of RoPA
afraid anymore. afternoon. The sun begins to set and a
MA in The Classical
Rasmi also notes that many pre- ghostly silence envelops the mountain. Mediterranean
historic archaeological sites in this Fon says the people must have chosen
MA in Historical Archaeology
region are especially vulnerable to this site for its height, near heaven.
curious or careless tourists as the area The horseshoe-shaped cliff gives the Postgraduate Certificates
Build credits towards an MA
becomes more popular among rock appearance of a funnel to the sky,
climbers and adventure travelers. But shooting toward the gods. Research Degrees
thats changing as her team promotes Bamboo fences and wooden ladders Introductory courses also available.
sustainable tourism to help villag- from Rasmis excavations remain, but
ers make money and preserve the the archaeologists are gone. The shel-
sites and artifacts. She hopes if locals ter is littered with rotting and crum-
learn to appreciatenot feartheir bling wood from the coffins. Although
archaeological heritage, they will help some coffins have been taken to the
protect it. Nowadays, locals can earn National Museum in Chiang Mai, Contact:
200 baht, about $5.70, each time they (Off the Grid, January/February Distance Learning Unit, School of
guide a tourist to a coffin site. We 2008), Rasmi later tells me that she Archaeology and Ancient History,
want many people to come and see, wonders how much longer the ones University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH
says Jees neighbor, a woman named left in the rock shelter can last. Its the United Kingdom.
Da who runs a homestay for tourists dry season now, but I can see how
Call: +44 (0) 116 252 2772
and Ban Rai researchers. Its peaceful monsoons have battered this site. Email:
and the scenery is very beautiful. Fon leads me around the rock Visit:
shelterabout 345 feet wide, 465 feet

C limbing the mountain, my long, and 100 feet tallpointing to Please quote ARCH09 in all communications.
heart hammers as I cling to Rasmis excavation pits, which have
a wooden railing recently revealed two distinct stratigraphic
installed by villagers. The trail winds layers. Bones, tools, and other arti-
through the forest, past ferns and facts associated with the coffins were
smooth bamboo stalks, then suddenly found about one foot down. Two
zigzags up and up and up. The ascent feet below that lay the skeleton of a 51
Local villager Thi Moo sits in Bo Khrai
Cave underneath one of the coffins
that still sits on its supporting beams
after more than 1,000 years.

like many of the hill tribes living in

the region.
But a Highland Archaeology
Project study by Supaporn Nakbun-
lung and Sukhontha Wathanawa-
reekool of 467 human teeth col-
lected from 16 sites determined that
the coffin people had dental traits
similar to Malaysians, Borneans,
and other southeast Asiansnot
Chinese. Another theory, put forth
by Srisak Vallibhodhama, a retired
male dated to about 9,800 years ago, larger context in which Rasmi and professor of anthropology at Silpa-
according to analysis of a charcoal Fon can place the finds. korn University, suggests the people
sample found nearby. This man of the Log Coffin Culture are the

clearly belonged to an earlier culture month later, after a series of ancestors of the Lua, an ethnic
that flourished between 12,500 and telephone and e-mail con- group that has lived in northern
8,000 years ago. We walk to the versations, I visit Rasmi in Thailand longer than many others,
caves walls and Fon points upward her Bangkok office on the Silpakorn although this cultures history is also
toward a few faint red depictions of campus. I squeeze into a cramped poorly understood.
people. The paintings could be 9,000 little closet of a room brimming with
or 8,000 years old, far pre-dating
the Log Coffin Culture, but they are
fading. I later learn from Rasmi that
Thailand has neither the facilities
nor the experts to date and preserve
books and papers stacked as high as
Rasmis head. My home is also like
this. Its really messy, she chuckles.
I ask Rasmi what exactly the Log
Coffin Culture was. Its really hard
B ut there is one man who has
no qualms imagining who the
Log Coffin Culture people
might have been. John Spies is an
amateur geologist and paleontolo-
ancient rock art. I dont know what to identify, she tells me. Boat cof- gist, and the resident expert on the
to do, she sighs. fins similar to those in Pang Mapha areas caves. The Australian mi-
Two days after our hike, I have been found in the province of gr arrived in northern Thailand
visit Fon in her office, which also Kanchanaburi, about 150 miles west in 1977 and never left. Spies has
serves as a small museum near of Bangkok, as well as in other areas made these mountains his life and
the start of the trail to Ban Rai. of Southeast Asia and China. But the caves his passion. Years ago, he
She is unpacking little plastic bags no one really knows if the culture served as an official guide when
of potsherds, animal bones, and relates to the modern-day residents members of the Thai Royal Family
stone tools. Some of the potsherds, of Pang Mapha or to other
Fon says, were found on Ban Rais early inhabitants of South-
surface and some were found during east Asia.
excavation around the coffins. Rasmi suggests, based
Several pieces have diagonal and of the age of the coffins and
cross-hatched decorative marks, discoveries of similar mor-
which Rasmi thinks may have been tuary practices in southern
made using bark, but she is unsure China, that the Log Coffin
what kind. Small mammal bones people came from China,
and those of a gibbon were found
associated with the Log Coffin
Culture remains, while rhino and Guide Sorn Chai points to
deer were unearthed in a layer where archaeologists drilled
a hole in a coffin support
farther down. But without other in Jabo Cave to study the
excavated sites to compare with wood, greatly distressing
Ban Rai and Tham Lod, there is no local villagers.

52 Archaeology September/October 2009

Jee Kamsuk sits in his home
near Ban Rai Cave, explaining
how the modern world and all
its noise have chased away the
ancient spirits.

team learned this at Jabo Cave, about

10 miles as the crow flies from Ban
Rai, when a colleague drilled small
holes into coffins to collect samples
for dendrochronology tests. Ethnic
Lahu villagers nearby heard noises
and were startled to find someone
tampering with the sacred site.
They didnt let anyone know
what they were doing, says Jabo
village headman Ja Ka Shay. The vil-
lagers fined the researchers 15,000
baht, about $430, for disturbing the
visited the massive cave at Tham of Sittipong Dilokwanich of Mahi- coffins and possibly inviting bad
Lod. It was there, at a rock shelter dol University. Researchers collected spirits into the village. We used the
near the cave, that Rasmis team data on the areas limestone topog- money to pay for two pigs and rice,
excavated the remains of northern raphy and mapped and investigated says Ja, for a feast to send all the bad
Thailands two oldest human skele- numerous Log Coffin Culture sites. spirits away. Rasmi apologized to
tonsboth adults, one female and They recorded at least 50 different the villagers. We should inform and
one of indeterminate sex, each more coffin carving styles and discovered respect the community, she says.
than 12,000 years old. a human tooth bearing drilled holes I think we handled it pretty well
Spies remembers that his first plugged with metal, evidence of den- and we are good friends of the Jabo
encounter with cave archaeology tistry. Spiess own explorations have communities now. Ja agrees. But in
came while exploring the deepest located coffins, pottery, bones, stone retrospect he says hed rather there
reaches of Tham Lod in 1977. Go in tools, and possible ancient habita- had been no drilling. Better to leave
there, said a Shan woman pointing tion sites throughout the region. it alone, he says.
toward a dark hole in the wall. So he These days, when I find something There are many others who can
did. Weathered sections of hollowed somewhere, I start thinking of a pat- attest to the powers of Pi Maen
and carved logs, up to 21 feet long, tern, he tells me. He believes he has spirits. Jee Kamsuk, the Ban Rai
lay scattered in piles, he wrote in his also found Neolithic cemeteries and villager, remembers the days when
memoir, Wild Times. Fragments more than 100 open-air, stone-tool he could hear Pi Maen voices in the
of coarse pottery and broken bone sites scattered across ridges high trees. It was a sound so soft, like
littered the floor nearby. I found a above rivers. floating in the air, he says. But that
human molar and guessed we had Spies admits his brand of was a long time ago. The modern
entered a burial chamber of people archaeology is free from academic world has come to northern Thai-
who had lived in the area long before constraintsnamely degrees and land, and with it noise. Electricity,
the Shan. Back then, scientific infor- peer-reviewed publicationsand TVs, motorcyclesso much has
mation was even scarcer than it is is far more open to speculation. He changed in the last few decades. Jee
now. It seemed that foreign and Thai looks around, considers the big pic- thinks chaos has disturbed the air
archaeologists were either unaware ture, and imagines the past. He often and distressed the spirits. There are
of or uninterested in the prehistoric informs Rasmi of new sitesmost so many modern things, I think Pi
cemeteries, Spies wrote. of which will remain undisturbed Maen doesnt exist anymore, he says.
More than 20 years later, Spies inside caves or on rocky slopes until All that remain are the giant log cof-
helped Rasmi with her research. In somebody comes up with the fund- fins along rocky ledges and nestled in
1998 and 1999 he also worked on a ing to document them properly. corners of serpentine caves. n
two-year project sponsored by the Meanwhile, the science of archae-
Thai Research Fund, a government- ology remains elusive to many locals, Karen J. Coates is a journalist who
supported body established to pro- who regard the caves and coffins splits her time between Asia and the
mote research, under the direction with spiritual reverence. Rasmis American Southwest.

54 Archaeology September/October 2009