An archaeology of thought

I doubted if Daeng would find anything of interest within. An hour later, she was revealing the smallest skeleton I have ever seen.

One of the great rewards of writing this column is that it allows my imagination the freedom to explore aspects of the past that interest me. One example concerns a sad set of circumstances: about 1,600 years ago at Non Ban Jak, an Iron Age community in North-east Thailand, a woman suffered a miscarriage after carrying her baby for about 28 weeks. The tiny corpse, which measured about 15cm, was interred in a small pottery vessel and placed in a cemetery where the infant was not alone. A staggering 75% of all graves contained infants, including three others that either miscarried or were still-born. That was clearly a hard time for the community.

Part of our excavation routine was to subject samples of cultural material to flotation, in order to retrieve plant remains. Cristina Castillo found that they contained weed seeds adapted to permanent wet fields. We also recovered two heavy iron ploughshares and evidence for reservoirs to feed water into the surrounding rice fields. This innovation, an adaptation to a drying climate, might have produced more regular rice crops, but it was not good for the people who waded through wet rice fields: a natural harbour for malarial mosquitoes. On top of that, the shellfish and fish that invaded the new swampy fields contained lethal pathogens unless very thoroughly cooked. And basic hygiene in a densely occupied town would not have been conducive to good health. This combination of factors hit the women particularly hard, hence the dreadfully high death-rate among infants.

Is this the smallest complete human skeleton ever found? The infant died just 28 weeks from conception. The scale is 10cm.

The free rein I give myself is to speculate on the minds of those women, and surely the men of the community too. When we uncovered our Burial 178, the pot was so tiny that I said to Daeng, my digging supremo, that I doubted if she would find anything of interest within. An hour later, she was revealing the smallest skeleton I have ever seen. The tiny corpse had been given the same mortuary ritual as older infants also securely contained within a pottery coffin.

The interment of infants in a pot was not new to the Iron Age. In fact, it had been the norm for the preceding 2,000 years. I want, in particular, to home in on the period between 1000 and 900 BC, which is the initial Bronze Age. The inhabitants of Ban Non Wat, a few kilometres east of Non Ban Jak, had then just encountered a remarkable new substance that travelled along their exchange routes from the north. It was metal: copper. Along with marble, marine shell, and doubtless other valuables that have not survived, perhaps fine fabrics and exotic feathers, ownership of copper was used, we think, to signal the elevated status of a segment of the community, perhaps an extended family. In the centre of the settlement, their dead were interred in what looks like a dedicated cemetery restricted to this group of aggrandisers, who retained their high status for at least four or five generations. Their burial ground included the graves of their dead infants.

Some of them were laid out on their backs, in graves far too long to retain just the corpse, in order to make room for the many pottery vessels placed with them. They wore in death thousands of shell beads, multiple shell bangles, and some were accompanied by a copper axe. Of course, a copper axe is of no practical use to an infant too young to walk. If you want to try and enter into the minds of the bereaved parents, I think you might find that these rare and exotic things reflected status through ownership. Now, the parents and other kin who gathered for each burial also placed large bivalve shells in the grave, usually in significant places, like over the hands or by the head. In one grown woman, it was in the mouth. This practice was not only widespread over much of South-east Asia, but it endured for tens of generations. Why, I wonder? Cowrie shells were found, too, with these Bronze Age dead, though rarely. In their case, they are surely symbols of female fertility. I strongly suspect that the bivalve shells fulfilled the same role, involving fecundity and rebirth.

Burial rites

Some members of this rich lineage buried their infant dead in lidded pottery vessels. This is a huge help for me as an archaeologist, because the fragile bones of a newly born baby are easy to find if secured in a durable coffin. It is these pots and their contents that allow us a glimpse into what people were thinking. They are large and, I think, highly symbolic. Those of this Bronze Age community were womb-shaped. On removing the lid, we find the dead infant within, accompanied by small versions of the pots used for adult burials placed next to the body. Food remains are encountered in the form of fish and pig bones. There are usually several bivalve shells as well. After detailed recording, and taking photographs of the tomb contents, the bones will be removed by one of our expert bioarchaeologists. The artefacts are also taken out, each with an unique catalogue number, to be cleaned and curated on site before being sent to the lab for further analyses. Ultimately, the pottery coffin is emptied and cleaned – and we find that the interior was blood red. In one really remarkable case, too, we found a painting on the lid that, to my eye, looks like the act of giving birth.

We also examine the exterior. When I was in Yunnan some years ago, I found myself discussing with a Chinese colleague the bronze figures that decorated the top of the cowrie-filled drums that featured in the princely graves of Shizhaishan. One scene included a snake climbing up a column. He told me a snake symbolises rebirth: after all, it emerges reborn regularly after sloughing off its old skin. When I turn to our pots, I find a raised cordon like a snake extending round the exterior. Is this a message to us that, again, the rituals of infant death were intimately concerned with rebirth, with life after death?

The interior of this lid to an infant burial jar was painted blood red, with a design that might represent childbirth.

If this is indeed the case for the infant dead, what about their parents? Of one point there can be no doubt, the communities I have studied over the years cared for the disadvantaged or injured. At the Iron Age site of Noen U-Loke, we found a young man interred in the unusual prone position, who had suffered from leprosy. A child afflicted with cerebral palsy was buried with the usual rituals. A woman killed by multiple blows to the head was laid to rest surrounded by infants, and a young man, probably a warrior, had been killed by an arrow perhaps when defending the settlement, and interred prone.

Returning to the early Bronze Age wealthy elites. They were buried with an amazing array of pots, of different shapes and sizes, that were clearly made by very experienced potters. Some are decorated with painted designs identical to those found half a millennium earlier in the graves of their Neolithic ancestors. These pots come in forms compatible with use as food bowls, individual drinking vessels, fruit stands to exhibit food, and big pots of a shape suggesting that they contained a lot of drink. Along with the fish bones in pots and the pig bones placed with the dead, it looks pretty certain that we are dealing with a lot of rich and showy feasting by an elite. Perhaps relatives from different communities came to join in their death rites. To a certain extent, this inference is supported by the evidence left by the prehistoric participants. One pot, for example, was decorated with a frieze of dancers, joined in a row round the pot with hands outstretched in the same routine as one sees today. Another pot eerily shows a highly stylised ancestral human face.

Then again, there were obviously some particularly cherished individuals, usually found in the richest burials of all. After being interred wrapped in a shroud within broad wooden coffins, the graves were opened, and the bodies partially returned to daylight. Then the limbs, sometimes the whole body, was carefully placed back into the coffin, on two occasions with the head carefully balanced on top of the limbs, looking towards the rising sun. Were the body parts of revered ancestors taken out to join in later festivities? I am told that this was commonly practised among the Merina of Malagasay, and revered ancestral bones are often worn in Melanesia.

I count myself fortunate that I have worked in a country where the examination of human remains is permitted. Only provided that one at all times treats the bones with the respect that they deserve, burials offer an unique insight into the people who populated the sites we open. In the case of the prehistoric communities and individuals I have spent months and years illuminating, I do think that, casting off for a moment the rigours of academic reporting within the controls of paradigms, models, and theories, I have been able to enter here their thoughts and beliefs for their futures. This certainly endured into the first states, for the Kings of Angkor never died, but went to live with their fellow gods.

Charles Higham is a Professor at Otago University in New Zealand, and an authority on Cambodia’s Angkor civilisation and Ban Non Wat in Thailand.