Rise of the elites

I was recently asked to contribute to a two-day meeting on Bronze Age civilisations, organised by the Research Centre for History and Culture, Beijing Normal University. Held on Zoom and with world coverage, it meant that some of us stayed up late and others arose early to contribute. Indeed, in my case I had to miss some presentations because I was falling asleep. Now the participants are preparing their papers to be published, having put together a series of issues to be concentrated on. It is almost a century since Gordon Childe published The Bronze Age, a volume that continues to exert a profound influence on our thoughts, even if increasingly as a source of inferences to take issue with. For example, he felt that Neolithic communities were self-sufficient, but when the knowledge of heating a brightly coloured rock to produce a liquid and then casting it into a mould arrived, all sorts of avenues opened. You had to have specialists with considerable skill to produce the metal and, often, to import ingots from afar to satisfy new social demands. New trade routes were opened, people and ideas as well as skills were increasingly on the move. And did all these necessarily generate the rise of social elites, who owned, organised, and disposed of bronze ornaments, tools, and weapons?

I have been interested in the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia since I first studied some finds from Non Nok Tha in North-east Thailand, followed by excavations at a site called Ban Chiang in 1974-1975. These resulted in publications that claimed the earliest evidence for bronze known, at about 3600 BC or even earlier. This really threw a cat among the pigeons, because it meant that bronzes were being cast much earlier than in China. It must be noted that copper and tin ores are abundant in Southeast Asia. It was all rather exciting, like an academic roller coaster. Experts came to Ban Chiang to see for themselves what was going on. Perhaps they were a bit disappointed, because bronzes were few: an axe, a few bangles, and a spearhead. Moreover, the Bronze Age graves could not be called wealthy, in terms of offerings.

In 1981, I was fortunately able to join with my Thai colleage Amphan Kijngam to excavate a site near Ban Chiang called Ban Na Di. We were in luck, finding not only quite a few burials, but also the furnaces used to raise copper and tin to melting point, the crucibles, and the moulds that had cast axes and bangles. Charcoal from the furnaces and hearths gave us a set of radiocarbon dates, while the pottery vessels found with the dead enabled us to correlate our sequence with that from Ban Chiang. There was a huge mismatch between the two chronologies, as ours was no earlier than 1000 BC. I knew that the dates from Non Nok Tha and Ban Chiang came from fragments of charcoal assembled from unreliable contexts, like disturbed grave-fill. Those claims for the earliest bronze in the world were really a lemon. Nevertheless, Ban Na Di turned up some memorable finds: superb clay cattle figurines, a child interred under a crocodile-skin shroud, a marble bangle thrice repaired with bronze tie-wires. Essentially, we found two groups of burials, one marginally richer than the other in terms of exotic ornaments, but certainly no evidence for the rise of a social elite that commanded access to or ownership of bronze ornaments or weaponry.

BELOW This tiny infant was buried with 20 pots, 2,154 shell beads, and a copper axe. Note, too, the bivalve shells, which we think symbolised rebirth. The big bangle is made of marble.
This tiny infant was buried with 20 pots, 2,154 shell beads, and a copper axe. Note, too, the bivalve shells, which we think symbolised rebirth. The big bangle is made of marble.

Opportunity knocks?

One of the most fascinating aspects of all this, is the impact of an entirely new substance. I am reminded of the arrival of the first Europeans on Cuba. The local leaders advertised their status through wearing gold ornaments, but they looked with envy on the newcomers’ aglets. And what is an aglet? It is the small tube or sheath found on the end of shoelaces. The aglets in question were made of brass with an attractive sheen, and the locals were happy to exchange gold to get their hands on shoelaces. This exchange suited both parties. So, one of the themes I will be exploring when writing up my Zoom presentation for publication is: what was the impact of the first exposure to copper just over 3,000 years ago in Southeast Asia? To examine this, we need access to an archaeological site with a transition from the Neolithic into the first Bronze Age. Luckily, I have excavated two of these, both in the upper Mun Valley of Northeast Thailand.

The first of these was Ban Lum Khao, where a modern village perches on the prehistoric mound flanked by a stream. My Thai colleague Rachanie Thosarat and I came across it during our initial site survey in the upper reaches of the Mun River valley. As you drive along the highway from Phimai to Khorat city, you see a sign advertising the museum of Ban Prasat. Divert to this big prehistoric mound, and you can peer down into a deep square where Bronze Age burials are left in the ground following an earlier Thai excavation. Your eyes alight on the grave of a man accompanied by a remarkable number of pottery vessels and a socketed copper-base axe. We travelled on to Ban Lum Khao and found that villagers had been looting similar pots. At the very edge of the site, we were assured that no looting had taken place, so there we opened our excavation. The Bronze Age cemetery we revealed contained more than 100 graves of women, men, and infants laid out in four rows. None had more than half a dozen pots, and none had a bronze offering. However, the occupation layer contained fragments of crucibles and moulds. We applied various statistical analyses to the grave assemblages and found no evidence for an elite group. These graves covered a Neolithic occupation, which we dated to about 1300 BC.

The sight of that very wealthy man at Ban Prasat set me thinking, what is going on here? How can we make progress on sorting out the social impact in Southeast Asia – if any – that followed the arrival of copper miners, smelters, casters, and consumers? You never know what digging will turn up, so the answer we uncovered came as a monster surprise. It was 20 February 2002 at Ban Non Wat when we probed into the depths to reveal pot rims of unprecedented size. Following a trail of them, we uncovered stacked human bones supporting a skull, balanced to look east towards the rising sun. We continued for fully 5m to reveal the total length of the grave. We were only able to explore it in its entirety the following season. It was 3.5m wide, and contained the skeleton of a second man, also partially exhumed and then carefully returned to the grave. In all, there were about 80 pots, a copper-base socketed axe, and thousands of exotic shell beads. This was the tipping point, surely an aristocratic pair on the cusp of the Bronze Age.

I was back at Ban Non Wat for the next six years, usually leaving home just after Christmas. And each season added to the number of these elite graves. Not only that, we found that they succeeded late Neolithic burials containing pots of similar form and size to those in the earliest Bronze Age, so there was no doubting that our elites were descended from Neolithic ancestors. The wealth of these early Bronze Age people stunned. A good half were accompanied by a copper-base axe. I say copper-base, because our analyses reveal a lack of tin alloying. Some wore copper anklets and bells. There were tens of thousands of marine-shell beads, hundreds of shell-and-marble bangles, earrings, and up to 80 superb pots of multiple forms. Just one of many new insights springs to mind. Imagine uncovering the top of a grave long enough to contain an adult, but, on revealing more, finding instead the skeleton of a newly born baby. Beyond the head and feet, the grave was filled with pots that were quite probably the remains of feasting ceremonies during the burial. Nestling among the pots by the head, we struck a pocket of green that turned into a socketed copper axe. This was but one of several such infant graves that posed a question: why bury an axe with an infant?

The axe can hardly have been of any use to a child who couldn’t walk or talk. Moreover, like others we have sampled, it was made of copper, too soft to be of much use even to an adult. The copper has been traced to mines in Central Thailand, where we find moulds for casting identical axes, so it must surely have arrived at Ban Non Wat along the same trade route that brought the marine-shell and marble ornaments. Like the Cuban aglets, was copper valued for its sheen and novelty, and not its usefulness, when it first began to travel along the trade routes?

These discoveries offer insights but also add unanswered questions. New research tells us that knowledge of copper smelting and casting spread southward from what is now China, reaching the borderlands with Southeast Asia by 1400-1200 BC. Experienced metalworkers exploited at least four mining complexes, then and a bit later. One lineage at Ban Non Wat and Ban Prasat, living on an exchange choke-point, were able to corral access to this remarkable metal and use it to advertise their status, but other lineages living at the same sites were not. But this, it seems, was transitory. Later Bronze Age burials at Ban Non Wat were only of moderate wealth, although one man was buried with 29 moulds for casting bronze bangles and axes. Perhaps, by then, bronzes had become commonplace, and were no longer symbols of status?