Digging Deep: a journey into Southeast Asia’s past

Professor Charles Higham will be a familiar figure to CWA readers. Not only does he write a regular column for the magazine, but he is also a world authority on the archaeology of Southeast Asia. When COVID shut down international travel – and with it any hope of further fieldwork or attending international conferences – Charles decided to reflect on the five decades he has spent researching the region, as well as his wider archaeological journey. The result is a charming memoir that effortlessly blends the story of his life to date with the advances in archaeological knowledge gleaned from a succession of trailblazing fieldwork campaigns he contributed to in both Europe and Southeast Asia. Along the way, there are cameos from numerous renowned figures, including established authorities when Charles commenced his studies – such as Sheppard Frere, Glyn Daniel, and Mortimer Wheeler – as well as a number of contemporaries that were also destined to become archaeological household names. Charles is a skilled raconteur, ensuring that his account of triumphs and setbacks alike is always engaging. Anyone interested in finding the answers to questions like what being an archaeologist is really like, and how to succeed at it, will find much to ponder here.

It is always fascinating to get a proper behind-the-scenes account of fieldwork, and Charles has plenty of insights to share. Indeed, he got an early taste for excavation when, at the age of around 13, he helped an uncle seek out a lost Tudor mansion in Wimbledon. Further digs followed, before the sudden end of military conscription – Charles’ birthday placed him just 19 days after the cut-off date – left two years to fill before going up to Cambridge. This was spent at the Institute of Archaeology, and included digging at Verulamium (see p.12) as well as an Iron Age hill fort on Bredon Hill. An appetite for fieldwork continued at Cambridge, and we learn how a search for traces of Neanderthals in the Balkans reached fruition after a chance chat with a local while the survey Land Rover was stopped at a red light. The lesson, that ‘local people know their area best’, was one that informed Charles’ own future surveys. Another essential consideration, ‘that the chronology must be secured before any valid interpretations can be pondered’, would prove to be of singular importance in Southeast Asia.

Charles’ immersion in the archaeology of the region followed his taking up of a university lectureship in New Zealand. It came at a pivotal moment for the archaeology of Southeast Asia, as radiocarbon dates were indicating that the dawn of agriculture could lie around 6000 BC, with metal implements appearing in the 4th millennium BC – much earlier than expected. This possibility ignited considerable academic debate, with new evidence from sites dug by Charles – including Ban Na Di, where an in situ metal-working furnace was found – helping to show that these early dates were too early. Work at a series of sites in Thailand went on to yield thrilling results, which it is impossible to do justice to here. Charles describes Khok Phanom Di as his ‘personal Everest’, where seven months of digging saw excavators descend through a minimum of 7m of stratigraphy. While doing so, they found extraordinary clusters of burials. One of the deceased was a wealthy female potter emblazoned with 120,000 shell beads. Even this remarkable find, though, was eclipsed by an adult male burial at Noen U-Loke. He was interred with bronze finger rings, bronze belts, and 75 bronze bangles on each arm. As Charles puts it, ‘this one burial, in the space of 48 hours, transformed my perception of social elites during the Iron Age.’

As well as capturing the excitement of discovery, Charles also guides readers through what it could all mean, by discussing the impact of the first farmers in Southeast Asia, and presenting a fascinating model for how early states formed. Along the way, he is always scrupulous about acknowledging his debt to relatives, teachers, benefactors, and colleagues, especially his co-directors, Rachanie Thosarat and Amphan Kijngam. Every budding archaeologist would benefit from reading this memoir.

Review by MS.
Digging Deep: a journey into Southeast Asia’s past, Charles Higham, River Books, £19.95, ISBN 978-6164510586.