Digging Up The Past (Archaeology in Mae Hong Son)

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From the Bangkok Post Outlook section Thursday 4 September 2008 (thanks to Liz Price for spotting the article):

Digging Up The Past
Female archaeologist Rasmi Shoocongdej helps preserve Thailand's rich cultural heritage
by Pichaya Svasti

Walking up and down the mountains to excavate ancient burial sites in Mae Hong Son has been part of the everyday work routine for Rasmi Shoocongdej, the country's first female highland archaeologist, since 1998.
At the pre-historic burial sites at Ban Rai and Tham Lod rock shelters in Pang Ma Pha district, Mae Hong Son, her team has spent years studying ancient teak coffins, skeletons, plant seeds, and stone and iron tools, which date back 12,000 to 300 years.
The toil has been more than fruitful. Between 2001 and 2006, her team unearthed a rich wealth of new archaeological information from the burial sites. But her mission is not over. Rasmi and her team are still busy exploring other sites in Pai and Khun Yuam districts.
Although physically tough, the work for highland archaeologists is not much different from that of other archaeologists, said Rasmi, humbly.
"You need to have passion for your work. And extra stamina for tough journeys," said the associate professor in archeology from Silpakorn University.
"We have to do a lot of walking and carry a lot of heavy stuff as part of the job," said Rasmi, now in her late forties.
Good people skills, logistics management, cultural sensitivity, and knowledge of local dialects can also get arecheologists a long way, she added.
"It often takes time for local people to understand what we are doing in their home villages. It may take years for us to win their trust. At Pang Ma Pha, for example, we spent a lot of time with the villagers, talking and helping them in any way we could."
Rasmi's work at Pang Ma Pha goes beyond new discoveries. She is especially proud that her work has fostered a sense of local ownership and pride, leading to a local collaborative effort to preserve archaeological sites and local cultures.
Indeed they should feel proud. The rockshelter of Ban Rai dates back between 12,00 and 600 years. Better known among locals as Tham Phiman (Spirit Cave), it is believed to have been inhabited in ancient times by a prehistoric form of man known as phiman. The area was also used as a burial ground. A number of teak coffins and human remains dating from the early Holocene period (8000 BC) have been unearthed. Rock paintings were found along the eastern edge of the site.
Suayi Sae Han, headman of Ban Rai village, praised Assoc Prof Rasmi for her success in encouraging local villagers to protect their cultural heritage.
"She has opened our eyes. We now realise the value of natural and cultural heritage," the local leader said.
With her support, a community museum has been set up in the village. Every month, about 15 villagers voluntarily take turns to clean the track leading to the Ban Rai archaeological site and repair any damages.
"Now, we feel the site belongs to all of us. We agree to conserve it. But, we fear it will be spoiled by tourists. So, we are going to consult Acharn Rasmi," Suayi added.
About 10 residents of Ban Rai chip in by working as local guides for visitors. They contribute 10 per cent of their incomes to a village fund for conserving the site.
Before, the local children were afraid of Thum Phiman, as they believed it was haunted. Now, many of them have joined the community's Little Guides Programme to help visitors understand the cave and the local culture better.
Using a multi-disciplinary approach was integral to the success of the excavations in Ban Rai. Her team comprised archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, dentists, forest experts and scientists in an effort to understand all aspects of ancient settlements there.
"We wanted to find out about the highland's geological, ecological, cultural and biological diversities, so my work required the use of several sciences. I can say that it was the first of its kind in the North," she said.
Humbly, she gave credit to famed archaeologists Pisit Charoenwongsa and Surin Pookajorn for introducing the multi-disciplinary approach to archaeology in Thailand, including the excavation in Ban Chiang, Udon Thani.
"Good work needs teamwork. All team members have to feel each project belongs to all of them. This brings a lot of energy to help brace for obstacles with patience, a smaller ego and generosity," she added.
Looking back on her childhood, Rasmi said it was stone tools that inspired her to study archaeology.
"When I was young, I was very impressed with stone tools. It must have been an uphill task for pre-historic humans to create those tools, and it made me curious about their lives."
After obtaining a bachelor's degree in archaeology from Silpakorn University, she went to the University of Michigan in the US for her masters' degree and PhD.
Her first archeological site was in Kanchanaburi province. "I love mountains," said the highland archaeologist. Her studies focussed on Stone Age man's movement patterns. "People don't know much about the tropical forests of pre-historic times. In fact, prehistoric men moved from one place to another according to different seasons and sources of natural resources."
There is plenty of evidence showing that the area that is now Thailand has been inhabited since the prehistoric period, she said.
Although there is evidence that in the late Ice Age of Europe, humans migrated from Asia to North America and within Asia, there is only limited information about the Stone Age, or Ice Age, (late Pleistocene (40,000 to 10,000 BC) in Southeast Asia.
So far, less than 10 archaeological sites dating back to that period have been uncovered in Southeast Asia.
The mountain ranges in Kanchanaburi, Krabi, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son have been known as the areas with well-preserved archaeological traces from the Ice Age because ice there melted more slowly than on lower plains.
After Kanchanaburi, Rasmi headed to Pang Ma Pha district. She was inspired by the research of Mahidol University lecturer Sittipong Dilokwanich who has unveiled many discoveries about archeological sites in Pang Ma Pha, including 37 outstanding caves.
In 1970, US archaeologist Chester F. Gorman discovered ancient coffins and fragments of seeds at Tham Phiman in Pang Ma Pha. The artefacts were dated back to between 12,000 years (the late Pleistocene Period) and 7,000 years ago.
From 1998 to 2006, Rasmi and her team conducted excavations in Pang Ma Pha under the Highland Archaeology Project, which is sponsored by the Thailand Research Fund. They focussed on human settlements, ranging from activities, dwellings and burial grounds to utensil making.
According to her, over 60 sites of various ages were discovered. They include burial, habitation, manufacturing, ceremonial and rock painting sites. Two of them - the Ban Rai and Tham Lod rock shelters - are representative of sites in the region with a tentative chronology developed from the late Pleistocene (12,000 years ago) to the about 300 years ago.
The team found that the Ban Rai rock shelter, which dates back to between 10,000 and 600 BC, is the largest Iron Age log coffin cemetery to be found in the highlands of Pang Ma Pha. It was used as a funerary site during the late Holocene period.
The Tham Lod rockshelter site, dating between 34,500 and 2,400 BC, was also continually inhabited from the late Pleistocene period (34,500 to 10,000 BC) to the early Holocene period (10,000 to 2400 BC).
The excavation revealed that the site was used as a temporary residential and burial ground given that human skeletal remains of at least four individuals dating to the late Pleistocene were found.
The presence of stone tools, lithic debris, animal bones and shellfish remains indicated food processing and tool maintenance. The uncovering of glazed ceramics suggests interaction between highland and lowland populations during the late Holocene or Lanna Period (16th to 17th century AD).
From 2006 to 2008, the team focussed on how to promote archaeological heritage management at both sites.
At present, a source of constant excitement for Rasmi are the various findings at her new sites in Pai and Khun Yuam districts, Mae Hong Son. The team has uncovered traces of ancient temples dating to the Lanna Period, communities dating back to the reigns of King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, and traces of Japanese soldiers who were there during World War Two.
Rasmi also writes for various newspapers and magazines in addition to teaching archeology at Silpakorn University. She also plans to pen a book about her work, hoping to instill love and interest in archeology among the younger generations.
Given Thailand's rich archeological assets, the country lacks committed people to unveil Thailand's past. "We need archaeologists with investigative minds and non-defeatist attitudes."
That is not the end of her dream. Rasmi's next goal is to do comparative studies on human settlements and adjustments to the environs in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand.
"Pursuing a mission requires a lot of hard work," she said. "To achieve any goal, we must dedicate our life to it."