Uncovering the mysteries of Ban Non Wat
The exotic mystique of Angkor's overgrown temple ruins has attracted explorers and intrigued historians ever since their re-discovery in the sixteenth century. The iconic ruins at Angkor Wat are now even depicted in the Cambodian flag, but it is more than 150 miles away, in the Thai village of Ban Non Wat, that exciting discoveries are being unearthed by scientists from Earthwatch's Origins of Angkor project.
Leading the team is Dr. Nigel Chang, who has been working in Thailand since 1991, and with the help of enthusiastic and passionate volunteers, the project is going from strength to strength.
Earthwatch volunteers have been contributing to the project for the past 14 field seasons.
The great complex of Angkor is thought to have been one of the largest pre-industrial human settlements in the world, and was the seat of the Khmer empire from 800-1400 AD. The ruins provide intricate and beautiful evidence which can tell historians a great deal about how the culture and society functioned. There is overwhelming evidence of a rich cultural and religious tradition, and a highly connective infrastructure links settlements with the main temple complex.
However, despite all this evidence, there are still many questions that historians cannot answer, and many mysteries that remain to be solved.
One of the most puzzling features of the Angkor complex is that the vibrant culture of the Khmer civilization appears to have arisen from nowhere. No written documents survive, and there are almost no archaeological traces of any civilization that came before. The fact that the ruins show very strong cultural influences from India, over 2,000 miles away, only seems to deepen this mystery. How is it that such a distant cultural influence could have established itself so strongly and rapidly at Angkor? Who were the people responsible and how did they live?
The ancient settlement at Ban Non Wat ("village of the temple mound") in Thailand may provide the answers to some of these questions. The settlement is thought to have been inhabited from Neolithic times, through the Bronze Age, through the Iron Age - and the village survives to this day. This means that the site provides a near-continuous record from Neolithic times, and the alkaline soil has preserved over 700 human and animal burials exceptionally well. Evidence from this virtually unique site is invaluable, as historians piece together the missing parts of this puzzle, and shed light on the mysterious origins of Angkor.
The rich archaeological site at Ban Non Wat has been excavated by scientists working on the Origins of Angkor project since 1995, and Earthwatch volunteers have been participating for 14 field seasons. Hundreds of remains spanning nearly 2,000 years have been unearthed, including nearly 700 human burials, evidence of early farming methods, pottery and animal bones, bronze casting areas, sophisticated water management systems, and animal burials.
This project inspires an exceptional number of loyal returning volunteers, who support what lead scientist Dr. Chang calls a "well-oiled team." Earthwatch volunteers are trained in archaeological techniques such as identifying finds, mapping the sites and lifting the fragile ceramic vases associated with the graves. After material has been excavated, volunteers take part in the crucial work of cleaning, recording and cataloguing excavated material, as well as carrying out initial analyses of human skeletons. Various ceramic vases have been painstakingly restored by volunteers, giving a more tangible impression of how the people of this civilization lived.
An iron age dog burial.
After a successful day in the field, volunteers can relax by the pool at their accommodation, before reflecting on the day's finds over a traditional Thai meal. One of the most important discoveries of this year's field season has been the Iron Age water channels which volunteers have unearthed in a particularly complex area of the site. This discovery has been a major addition to the understanding of the site, and has raised even more questions for the next research season.
The findings so far, combined with those from other sites in the region, have allowed project historians to outline a developmental sequence in which the shift in lifestyles and technology over time can be clearly seen. This ranges from the earliest Neolithic farmers, through to an increasingly complex society. Shifts in cultural influences over time have also been observed, for example towards the end of the archaeological record, evidence for the Indian-influenced practice of cremation appears. The growth and development of other indigenous practices, such as building village moats, is also revealed. These findings have given historians a fantastic insight into the pre-Angkor civilizations in Southeast Asia and helped go some way to answering questions about the origins of Angkor.
History for the future
In recent years, the focus of this project has shifted subtly, with more emphasis directed towards understanding the historical communities based at Ban Non Wat as entities in their own right, rather than merely part of the rise of a complex civilization. With this in mind, historians are now examining evidence for the relationship between human society and climate change over the last 4,000 years. This will provide informative knowledge of how local people coped with climate change in the past, as well as contributing to global-scale understanding of the relationships between society and climate which may have important future applications.
Over the course of the excavations at Ban Non Wat, the villagers have become increasingly involved. The population of around 160 rely on the rice harvest for their livelihood, but there is a real risk of harvest failure due to an unpredictable rainfall pattern. Through funding from Earthwatch, the project is able to employ up to 40 villagers at peak field season, with the aim that each household has at least one person on the payroll. Thanks to the sheer importance of the Thai cultural history unearthed at this location, plans are being discussed with regards to developing infrastructure and a potential educational centre in the area.
This amazing cultural story unearthed in a small Thai village has dramatically shifted international understanding of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in Southeast Asia. After a busy and successful field season this year, it seems the team are on the threshold of more illuminating and fascinating results to come in the next field season, starting in early January 2011.
Join the Origins of Angkor Expedition.
Report by Ellie Gilvin.