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A Light in the East
Archaeologist Charles Higham has spent thirty years revealing Southeast Asia’s distant past.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Archaeology, Volume 59, Number 4, July/August 2006.

There's a yawning hole in the middle of the village of Ban Non Wat, Thailand, and it's an extraordinary sight. Ten feet down, eleven skeletons lie exposed in open graves, and two dozen people swarm in their midst. Some hoe the brown earth in search of more bodies or hoist up the soil in an endless bucket chain. Others kneel over the 3,000-year old bones, coaxing them free with dental picks, while still more sketch, bag, and carry them away. A white fabric roof hangs over the 40-foot square pit; outside of its shelter more workers screen soil, sort artifacts and reassemble countless sherds into graceful, ancient pots.
One man in shorts, sandals, and floppy gray hat seems to be everywhere. Charles Higham is in charge of this dig, and he leads his 60-person army of archaeologists, villagers, and Earthwatch volunteers by inspiration and example. One moment he's lying in the dirt, scraping at a  jawbone, the next he's huddling over field notes with one of his students, or joking with the locals in fluent Thai. When traces of a new grave are discovered, he sometimes darts into the busy diggers and, with a few sweeps of his trowel, brings a pot or a skull  into the light.
Higham, 66, an ebullient, gregarious Englishman with a fringe of graying hair and a ready laugh, is a professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Since 1969, he has been doggedly filling in what he calls “the tabula rasa” of Southeast Asian prehistory by probing its most profound transformations: how its hunter-gatherers became farmers, its farmers metalworkers, and how its village elders became kings. His own discoveries and encyclopedic books have illuminated a cultural sequence that stretches back 30,000 years.
“Until thirty years ago our knowledge of this area was very sparse indeed,” Higham says, “but now Southeast Asia has become a major place in the world for understanding human history, not just prehistory, but the history of our species. If anyone is remotely interested in that, then don't ignore Southeast Asia.”
Higham has been one of the few English-speaking archaeologists working year after year in the region. “Everybody flocks like lemmings into Maya country and western Europe or the Near East,” says archaeologist Brian Fagan, but Higham has hunkered down “in one of the seminal areas of early civilization. He's a major archaeological figure of the last thirty years.”
”He's very much an archaeologist's archaeologist,” says Graeme Barker, Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge. “What Charles writes we all want to read.”
And here at Ban Non Wat, he has found plenty to write about. Ban Non Wat is on the Khorat Plateau, a rolling plain in Northeast Thailand with a long, rich past. Over the last five years, in eighteen total months of digging, Higham and Thai archaeologist Rachanie Thosarat have unearthed more than 460 Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age skeletons And “every time we dig here,” he says with relish, “it's a new surprise.”
Higham fell in love with archeology when he was 14 years old, after his aunt gave him W. Ceram's Gods, Graves, and Scholars for Christmas. The next summer he and his older brother Richard volunteered to dig at Snail Down, an Early Bronze Age cemetery near Stonehenge. By 1959, when Higham entered Cambridge, he had also dug in France and Greece and studied at the University of London.
The son of an architect, he had two burning goals at Cambridge - to win the highest academic honors and thus earn a full scholarship, and to play against Oxford in the annual rugby match. Although only 5'9” tall, he was a star play on the university's unbeaten rugby team and, in its victory over Oxford, put the first points on the board. In the classroom, he shone in a group of gifted young scholars studying under Grahame Clark, one of the most influential archaeologists of the age.
Clark pioneered the field of economic prehistory, the study of how early societies survived in their environments, gleaned from the seeds, sticks, bones, and soil that most archaeologists at the time blindly threw away. For his doctorate, now considered a classic, Higham used domesticated cattle bones to reconstruct prehistoric life in Denmark and Switzerland. Says Norman Hammond, a Cambridge classmate and now Professor of Archaeology at Boston University, “His natural gift is for seeing the promise in an unpromising situation. Nobody really thought of cattle bones in central Europe as being sexy. Charles was able to turn it into a major piece of work.” While he researched he submitted his findings to local and national journals. “By the time he got his PhD, he had a string of publications in six languages as long as your arm, and he was able to walk straight into a job at the University of Otago in New Zealand to teach European prehistory.”
The Otago appointment was also due to Clark, who worked hard to spread his influence by placing his students in jobs around the world. “He got it into his head that because I was a rugby player and the [New Zealand] All Blacks were the best rugby team in the world, that I was the right person for New Zealand,” Higham says.
Higham, his wife Polly, and son Tom, the first of four children, arrived in 1967, and Higham swiftly made his mark. New Zealand has no prehistoric pottery, so its past can be difficult to decipher. Higham, with a landmark study, used the shells in an ancient midden to reveal the seasonal migrations of prehistoric Maori tribes. Two years after arriving, at only 28 year old, Higham became the first professor of prehistoric archaeology in Australasia.
Until then, prehistoric excavations in Southeast Asia had been few, their finds meager. Instead, scholars had focused on the stone ruins and inscriptions of ancient kingdoms that arose in the first centuries AD -- Funan in the Mekong Delta, Champa in coastal Viet Nam, Dvarivati in central Thailand, and above all the magnificent Angkor civilization, built by Khmer kings who thrived in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. These scholars thought that Indian Brahmins and seafaring merchants had brought India's sophisticated Hindu culture to docile, primitive, scattered clans, jumpstarting their transition to complex states.
In the late 1960s, archaeologists began to focus anew on the region's prehistory. In 1969, Higham went to Thailand to join American archaeologists Wilhelm Solheim, Donn Bayard, and Chester Gorman, who had discovered what were thought to be Asia's oldest bronzes on the Khorat Plateau. Soon he was digging with Gorman in remote Thai caves, looking in vain for the region's first farmers.
 In 1974, he was with Gorman and Thai archaeologist Prisit Charoenwongsa at Ban Chiang, a Khorat Plateau village where looters had been plundering extraordinarily beautiful pots. Thermoluminescence dating suggested the pottery was 6,000 years old, and the University of Pennsylvania sponsored an excavation to rescue what was left. “We were in very heady, exciting times,” Higham says.
Two years later, Gorman and Charoenwongsa announced Ban Chiang's bronze dated to 3600 BC and its iron to 1600 BC, earlier than anywhere else in the world. Even more extraordinary was that these advances had arisen in an egalitarian rural village. Elsewhere, metalworking had developed hand-in-hand with stratified societies, warfare, and specialized labor. The story of humankind, it seemed, would have to be revised.
The discovery sparked a sensation. Ban Chiang artifacts appeared in newspapers around the globe, in Time and Newsweek cover stories, and in a traveling Smithsonian Institution show. But it also featured in heated debate.
“It led to two groups,” Higham recalls, “one of which believed it, and one of which said `It's a whole lot of hooey, and this can't be the case.'”
In 1980 Higham teamed up with Thai archaeologist Amphan Kijngam. At Ban Na Di, 14 miles southwest of Ban Chiang, they uncovered chunks of melted bronze and casting molds from a cultural phase almost certainly contemporary with Ban Chiang's famous bronze. Higham sent the charcoal dating samples to a New Zealand lab. “When they came back I got quite a shock. They were a thousand, two thousand years later than I imagined.” They dated the site's earliest bronze to only about 1300 BC, which pushed the site's iron to an even more recent date. “Beyond any doubt the radiocarbon results from Ban Chiang were far too early.” The charcoal samples from the site, some of which Higham had gathered, had come from grave fill, which can include charcoal unearthed at the time of burial and far older than the graves themselves.
Later tests showed Ban Chiang's earliest portery to be only about 4,000 years old, and most archeologists now agree with Higham's dates. He is now convinced bronze is a Middle Eastern innovation, carried into China along the Silk Road; the Thais learned it in the later second millennium BC from Shang Dynasty merchants who ventured south to swap bronze vessels for local goods.
Early in his career, before he had the resources to lead his own expeditions, Higham published a paper describing how best to explore what he called the “terra incognita” of prehistoric Southeast Asia. “He then moved like a general,” says Hammond, “marshalling his forces across the area of central and northern Thailand, identifying a series of problems, and the sites at which they might be resolved, digging them, publishing them in depth and promptly.”
In the 1980s he aimed his sites on the hundreds of mounds that dot rice paddies in Thailand and northeast Cambodia. Often surrounded with ancient moats and banks, with villages perched on top, the mounds can cover 100 acres and reach 30 feet high. They formed during generations of human occupation, in a steady accumulation of cultural debris.
An hour east of Bangkok is a steep mound known as Khok Phanom Di. It was thought to be a natural hill until 1978, when a bulldozer, cutting a new path to the Buddhist temple atop it, unearthed beads, bracelets, and bones. A Thai archaeologist sank a test pit into the mound, and in 1980 showed Higham shellfish, rice, and radiocarbon dates suggesting it had been occupied for thousands of years.
Sea levels have risen and fallen several times over the last ten millenia, and although Khok Phanom Di now lies 14 miles from the Gulf of Siam, the test pit's shellfish were saltwater varieties. The mound seemed an ideal place to study the relationship between the resouce-rich coast and early rice cultivation.
In 1984, Higham and Thosarat returned and dug for seven months, down 26 feet to the natural soil, removing 155 skeletons and enough pots, jewelry, stone tools, seeds, and dirt to fill more than five railroad boxcars.
The team subjected the material to an investigation that was unprecedented in Southeast Asia. They performed detailed forensic analyses of all the skeletons, even testing for strontium isotopes in their teeth - which vary depending on childhood environment - to spot newcomers to the settlement. They looked at food remains in the digestive tracts of two especially well-preserved bodies to discover what they had eaten. They drilled the soil around the mound for ancient pollen, seeds, and sediments. The analyses took twenty years, seven volumes, and thousands of pages to publish.
They discovered that the first settlers arrived in 2000 BC at what was then a major river estuary near the open sea. They made a living as hunter-fisher-gatherers, using weighted nets and bone fishhooks to snare crabs, fish, porpoises, sharks, and rays. They were also skillful potters, and since the surrounding mudflats were too salty to farm, they traded ceramics for rice with farmers who lived on higher ground. They suffered from malarial mosquitoes and an inherited anemia that killed most of their children in infancy, but the surviving adults - some lived into their 40s - were generally in good health. The men had muscular upper bodies and worn right shoulders from paddling canoes; the women had the strong hands, wrists, and arms that come from shaping clay.
After about six generations the sea fell, and the surrounding swamps silted up. Women from outside the community joined the site, and the people of Khok Phanom Di began to farm rice on the floodplain, digging with granite hoes, harvesting with shell knives. In time, the sea rose again, the salt marshes returned, and the villagers made their livelihood once more from ceramics.
And it was here, around 1500 BC in the village's last years, that the team found pots atop cylinders of raw potters clay. Beneath it was the outline of a ten-foot grave. “Then we suddenly saw blood red soil, then the cranium of a woman completely covered in red ochre,” Higham recalls. The team dubbed her the Princess for her shell headdress, translucent shell earrings, and two astonishing garments embroidered with over 120,000 beads. Nearby lay a fifteen-month old infant, undoubtedly her child, with the same red ochre, the same clay forms atop the body, and a miniature version of her spectacular garments. Beside the Princess's ankle a shell container held a wooden anvil for shaping pots. Beside the infant, in exactly the same position, was a little anvil no bigger than a thimble.
The Princess died in her mid-thirties, a wealthy master potter in the largest prehistoric grave Higham had yet seen. But she was only one of many thriving villagers. The team traced inherited skeletal traits in the clustered graves and discovered that two families endured for 17 generations. These families' fortunes fluctuated, with some generations rich in grave goods, others with little, proof that personal achievement, not inheritance, was the community's key to wealth. “Only when a mortuary tradition can be followed over so many generations can we gain such an intimate glimpse into its operating principles,” Higham wrote.
In 1994, Higham and Thosarat launched The Origins of Angkor, a multi-disciplinary study in search of the region's Iron Age, a time around 500 BC, when chiefdoms began to coalesce and crystallize into the civilization of Angkor. They returned once again to the Khorat Plateau.
Iron transforms the societies that master it. Iron makes for heftier axes, harder hoes, and sharper spears. It leads to more efficient farming and surplus food. Populations grow, wealth increases, trade expands. Within communities, leaders step to the fore. Regionally, powers emerge that dominate trade, scarce resources, and coveted terrain.
Higham and Thosarat studied aerial photographs of the Plateau, looking for mounds that were once centers of power. They compared their sizes, counted their moats, and noted which had been added to or had ancient reservoirs nearby.
So far, they have excavated four sites in Thailand, and expanded to encompass two Cambodian digs. But the finds at Noen U-Loke, a village three miles from Ban Non Wat, stand out.
Noen U-Loke lies on a 30-acre mound, ringed with five Iron Age moats jutting 600 feet into the rice fields, huge engineering works for the time. The team dug for two seasons, revealing Southeast Asia's longest mortuary sequence, more than 120 graves and an eight-century narrative of growing wealth, power, and strife.
Iron was used at Noen U-Loke from the start, at first primarily for jewelry, then increasingly for farm tools and weapons. The early men and women sported Bronze Age-style shell and marble jewelry, but took up beads of carnelian, jade, glass, and silver as well as gold earrings, tiger-tooth necklaces, and agate pendants imported from India. Crafts grew increasingly sophisticated - there were intricate bronze belts, spiral metal headdresses, and delicate ceramics. The settlement grew so rich that its dead were laid in rice-filled coffins, wearing so many bronze toe rings, finger rings, bangles, and bracelets that they must have blazed in the sun.
Between 1 and 300 AD, elite leaders emerged who commanded construction of the moats and banks. But not long after, signs of warfare - iron spears and projectile points - appear in abundance. In the mound's last years, one youth was laid to rest with an iron arrowhead piercing his spine.
Higham believes the increasingly elaborate burials demonstrate the emergence of princely elites. And although the site was abandoned early in the first millennium, elsewhere powerful local lords like these soon began to construct brick temples, worship Hindu deities, adopt Sanskrit names, and, in time, swear fealty to the Khmer god-kings.
Excavations in Southeast Asia take place in the dry season from December to March, and to Higham, time is precious. “When we find nothing except soil and potsherds, we have to work very hard and fast, like a battlefield, like a war,” says Warrachai Wiriyaromp, an associate professor at Bangkok's Kasetsart University and a doctoral student of Higham's who has worked with him since 1979. “But when we reach the skeleton layer, we slow down, and work like hearing an orchestra, slowly, bit by bit.”
Now it is March 1, and the diggers at Ban Non Wat have come at last to the undisturbed soil beneath the mound. This year the team has found Iron Age butchering floors, a collapsed wattle and daub house, and a cemetery with 60 bodies crammed like sardines. The site's Bronze Age layers have yielded what he calls “super burials,” high status individuals interred together in single graves as long as 15 feet, laden with jewelrybeaded garments, bronze tools and as many as 150 pots. These burials, near relatively poor, unadorned graves, have “revolutionized our thinking on the Bronze Age and its social structure,” he says triumphantly, for they offer firm proof that, as elsewhere in the world, “there is a social hierarchy, a marked one, in the Bronze Age of Southeast Asia.”
But as the season nears its end, he is encountering new puzzles. Until now, the team has recovered bodies interred flat on their backsthe custom with farming cultures. But for the last two days three adults of unknown gender and a baby cradled in its mother's arms have emerged buried, on their sides with their knees drawn up in the crouching position favored by hunter-gatherers, with pots and shell jewelry unlike any found in the Neolithic graves. They're the first flexed bodies discovered on the Khorat Plateau.
 “They shouldn't be there. We've never found one before, and now we have five of them,” says Higham. “We're nonplussed, is the only way to put it.”
These flexed burials support a bold theory.  In 1987, Higham's former classmate, Cambridge professor Colin Renfrew, proposed that farmers in the Near East moved into new lands occupied by hunter-gatherers, spreading agriculture and Indo-European languages west to Ireland, east to China, and south into India. Linguists and archaeologists have proposed a similar diaspora for the spread of Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages in Asia, as farmers in China's Yangtze River valley began a migration in about 6000 BC that took domesticated rice to eastern India, the Pacific Islands, and into Southeast Asia around 2500-200 BC.
Higham notes that agriculture and metal working arise later and later with further distance from the Yangtze, and that across the region pottery decoration and burial practices are intriguingly similar. “The Austroasiatic language family stretches from India right across to Vietnam and up to southern China. The words for rice, dog, fish, child, and the numerical system are cognate - they have the same root.”
Higham is already toying with scenarios for the flexed burials, weighing whether Neolithic farmers moved onto the mound where a hunter-gatherer cemetery already existed, or if arriving farmers and local hunter-gatherers intermarried, yet buried their dead for a time in the hunter-gatherer style.
But as Higham looks down at the gray bones of the clinging infant and its mother, he knows that future excavations could easily prove his theories wrong. “If we were to start opening up an area of this size at another site,” he says, “God knows what we'd find.”
Copyright © 2006 Tom Gidwitz