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Unearthing Angkor truths an inch at a time

Email|Print| Text size + By Tim Leland and Julie Hatfield
Globe Correspondents / February 20, 2005

BAN NON WAT, Thailand -- The man was lying on his back, his legs slightly apart, arms resting at his sides, teeth glistening as though they had just been freshly bleached by a dentist.

They were good, strong, straight teeth, but they hadn't been used to chew for more than 3,500 years.

We were standing in the middle of a graveyard. In fact, we were standing in the middle of several graveyards, stacked like a giant cake one layer on top of another, each representing the passage of hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years.

Forget six feet under. We were eight feet under, heading for 12.

Talk about culture shock. Two days after leaving Boston, we were exhuming the bones of men, women, and children who had been laid to rest millennia ago.

We had decided our first trip to Southeast Asia would involve more than museums and bus tours. We wanted to experience the nitty-gritty of Thailand, and working on our hands and knees here in Ban Non Wat, a village northeast of Bangkok, we did just that.

With nine other volunteers from around the world, we were taking part in an archeological expedition sponsored by Earthwatch Institute, searching for answers to the origins of the fabulous Angkor civilization.

In the late 1940s, aerial reconnaissance of the region near the Cambodian border revealed a strange phenomenon: Many of the tiny hamlets that dotted the countryside appeared to be in the middle of faint but unmistakable circular depressions.

Closer inspection revealed that these hamlets were built on low mounds surrounded by a system of shallow moats, apparently scooped from the earth thousands of years go. Today these prehistoric moats have become exhibit A in a revolutionary theory about the beginnings of prehistoric civilization in Southeast Asia.

Until recently, conventional wisdom of archeologists and anthropologists held that the influence of advanced societies in India and China gradually spread south and east into what is now Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It was believed that Indian technology was responsible for construction of the fabulous religious temple in Cambodia known as Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Built between 1113 and 1150, it represents one of mankind's most astonishing architectural achievements.

Archeologist Charles Higham of New Zealand's University of Otago, however, has a different view of the origins of Angkor. Considered the world's leading authority on prehistoric cultures in Southeast Asia, Higham disputes the common belief that the indigenous populations of the region were backward people awaiting the arrival of technological advances from foreign sources.

He believes the man-made moats and canals around places such as Ban Non Wat reveal a sophisticated system of water control and land management built by the earliest Thai tribes without any outside help. These and other signs of social complexity -- extensive rice cultivation, skill at iron and bronze smelting, the exchange of goods in trade abroad -- convince Higham that Thais formed a sophisticated society long before Angkor Wat was built.

He is trying to prove it here at Ban Non Wat.

Over the last four years, a team of archeologists, graduate students, Earthwatch volunteers, and Thai workers have been removing the soil, inch by inch, and peering into the prehistoric "time capsule" that lies below the surface to learn more about the earliest Thais.

Using shovels, hoes, trowels, metal soup ladles, and delicate dental picks, they have been unearthing the skeletal remains and valued possessions of the people who lived here over a period spanning the Iron, Bronze, and Neolithic ages, thousands of years ago.

Our dig is in a rectangular pit 60 feet long by 35 feet wide, and every morning, before any work begins, there is one important piece of business to attend to: Thai workers go down and remove any cobras or other snakes that have slithered inside overnight in search of mice.

Minutes later, activity in the "square" takes on the hustle and bustle of an open-air factory. In one corner, Thai workers hoe away the soil to extend the pit down another 4 inches, the maximum allowed at any given time. Thai women above the pit, wearing beautifully colored scarves around their faces to keep out the dust, lower buckets on pulleys for hauling out the loosened earth.

A grad student is on all fours in another corner, his face a few inches from the wrist bones of an emerging skeleton. Using a dental pick and paintbrush, he carefully scrapes and brushes the last few grains of dirt from four shiny shell bracelets that circle its arm.

Nearby, Higham is also on his hands and knees, peering down at the reddish, partially exposed rim of a burial pot that gleams in the dark soil.

"This is an early Iron Age design," Higham proclaims. "The skull of the body will be right about here." He draws a circle in the dust. "We'll almost certainly find more pots on either side."

Peter Petchey, another archeologist from New Zealand, arranges a string grid on top of an exhumed skeleton before he starts a meticulous scale drawing of the body on a large sheet of white graph paper for future reference.

Above the pit, another archeologist looks through a surveyor's level and shouts out numbers to a colleague below, measuring the depth of the site. A few feet away, an Earthwatch volunteer, sitting at a makeshift table, sorts and washes hundreds of pieces of broken pottery that have been found with the human remains.

To us, laymen who have never worked on a dig before, the deepening hole seems in many ways like a giant block of ice slowly melting from the top to reveal the treasures encased inside: ceramic burial pots of all shapes and sizes, shell jewelry, glass beads, bronze bells, marble anklets, clay smelting crucibles, ax heads, bronze ornaments, and, most spellbinding of all, the skeletons of men, women, and children who walked the earth before the birth of Christ.

Every day, the 65-member team scrapes, scratches, chips, and brushes its way ever deeper into the ground, as exclamations of surprise float up from the pit with each new find.

Life in the rural hamlet around the dig goes on much the way it did hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Every morning, we jump into the back of an open-sided truck for the 45-minute ride out to the site. We pass huge open stretches of rice fields burned black to prepare for plantings in the wet season. An occasional palm tree stands tall against the fields, and herds of Brahmin cattle watch us with soulful eyes and long droopy ears. Water buffalo plod across streams after their herdsmen. Tiny villages of wood houses are built on stilts to keep out snakes and moisture, as postholes in the soil of the dig indicate was ever so. Children frequently come to the side of the dirt roads and wave, smiling shyly as we pass.

Before long, the Earthwatch volunteers begin to understand why archeologists suffer more than the average number of back and neck aches, given their uncomfortable daily crouching. We hire an entire family to give us the traditional deep-tissue Thai massage on blankets we spread over the floors of our rooms.

A week after our arrival, we are assigned a section of the pit that has not yielded any skeletal remains recently, and expectations are low as we begin to scrape. But shortly after 9 a.m. the circular rim of a pot suddenly appears in the dry yellow dirt. Fifteen minutes later, another comes to the surface, then another, and another. By the mid-morning tea break, a large cluster of burial pots -- some with beautifully flared rims, others small and bulbous, all a mix of red and black -- have emerged from the ground, virtually intact.

"I think you've hit a super burial," Higham exclaims, referring to a mortuary site involving a person of high status, whose body is often decked out in bangles from wrist to shoulder, surrounded by scores of ceramic vessels and perhaps a bronze tool.

The casual banter that normally takes place in the pit stops. All eyes focus at our feet as the objects slowly, magically, take shape in the loosened soil. Now the large trowels are exchanged for spoon-sized scrapers and steel dental picks. Working on hands and knees, head to head, we scratch the dry earth with greater urgency but more care, and an hour later, as one of us brushes away a layer of dust around something hard, the unmistakable gleam of shiny mother-of-pearl appears on the surface. It is a bracelet on the right arm of a skeleton. We have located the body.

To the expert eye, pelvic bone structure can indicate the gender and possible age of skeletal remains, and Higham determines that this was a young man. Apparently, he had been a very important one. When laid to rest, he was wearing 14 shell bangles on one arm and four on the other, and he had a total of 12 pots to mark his grave -- eight at his head, four at his feet -- plus a tiny bronze bell. All this and the skeletal remains had lain underground for thousands of years while human history unfolded. Now, like travelers from ancient times, they are in the light of day again.

To archeologists, burial artifacts of this sort provide important scientific clues to earlier times. For us, the feelings were more personal than scientific, the questions more intimate, watching as the ancient soil fell from the bones of an individual who had lived and died long before the Roman Empire. What had this man looked like? Did he have a sense of humor? Was he good to his children? Did he have friends? Was he happy? Was he afraid of dying?

And what of the people who put him in his grave, who dug the hole and gently placed his body inside, then arranged the beautiful burial gourds at his head and feet? Who was there? His wife? His oldest son? Did they sprinkle water over the grave and then collapse in grief on the damp soil?

In many parts of the world, one can dig for days and not find a single pottery shard. For anyone interested in archeology, however, or even just casually intrigued by the prospect of finding ancient artifacts in the ground, Thailand is the place to be these days.

"There's probably more undiscovered history here than in any other country in the world," says Nigel Chang, the project's co-principal investigator and, like Higham, an archeologist at the University of Otago. "A tremendous amount of work remains to be done here. This region is practically untouched, archeologically speaking."

At our site, 261 complete skeletons had been exhumed in the month and a half before we arrived. When we left, there were so many grave goods lying around that one had to be careful not to trip over them.

Every day -- almost every hour -- something new is detected under the surface.

"Hello, what's this?" the digger says, head down, peering closer to inspect the earth under the brush or trowel. A few minutes of diligent brushing gives the practiced eye a sense of what's there and the word goes out by some mysterious telepathy to everyone in the pit. Soon, Higham ambles over and renders his verdict.

On our final day, the verdict is stunning.

"That, my friends, is almost certainly a Neolithic site," Higham says, looking down at the array of broken crockery one of us has uncovered and referring to the historical period stretching from 5,500 to 10,000 years ago. "See how thin the pieces are? And they're all broken up. That's very characteristic of Neolithic burials, when a dish was deliberately broken over the body at the burial. This is the period before recorded time, even before the Bronze Age. This is rare as hen's teeth."

Tim Leland and Julie Hatfield are freelance writers in Boston.

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