Digging the Past in Thailand
Dirt everywhere. Tedious tasks. Long hours in the sun and rain. For Cyler Conrad and Rachel Vander Houwen, these were ingredients for one of the best summer experiences of their lives.
Cyler Conrad and Chonchanok Samrit prepare to measure the depth
position of artifacts that Cyler has discovered. Sandbags around the edge
the trench help prevent the sidewall from collapsing—and prevent people
from falling in.
Photo by Ben Marwick.
Conrad and Vander Houwen, UW undergraduates majoring in anthropology, were among 14 students who spent a month this summer participating in an archaeological dig in Thailand as part of the UW’s Archaeology Field School. The dig, led by UW anthropology professor Ben Marwick with Thai professor Rasmi Shoocondej and Cholawit Thongcharoenchaikit, was located near Lang Rongrien, a famous archaeological site with some of the oldest traces of modern human activity in mainland Southeast Asia. Marwick believes the field school’s excavation site may have even older remains.
“The site, Khao Toh Chong, is an unusually large rockshelter that gives excellent shelter from the rain and is close to a stream,” says Marwick. “It’s a very convenient place for people from any time in prehistory to live.”
Khao Toh Chong was identified as an archaeological site after two Thai schoolteachers, local to the area, did some shallow amateur excavation with their students. Their finds attracted the attention of the Thai government, which partnered (through its Fine Arts Department) with the UW, Thailand’s Silpakorn University, and the National Science Museum of Thailand to pursue more formal excavation. The result was the UW Field School, with participants ranging from UW undergraduates to graduate students/junior career archaeologists from Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, and Cambodia.
Students and locals pose for a photo around the truck that transported them
to the site each day. On weekdays, the field school students shared the bus
with Thai grade school students. Photo by
“We all didn’t fully understand each other sometimes due to the language barrier, but the good nature of everyone involved helped,” says Vander Houwen of the international team's camaraderie. “We laughed our way through attempted explanations through body language and cropped sentences. We were always challenging each other, culturally and intellectually. It was really a great environment to work in.”
Team members shared a fascination with archaeology, but few participants had previous hands-on experience. Marwick and his colleagues brought them up to speed with three days of intensive classroom and hands-on training near the site before digging began. All steps of the excavation process were covered: digging, sieving (to separate sediment from bones and artifacts), cleaning, measuring, labeling, and photographing artifacts before entering them into a database.
Once team members began working on site, they were supervised closely—at first. “After they gained competence and earned the trust of the project directors, we let them work with less supervision and more independence,” says Marwick.
Students Cyler Conrad and Chonchanok Samrit work
the sieve, searching for small artifacts, bones, and
charcoal to place in labelled bags for further analysis.
Photo by Ben Marwick.
Such preparation was essential, since each stage of an excavation requires care and skill. Digging can be particularly challenging. Any change in the sediment’s color, texture, and consistency is significant. When such changes occur, measurements must be taken, details of the sediment and artifacts must be recorded, and all finds from that layer of sediment are placed into separate bags before digging resumes.
“There were so many techniques we needed to learn and practice by digging,” says Conrad. “Excavating is a constant process of troweling, seeing, touching, cleaning, and scooping sediment into buckets for further analysis. You must be constantly vigilant for any small changes in your square. Although we may not have been discovering artifacts with every pull of the trowel, learning those techniques made the process exciting.”
For Vander Houwen, sieving was the most rewarding stage of excavation—and the most tedious. “Sieving takes a lot of work and can very easily produce no reward,” she says, “but sometimes you can find what excavators wouldn’t be able to find—except for those with a particularly good eye.”
That thrill of discovery can be highly motivating. Though most finds are unglamorous—broken pieces of pottery, animal bone fragments—their careful analysis offers meaningful information about the people who used or discarded them. “For many archaeologists, and some of the more committed students, the delight of the discipline comes from this analytical activity,” says Marwick.
These two intact pottery vessels were exciting
since most of the pottery at the site was
fragments. Though the style of these two
for Neolithic burials in southern
no burials were found in this site.
Photo by Ben Marwick.
Conrad was particularly fascinated by the bones excavated during the dig. “Bones have a story behind them that can be extremely descriptive,” he explains. “For instance, a bone may be cut-marked, or burnt, showing human interaction. These types of things are what make bones exciting for me.”
In addition to bones, the team uncovered a range of other prehistoric campsite remains, including broken pottery vessels (and a few intact vessels), flaked and polished stone artifacts, and charcoal from cooking fires. They also found shells. Lots and lots of shells.
“We found shell middens in the form of dense layers of shells, typically dominated by a single species,” explains Marwick. “Interestingly, the dominant species changed over time, perhaps reflecting changes in the diet of the occupants, which may be related to changes in the local environment and the marine and freshwater habitats.”
Given all the artifacts uncovered this summer, Marwick anticipates that Khao Toh Chong may become a regionally or even internationally significant archaeological site. And who knows? Maybe this year’s field school students will excavate there in the future as seasoned archaeologists. On the other hand, they might never participate in a dig again—and that’s okay too.
Rachel Vander Houwen (left) and Than Son (upper right) assist
Fitriawati (in the trench) with recording sediment attributes.
Photo by Ben Marwick.
“The field school experience can be the make-or-break moment when students finally decide if archaeology is the thing for them,” says Marwick. “They don’t always know the result until after the field school is over and they’ve had a chance to digest the experience and reflect on it.”
Conrad has made his decision. He plans to apply to graduate archaeology programs this fall. Vander Houwen also hopes to continue in the field.
“I’m interested mostly because of the diversity of individuals you get to work with,” says Vander Houwen. “You can have linguists, geologists, anthropologists, and so many more working at just one site, attempting to understand different aspects of the past human condition. Of course, I’m also interested because of the discovery involved. There’s nothing quite like holding something that someone from so long ago made, touched, and used.”
The Archaeology Field School was supported in part by a Luce Foundation grant awarded to UW professor Peter Lape. It was the third and final installment in a series of Southeast Asian field schools, with Lape leading the prior two field schools in Indonesia (2009) and the Philippines (2010).
Return to Table of Contents, September 2011 issue