Ban Chieng

Ban Chieng is the world's oldest known bronze-making civilization, and is a lost civilization.

Located near Udon Thani, going out Road 22 towards Sakon Nakhon and Nakhon Phanom, along the dusty plateau, there's a small Thai-Lao farming community called Ban Chieng, which is standing atop what has become one of the biggest archaeological finds in Southeast Asia.

For a long time, the residents of Ban Chieng had encountered human bones, pottery and occasionally some jewelry as they dug in their fields and around their homes, but the finds were routine and not thought much about. In 1966, a young American, Stephen Young, brought some of the artifacts to the Fine Arts Department, which in turn went out and performed some excavation. Dating the items scientifically (thermoluminescence) put their age at a stunning 4700 to 3500 years old, including intricate bronze jewelry that predates any other bronze in the world, including from China, the Middle East and the west.

Initially, archaeologists were cautious in these claims, but subsequent study, mainly by a team from the U.S. University of Pennsylvania, has convinced many of the skeptics that this is the oldest known bronze-making civilization.

I've never been to Ban Chieng, so I don't know what's on display there, if anything at all, but there are pictures in some books, including of an excavation of a city dwelling.

You should be advised that unauthorized digging in Ban Chieng is illegal, as is the purchase of artifacts from enterprising villagers in the area.

Another big question is what happened to this civilization -- why did it suddenly disappear? One of my friends who has seen the bones says that they were a tall race, and possibly not Thai.

A clue might be the fact that the bronze appears only as jewelry, not as weapons. It is well known that bronze weapons ushered in the Bronze Age of warfare, whereby those equipped with stronger bronze weapons overpowered armies with inferior weapons. Maybe the bronze jewelry making technology got into the hands of a group which put it to use as weaponry.

It's also generally accepted that much of northeastern Asia was populated my migrations coming from southeast Asia, due to the spread of rice farming communities which replaced the hunting and gathering communities. For example, Japan's native population from 10,000 years ago was known for its refuse heaps and pottery which revealed that it lived off of fishing. Suddenly rice farming appears in this northern island country and slowly spreads, while the old ways suddenly move north to the other island, and there appears no mixing of the cultures. Indeed, modern DNA analysis of the Japanese people confirms that there was very little mingling of the invaders and the natives, and that the people of Japan are a genetic mix of people from southeast Asia and Siberia. Later, the spread of Buddhism and writing followed the same trail.

What about the Middle East and Mesopotamia? A quick search of the Internet using turned up the following from an American university (

    Bronze was introduced into Mesopotamia between 3200 and 3500 years ago by an invasion. The invaders were called the Sumarians. "The origin of the Sumerians is unknown. Their language is unrelated to any other language thus far discovered [unlike most other Middle Eastern tribes of the era, whose languages are related]. The Sumerians drove out the earlier residents (or, as is more likely, they kept the peasants in their previous status, and made collaborators of some of the "city folk."). The peoples driven from the Valley by the Sumerians may have been the Subartu. Whoever they were, they may have been the first of the Valley's residents to become literate."

    "Pottery-making had existed in the Near East perhaps since the 7th millennium (7000 to 6000 BCE). By the time the Sumerians entered Mesopotamia, around 32-3500 BCE, most of the Technology of Ancient Mesopotamian civilization was already there. Copper was already in use, as was gold and silver. Bronze, already available in southern Canaan and Thailand, was a later addition. [Canaan is where Palestine is currently located, and was not literate at the time.] Most scholars think the Sumerians added the wheel, the brickmold, the pick-axe, and the sailing ship; and that they invented, or at least developed, writing to the point where it came to play an essential role in their public and private lives."

The history of the world at that time is very poorly recorded, and usually not recorded, just a best analysis by archaeologists using what little has survived the times.

A remarkable, more recent discovery -- in the early 1990s, if I recall correctly -- is a vast network of ancient canals that was abandoned around 5000 years ago, in what is now the central city of Saraburi, up the low lying sedimentary plain around 150 km north of the current coastline, and a few hundred kilometers south of Ban Chieng. The coastline has been receding due to the uplift of the plate (in part due to the Himalayas). This was discovered by advanced aerial remote sensing techniques. The canal network is more vast than that of Venice. Pottery and things can be found under the long-filled-in former canals, including a suspected moat. (Southern Saraburi is now approximately 2 meters above sea level but is where hills and mountains start, so the elevation jumps starting there. How much of the 2 meters is overlying sediment and how much is geological plate rise I don't know.)

Since Ban Chieng comes after the canals of Saraburi, perhaps the people and technologies came via Saraburi.

Since sailing ship technology is believed to have been brought to Mesopotamia by the Sumerians, there may have been some trade and/or technology transfer between the Sumarians and peoples descended from those previously associated with Saraburi and Ban Chieng, perhaps including the bronze making technology that could have given the Sumarians and others the weaponry to conquer and usher in the Bronze Age.

Of course, the Sumerians brought in not only ships but also the wheel. Who invented the wheel?

There is a gap in my knowledge of Thailand's history between the end of Ban Chieng around 3500 years ago and the Nakhon Pathom and Nakhon Phanom chedies possibly between 2500 and 2000 years ago.

You might also want to read about the Nakhon Phanom Chedi in far northeastern Thailand, landlocked but perhaps the oldest Buddhist chedi in Thailand. This chedi is not far from Ban Chieng.

Also, there is the Nakhon Pathom Chedi in central Thailand just west of Bangkok and where the seaside used to go 2500 years ago, which might actually be the oldest.

The exact age of either of the two chedis is not universally agreed. The Phanom chedi claims 2500 years, though the Pathom chedi area has more publicly available old artifacts and legend and claims to be approximately 2100-2200 years old.

Digging around towns still turns up many surprises, and since archaeology is new to Thailand, the big challenge these days is getting people to report finds and consider that they may be older than they appear. For example, on the main freeway thru Nakhon Pathom, right next to the Big C superstore is a new dig. Anyone can walk in there. They are digging down, and it's apparent that the old ruin was built on top of an even older ruin. The older bricks are of a different color and nearly turn to dust when touched.

From a world heritage philanthropic website, at :

    "Water, the most valuable resource for sustaining our lives and agriculture, causes at the same time, the problem of underground water and humidity, which is a major factor in the deterioration of heritage places, especially in Thailand with its hot and humid climate. Heritage places which were built with pregnable materials and techniques are most critically affected, for instance, monuments of the Dvaravati period that used brick as the main material, clay as the mortar, and lime as the plastering material. When the plaster fell off, it exposed a means for water penetration that melts the clay mortar and weakens the structure, that can eventually lead to collapse. Several monuments at the Khok Mai Dane site appear today as foundations only, were covered by a layer of debris that was once the brick and clay mortar of these monuments. When these sites were first excavated and exposed from this overburden of soil, they were in good condition but after some period of exposure, the sudden swings in humidity and attacks by rainwater caused a rapid deterioration of materials, so that the site is at risk of being totally lost."

What can and should we do?

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