Matt Smith

Amateur archaeology in isaarn

Playing 'Indiana Jones' in deepest Isaan

One of the most interesting things about living in Isaarn for me is the way one is so literally surrounded by history. I’ve always been a bit of an Indiana Jones at heart; around where I grew up on the Tweed River (not literally, of course, actually next to) in Australia there are more than forty different Aboriginal sites of cultural heritage importance, including burial grounds, midden mounds, stone tool quarries and bora rings, and it always fascinated me as a kid to imagine what stories these places told of the original Australians’ way of life. In Isaarn, of course, although I in no way mean this to denigrate the magnificence of North Coast NSW Aboriginal civilisation (one of the, because there has so much need for the post-European settlement Australian people to sweep the truth under the carpet, most misunderstood, misinterpreted and underrated civilisations that has existed on the face of the planet), along with similar such perhaps more inconspicuous evidence of human occupation (neglect and deliberate destruction on the behalf of post-European settlement peoples has played a huge role in making a palimpsest of the Aboriginal cultural landscape), one is confronted by the far more in your face constructions built by the Hindu-cum-Buddhist societies that, like moths in the summer, rode high upon the back of agriculture. I had the opportunity in particular to, as well as being an avid frequenter of your more renowned rock art sites and ruins in Isaarn, have a couple of very poignant ‘hands-on’ archaeological experiences last time I was there; it’s those that I would like to talk about this month.

The first of these was when I drove the ute, in the dry season, down the huge expanse of ‘lawn’ (very beautiful) that surrounds Sirinton Reservoir in the dry season to go fishing; I was heading down one of those sandy tracks I have mentioned in a previous article when, just as I arrived at where I was going to park the car, I felt a strange bump. When I got out of the car I decided to, on whim, because it suddenly occurred to me that a bump was a rather strange thing on such a soft trail, check out what it was that I had broken, and took a look under the car; I saw, to my relief, that, as opposed to having crushed one of my fishing reels, the likes of which have not altogether been unknown to fall out of the back of the ute on occasion (paddock bashing is a very popular sport for Australians, myself being no exception, and the tracks around Isaarn always bring out the devil in me), I had simply driven over a rock. What occurred to me then, however, was that said rock was a very incongruous part of the surrounding landscape; the nearest outcropping was absolutely miles away, there wasn’t another pebble in sight, and the only way this particular chunk of basalt could have got there was via human transportation. Because, like I say, I am a bit of an Indiana Jones at heart, I grabbed it to have a look; to my delight I immediately recognised that what I’d driven over was in fact a Holocene axe. Or, rather, the slug of an axe; it had obviously been discarded because it was worn out - it was so well-used that the wood that had been wrapped around the top of it to make a handle had actually worn somewhat of a groove into the stone, and it looked from its extra blunt edge like someone had, as the blade became too short to conveniently sharpen to a point where it could effectively cut trees, used it for far more ignominious chores like perhaps pounding nuts or shellfish.

The beauty of this experience was, for me, that like one writer whose article I read in National Geographic one time who, when in recreating an ancient stone tool he had found, felt a kinship with his distant tutor when he discovered that both of them succumbed to the same problems of manufacture and accidentally drilled the socket hole in the tool off-centre, suddenly the years between myself and the ancient artisan who had made and perhaps used this tool vanished; on that sunny afternoon, with nought but the sound of the wind in my ears and not a human being or dwelling in site, I found myself suddenly transported to that prehistoric era when what I held in my hand would have represented the epitome of Swiss Army sophistication, and felt the presence of the ancient creator of this artefact standing right beside me, or literally breathing down my neck.

Not long after, moreover, I was witness to another fascinating discovery; this time, one of my students and landlady (same person, her name’s Kik – how her mum has, given the connotations of the word in recent times, tried to change that!) took me to a place where, out the back of Ubon, earthworks had been taking place in readiness for the construction of some sort of apartments or office building. Not far away, in some temple there, there was a very famous excavation conducted in the 1960s that revealed the kiln where funereal urns, for the containment of bronze-cum-iron age grave goods, was discovered, along with a number of the urns themselves; at this new site, perhaps about 800 metres distant, when the formerly impenetrable thorny bushes that had long convered the site were scraped away by the bulldozer, something rather more remarkable was revealed. The first thing you noticed upon arriving there was that the ground was paved with literally million of tiny little pieces of very intricately patterned pottery shards; down one end of the slight mound that these shards mosaiced, where the moist ground had made digging easy, the villagers were engaged in ‘robbing’ (bit subjective, as they may well have been the peoples descendants, as if not, the descendants were hardly around to care, and because the site was going to be destroyed by construction soon anyway) some rather fantastic graves. I saw them removing exquisite tiny glass bead and amber necklaces, beautiful cast bronze bangles, belts, torcs and ankle bracelets, as well as all sorts of other goods; these included numerous very large and intact, and very beautiful, urns, some huge bronze rings, like links in a chain, that were beautifuly engraved but which were for purposes that could only be guessed at (one villager suggested perhaps elephant harness), and a variety of assorted weaponry. The latter, for the more militaristically minded, and quite obviously these people’s ‘civilisation’ had achieved the point where they were at each other’s throats (Ban Chiang artefacts were predominantly manufactured for more peaceful purposes), included swords, daggers, spear and arrow heads and some sort of mace; all of these were wonderfully made, like modern machined tools, and were absolutely beautifully preserved.

For anyone that has ever thought it would be a thrill to stumble across a hidden treasure, and moreover the most valued possessions of an ancient civilisation, this was definitely the moment; the only shame was that all the goods were being removed willy nilly, with absolutely no regard for what such a site might tell us about our ancestors if properly excavated, by profiteers, and that even when I informed a few different branches of the local authorities I don’t think anything was done about it. How often has this occurred, one wonders, in the process of uncovering our history? Anyway, for me it was an absolutely fascinating experience; it’s something that, along with one time when I was at Hua Hin I saw an aeroplane explode and plunge into the water, there is such a rarity of it happening in an ordinary person’s life that I will remember it forever.

The moral of the tale being this month, I reckon, that, as well as dramatically increaing your chances of finding a lost twenty baht to fuel Pornchai’s motorcycle* (not to mention dramatically reducing your chance of falling through one of those many holes in the footpath that abound in Isaarn, and that lead to depths unknown), it pays to keep your eyes on the ground at times as you make your way around; you never know exactly when you’re going to stumble across something genuinely interesting.

Did you ever actually ever see anything like this? I’d be interested to hear about it if you dig this sort of stuff (no pun intended)


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