Toiling in the Bronze Age

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Green Leaf Guesthouse

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

We're actually writing this entry in Siem Reap, Cambodia where the world-famous Angkor temples are located. But Angkor deserves an entry all its own, so you'll read about it in a few days when we hopefully update our travelogue again. This entry we'd like to take you back to our adventures last week. Actually, let's go back over 3000 years to the Bronze and Neolithic Age where the archaeologic project took us.

On January 16, we flew from Krabi to Bangkok and then barely caught a northeast-bound train for Nakhon Ratchasima. (By barely, I mean the train was moving when we hopped aboard!)The five-hour train ride took us through farms, by distant mountains and into small villages to a region called Issan. We were also entertained by the traffic inside the train of vendors selling everything from cold drinks to leather belts. One young man selling chicken skewers wore a blue T-shirt that exclaimed, "My Belly Button has an Attitude!"

The next day we took the local bus to a smaller town called Phimai. The town does have some attractions, including a fine museum and Prasat(temple), but it gratefully lacked the touristy feel. The local market sold not souvenirs but food and other necessities. Phimai would be our homebase for the next week of volunteering on an Earthwatch archaeological project. That evening we met the seven other Earthwatch volunteers and dozen other project staff and archaeology students working on the dig. The principal investigator and project leader was Charles Higham, a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand and an expert on Southeast Asian history. Dr. Higham is also quite a lively character (think a shorter Sean Connery from the last Indiana Jones movie) with a tale to tell for any situation.

The dig site at Bon Non Wat, which means Village Temple Mound, was a 45-minute drive by songthaew (the Thai word for a passenger truck). Our office for the next week was a 4-meter by 20-meter dirt hole dug almost 4 meters deep in Mr. Nuuy's backyard. Mr. Nuuy was planning on building a house for his son here but thankfully changed his mind and allowed Dr. Higham and his crew the opportunity to search for a prehistoric burial site they believed was there based on aerial photographs.

We learned quite a bit about archaeology during the week. Digging and excavating is very methodical and painstakingly thorough so as not to overlook any pot shard or charcoal remains that could pinpoint when and how humans lived in this area. We used hand trowels to dig 10-centimeter layers at a time. Each layer was carefully surveyed and interesting discoveries were excavated, photographed, and catalogued. The dirt was hauled up in pails and sifted by hand. By the time we left, hundreds of clay pots and more than 150 burials had been unearthed at the site, about five during the week we were there. Some of the skeletons wore jewelry such as shell necklaces or bangles, which indicate the possibility of social hierarchy at this time.

One of the nice luxuries of the week was not having to worry about finding or ordering food. We ate hearty Thai meals of curry with bamboo shoots, wild boar soup, fried chicken wings, stir-fried vegetables, green papaya salad, and lots of rice.

Jill did get the heeby-jeebies working so close to human remains, but the 3,000-year-old skeletons stayed in their place, and Jill stayed in hers. Her fears of accidentally ramming a hand trowel through an eye socket thankfully never happened. She did get to put her many years of puzzle experience to use by gluing together a pot from a pile of shards. Perhaps the least enjoyable job of the week was wiping down a clay oven Dr. Higham hypothesizes was used to fire bronze. She told Andy that she thought their oven in DC was the last one she'd have to clean for a year!

All in all, we enjoyed the week and the reprieve from the backpacker trail. We did hit it again after the expedition ended stopping at Khao Yai National Forest and Ayutthaya on their way back to Bangkok.

Our recommendations: An Earthwatch Expedition gives you a chance to try something completely different and helps to support earth-friendly research projects. If you have the time, visit Khao Yai National Forest and stay at Green Leaf Guest House outside of Pak Chong. The accommodations are very basic (don't expect to flush any toilets), but the tour guides are knowledgeable and friendly. If you visit Ayutthaya, stay at Bat Kun Phra. The rooms are furnished with Thai antiques and the common areas overlook the river.
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