Challenging presupposed ideas about Bronze Age civilisations, excavations at Ban Chiang have revealed hundreds of human burial sites alongside a breathtaking trove of ceramics and other artifacts dating as far back as 5,600 years ago. The village’s fantastic museums shed light on this ancient community and its re-emergence at one of Southeast Asia’s most significant archaeological sites.
Locals have no-doubt found artifacts in the area for a long time, but its potential importance to archaeologists wasn’t recognized until a young American literally stumbled onto a piece of pottery in 1966. After tripping over a tree root while conducting anthropological research, Harvard student Stephen Young found himself staring at the top of a pot encased in the earth. He quickly realised that a 50-foot-long area “was littered with these round tops”.
Young brought some of his finds to the Thai Fine Arts Department, which sent them to the University of Pennsylvania for further study. In 1974-75, American archaeologist Chester Gorman joined Thailand’s Pisit Charoenwangsa to lead an excavation that uncovered 123 human skeletons, 11.4 million ceramic shards, over 200 fully in-tact pots and some 4,000 other artifacts, including evidence of agriculture and bronze work. Subsequent digs uncovered many more burials sites, and Ban Chiang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Of particular importance was the discovery of bronze forging technology dating from 3,000 to 2,000 BCE, which debunked a widely accepted theory that bronze reached Southeast Asia via the Middle East at a much later date. Speartips, fishhooks, molds and bracelets were some of the implements commonly crafted from bronze in the area.
More broadly, the advanced craftsmanship evidenced at Ban Chiang shattered the belief that Southeast Asian arts were almost entirely inherited from India, China and elsewhere. Formerly viewed as a cultural backwater by historians, the upper Isaan plateau suddenly became a potential wellspring of arts and technology that clearly thrived around the same time period as some of the oldest known civilisations.
While the ancients left many fascinating objects made of bronze, stone, beads and other materials, Ban Chiang is best known for exquisite pottery discovered in jaw-dropping amounts. Ceramics were used for everyday tasks but also seem to have been important posessions indicating status in society, evidenced by the large amounts of pottery found buried alongside some human remains.
Located at the centre of the village, the Ban Chiang National Museum does a marvelous job of recounting what’s known about the civilisation, including how it seems to have developed from around 3,600 BCE to 200 CE, and how it fits into the global context of ancient human life. Visitors can view 3,000-year-old skeletons while learning many interesting facts — like how the average life expectency was only around 30 years — from a very well-put-together series of English info boards and exhibits.
The highlight is an extensive collection of pottery and other artifacts unearthed in the area. Several large and well-lit halls display some of the finest examples of Ban Chiang ceramics, set up in a way that makes it easy to see how the signature spiral patterns and other methods developed over the centuries. The final room houses a huge exhibit of artifacts excavated at over 120 related archaeological sites found across Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Sakhon Nakhon provinces.
One section details how the excavations and further research were undertaken back in the ’60s and ’70s. Another discusses the private trade in ancient Ban Chiang ceramics — and how it brought considerable wealth to the village. There’s also an exhibit on the the Tai Phuan, an ethnic minority group that settled in the Ban Chiang area two centuries ago.
A 500-metre stroll east of the museum takes you to Wat Pho Si Nai, a small temple that has preserved one of the area’s largest excavation sites as an open-air museum. A highlight of the Ban Chiang experience, the large pit displays several human skeletons and piles of pottery, precisely as they were discovered decades ago. It provides a haunting glimpse of how the ancients were buried.
Ban Chiang has taken care to preserve its old wooden houses; we counted no more than a few concrete structures in the entire village. Many locals can be found painting ancient spiral designs on new pottery, which is sold at several shops. You’ll also find a handful of eateries and a market at the southwest end of town. Bicycles can be rented for 10 baht per hour at a booth just east of the museum, and we highly recommend a spin around this very charming village.
Most visitors come on a day trip from Udon Thani or Nong Khai, but staying overnight to soak up Ban Chiang’s bucolic atmosphere is not a bad idea. Just north of the small reservoir that stretches beyond the museum grounds, the long-running Lakeside Sunrise Guesthouse (T: 042 208 167) is run by museum staff member, Tong, who speaks English and rents out simple rooms in the 200 to 500 baht range. A stone’s throw southwest of the museum, Baan Pak Homestay (T: 042 208 033) has slightly more expensive rooms in a large Thai-style wood house.
If visiting during the dry months, consider hitting Ban Chiang as part of a day trip that also includes a 500-baht boat ride amid thousands of pink water lilies at Kumpawapi Reservoir, also known as the Red Lotus Sea. It’s another 30 or so kilometres south from Highway 22, clearly marked by signs on the way back to Udon.
Ban Chiang is located in Udon Thani province, 50 kilometres east of Udon city and 105 kilometres southeast of Nong Khai town. A taxi driver in Udon quoted us 2,000 baht for a round trip, which could probably have been haggled down to 1,500.
If coming from Udon city with your own wheels, head east on Highway 22 and eventually you’ll see many signs pointing left down a road marked by massive recreations of Ban Chiang pots; from there it’s a straight shot into the village, where more signs will lead you to the museums. If coming from Nong Khai, head south on Highway 2 and then cut east on 22 in Udon city.
Another option is to take any of the frequent buses running between Udon Thani and Sakhon Nakhon or Nakhon Phanom. You can hop out at an intersection in the village of Nong Mek and find a tuk tuk to take you the remaining seven kilometres, which will cost around 300 baht for a round trip. Alternately, get off at the market in Nong Han and hire a songthaew or tuk tuk for around 500 baht. Nong Han is a bit further away but will have drivers readily available, whereas in Nong Mek you may need to wander around before finding one. Nong Han also has plenty of eating options and is a better place to wait around for a bus.
The museums are open Tues-Sun 09:00-16:00, closed Mon. Admission is 150 baht for foreigners, which gets you into both the National Museum and Wat Pho Sri Nai.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 4th September, 2015.