Saturday, October 25, 2008

Digging up the Past in Northern Thailand

October 25th, 2008 by King Kong Janoi Print This Post/Page

Thai_archaeologist__web_.JPGThis week our profile of an inspiring Asia woman comes from the mountainous province of Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand bordering Burma.

For this is where we find Thailand’s first female highland archeologist at work.

Since 2001 Rasmi Shoocongdej has unearthed a wealth of new archaeological information from pre-historic burial sites including ancient teak coffins and skeletons which date back 12,000 years.

King Kong Janoi spent a day with her digging up the past.

Rasmi Shoocongdej has an interesting morning walk to work. She climbs up steep mountains to excavate ancient burial sites.

“It is really hard because nowadays there are no allot of women who work in the field, I see no one willing to work in the area that is rough in terms of get into the field work in the jungle. Most of them are interest historical period and pre-historical period which is easy to get access to. I like the challenge I don’t like to do something that is easy that is why I still keep going. I hope that with my example I can be something for new generation they could look for and then they say that “Hey I want to do something like that it is not difficult to do it”.

Between 2001 and 2006, her team has unearthed a rich wealth of new archaeological information from the burial sites.

“I think I proud of that I have a chance to do something for people who live in the marginal area. I bring their life, their history and their culture to the world.”

Indeed they should feel proud.

The rock shelter of Ban Rai dates back between 12,000 and 600 years.

Better known among locals as the Spirit Cave, it is believed to have been inhabited in ancient times by a prehistoric form of man.

The area was also used as a burial ground. A number of teak coffins and human remains dating to early 8000 BC have been unearthed.

Now tourists are led by local guides around the ancient burial ground.

Australian John Spies runs a guest house near the historic site.

“What the people used to do was, get a big teak log, split in half length way, dig out the interior for space to put the body or to put the possessions of the dead person and use one half as the lid then they would support this somehow on natural rock shelters in the cave.”

Rasmi says it’s incredible that the wood coffins have remained intact.

“Most of the teak there are some selection because they cut the teak dating between 100 years old and 80 years old, 300 years old so they have prepared the teak because they cut the tree and let it really die while it is standing. So when you crave it will not break. That is why it still is in really good quality because it’s dried out the people who created the log coffins must of had special knowledge about wood.”

Although there is evidence that in the late Ice Age of Europe, humans migrated from Asia to North America and within Asia, there is only limited information about the Ice Age in Southeast Asia.

So far, less than 10 archaeological sites dating back to that period have been uncovered in Southeast Asia.

The mountain ranges Mae Hong Son are known for their well-preserved archaeological traces from the Ice Age because ice there melted more slowly than on lower plains.

As an outsider Rasmi says she had to build up trust with the local community before beginning evacuation work.

“You have to use a different approach. You have to start from zero by learning and try to understand the different culture first. After that everything get easy but at the beginning it is not easy at all because you don’t know the languages, you don’t know the culture, you don’t know what they believe. What people think about archeology? because they think touch it you touch the spirits.”

She says she spend years trying to win the trust of the local community before she started work.

“I am afraid when someone will yell at me that I stole their cultural heritage. It happened one time because we did not explain to the people that who we are. And they just yells at us when we enter the village “You are a liar” I feel that oh my God! I encounter those kinds of fears.”

However with her support, a community museum has been set up in the village.

Every month, about 15 villagers voluntarily take turns to clean the track leading to the site and repair any damages.

50 year old, Punnee who lives near the rock shelter says at first they were suspicious about Rasmis work.

“This is our believe that you can’t touch those things or the spirit will haunt you. But now we understand what she is doing. Because of her many people know us. Because of her many people care about us. They respect our culture. She is our great leader for our community.”

Before, the local children were afraid of the coffins. They believed they were haunted.

Now, many of them have joined the community’s Little Guides Programme to help visitors understand the cave and the local culture better.

16 years old Pa Wi Na is one of them.

“Before I was really afraid of the spirit cave, I never went there alone. Now I am happy to be a guide for tourist because I can earn money.”

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