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September 18, 2023

Monday, September 18, 2023 - ,, No comments

Looters imperil unknown people's past, 37 years ago and still today.

"Looters imperil unknown people's past."  That was the title of an article written by Barbara Crossette, the Bangkok bureau chief of The New York Times on September 9th 1986.  Her report described the destruction to archeological sites caused by grave diggers operating in the densely forested mountains of western Thailand.  There, subsistence looters had been systematically plundering a wide variety of antiquities, hauling away various grave goods, including high-quality ceramics, some found at  hilltop ring-ditch burial sites that belonged to a then-unknown group of people that defied cataloguing.

Crossette told the New York Time's readership that the area's inhabitants, probably ethnic minorities, like the Karen and other minority groups, shared their remote terrain with smugglers, poachers and opium growers.  She also wrote that looters working the region sold the antiquities they found to foreign dealers who spirited them out of the country, selling the pieces onward to private collectors, including those in Japan. 

See Reference at the
end of this article
Like so many other plundered cultural sites in at-risk and remote locations, circular earthworks in and around Tak Maesot were scarred by extensively pitting. Sketched out on maps, some of the impacted burial sites had the appearance of buttons sewed onto the hillside.

But the damage done by plunderers didn't just strip away treasures.  In addition to the grave goods they stole, looters took with them many of the geological and cultural clues that could have lead us to better understand who left these graves here in the first place.  

What remained in their wake, was only a series of useless pits, scattered with broken and discarded ceramic fragments and the outline of the the graves themselves.  Archaeologists who later explored the sites have since documented that the inhabitants of the past had a vibrant trade in ceramics,  identifying pieces coming from Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese and Chinese production centres.

Unfortunately, so little remained after the thefts, that researchers still remained puzzled as to who the peoples were, who cremated their dead, placing their ashes in urns and interring them in the mountains, accompanied with valuable objects.   All that was known was that this population were likely not Burmese or Chinese, nor Khmer or Thai.  Perhaps even a transitional culture which eventually died out or merged with others from the area.

At the heart of the plunder in this area of Thailand were some 100 burial sites dating from the 12th or 13th century, up through the 16th century CE, scattered along a 60-mile swath of western Thailand between Umphang, on the Myanmar, (then-Burma) border south of Mae Sot, and north to Chiang Mai which contained the inexplicable mixture of Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Vietnamese ceramics, as well as other pottery never documented previously. 

Barbara Crossette, speaking with John Shaw MBE, an expert on Southeast Asian ceramics who lived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, quoted British-born collector and Honorary Consul to Chiang Ma, John Shaw, who described the area of the new finds as ''beyond the writ of the law' who stated ''It would take the whole Thai Army to protect those hills.'' 

Illegal digging at Som Poi Burial Site, 1984.

Shaw's family website, which highlights artefacts from the region in his collection as well as photographs of local looters, mentions that by September 1984 thousands of ceramic wares believed to have been plundered from this area of Thailand, which then appeared in the antique shops of Bangkok, Sukothai and Chiang Mai.   Shaw recorded Chinese, Lan Na, Sawankalok, Mon and even Vietnamese ceramic objects as the type of material which flowed out of the region.  In an interview with Ray Hern, Shaw mentioned that many pristine examples of superb quality, went directly from the diggers into private hands, only to then be dispersed, largely undocumented, onward. 

This despite Thai antiquities legislation passed in 1961 and a government decree passed in July 1972 making it illegal to buy, sell or export bronze age Ban Chiang pottery.

In February 1985 Shaw states that another batch of freshly looted ceramics surged into the antique market, this time coming from the Mae Tun - Om Goi area further north, showing that as long as there was a demand, there would be regional people to supply the market. 

But why bring a pattern of looting and subsequent fossicking in Thailand that happened 37 years ago?

Earlier this September, Thailand's Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) reported on a collaborative investigation with the country's Department of Fine Arts, which apprehended three individuals involved in present-day illegal excavation and trade of antiquities. The suspects were identified after having advertised their plunder on Facebook.  In a multi-province operation, authorities eventually seized 11 metal detectors, excavation equipment, and nearly 970 items believed to be ancient artefacts during searches conducted this month at nine seperate sites, including, again, one of which was in Chiang Mai.  

Like almost 4 decades ago, authorities have seen a spate of robbery at archeological sites across Northern Thailand, from Sukhothai to Lampang, and from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, this time also sold digitally. 

And while these recovered examples of ancient jewellery, coins, and tiny ornaments suitable for someone's mantelpiece may seem relatively harmless when compared to some of the higher profile Thai sculptures being returned from various museums, the cumulative process to seek, loot, and put these materials on the market for consumers is significantly more destructive towards our knowledge of the past than what individuals, and collectors, often perceive.

The times, they are (not) a-changin. 

By Lynda Albertson



Grave, Peter, The ring-ditch burials of Northwestern Thailand and the archaeology of resistance - Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association, 3: 61-166, 1997.

Hearn, Ray,  Thai Ceramics, Lao Na and Sawankalok: An Interview with John Shaw, 2000/03.

The Shaw Collection. ‘Tak Hilltop Burial Sites Introduction’. Accessed 18 September 2023.