About the Author
Neil Brodie is Director of Cultural Heritage Resource, Stanford University Archaeology Center
Ban Chiang is an archaeological site located on the Khorat plateau of Udon Thani province in north-east Thailand. It was occupied from about 3600 BC down to 200 AD. It was first recognized as an archaeological site in 1960, with preliminary excavations conducted by the Thai Fine Arts Department in 1967 and 1972. Since then there have been a number of collaborative excavations and other investigations by the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Fine Arts department. The distinctive and collectable red-on-buff decorated "Ban Chiang" pottery is found in iron age burials, dating to the final centuries of the site’s occupation.
Occupants of the modern village of Ban Chiang (founded in the late eighteenth century) had long been aware of the archaeological site underneath their houses, but they did not start excavating material for sale until the early 1970s (E. Lyons & F. Rainey, 1982, “The road to Ban Chiang”, Expedition, 24(4), 5-12). The villagers would sink shafts down to the required depth and then tunnel out. Looting was at its height between 1970 and 1972. Material was being shipped out through the nearby US airbase at Udorn and it had also caught the attention of Bangkok collectors and dealers. Looting declined in the late 1970s, in part because of the presence of official excavation teams, in part because of an Executive Council decree passed in July 1972 making it illegal to buy, sell or export Ban Chiang pottery (though the site was already protected at the time by Thai antiquities legislation), and perhaps also because the most easily accessible graves had by then been exhausted. Digging transferred to other sites in the region with a similar cultural assemblage.
In 1982, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Chester Gorman, who had worked at Ban Chiang, drew attention to the production of fake pottery in neighboring villages (“The pillaging of Ban Chiang”, Early Man, 4(3), 28-34). Made from local materials these fakes were indistinguishable from original pieces. Some were composites of old and new material.
On September 28, 1990, Ban Chiang was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The associated documentation claims that looting has now stopped at the site.