Excavations at this mound, which viewed from the air appears to be ringed by a series of moats, were undertaken in an area of 10 by 9 metres. The natural substrate was reached at a depth of 4.85. The entire sequence in this area excavated belongs to the iron age, although it is evident from an earlier test square by Wichanaka that there is bronze age occupation elsewhere on the site. The sequence began with evidence for the presence of a small stream bed running across the excavated area, in the channel of which were many small, redeposited potsherds. There followed four major cultural layers which contained evidence for industrial, occupation and mortuary activity.
The industrial activity involved the construction of a series of clay-lined furnaces equipped with tuyeres. We are unsure of their precise function, but they were clearly used on several successive occasions, for we have found that the clay was relined and interspersed with layers of asbestos. It is possible that they were used in iron forging, but McDonnell doubts this in the absence of any evidence for hammer scale. The occupation remains included rows of deep postholes, hearths and pits both of which have provided large samples of carbonised rice. Many of the pottery vessels and potsherds showed evidence for a white residue on the interior which Heron has identified as a resin of probably dipterocarp origin.
Most interest, in terms of assessing aspects of social organisation at this site, derives from the burials. The sample of 56 inhumation graves include five phases, ranging in depth from 4.2 to 0.95 m below the present surface of the mound. All belong to the iron age. The radiocarbon results suggest an occupation from the Bronze Age through to the early centuries of the first millennium. The earliest phase is represented by two interments, which lie alongside each other with the heads pointing respectively north and south. Tayles, on the basis of field observations, as suggested that both were male.
Burial 27 (shown at left) was found associated with a set of two bronze torcs, a deep bronze bangle on each wrist, and two socketed spearheads of bronze beyond the feet. A large socketed iron implement, probably a spear, was placed beside the head, and a socketed iron hoe was found beside the left ankle. At least two of the four associated pottery vessels contained the complete skeletons of fish. Several shell discs were also found, two beside the head and four beyond the feet, while four tiger's tooth canines in the neck area were probably strung as a necklace. The adjacent interment had fewer grave goods, the pottery vessels again containing fish skeletons while and articulating pig's manus had been placed between the thighs.
These are the only two burials of the initial phase, and they had been cut through layer five deep into the natural substrate. The second mortuary phase incorporated a cluster of inhumation graves with the head pointing to the northeast. These were interred at a depth of 2.95-3.35 m below datum, and show a number of differences from those ascribed to phase 1. Apart from the tight clustering and different orientation, two were associated with complete very young pigs, and we find the first evidence for glass beads. One person had been buried prone, all others were supine. Burial 37 was found with an agate neck pendant, which was to recur in all later phases, while some of the individuals wore bronze finger rings. The highest burial in this group was a lidded jar containing the remains of an infant.
The third mortuary phase again incorporates a cluster (See figure below), the graves being found between 2.42 and 3.03 m below datum. The majority if not all the graves were therefore probably slightly later than those just described. There are assuredly a number of changes in mortuary ritual. Although on the same orientation, the dead were now buried in what we have termed rice beds. This involved filling the base of the grave with a layer of burnt rice before interring the body. A further layer of rice then covered the human remains to a present depth of about 10 cm, although subsequent compaction makes is difficult to estimate the depth of the rice at the time of burial.
This same practice was applied to adults and infants. The range of grave goods now included beads of carnelian, agate and glass of many colours, agate pendants and a wide range of bronze jewellery: finger and toe rings, bangles, earrings and in the case of burial 54, 21 bronze bells round the ankles. Several individuals, possibly women, were buried with spindle whorls, some graves contained pig bones, but unusually, no pottery vessels nor iron artefacts were found in association with this cluster. A second, contemporary cluster was found just to the west of this group, again in rice beds but on this occasion orientated on a north-south axis. These were only partially within the excavated area, and the graves did include pottery vessels and iron in the form of a knife blade.
The fourth mortuary phase included graves between 2.00-2.45 m below datum. These were, again, interred in rice beds. The richest, burial 14, was associated with one of the most remarkable assemblages of bronzes known to the excavators for this period in Northeast Thailand. The adult male was found in association with bronze earrings. A bimetallic bronze and iron ring was found in the neck area. On each arm, there were approximately 75 bronze bangles covering the body from the elbow to the shoulder while the finger bones were covered with rings. Three belts of circular bronze were found round the waist, and the toes bore large, bronze rings. In addition to these finds, the body was associated with pottery vessels, glass beads in the area of the neck, chest and ankles, and an iron knife. An infant buried nearby was also richly endowed with bronze and glass ornaments.
The final phase of burials were found between 0.95 and 1.35 metres below the surface of the mound. The orientation remained with the head to the north, but rice beds were no longer in evidence. Continuity was seen in the use of jar burials for infants, and the presence of agate pendants and beads in the neck area, and the bronze jewellery. Burial 1, for example, included bronze finger rings, bracelets, earrings and bimetallic bronze and iron rings. A feature of these later burials, however, is the marked increase in iron implements, which include knives, sickles and in one case, a socketed spearhead. Glass beads became extremely rare however and no carnelian was recovered.
The preliminary look at the faunal remains from Noen U-Loke also provided some surprises. Wild animals were extremely rare. There were very few bones from the water buffalo, some pig remains, but the overwhelming majority of remains come from quite small domestic cattle. Fish bones were not nearly as abundant as in the Bronze Age settlement of Ban Lum Khao. It seems that the occupants of the site during the iron age concentrated on rice cultivation and cattle breeding.
The radiocarbon dates from upper Non Muang Kao suggest that occupation of this site continued virtually into the period of the earliest Khmer inscriptions in the Mun Valley. A degree of continuity between the late prehistoric iron age and the period which saw the construction of early Hindu temples is also hinted at through recent excavations at Prasat Phanom Wan, about 35 km southwest of Noen U-Loke. The opening of the area immediately adjoining the central temple there revealed an iron age inhumation grave matching in terms of grave goods, phase 5 at Noen U-Loke. It lay on exactly the same orientation as the temple, and only 1 m from the foundation of the adjacent building. This is not the only example of iron age burials being found next to such monuments.
The excavation at Noen U-Loke itself has provided us with tantalising glimpses of the nature of iron age society and changes with time, but has also emphasises the need to open a larger area. Some lines of evidence include the presence, even in the earliest phase, of graves containing a rich array of grave goods, including bronze ornaments and spearheads, and iron tools and weaponry.
During the second phase, we find the first evidence for exotic glass and agate jewellery. By phase 3, the first carnelian was recovered, and graves included very large quantities of rice. Bronze ornaments were common, but there were few pottery vessels or iron artefacts. One point demanding further excavation, is to find out whether the clusters of phases 2 and 3 are discrete, or whether they continue beyond the presently excavated area to form long rows like those which characterise the bronze age mortuary tradition. The fourth phase includes burials of extraordinary wealth expressed in the form of novel bronzes, while during phase 5, we encounter a row of interments which include, for the first time, an increased number and range of iron tools and weapons.
These findings support the hypothesis that the iron age communities recognised status differentials in the mortuary ritual, though a bigger sample will be necessary to test further this possibility. This lead should be considered in conjunction with several other variables. We find rich graves associated with a new range of exotic jewellery fashioned from carnelian, agate and glass all of which could have been subject to controlled redistribution within the community. The range and quality of the bronzes, and the high degree of skill noted by McDonnell in the forging of iron are compatible with specialised production. Surface collections of hammer scale indicate on-site iron forging at Noen U-Loke and Non Muang Kao. Many of these sites, including Noen U-Loke, are located near salt working mounds. All those examined date back into the iron age, and it is suggested that specialised salt processing was underway during that period. There are many settlement sites in the Mun Valley, and they are found close to each other in our survey area. The sites covered a much larger area than previous settlements, hinting at a population increase. This finding, linked with the presence of iron weapons in the earliest and the latest mortuary phases, is compatible with a situation of inter-community friction.
Each of these variables remains fugitive, but taken in conjunction, it is considered possible to suggest, as a vehicle for further research and testing, that the iron age communities of the Mun Valley, and by inference the similar sites found on the plain of northwest Cambodia, witnessed a series of changes which reflect increasing social complexity latent in a transition to the state. These include larger population numbers, a concentration of settlements in favoured low-lying riverine swamplands suited to rice cultivation, the beginning of specialised salt production and exchange, the production and concentration of symbols of wealth and status in the hands of individuals, the establishment of iron smelting and forging within settlements which involved a high level of skill, the production of iron and bronze weaponry, and the availability of a new suite of exotic goods which could have been used as emblems of status. But all these proposed changes demand further excavation and consideration before we can advance further in documenting the transition to states in inland Southeast Asia.
Professor C.F.W. Higham
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