Skeletons Beneath A Village*

Michael Pietrusewsky

Throughout my scholarly career, I have been intrigued with the demography and genetic relationships of ancient peoples of the Western Pacific. In 1969, not long after receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, I arrived at the University of Hawaii to teach physical anthropology. While my doctoral thesis was on human skeletal remains from Tonga in Polynesia, I was soon enticed by Bill Solheim, now Emeritus Professor, to pursue research in Thailand. The lure of this exotic destination proved irresistible, and less than a year later, then graduate student Jean Kennedy and I were on our way to Bangkok. We examined skeletons from the 1966 excavations at Non Nok Tha, another important site in northeast Thailand, which were housed in the late Sood Sangvichien's laboratory in the Siriraj Hospital.

Around this time, Chet Gorman was finishing his Ph.D. at Hawaii and soon would be joining U. of Penn and organizing the field program at Ban Chiang. Chet envisioned a multidisciplinary, multi-national project that would introduce international standards for archaeological research to Thailand. With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, Chet arranged for me and several other specialists (e.g., Douglas Yen, palaeoenthnobotanist), to join him and FAD (Fine Arts Dept.) codirector Pisit Charoenwongsa for the first season (1974) of excavations at Ban Chiang. Living in a small rural village in northeast Thailand gave research a new dimension for me. The work of excavating was especially demanding given the complexity of the site and was compounded by the unrelenting heat. The excitement of finding yet another burial, no matter how fragmentary, far outweighed any petty hardships.

Swirling around the serious business of research were the social activities of a Thai village. Highlights included a local style wedding and the annual bong fai (fertility) festival of drunken rocketeers, men shooting huge rockets into the sky from rice fields.

The "Splatt Theory": An artist's conception depicting ancient burials which are interred deep beneath a vibrant village. Illustration by Ardeth Anderson

On the scholarly side, there was plenty of opportunity to discuss (often with Chet holding court) the day's work over an evening meal amongst the team members and with other visitors who found their way to "Ban Chiang University" that summer.

The political climate of Southeast Asia in the early 1970's lent an extra dimension of nervous awareness. A window of opportunity allowed me to venture across the Mekong River to Vientiane in Laos, albeit on the wrong ferry which landed downstream from the customs office during a heavy downpour. By hailing a taxi and then pretending to enter at the correct location, I was able to elude the feared gendarmes. The ensuing trip to quaint Luang Prabang, a former capital of Laos with many temples, nestled among the mountains, was well worth the perils that preceded it.

Many Thai students, some with royal titles, participated in the first season of fieldwork at Ban Chiang which produced 46 skeletons. The students were all introduced to the basics of human osteology such that when the skeletons arrived in Hawaii, each parcel containing some skeletal element had been correctly identified and marked, greatly facilitating the work in the lab.

Many students at the University of Hawaii assisted in the initial analysis of the human skeletal remains from both seasons of work, which was completed by 1980, just prior to Chet's death. Several articles on the human osteology of the site have since been published.

A decade later Michele (Kell) Toomay Douglas undertook a reanalysis of the skeletons from both Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha for her doctoral dissertation. In the next article, Kell describes some of her fascinating findings concerning trauma in the Ban Chiang skeletons. Kell and I are now in the final stages of preparing the monograph that will be the basic reference for the skeletal remains excavated from Ban Chiang. The final monograph on the human skeletal remains from Ban Chiang will soon be completed and made available to all those interested in what studies of skeletal remains can tell us about the people who were buried there so many millennia ago.


* Published in Newsletter for the Friends of Ban Chiang Issue 6 Fall/Winter 1997-98: 2-3.

Michael Pietrusewsky is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii and was Visiting Research Professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, Japan, when this article was written.

Bones Tell of Life in Ancient Ban Chiang*

Michele Toomay Douglas

I began "hanging around" the Physical Anthropology Laboratory at the University of Hawaii in 1983, working toward a Master's degree, and generally volunteering for anything and everything, sometimes getting paid for having fun. Every day I passed a number of large, green cabinets with locked doors, which housed the Ban Chiang collection. These remains were "real" and "old" and not to be handled by any amateurs or neophyte students.

After 10 years of examining human skeletons from all around the Pacific, the Ban Chiang remains needed to be reexamined, and I was ready to accumulate data for a doctorate. Methods in our field had changed dramatically in the twenty years since the first osteological analysis was done in the 1970s. Because this important skeletal collection had been carefully curated, repeated investigation was possible - an important lesson in research.

BCES Burial 26. A child who had some kind of leg deformity (circled), was well treated at death. Many bronze and iron bracelets as well as a scatter of sherds were buried with the individual.

In ancient Ban Chiang, the deceased person was typically buried lying down with legs extended and arms along the sides. Often personal adornments were included, such as bracelets, as well as pottery vessels which may have contained food items. Infants were placed inside large ceramic vessels which were then buried in the ground. Because the site was used as a cemetery and a village for such a long time, there were many disturbances. A hole dug for a fire pit may disturb a burial, removing portions of the skeleton which are then missing when we examine the remains in the laboratory.

All of the bones from each burial identified by the excavators in the field were cleaned in water using small picks and tooth brushes. After the bones were air dried, any breakage was repaired using glue, tape, and sometimes a sandbox to brace the joins. Once the glue had dried, all the bones of the skeleton were arranged on a table, as if the individual were lying there on the table

top. This makes it very easy to see how much of the skeleton is present and what is missing. The bones were then measured, photographed, x-rayed, and examined for indications of age, sex, disease, and distinctive characteristics such as genetic markers or unusual tooth wear. Finally, the small bones were packaged in plastic bags to prevent loss, and all of the remains were replaced on a tray within the cabinet so they could easily be found and retrieved if necessary. This process was repeated 140+ times in the course of examination of the Ban Chiang collection!

We know that the collection represents a village population because there are individuals of all ages present in the sample, from the tiniest bones of a fetus to those of individuals more than 50 years old. Males (n=63) and females (n=60) are nearly equally represented. An individual born at Ban Chiang would be expected to survive up to 29 years, much less than our current life expectancy of 70 plus!

Most of the time we cannot tell the exact cause of death from the skeleton. Most of the things that kill us, even today - for example, heart disease, cancer (except bone cancer), or hanta virus - do not have the time or inclination to affect the bones. One thing that does leave a signature on bone is a fracture or other trauma.

BCES Burial 30. Although only fragmentary remains were recovered, this female, aged 20-25 had a fractured femur (see arrow) that had completely healed before her death.

In young children, a fractured bone can completely remodel until it appears essentially as it did before the trauma; however, in adolescents and adults, fractures may heal but a scar in the form of extra bony growth or an alignment defect will still be visible after death.

Examination of the bones that are fractured, the location of the fracture, the type of fracture, and the healing can help determine how the fracture may have occurred and whether or not there was any treatment for the injury (such as straightening). Accidental injury is typically random: a trip and fall or a hand caught beneath a rock; while injuries sustained in fighting or warfare usually exhibit patterns: for example, only males are affected, or lots of forearms are broken (called a "parry" or defense fracture), or perhaps all the fractures of the skull are oval-shaped like a sling stone.

In the Ban Chiang collection, the presence of healed fractures of the skeleton suggests an active lifestyle but does not suggest the presence of interpersonal violence (fighting) or warfare. Two of the fractures identified are of the process of the lower neck vertebra (the "lump" at the base of the back of your neck) which is called a shoveler's fracture because it was first identified in men shoveling clay. Four people had healed fractures of multiple ribs which are typically sustained in a fall. Two children were identified who might have had fractures of their clavicles during birth. Fracture of the clavicle occurs in 2% of modern births. Two men had fractures of the long slender bones of the outside of the hand, and one male and one female recovered fractures of the large bone of the thigh.

Basic fracture treatment is splinting of the fracture so that it does not move and thus is less painful. More advanced treatment necessitates some knowledge of anatomy to assess the fracture for crookedness and then straighten the bone before immobilizing it. While all of the fractures at Ban Chiang had healed, implying that they were at least stabilized, many were crooked and thus suggest that advanced treatment knowledge was not available.

As interpretation of the osteological data proceeds, we will continue to add flesh to the bones of the ancient inhabitants of Ban Chiang.

* Published in Newsletter for the Friends of Ban Chiang Issue 6 Fall/Winter 1997-87:3-5.
Michele Toomay Douglas, Ph.D., Fort Worth, TX