实地勘察｜Thai Hilltop Burial Porcelain: An Archaeological Mystery -Part 1
We’ve recently listed two very nice pieces of Ming blue and white porcelain that were made in Jingdezhen in China in the late 16th century.
One of the surprising factors that they have in
common is that they were both dug up in the Thanon Tongchai mountain range in Northwestern
Thailand near the Burmese border. What was Chinese porcelain in almost perfect condition
doing there of all places? That’s a question that nobody has an answer to.
This saucer dish was discovered in one of
thousands of hilltop burial sites that have been
found in those mountain ranges in the past forty years. Back at the end of the 1970s when a new
road was being built south from the border town of Mae Sot to Umphang through some of the
most inaccessible forest-covered slopes in the country, some fine ceramics were discovered in
the excavations at one of the mountain passes. Local hill tribespeople moved in and digging
ensued in the surrounding area; soon it took on the proportions of a gold rush. A roadside
antiques market opened along the roadside at kilometre 77. Dealers from Chiang Mai and
Bangkok flooded in, collectors from Europe and Japan; the search area expanded further and
further afield, up north into the Omkoi district of Chiang Mai province, where thousands of
intact examples of Chinese and previously unknown Northern Thai and Burmese ceramics were
dug up. Along with the porcelain, in thgrave sites were bronze lime paste containers for betel
chewing, iron swords, gold jewellery, and necklaces of carnelian, rock crystal and Ming Chinese
turquoise glass beads.
It ought to be one of the big archaeological mysteries of the last thirty-five years. But
unfortunately, all of the digging has been done by local people with no training or interest in
archaeology. It’s one of the great failures of the Thai academic establishment that not a single
controlled archaeological dig has taken place there in all these years. The answer I usually get
when I bug people about this is that the area is too dangerous. So I’ve gone up there myself from
time to time to try to figure out who the owners of these artefacts, remote people with superb and
cosmopolitan taste, could actually have been.
It’s true it can be a bit dangerous. One evening when I was staying with friends in a Muser
village a group of young men with Kalashnikovs who had done way too much meth for their
own good showed up in a 4x4 and began screaming that they didn’t want foreigners snooping
around. But the people of the house stood firm and scolded them for being rude to a guest; the
wife of one of my friends yelled that she was going to tell their mothers about them the next day,
and quickly they disappeared into the darkness.
(Illustration: caption: Muser elder describing a Longquan celadon plate he had just sold; it
produced enough money to keep his family for a year.)