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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.)

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