By Robert Pollard
January 7, 2012
Nestled away amongst the tress of a small Savannakhet hilltop a group of Lao and International archaeological excavators excitedly worked away. There was a buzz in the air of Peun Baolo, their tireless work had uncovered something special, an ancient burial site containing substantial historical artefacts.
Amongst the crowd one figure lay face down in the dirt, examining and preparing the finds for removal, archaeologist Dr Nigel Chang.
Dr Chang has been working in the area, in and around the Sepon Copper Gold Mine, since 2007 when the Department of National Heritage first invited him to work there. Having worked in South East Asia for twenty years he is familiar with the region and is excited about what is being discovered here in Central Laos.
“It’s a real frontier for archaeological research,” Chang says about the potential for archaeological finds in Laos. “When we first came here I had no idea what we were going to find, but I knew we just didn’t know anything about this area, particularly Savannakhet province. Archeologically it’s just been fantastic”.
Through mining operations, UXO clearance and anthropological studies several sites of archaeological significance have been discovered within the tenement area of the Sepon Copper Mine.
The work has revealed much about the history of the area and it is now thought that approximately 2000 years ago the area was being used for copper mining and was a link between Laos and Vietnam.
Perhaps the most notable find uncovered by the work is a large Dong Son Copper Drum on display at the National Museum. The discovery of the drum, by a UXO clearance team, signalled the potential of archaeological finds around the mine and has led to further excavations. The drum also gained Laos international recognition when it travelled to Belgium as a highlight of an exhibition featuring South East Asian artefacts.
The Archaeological excavations in the area are part of a broader Cultural Heritage Management Plan conceived by MMG in co-operation with the Department of National Heritage, The Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, the National University of Laos and James Cook University in Australia, amongst others.
Anthropological studies and the establishment of a District Cultural Heritage Centre in Vilabouly District help make up the broader strategy of the plan.
Dr Warren Mayes, superintendant of MMG’s social sustainability unit say the plan is important considering the areas more recent history and its location on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“This place was really quite central to the activities through the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and the bombardment had a dramatic impact on the area.” Mayes says.
“The impact on livelihoods during the bombardment was that people just didn’t go back to the same place afterwards”.
The disruption to the communities led to valuable pieces of local history being lost. Pieces that the archaeological and anthropological work is helping to rediscover.
As part of the plan a District Cultural Heritage Centre will be built and will be a central point for work done under the plan.
Dr Mayes says a great value will also come from the centre in community learning, educating local people in the greater value of their local history but also the true worth of historical artefacts beyond just a monetary one.
Often when locals discover an artefact they are unaware of its significance and it is sold for a price not reflective of its true value, which is more than just a monetary one.
One such case was the discovery of a second smaller Dong Son Copper Drum.
The villagers who had found the drum were using it as a cooking pot when a buyer offered them 200,000 Kip for it, a lot of money to a local farmer looking to feed their family.
Fortunately a worker from the mine heard about the find and a Vilabouly District Culture Officer persuaded the villagers of the Drums significance.
A reward was offered, much greater that the previously offered value, and the drum is now in the Vilabouly District Office and will eventually go on display in the planned District Cultural Heritage Centre.
Capacity building is a further focus of the work and for digs such as this one at Peun Baolo, Dr Chang works alongside students from the National University as well as officials and workers from various stakeholders in the project.
“At the moment some of the students we have are from the first generation of students to learn archaeology at the National University” Chang says. “I’m sure over the next few years there will be many enthusiastic and keen students coming out and doing exciting things”.
The crew on top of Peurn Baolo were excited that day with the discovery of the burial site. Inside the grave lay various artefacts including ingots, pots and a bracelet, and it was the discovery of the large bronze dagger axe that was the most substantial. Hidden within axe may be new insights into the history of not just the local area but also the region and the world.
Yet the true excitement lies in what else sits beneath the surface, as Dr Chang says, “I think there’s still many other sites to be found”.
Further information on archaeological discoveries in the Sepon Copper Gold Mine area is available from the booklet entitled “Neighbours Past, Present and Future” by Dr Richard Jackson.