Newsletter Vol-3

Looking for Contexts

The question of contexts was raised by Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the School of Oriental and African Studies in a lecture given to a gathering of archaeologists and historians at SEAMEO CHAT on 1 August 2003.
The lecture, “Interpreting Contexts: Pyu and Bronze Age Myanmar,” took as its starting point the observation of M. Shanks and C. Tilley, “The choice of a context, sets of relationships which bestow meaning, is entirely an interpretive decision, not epistemological or methodological; it depends on what our purpose and interests are, and these of course, belong with us in the present.”
The question of contexts was raised because of the puzzle of interpreting the new archaeological matter that have come to light in Upper Myanmar. A decade ago, there had been doubts as to whether there had really been a Bronze Age in Myanmar. Now, recent finds, detailed by Dr. Moore in her article, “Bronze and Iron Age Sites in Upper Myanmar: Chindwin, Samon and Pyu,” in the inaugural issue of the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Studies in May 2003, called for a revision of earlier views and the provision of fresh interpretations.
The recent finds of bronze artefacts in the Chindwin and Samon valleys provide evidence for a Bronze Age in Upper Myanmar but also raise interesting puzzles. Stylistic comparison of the bronze artefacts excavated at the Nyaunggan cemetery site date the site at approximately 1500 BC. But there are other sites not too distant from Nyaunggan for which carbon-14 dates have been established: Shwezayan, 900 BC; Taungthaman, 500 BC; Moegyobyin, 500 BC. But these chronologically later sites seem to show a culture less developed than that of Nyaunggan. At Shwezayan and Taungthaman there were concentrations of stone tools and chips as well as iron implements, while at Moegyobyin there were only stone tools, some of them primitive chopper-chopping tools, others polished.

Another puzzle: Excavations at In-de yielded early Bronze Age artefacts but no iron implements. But there was a shifting pattern of surface finds south of In-de: closest to In-de, a concentration of iron artefacts; further south, a concentration of bronze implements, including a bronze “mother goddess”; still further south, a concentration of artefacts with polished stone tools.
How do these recent finds relate to the much-studied Pyu cities of Beikthano, Halin and Sriksetrra? The sacred structures and burial urns at these sites were located both inside and outside the city wall, indicating a dispersed population which took refuge behind the city wall only at times of a military threat. Perhaps there was not that much of a distance in social development between the Bronze Age communities and the Pyu cities as the walled cities might suggest.
And what of the burial urns found in abundance in the Pyu cities which are thought of as characteristically Pyu? Large pots were excavated at the Nyaunggan cemetery which seems to indicate a practice of secondary burial. If so, how does this interface with Pyu funerary custom?
At Sha Kwe fortress, 16 km east of Halin, there have been a number of interesting finds which might link the Bronze Age communities to the Pyu. The finds included polished stone rings and pottery characteristic of Chindwin and Samon Bronze Age culture, black vessels with lids containing bone and ash, and also Pyu finger-marked bricks.
Facing the challenge of providing new contexts, Dr. Moore noted:

“The increasing volume of recent data on Pyu and Bronze Age Myanmar means that within the variable domains expressed by the remains of these material cultures, we can seek more then temporal sequences in our efforts to interpret these past societies. We can widen our purposes and interests to seek relationships embracing the reasons and circumstances that prompted events, to formulate spatial, social and ritual paradigms that express Pyu and Bronze Age spatial, social and sacred contexts.”
A flurry of questions followed the lecture. U Hla Tun Phyru of Yangon University: Is there really enough evidence for us to speak of a Bronze Age in Myanmar? U Sein Myint of the Universities Historical Research Centre: Can that odd-shaped bronze artefact be indeed identified as a Mother Goddess icon? U San Win of the same Centre: We seem to be confining ourselves to Upper Myanmar in the present study. Perhaps we should take some cognizance of developments in Lower Myanmar.
Raising questions of providing new interpretations which took account of recent finds, Dr. Moore’s lecture was much appreciated by a knowledgeable audience and left it eager for more.

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