Myanmar’s earliest Maritime Silk Road port-settlements revealed
B. Bellina, Maung Sun Win, Kalayar Myat Myat Htwe, Htet Myat Thu, C. Castillo, C. Colonna, L. Dussubieux, A. Favereau, E. Miyama, B. Pradier, O. Pryce, S. Srikanlaya, E. Trivière
In February – March 2018, the Franco-Myanmar project, “Thanintharyi and the Maritime Silk Roads” carried out its first season of excavations at Maliwan and Aw Gyi in Myanmar’s southernmost state, Thanintharyi. The project is a collaboration between the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Myanmar Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, and is supported by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs.
The project aims to define the economic and political role this region played in the first “trans-continental” maritime exchange network that came to link the Western World to China from the 4th-3rd century BC. The research wishes to determine to what extent and in which manner long distance exchange fashioned peninsular populations’ social, economic and political trajectories. The inception of this long-distance network took place during a period that witnessed the political unifications of Mauryan India and Han China. It inaugurated a trading boom and major social changes amongst the societies involved, such as the spread of Buddhism, Indic political concepts, etc.
The Thai-Malay Peninsula, to which Thanintharyi belongs, acted as a central region in these exchanges, located between the Indian (Bay of Bengal) and Pacific (South China Sea) Oceans. From the late centuries BC, travellers and merchants sailing in these monsoon climes made stopovers in one of the riverine ports along the Peninsula coast, where they could replenish their boat, obtain local or imported goods stocked in local entrepôts and exchange ideas with other traders. Thus the Peninsula became a hub and a cradle for innovations that were then redistributed in both the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.
Terra incognita from an archaeological point of view until 15 years ago, the Kra Isthmus turned out to be a core region during the genesis of the Maritime Silk Roads. Research lead by the French mission revealed that as early as the 4th c. BC, cosmopolitan and proto-urbanised polities developed there. These early city-states played a crucial role in trade and cultural exchanges, elaborating political and economic models later seen during the historical period from the 8th c. AD. Port-cities were linked to upstream/inland collecting sites that provided primary resources (minerals, resins, timber) for long-distance trade and also acted as relay stations for traders and other travellers who were crossing the Peninsula.
The two port-settlements investigated by the Franco-Myanmar mission in 2018 were also part of this networks web. Maliwan is a large settlement established on a series of gently elevated hills located west of a tributary of the Kraburi River. It thus does not overlook the Bay of Bengal and is protected from the monsoon winds. The two radiocarbon dates so far obtained (Beta492589 and 492590) show an occupation from the 4th-3rd c. BC and is thus contemporary to the port-city of Khao Sam Kaeo (Bellina 2017) and its possible satellite, Khao Sek (ARA 2018), on the Gulf of Siam coast. Maliwan provided evidence of habitation and craft production. Stone such as carnelian, maybe imported from India, rock crystal and agate were produced there into beads, rings and seals. Preliminary archaeometallurgical assessment suggests the presence of multiple alloy traditions, copper, bronze and leaded bronze, as is seen on similar trade sites on the east coast, with lead isotope provenance study ongoing.
Glass composition confirms the early dating of the site with a combination of glass type similar to that one found at Khao Sam Kaeo, Khao Sek and other sites dated from the 4th – 2nd c. BC. However glass material features some very specific characteristics that makes a direct connection with those very early glass sites unlikely.
The preliminary analysis of pottery highlights the existence of several producing groups sharing technical similarities with the main local groups identified at Khao Sam Kaeo and Khao Sek, and also evidences the presence of Indian Fine Grey pottery, among which some are rouletted, others incised and others impressed.
Preliminary analysis of the archaeobotanical remains has identified domesticated rice and mungbeans in Maliwan. Mungbeans are of South Asian origin and have also been found in Khao Sam Kaeo and Phu Khao Thong.
The site also yielded terracotta female figurines, a sculptured stone ring with flower petals and a frieze of animals made in the Mauryan-Sunga style and steatite decorated vessels often referred to as reliquaries in India.
Aw Gyi, is situated in mangrove about 15km west of Maliwan, facing the Bay of Bengal, and consists of 3 hills bordered by watercourse linking it to the sea. The settlement has been heavily looted but seems to have been occupied at a slightly later period, perhaps by the early centuries AD. It yielded a lot of glass with compositions found at other sites located around the Bay of Bengal such as Arikamedu in India and Phu Khao Thong in Thailand. Aw Gyi has also in common with these two sites the presence of glass from the Mediterranean area in the form of fragments of glass vessel. This site yielded also stone production evidence, as well as a large quantity of pottery fragments, some of which parallels with those found east in southern Vietnam at Oc Eo, in China (the Han pottery) and in the Philippines (the Kalanay-related pottery), and west along the eastern coast of India (the Fine Grey pottery).
Further research is required on these two major port-settlements to understand their sequence of occupation and relationships. Their study will greatly contribute to uncovering the still very poorly known history of the port-cities of the Bay of Bengal and their role in the earliest Maritime Silk Roads ports of Myanmar.
Bellina, B. (ed.) 2017. Khao Sam Kaeo: a late prehistoric early port-city between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Mémoires Archéologiques 28. Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, 2017 p. 675.
Archaeological Research in Asia 13 (March 2018)