They excavated the Stone Age

The Danish-Thai archaeological work in Kanchanaburi Province 1960-1968.

 

At five in the morning the valley around us is still in complete darkness and almost silent, even the Kwai River is just mumbling. Then, at the first break of day, the monks’ prayers are heard from a distant Wat. The birds start their concert slowly; a lonely 2 stroke motorcycle is disturbing the peace and then a most persistent rooster intonates its daily performance. An early fisherman is on the river in his long and narrow boat of ancient type; he is not motorized but using a long flexible sort of stick, a punt called – as he has used it for thousands of years, the only difference is that the present fisherman has most of the boat covered with a blue and white striped plastic tent of sorts.

Shortly after six the daylight is on; the old train from Kanchanaburi is making its noisy way up the valley towards the end of the line in Nam Tok. That stretch is what is left of the Japanese railway to Burma from World War II, built with feverish speed and with the most reckless use of lives, namely Chinese coolies and Prisoners Of War (POWs), mainly from the British surrender of Singapore, but also some from the Dutch colonies, Bali, Java and Sumatra – among these was a young archeologist H. R. van Heekeren whom we will meet later.

‘The Death Valley’ and ‘The Death Railway’ it was called, all the 200 kilometers from the town of Kanchanaburi to Three Pagodas Pass at the Burmese border. Today it is most peaceful and very rural, everything is back to what is has always been, a fertile agricultural farmland that can provide a good livelihood for all and everybody. People were around and living here also 3 to 3500 years ago, in the Neolithic or ‘Younger Stone Age’ period. The archeologists have excavated their belongings and given light to their culture.

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The first discovery
The railway under construction passed Ban Kao village north of Kanchanaburi, where now also the Ban Kao National Museum is found (‘How to get there’, see below). H. R. van Heekeren slave worked for years, but nevertheless discovered a Stone Age burial place by a cave on the construction site; it contained many artifacts, from pottery over axes to jewelry made from bones. He couldn’t do anything about his finds there and then, but he survived the war – and, believe it or not, always wanted to go back.

Then the chance came in 1960. The dynamic then Danish ambassador to Thailand Ebbe Munck was also on the board of Siam Society and with the recommendation from the prestigious society ‘The Thai-Danish Prehistoric Expedition’ was born. Munck was also chairman of the Danish committee behind the expedition, Prince Dhani Nivat of the Thai. Funding was provided from various private, mostly Danish, sources. Dr. H. R. van Heekeren, now curator of the museum in Leyden, was invited and accepted immediately to be a member of the expedition. Over the years until 1968 many Danish archeologists and other scientists spend time and efforts doing yearly field work and digging both in Ban Kao and in the rock shelter of Tam Phra in Sai Yok, some 30 kilometers further north. All caves around the area were visited. They published their results and among them should be mentioned Dr. Per Soerensen and the well-known Arctic explorer Count Eigil Knuth who published many results together with van Heekeren.

The work really yielded a rich harvest; thousands of items were found and catalogued, from kitchen utensils to jewelry. Among the very important finds were human skeletons. They, together with many of the artifacts, were sent to The National Museum in Copenhagen. A sort of loan agreement was made, also because The National Museum in Bangkok did not have expertise for further examinations and study.

Now, some items are also in Bangkok and only a small fraction in Ban Kao, but among them some very interesting and beautiful pieces, many in a good condition and showing the functional design always present in ordinary peoples tools. The original burial place is emptied and not accessible any more.

 

The Museum
The museum is sitting in a well kept garden with big trees. The buildings are not so well maintained, lack of funds is obvious. At the main entrance foreigners pay 50 Baht and Thais 10. A trifle ironic maybe since it was the foreigners who excavated all the artifacts.

As in many museums all the most sensitive objects are behind glass in exhibition cases and it is not allowed to take photos; that would also be difficult because of the reflexes. So you have to go and see for yourself; although the museum is not big, a visit is worth the tour. The big tableaus of Stone Age people (scale 1:5) hunting, fishing, preparing food etc. will be of interest, maybe especially for the kids.

Interesting are also the wooden coffins. First the archeologists believed these wooden structures to be boats, although of a bit strange construction fore and aft. Then they had the luck to find skeletons in some of them and it could be established that they were coffins – with a roof.

 

The Cave
At the Mountain cave of Khun Phaen Monastry, only 15 kilometers from Ban Kao, you have to drive to the end of the blind road from highway 323, then climb up 200 steep but safe steps to reach the cave entrance, situated as it is three quarters up the grey vertical rock. The cave is very big, fractioned, impressing and somewhat typical for the caves in the district, although we cannot be sure whether the Danish archeologists also worked here. It must have been an ideal hide and maybe home for the Stone Age people, easy to defend and spacious. In later periods it also served as spiritual retreat and hide out for the monks. There are of course no artifacts from the Stone Age left but many Buddha images placed around. – Under all circumstances, the cave will immediately talk to children’s Dinosaur fantasies – a visit will really make their day and tire them out.

 

Getting There
Things and places can be hard to find in Thailand and the valley north of Kanchanaburi is absolutely no exception, the area is crisscrossed with a lot of small roads, inaccurately mapped. Therefore this route description for your convenience: From the Northern intersection in Kanchanaburi town (Muang) take highway 323 direction Sai Yok. After app. 15 kilometers you find a monastery to the left. Here is also the entrance to Khun Paen Cave. A few hundred meters onwards there is an intersection with traffic lights. Turn left, route 3229, towards Ban Kao Village and the National Museum. After app. another 15 kilometers you pass the railway. Thereafter you immediately see this marvelous collection of road signs. Turn around The King, to the right on route 3455, and drive around 2 kilometers. Then there is a paved blind road, app. 1 kilometer leading to the museum.

I would recommend that you visit the museum first and then the cave on the way back, that way I suppose the cave will ‘speak’ more.

 

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