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Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites
ISSN: 1350-5033 (Print) 1753-5522 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ycma20
The nation, the élite and the Southeast Asianantiquities trade: With special reference toThailand
Denis Byrne
To cite this article:
 Denis Byrne (1999) The nation, the élite and the Southeast Asian antiquitiestrade: With special reference to Thailand, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites,3:3, 145-153, DOI: 10.1179/135050399793138608
To link to this article:
The nation, the elite and the Southeast Asianantiquities trade
W ith special reference to Thailand
The dealings that the Thai nation state has had with archaeological sites and antiquities appear tofit at least as well within the framework of antiquarian collecting as within that of modernarchaeology.
 is argued that this reflects the potential that sites and antiquities have to functionas cultural capital. Citing Pierre Bourdieu, it is proposed that there is a commonality of interestsbetween the state and the many private collectors among the Thai elite and that this derives partlyfrom the emphasis that is placed on the display or performative potential of sites and antiquities.An appreciation of how antiquities function as cultural capital is surely a prerequisite for anysuccessful effort to counter the looting of sites and the illegal trade in antiquities.
(Thereis an economy of cultural goods, but it has a specific logic.
There are something like 5000 cultural communi-ties on the earth and less than
 nation states forthem to fit into. The squeeze that this implies hasprompted most nation states to encourage theirethnically diverse populations to imagine them-selves as a single community, a feat made easier if they can imagine a common, national history [2,3].The enlistment of archaeology in the business of producing national histories and icons isasold asthenation state itself. In Eric Hobsbawm's opinion,'historians are to nationalism what poppy-growersin Pakistan are to heroin-addicts: we supply theessential raw material forthe market' [4].Somethingsimilar might be said of archaeologists.In most cases itisthe visuality of archaeologicalremains, their display or iconic potential, which has
been of primary interest to the nation state. Thedemands ofnational identity building are such thatthe state tends to be interested not so much indiscovering what occurred in the past as inproject-ing itself back into the past, very. often at theexpense of the truth of what scholarship tells ushappened back there. This frequently takes theform of honouring and restoring ancient monu-ments and sites in a manner that effectively rendersthem props in a mythology of origins. The nationstate has tended to look to archaeology as apurveyor of objects and sites that can be glossed asnational (which is to say, inscribed with nationalmeanings). Certainly, in Southeast Asiathe way thenation state has dealt with the material remains of the past suggests it may ·be unrealistic to expectthata genuine enthusiasm forgenuine archaeologywill come from that quarter.In this scenariothe nation state isnot in quest forthe truth about the past and itdoes not lean on thearchaeologist's skills to this end. Rather, when it
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Figure I. At the Bronze Age site Tha Kae, near Lopburi in CentralThailand, looters seeking pots, glass beads and bronze ornaments dughorizontal tunnels up to 8m long into a section exposed by earlierquarrying. The tent covers a partly disturbed area being excavated bya joint Thai-Italian team of archaeologists in 1989.
turns to the remains of the past it does so more inthe interests of collection and display and for thisreason what itfinds interesting and rewarding aboutarchaeology are precisely those attributes of thediscipline to which archaeologists themselves areoften most loath to own up, namely the attributesof antiquarianism.My contention here is that nation states, at leastin Southeast Asia (possibly excluding Vietnam)have dealt fairly even-handedly with both antiquar-ian collecting and archaeology and look to thesepractices for very much the same outcome. I willargue that the nation state's interest in antiquariancollecting is programmatic rather than incidental.
Most of the digging carried out at archaeologicalsites in Southeast Asia is done not by archaeologistsbut by so-called 'looters' in their quest for pottery,bronze artefacts, glass and ceramic beads, and goldand silver jewellery. The actual digging is generallycarried out by villagers recruited by agents whosupply the antique markets of the towns and cities.But in some of the more 'productive' localities thetrade may be more integrated locally, as for instanceat the MuangKao, an agricultural village set amidthe ruins of the fourteenth-century Buddhist centreat Sisatchanalai in Central Thailand, where an analy-sis of the village economy in the late 1970s foundthat eight households out of 241 made at least apartial living by buying ceramics dug up by othervillages and selling them on to city dealers [5].Theflow-lines along which illegally excavated ceramicsmove in Thailand appear to be the same or closelysimilar to those involved in the movement oarchitectural sculpture and religious statuary, stuccowork, and carved wooden components illegallytaken from ruined and even from still-functioningreligious sites
Information on looting tends to be piecemeal,anecdotal and rarely in-depth. Perhaps the bestdocumented case remains the epidemic of illegaldigging in Northeast Thailand that followed thediscovery of strikingly decorated red-on-buffBronzeAge ceramics at Ban Chiang in 1971 [7-9]. Here theinitial publicity given to archaeological finds at-tracted collectors and alerted a relatively poorpopulation of farmers to the presence of an unex-pected and extremely lucrative 'cash crop' lyingbelow their fields and houses. Soon a whole land-scape of pottery-bearing sites had been destroyedby potholing and tunnelling.The scale of the nonarchaeological quest forantiquities is indicated by the frequent warnings andprotests issued by archaeologists working in South-
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Figure 2. In 1998 archaeologists from the Thai Government's FineArts Department examine a large pit excavated
 looters seekingBronze Age ceramics in the Ban Chiang area in Northeast Thailand.
east Asia, particularly in Thailand and the Philip-pines (Cambodia is notorious, but for the illegalremoval of sculpture and statuary rather than ob- jects from archaeological deposits). Bill Solheim, forinstance, stated in 1975 that, if the 'mining' of archaeological sites for the antiquities market wasnot stopped in the Philippines the 'great majority'of sites there containing saleable antiquities would'be ruined for any worthwhile archaeological re-search' [10]. Twelve years later Karl Hutterer de-scribed looting in the Philippines as 'rampant'. 'Theseriousness of the problem,' he wrote, 'is evident inthe fact that
 major known site containingAsiatic trade ceramics has either wholly or in verylarge part been destroyed by looters' [11]. IanGlover reported from West-Central Thailand that atone mounded site up to a thousand people hadbeen digging simultaneously, while at another site'well-organized teams' had been digging continu-ously for over two years [12].Reporting on a surveyof Khmer-style san<::tuaries in the southern prov-inces of Northeast Thailand, Hiram Woodward hassaid that as many as 90% of the monuments hadbeen severely damaged by looting. He concludedwith the observation that, 'At the worst moments, itmay seem that there is little left worth preserving'[13]. Since the 1970s frequent articles have ap-peared in the Thai press deploring the looting of archaeological sites. The heritage periodical,
 Muang Baran,
 has often editorialized on the issue in termssuch as the following: '...there has been collusionamong some politicians, government officials,wealthy people, antique dealers and thieves in anoperation tantamount to a national treasure hunt inwhich heavy machinery, such as that used inmining, has been employed' [14].Archaeologists in the West have tended to reactto non-archaeological excavation of sites with wordsof war. In the United States, for instance, pothuntersare held by archaeologists to be guilty of plunderingand pillaging: they are 'ravagers', according to BrianFagan [15]; they have 'attacked', 'assaulted', 'ran-sacked', 'invaded' and 'overrun' archaeological sitesand the lands containing them, according to theSociety for American Archaeology [16].Antiquariancollecting is thus treated as a kind of frenziedaberration despite the fact that, as a discourse orpractice, it has a much longer lineage than archae-ology and an apparently larger constituency. Onemight also note that it has a reasonable claim to bemodern archaeology's parent discourse.In Thailand the method and theory of modernarchaeology were transplanted from the West mainlyin the second half of the twentieth century but,once there, they were recontextualized locallywithin the framework of what I have elsewherecalled 'royal antiquarianism' [17].Royal antiquarian-ism itself appears to have evolved out of thetradition of the Buddhist kingship, closely identify-ing itself with the ancient history of Buddhism in the
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Figure 3. Khmer stone sculpture for sale in one of theantique shops at the River City centre, Bangkok.
area of Siam. This identification was maintained onthe one hand by travelling out from the court andcapital to visit sacred religious sites and formercapitals and on the other by transporting to thecourt and the contemporary capital Buddhist antiq-uities, particularly famous Buddha images, takenfrom ancient sites across the km"gdom [e.g. 18-20]. Inthe course of the nineteenth century, as Westernerswith antiquarian interests arrived in the kingdom andas Thais began to visit museums in the West, thereligious objects collected at court began to be supple-mented by collections of other antiquities, includinginscriptions, and the first museums appeared.
By the end of the absolute monarchy in Thailand in1932, antiquarian collecting was more or less estab-lished as a pursuit of princes and aristocrats. Thenew military and administrative elite that emergedafter the 1932 coup, together with the growingmiddle class, sought to style themselves on the oldelite - for instance, by copying the former's alle-giance to court ritual and royal Buddhism [21]. Isuggest that antiquarian collecting has also been apursuit eminently suited to the grooming of the'establishment'. Aristocratic collectors such as Prin-cess Chumbot, whose Suan Pakkad Palace collec-tion contains outstanding pieces of Ban Chiangware, have set an example that has been taken upenergetically by non aristocratic aspirants to estab-lishment position.James Clifford has observed that 'collecting haslong been a strategy for the deployment of apossessive self, culture, and authenticity'
 Butexactly how does this activity of collecting do thework of status accumulation? For an explanation Ilook to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's insightsinto the way that economic capital (or money) isconverted into cultural or symbolic capital as indi-viduals strive to improve their position in society[23,24]. Hamilakis and Yalouri have used Bourdieu'sconcept of cultural capital to describe the wayGreek antiquities have been deployed in moderntimes by the Greek state and nationalist move-ments, as well as, recently, by groups in Creteresisting the state's agenda for Cretan antiquities[25].In Thailand, too, the nation state has deployedantiquities as symbolic capital, in building coher-ence and consensus among its citizens. But Isee thisas an extension of the way that symbolic capitaloperates at the level of individuals in society, thisbeing the level at which Bourdieu originally formu-lated the concept in the specific context of the'habitus', the term he uses to refer to the cumulativeand enduring totality of personal and cultural expe-riences that individuals carry around with them(e.g., dress style, speech, posture, table etiquette,taste in art, music).Whereas Bourdieu is mainly concerned with theway that people accumulate cultural capital in theform of taste, connoisseurship and manners, as wellas with the way that they deploy these, he does alsoobserve that the actual physical· acquisition of artefacts can be a kind of shortcut to social status.He speaks of the appropriated antique 'taking itsplace in the series of luxury goods which onepossesses and enjoys without needing to prove thedelight they give and the taste they illustrate'[26]. In this way the simple presence of a four-
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