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Entry #12 Archeological Dig week 1 in Phimai, Thailand

Volunteer Work

sunny 0 °F

Tues, Feb 21, day one on the archeological dig

Things I learned today included how to remember the toilet paper, that the front desk has a can of bug spray that is very effective against the uninvited guests in your room and that archeological digs are VERY INTERESTING!

Breakfast was on the patio restaurant and included a very pregnant black kitty that was very sweet and wanted to share everybody’s breakfast. WE HAD CHOM POOS FOR

We piled into three vehicles to transport the 15 volunteers and the staff to the site, about 45 minutes away.

Along the way you could see Brahma cattle, water buffalo, lots of birds, temples (called Wat’s in Thailand) and lots of dry rice fields. This area of Thailand has had droughts of the last few years and the project has allowed farmers in the area an opportunity for extra work on the site. So many memories of Thailand came flooding back and we traveled down the sometimes very dusty roads towards the work area.

Our schedule for 6 days a week would be as follows.

7-7:45 Breakfast
7:45 – 8:30 Bus to the site
8:30-10:30 work
10:30 tea break
10:45-12:00 work
12:00-12:45 lunch – supplied by the hotel and transported in one of our vehicles
12:45-2:00 work
2:00-2:15 tea break
2:15-4:00 work
4:00-4:45 bus to the hotel
7:00 dinner at hotel
7:30 lecture or video about the work at the site.

We tumbled out of the vehicles and walked through our eating area, which was a patio underneath a house on stilts next to the site. All the areas we would work in had tarps and tents, so we would not need to worry about direct sun all day. This was a wonderful thing and I found that I did not need to wear bug spray or sun block while I was at the dig. I do have an amazing farmers tan on my face, upper neck, arms below my elbows and feet where they show under my sandals.

We approached the dig area, which was a huge pit 11 X 12 meters and 3 meters deep. There were sand bags at the top edges of three sides with the forth side formed a ramp for us to descend on to the dig floor. We had a brief tour with Charles (Higham) of the 3 X 3 grid on the floor of the dig. There were strings laid out that separated the site into 9 specific areas. While Charles constantly moved between all the squares, we were told that when we were on the floor, all of our questions were to be directed to the researcher in charge of our square.

Floor of the pit.JPG

We learned that the dig was run by Dr. Higham from NZ in partnership with the Thai Department of Fine Art. While both agencies were working at the site, all the artifacts would remain in Thailand, so Dr. Higham and the other researchers would be taking computer data away with them to continue their research. This site has been under excavation for 6 years and next year will be the last year that they will work at this site. As a previous site for the teams, excavated over 10 years ago is only now finally starting to produce results, I imagine you have to give up collecting more data and start analyzing what you have already found. I was glad then that I was here during this specific time for two reasons; one, the last team of each year usually has the most exciting finds and second, this would be the second the to last year it would be offered by Earthwatch.

The researchers have found distinct levels of remains in this burial mound from top to bottom – current age, iron age, bronze age and lowest Neolithic. The current depth of the dig showed the lowest two levels, with at least 8 burial sites exposed when we arrived. Some of the graves were thought to be very rich people. All of these had bangles of either shell or marble on the arms, bivalve shells, sometimes earrings or necklaces and a profusion of pots at the head and the feet of the skeletons. Other burials had a row of pots to one side. Other items that could be found in the graves included anvils for pot making, adzes or tools, spindle whorls for spinning thread, round pellets possibly for slingshots and conical rollers (which they aren’t sure what they are for). Both sexes had a variety of these grave goods including the children, showing that almost everybody were involved with spinning thread or pot making, even the children and that both sexes had elevated status. One of the graves had the body almost completely covered in snail shells. They were just like the pictures in the brochure showing an exposed skeleton with bangles on their arms and pots close to their heads and feet. There were also numerous holes in the ground, which turned out to be old postholes from various periods within the history of the village. Some of the postholes were directly into graves, thereby destroying some of the remains.


Some of the sections in the grid were at significantly different levels, as certain sites were taking longer to excavate, clean, photograph and remove. I found it hard to believe that the volunteers were allowed to handle actual artifacts. The only things we were not allowed to do were the delicate excavations and anything to do with the human bones.

Out of the pit and on the top of the ground are two different stations for cleaning and sorting. My first assignment was helping wash the pots or sherds (broken bits of pots) to prepare them for reassembly. I have learned from Meph, the woman in charge of the pot cleaning, washing and reconstruction area, that shards are pieces of glass; the sherds are pieces of pottery. Pot cleaning involved removing a pot and it’s fragments from a bag listing all the specifics of where it was found, its numbers and description and putting it into the double lined pail of water to loosen the dirt. Once soaked, with a toothbrush or bamboo shish kabob stick, you clean away the dirt as best you can. Then into a plastic tray with holes and into the sun to dry. Once the pots were dry, then you get to piece them back together. (I may get to do that later.)

Washing pots.JPG

After a yummy lunch and more Chom poos, I moved over to pot cleaning which is the step just prior to pot washing. When a pot comes up from the site, it is catalogued and bagged ready for cleaning. Most of the pots are crusted with dirt both inside and out and you have to carefully remove the dirt in case there is something interesting in the pot. Your tools are bamboo skewers, dentist tools and small spoons. As you carefully remove the dirt, anything interesting such a bone or sherd is put into a separate bag and labeled. Interior dirt goes into another bag and is labeled. Empty pots and sherd go back into the original bag and go into the inbox for the washing table.

The one item we kept finding was small, round clumps with a central depression like a crucible. These turned out to be ant’s nests and were of no value, but we were new to the process that we painstakingly gave them our attention until we knew what they were. I found a bone remnant in one of the pots I was cleaning and was pleased I knew what it was and that it was important to keep it separate.

We loaded back into the vehicles and were back at the hotel by 4:45. The Phimai Inn has a lovely pool and most of us felt very dirty, so a dip felt great. We have found that the hotel has several situations that need to be worked around. Water pressure and hot water was not always guaranteed, so showers may have to be delayed. There are times that the phone rings mysteriously (with no one on the other end) and the best course is to unplug it. (I didn’t figure that out until I had been woken up three times in the middle of the night. I finally unplugged it after the third time, but was up for the night at that point.). The power is not always on when you get to your room. It was usually just a blown fuse or breaker, so you don't usually have long to wait. Flexibility is the key to a happy and successful volunteer, no matter what agency or country you are in.

Dinner was family style, normally with white rice, three different entrees, and fruit for dessert. This evening, we were given a short lecture by Charles on the sites he has been involved with in Thailand for the last 30 years. Very interesting.

I now know that in Thailand the following periods were excavated on this site.

Neolithic 2000-1300 BC
Bronze Age 1300 – 400 BC
Iron Age 400 BC – 400 AD
Current Age 400 AD forward

I was pooped, having had the mysterious phone calls the previous night, and turned in early.

Wed, Feb 22 – How can you tell they are women?

I opted for the poached eggs for breakfast and they came in a large bowl with two poached eggs in the bottom. Toast, coffee and fruit was self-serve.

Today as we arrived at the work site, Charles asked more of us to be in the pit helping to excavate certain areas or working on specific features. My assignment was to excavate around a pot that was at the top of column of dirt. This was called a feature and generally is a marker of a burial underneath. Before they can excavate below, most of the dirt needs to be taken away from the item in the feature, so that it can be cleaned, drawn, numbered and photographed.

Most of the items in the features are fragile and already broken, so taking away too much of the dirt may totally destroy the image of the pot. Take too little away and you can’t see the item. So, with my favorite excavation or cleaning instruments (a bamboo stick, garden kneeler pad, paintbrush, and painters spatula), I began to gently remove the dirt around my pot. It was about 3 inches in circumference and the lip had already been broken into 4 pieces. The sherds were to be added to the bag once the pot was removed.

My foreman was Ollie, a British PHD candidate, who will give us lecture on his Masters work later in the week. Ollie was very focused on other things, but as he whizzed by, we could get in a question. I was to slice down through the soil vertically, not undercutting too much so that the pot would be highlighted at the top of the pile. My pot was pretty straight forward as a single pot, while others had jumbles of different pots all mashed together. My major challenge was it was my first pot and I didn’t know exactly how hard I could dig at things. Also, I was right in the center of the major thoroughfare for the brigade that sent buckets up the wall on a pulley to be shifted from the various squares in the dig. There were a constant stream of people going past me, but I was finally able to tune them out and focus on my beautiful pot. (I didn’t get a picture, sorry, but I will try and get one later to show you an example of my pot).

Once Charles came over and said the pot had been excavated sufficiently to be photographed, my next assignment was to brush all the dirt away and then gently sponge off the surfaces so that they would be clean for the photo. Photo completed, it was time for me to lift the pot and put it in the numbered bag and take it up to the pot cleaning area with Meph where I worked yesterday. Again, I could not believe that I was being asked to handle an artifact without a professional standing by. It was an easy lift and off I went up the ramp with my pot, proudly displaying it to anyone who happened past.

Back in the pit, Charles then directed me to another pile that contained 6 pots, at various angles and none of them intact. Yikes! Believe it or not, I did accomplish getting these pots excavated and cleaned before we ended for lunch.

Lunch today we had the wonderful strips of pork that had a glaze and were partially dried. Fruit at lunch was green mangos. MY FAVORITE!

After lunch and the photograph, I asked if I was to lift them, and Ollie indicated that they were to wait until later.

second set of pots.JPG

With another job completed, Charles put me to work around a pot that was emerging from below to see what else we could find. He suspected that there might be a large burial underneath the area. Myra and I sat on the ground and would dig down about 2 inches to see what we could find, sift it with our fingers, putting pot sherds and hard items of unknown identity into a bucket for sorting. The loose dirt was then put into another bucket and sent up the wall for shifting. Occasionally a member of the brigade would bring back a piece we had missed and add it to our pile. The longer we did it; fewer and fewer missed items were returned to us by the bucket brigade.

I came across what I thought was a bone just as Charles came past. Nothing huge, just a pig bone. Drat! By this time, it was late in the afternoon and I had been sitting in the shape of C all day. I decided tomorrow, I wanted a job that would allow me to be in a U shape all day.

On the way back to the hotel, Gary, Gail, Diane, Erica, Lisa and I were dropped off in Phimai to see the Prasat, a Khmer site, built 100 years prior to Angkor Wat. At the entrance was a chance for tourists to feed sugar cane to an elephant and a photo opportunity for 20 Baht ($.50). Erica bought some and feed the elephant. The elephant was very sweet, but was only interested in talking to you if you had sugar cane. But I did pet her trunk that was very rough and hairy.

The Prasat was lovely and was basically a central main tower temple, surrounded by four minor temples. There were also several other stand-alone buildings; all ringed by a wall with 4 gates indicating the four directions. In its original state, the major temples would have been covered in gold leaf with many statues and faces of the ruler. As it stands today, most of the statues are gone as is the gold leaf. What remains are the sandstone brick buildings, that were reconstructed in the 1960’s, some with the original lintels and inscriptions. Still very impressive. Many of the artifacts are in the local museum that we will see another day.

The lintels, doorways and arch supports still had original art and each one was different, so you had to go through as many doors as possible to see them all. At one point, our group was all in one area at the site and I commented there was art on one of the lintels with a line of big breasted dancing girls. Gary pipes up with the question, How did I know that they were girls? Hello Gary!! Needless to say that we all had a good time with that question and Gary turned very red.


Mr. Nim, our intrepid driver, returned to pick us up at 6:00 pm, so we were back at the hotel in time for a short swim before dinner. The pool is lovely and cool without being cold and 25 meters long so you can do laps if you are inclined.

I believe the daily routine will become the basic work schedule from yesterday and upon returning from work - a quick dip in the pool, shower, spray the room for mosquitoes, dinner, lecture, internet, blog and sleep.

This evening, the after dinner event was lead by Charles. We saw the National Geographic video starring Charles entitled The Guardians of Angkor Wat. Three years ago, an NG film crew asked Charles to help with this project. It had been filmed with a French crew and was not up to the NG’s standards. They wanted to re-shoot parts of it with Charles as the expert commentator. He agreed and the video went on to be published by NG and won an award in the US.

From the title, I would have guessed that the Guardians would be some of the statuary around the temple. Not so, the Guardians were the land mines used over the last 20 years by the various armies in Cambodia during the war. While they were in place, the Angkor Wat, and all the other Khmer sites were relatively safe from looters. Since the mines were taken away, which is not a bad thing in-and-of itself, many of the temples have lost major parts of their collection.

Some of the looters have even removed entire walls or lifted the major faces off the front of the temples and sold them on the underground Asian art market. Many of the Cambodian pieces were sent under cover to Thailand for sale. The Art Counsel of Cambodia, in order to slow down and preserve the artifacts, had most of the major artifacts removed for safekeeping. Not even those were safe, when a year ago, the storage facility was bombed by quasi-military troops and major amounts of the art lifted and taken away. Just as saw in Peru, the country people in Cambodia are fundamentally very poor and will do anything to make money. A very sad situation with no easy or quick answers.

Charles has been giving us a crash course on the over 1000 Khmer temples in the areas of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Basically this style of temple was brought into the area from India and combined Indian and Buddhist deities and cultures. The main idea for these temples is that they are a place to worship the king of the time. The larges central temple was to symbolize the mountains and the way to heaven. The closer you get to the major temple, the closer you are to heaven. One of the main features of these temples are huge phallic symbols called linga's. The greater the king, the bigger the linga. They are set upon various shaped foundation depending on the style of the temple called yanni’s that are supposed to represent woman. HMMMMMM? During the heyday of the temple they would have been covered in gold leaf and were the site of many ceremonies to honor the king and his prowess. More on this later.

Thurs, Feb 23 – Rhymes with Brick

Our days are becoming more of a routine as all of us settle in, but each day brings new things for site and us.

Charles normally gives us short talk each morning to bring us up to date on the finds late the previous day. It is amazing that within less than 8 hours, what is displayed on the floor of the site can change dramatically. You can have a grave visible first thing in the morning and it can be completely gone with just a depression in the ground by the time we leave at 4:00 pm.

Another routine is the at least twice and sometimes three times a day, someone will appear to sell ice cream at the site, usually at morning tea break, lunch and possibly pm tea break or just as we leave for the hotel. The first day we had three different vendors show up; one similar to the our Good Humor men, one with a little chart with various kinds that go into a cone and the third one that is traditionally Thai in his approach to ice cream.

The Good Humor man offers packaged goodies and I bought one that resembles one of our filled cones with nuts and chocolate, except that the cone was more like an ice cream sandwich cone and was flat.

The man with the various types that go into a cone had only about half of the displayed flavors. There was the traditional chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate chip, a wonderful coffee with chocolate flakes, lemon lime, blueberry and of course Taro. The Taro is sort of a dull purple color, and the people who have had it, loved it. I am so in love with the coffee flavor, I am not sure that I can risk trying something else that I might not like as well. Time will tell.

The Thai ice cream man is something to behold. You can have your vanilla ice cream in a traditional cone or you can have it on a hot dog bun. The creation begins with the light green hotdog bun. Next comes two small scoops of sticky rice (jasmine rice with coconut milk). Next are four small scoops of vanilla ice cream. Then, is the yellow fragments of a bean that was mildly sweet. Finally, the entire creation is drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. It really isn’t overly sweet and was fun to eat.

Work assignments today included in the morning washing potsherds from the Neolithic site and eating ice cream and after lunch, cleaning and sorting shells and cataloguing spindle whorls

During the morning, Karen and I were cleaning the potsherds. As we were doing this, students in yellow shirts from the local schools surrounded us. Wave upon wave of students arrived over the span of two hours and Karen enlisted them in helping clean the sherds. They all giggled and asked us important questions like how old we were and where we were from. Cameras came out and everybody took pictures. Karen feels we are sure to be featured on holiday cards at the end of the year. I forgot to give them my home address, so I probably won’t get to see them. The students wanted to help us with our Thai and they really enjoyed when we said yellow buffalo in English. They appeared to be high school students around 18 years of age and in the 10th grade. We can’t tell if the recent local publicity has increased the stream of visitors, but they are becoming another part of the routine of our day.

Students abound.JPG

The fruit for lunch today was watermelon. Very mundane.

Afternoon tasks included shell cleaning and spindle whorls. While the shells don’t appear that important at the site or in most of the graves, the ones we were cleaning completely covered one of the skeletons will help the researchers determine the climatic conditions during the various stages and what the people were eating. I counted and recorded the numbers for 126 spindle whorls used for making thread.

In Mr. Nim’s little taxi van, we have had many lively discussions and today was no exception. A discussion began about burial rites including cremation, containers of ashes and what the family members of the deceased can do with the ashes. One person told of a man who had been afraid of roller coasters, had asked his family to take his ashes for a ride on a specific coaster. They chose the front seat to open the lid to release dad, and the end of the rides coated occupants in the other cars of the coaster coated with dad. I mentioned that there is a possibility of having your remains compressed to form a diamond that can be gifted to a family member. Another option is the urn that can travel between family members for important holidays and occasions. Gail brought up that it could be formed into a brick. Karen across the van only heard part of the word and giggled thinking that Gail had said a word that rhymes with rick. Based on the lengthy discussion from Charles the night before and the Khmer fascination with male anatomy, Karen thought Gail was still focused on Linga’s and caused the entire back of the van to be convulsed with laughter.

We left work early today in order to go to the Phimai museum and take in the special exhibit of artifacts from our site and previous excavations lead by Charles and his team. Sarah was on site to interpret the objects as the signs were in Thai. It was wonderful to see samples of the types of pots that we were excavating to appreciate the details up close. We also got to see some of the copper belts and beads that were unearthed. The museum was very interesting and again with lots of Khmer architecture and pictures. The museum had a photo of the Phimai Prasat prior to the restoration and it was amazing to see what they had done to bring the building back. Wonderful workmanship.

We walked back through town for a little shopping and the market. I was a total tourist and ended up with my favorite Thai treat that Mom called "rocks rolled in mud." They are actually prune plums that have been dried and rolled in alum and salt. FABULOUS! I bought a wonderful Thai lei that is unlike Hawaiian leis. Thai lei’s are not a continuous circle, but are U shaped with wide ribbon at the short end of the U and then two streamers of flowers ending with a final large flower. The middle flowers are wonderfully fragrant and I took it back to my room as an air freshener. We went through the market and I bought wonderful cookies and little hair things and Karen bought a roti dessert. The dessert is made up of crepe batter, egg, condensed milk, bananas and sugar and baked like a crepe YUMMY!


Other things that we saw, but left at the market included various live fish, all sorts of pieces of meat and organs, baked and fried bugs including palmetto bugs and scorpions and rats on the skewer. NO THANK YOU!

Lisa and I trailed the pack and stopped to watch a cuckoo with striped breast and topknot and the lovely orchid store that was a man selling hanging pots of orchids of every color and description. We arrived back to find the hotel’s pool packed with kids, so no swim today

After dinner, Ollie gave a talk about his research on metallurgy at a site in Thailand and in Greece. I always find it incredible how ancient people figured out how to extract things out the earth. Ollie’s discussion was amazing about the furnaces that they made to extract copper and other metals and his experiments to replicate the techniques.

We will have a guest, Tom from the Archeological Digest, for a few days, as he will be writing an article on Charles. We kept trying to get him to help with the various projects, but he kept insisting that he had to take pictures and follow Charles around. Maybe our pictures will appear in print.

Fri, Feb 24 – This day was about being right and my lesson on boundaries.

My morning routine has become the alarm rings, morning processes and reading Trust your Vibes for the day, morning calisthenics, dress, breakfast and off to the site by 7:45. My morning selection in Sonia’s vibes book was about setting boundaries. This should have been my first clue.

After breakfast, I usually borrow/obtain bits of protein from other’s breakfasts and put it on a plate for the pregnant black kitty who hangs around the hotel. She loves it and knows to come when I call her. What a smart kitty. An elderly western gentleman reproached me about feeding the cat off a plate. He had been coming here for many years and he didn’t feel that the Thai’s appropriately cleaned the dishes. I told him that I thought it would be clean enough, but having been told off, he stormed away. Thanks for sharing. I suffered a mild power loss at this time.

We didn’t realize it, but we had taken off a little early and left Joan and Karen behind so one of the vehicles would have to return to pick them up. Mr. Nim stopped the van in the middle of the highway and waited for the last vehicle to come up. As the last vehicle had room, they turned around and went back for the volunteers. A little unnerving to be literally in the middle of the street, but luckily the traffic wasn’t too bad.

During the commute, I asked Tim, one of the graduate students, for the dimensions of the excavation pit. He said 11 by 12 meters and close to 3 meters deep. The depth was a guess because he was estimating the number of spits (10 cm sections that had been cut to date), and there were some sections that were at various levels depending if a burial was still being processed.

Not being an expert of dimensions, it sounded okay to me. This lead to an in depth discussion within the group that lasted well past lunch time on dimension and estimations of feet vs. meters and the ways to record dimensions. More power loss.

My am projects were up at the tables cleaning potsherds and shells again from the Neolithic age. This is the earliest group of people at this site so far, but Charles will continue to excavate a little lower to see what else they can find.

Fruit of the day for lunch was tangerines.

Karen and I took a stroll through the village at lunch and it helped me to clear my head. Baseline power restored.

My pm projects were also at the tables, but I shifted from potsherds to shells. It was mainly snail shells and sometimes I even found the little foot of the snail, the bit that would seal the shell shut. Fascinating. I also began cataloguing the conical rollers, another item that they are not quite sure what they were used for.

One of the things that I love about this work is that we are on site during the data collection and hardly any results have been made. Therefore, I can look forward to keeping an eye on the publications that will come out over the next 10-20 years and find out what all this means. Reading to look forward to for years! By the end of the day today, the total number of graves that have been found at this site since it began 4 years ago is 452. When the site was opened this year, the graves numbered only 310, so over 100 graves have been found in less than 2 months. The research team is pushing hard to complete the excavation by a week from tomorrow and based on what they are still uncovering, they expect to find several more graves in that time.

On the way back to the hotel after work, Meph took us on a side trip to a monument that was about to be dedicated. The monument was for the wife of a former mayor of Khorat in the middle 1800’s named Thung Samrit, who lead an army of women against the Laotians and won. The monument was on a high pedestal and showed a chariot with black metal figures of mainly women with bandannas around their breasts brandishing swords. The male figures were at the back of the monument. We saw the old monument that was made out of plaster and was painted. It shows the women and a few male figures, that we assumed were supposed to be Laotian, in various stages of death, including hanging limbs and various critical head wounds. Many pictures were taken at this site including one of Mr. Hiroshi at the former monument posing with the Laotian men.

Woman Warriors.JPG

Our after dinner entertainment was a DVD staring Charles as was about a Chinese grave that was found and was called the Mystery of Lady Dai. At this site in China it was amazing because the grave was so well preserved that the bodies come out with flexibility and all the organs intact. With an autopsy, they could tell that her cause of death was probably due to a gall stone attack and a weakened heart with arterial sclerosis. The video was the version that was aired in the US and it had hideous music and overly dramatic narration about this great mystery. Poor Mr. Hirorshi was in the prime seat to watch the brain being removing and the entrails being lifted for the third time, because after the break for the commercial, you had to catch everyone up again. We suggested to Charles that he might want to he air the British version in the future to avoid the music and the dramatic narration. At little gory, but really very interesting. Again, another site I will follow in the future, as they publish more findings and conclusions.

Posted by ladyjanes 01:44 Archived in Thailand Tagged postcards

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