DON HEIN, Sisatchanalai, Thailand.
Excerpt of a letter written to Scott Bamber in response to his review of the documentary film Village of Jars published in Asian Studies Review, an excerpt of which was printed in issue no.4 of this newsletter. Don Hein was named as the site director in Bamber's review.
You review a film (Asian Studies Review, July 1993, VoL.17 No.1, pp.164-5) and use the chance to extrapolate beyond the content or purpose of the film. You know nothing about the individuals concerned or their works but you choose to cast aspersion by the shoddy use of innuendo and assumption. You are wrong on several major points.
You state, "It comes as little surprise to learn that prior to commencing the study in the village, no-one appears to have thought to ask the permission of the people who live in it." Now I don't doubt that you might hide behind "appears" but the fact is that a year prior to our excavation in Ban Xang Hai, a Lao colleague from the Department of Museums and Archaeology and I went to the village. We sat down with Phu Yai Ban (chairman) and village elders and talked about the project. After explaining the purpose of the excavation and how the work might proceed and answering many questions, we asked if we could come to the village in the following year to excavate. Informed permission was given.
We arrived in mid-October 1990. As previously arranged, we accommodated in normally unoccupied lower (storage) spaces of two houses. We built a toilet (having brought pans), and began engaging local people to build shelters over the dig site. About fifteen villagers were employed, being trained for particular roles, and others were employed as cooks, night-watchmen and general duties. Those living close to the excavation were given employment priority in compensation for any disruption. We paid about three times the usual rate. The midday meal was supplied free to all, medicine was dispensed as required and several people both workers and villagers were sent all costs paid to Luang Prabang for medical treatment.
Until the end of the year we worked six days a week on the excavation. In celebration of Christmas we gave clothes and small gifts (which we brought for the purpose) to all of the village children. We donated money and kind to families who experienced a death in the house. Several larger donations were make toward Buddhist events that occurred while we were there. At the end of the dig most of the spare stores were give to the village, including mattresses, covers and other bedding, buckets, containers, tools, stationery, cooking gear and all of the shelter materials. Gifts were given to specially helpful individuals. We parted with very good relations and return visits since then have continued the freidship.
...I deny your assertion of "dismay on the villagers' faces as they realise that they will be left with nothing" not only because of what I have said above but what follows.
During the dig one of our Thai team members who is otherwise a potter in this village (Ban Ko Noi near Sisatchanalai) told the people of his experience and discussion led to the suggestion of a pottery at Ban Xang hai. The village is on a tourist route (to the Pak Ou caves) and making rice wine is the only income to support subsistence farming, so a pottery was sensible concept and a good number of the people were keen to give it a try.
I discussed the idea with the Australian Ambassador in Vientiane Mr. Michael Mann and he agreed to fund the pottery. A concept plan was prepared and submitted to the Lao authorities. During planned excavations in Luang Prabang in 1992/3, my Thai colleague and I were to spend our weekends over six months, teaching, building kilns, helping develop skills and confidence, etc. Unpaid. Along with the pottery idea was a scheme to build an integrated on-site display focusing on the kilns and ceramic tradion. Unfortunately Mr. Bamber, the plan failed to proceed, I suspect in part because we refused to pay graft to officials who would do nothing without personal reward.
In your review you even convert to the negative our care in returning the site to the original condition. At significant cost and trouble, six truck loads of sand were brought in to fill the pit to within 50cm of the surface, then plastic sheet was laid and top soil added and compacted to leave a firm and usable surface. Sand is always used for two reasons. It provides a stable environment for the historic features (in this case kilns and pots) and allows easy and safe re-opening for any future work, either professional or cultural. Even if the concept of an on-site display was to be approved (surely you were not suggesting a display could be planned, approved and funded before we knew what was there) the site had to be protected from the elements and vandalism (quiet looting has been going on there for years -but it is very difficult to loot througgh sand). It was our professional responsibility to close the pit.
Even given good judgment and will, the setting up of on-site displays is not a simple matter. As the excavation was right in the village and even a small museum would mean some displacement of houses, sensitive negotiation regarding resettlement and compensation would be needed. And who would own and operate the facility? In my experience outsiders get the best opportunities and jobs and villagers are shoved to the side. We recommended training be provided so local people could manage the operation, and that might have been another reason why approval was not given. Incidentally, when you referred to permanent displays "such as has been done at sites in Thailand," I wonder if you had in mind those of Kiln 61 and Kiln 42 at Sisatchanalai? Odd that both of them were our discoveries (1983 and 1984) and that we made the recommendations for those too - it is all a matter of record.
I resent the insinuation of your "...foreigners, be they archaeologists or government officials, have their own agenda..." I and my wife Toni happen to have spent the past decade in Southeast Asia, most of it at the village level, and have had a continuing interest here for twenty years. We have two Thai daughters-in-law. We set up a local pottery (based on family-owned kilns) which has become an important factor in the economic structure of this village (in which we have no pecuniary interest). With nobody having education above the primary level, we established a scholarship scheme which currently has thirty-five kids going to high school. ...There is a water supply, a library, etc.
There is another point worth mentioning. I am told you are an archaeologist, and I find it contradictory that you appear to subscribe to the cargo cult mentality principle, which insists that everybody has a right to expect disproportionate reward for any imposition. Your review article suggests that the people of Ban Xang Hai should have received goodies beyond a fair salary, high payments for rent and boat hire, income from the sale of vegetables and meat, gifts of materials and equipment, etc. That somehow it was the responsibility of researchers to bestow on-going income or facility or other largesse.
Well Mr.Bamber they have no such responsibility and no attempt should be made to create the expectation. Research funding is not aid, nor are fieldworkers necessarily the people who should try to do such things. Our own attempts in the past reflect a particular philosophy and are not a response to demand (either by potential recipients or false prophets) or guilt. However, involvement in such activity can endanger research projects (visas and permits usually specify and delimit the kind of activity approved) and may detract from responsible research programmes.
There was no irregularity concerning the excavated artefacts... The matter of finds is entirely the responsibility of the appropriate department and the government. All important finds are registered and have a reference number affixed. We provide copies of the records and account for everything, and other than test samples no finds are removed by us. We did suggest some of the jars could be incorporated in the on-site display, but the future use of finds remains the sole prerogative of the Department of Museums and Archaeology.
Overall your review is unjust, unfair and uninformed. Instead of focusing on the content of the film you took on the cloak of the great defender of people's rights and made accusations were none were due. There may be situations of naivety and exploitation deserving your condemnation but our excavation was not a case where just imputation could be made. Your words served to impose na?ve and exploitive attitudes where they did not exist. Both in fact and spirit, you were wrong about the events and you were wrong about the individuals. Either as a journalist or a researcher you failed your professional responsibility to find out the facts before making judgments, especially ones that affected others. Your smart-arsed article left me angry and more than a bit annoyed.
I am an old dog who knows the damage is done. There will be no amelioration or withdrawal. You have made you politically correct assertions and served to reinforce the out-dated view that we continue unabated to abuse them...
P.S. I happen to think the film is poor and had I had any say it would not have made it through the cutting room.
PAUL BISHOP, Dept. of Geography & Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton. Australia.
A couple of issues arising from the reprinting of an extract from Bamber's review deserve further discussion, especially as the reprinting seems to imply support of the position taken by Bamber. The issues raised by Bamber are extremely important for those working in other countries and it concerns me that Bamber's viewpoint ahs significant elements of a 'cargo-cult' mentality, as well as raising the broader issue of what visiting researchers and scientists should or should not leave behind when their research in a foreign country is concluded. I comment here on Bamber's review in the context of a personal knowledge of some of the participants of the Laos excavation, and confirm at the outset that I have worked, and continue to work, with Don Hein in the Sisatchanalai - Sukhothai area of northern Thailand. I will limit my comments to the general. I have no information on the fate of artefacts (but suggest that Bamber's innuendo that they may not have stayed in the country in unfortunate in the light of his failure to present evidence either way) and I will leave to others more closely associated with the excavations to address such issues.
The fundamental question is: "What should happen to sites after they have been excavated?" and "Should locals expect some reward, other than salaries, for participating in excavations?" Permanent displays are evidently favoured by Scott Bamber but their value is not at all self-evident. Some permanently open excavations (displays) at Sisatchanalai and Ban Chiang, for example, are deteriorating quite rapidly because of groundwater effects. Such effects do not appear to have been experienced at the same excavations in Sisatchanalai during the time they were backfilled between their initial excavation and their re-opening for further work and preparation for display. Irreplaceable evidence is being lost by this deterioration. Indeed, one might even argue that the ultimate form of the display is the historical park, such as at Sukhothai and Sisatchanalai, in which grading, smoothing and grassing of the ground around monuments is evidently seen by some as an appropriate approach to preservation of sites.
One wonders what precisely Scott Bamber would like the locals to be left with from an excavation, to "contribute to their future well-being." As an example of the possibilities, the local people at the Ban Ko Noi kiln excavation sites, near Sisatchanalai, have been left with many benefits, including the following:
- an understanding and an appreciation tthat the looting and selling of artefacts are unacceptable to those who love Thai history and want to preserver it;
- a skill in modelling, glazing, firing and selling small, tasteful reproductions of the ancient ceramic wares that are clearly identifiable as reproductions; these are sold to the increasing tourist traffic and to souvenir dealers in Bangkok;
- a system of providing cheap village-hoouse accommodation to tourists and tourist parties visiting the excavation sites;
- a water supply system that was establiished during the excavations and which is now managed by the villagers;
- a scholarship system funded by donatioons from former visitors and workers (including scientists and other researcher) that currently provides secondary school education to about 30 Ban Ko Noi village children who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to attend secondary school;
- properly constructed septic sewerage ssystems that have resulted in dramatic decrease in stomach illness;
and so on
Certainly some of these, such as the tourist traffic through the village, depend on the displays and excavations that have remained open (though the increase in this traffic certainly predated the displays). Others, however, such as the rebirth of the ceramics industry in the area, which also depended initially on the tourist trade, no have the potential to survive on the souvenir trade in Bangkok. Equally obviously, these initiatives have taken considerable time and effort to be established and to flourish. If visiting researchers want to make a lasting contribution to the locals, these are the sorts of things that they may have to contemplate. Indeed, one of the most valuable and lasting gifts may, in fact, be a respect for their history, on which Scott Bamber evidently places little value. Nobody profits from a cargo-cult mentality of the type apparently being suggested in the review, not the local people, not archaeology, and certainly not the archaeologists.
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