The last two editions of Arte-Factual dealt with the art and archaeology of the very first Tomb Raider game. In this latest edition, I’ll be writing about one of the many collectable relics Lara comes across in the 2013 reboot: a Ban Chiang vase.
We don’t really know how this ancient vase ended up on the island but Lara correctly identifies it as being from Thailand. Perhaps she had seen a similar vase in a museum or had visited the Ban Chiang archaeological site in Thailand’s Udon Thani Province during her time as a student. What we do know is that the vase seen in the game is a classic example of the Ban Chiang ceramic tradition that stretches back over hundreds of years. The earliest Ban Chiang pottery, which dates as far back as the early 3rd millennium BC, was black, cord-marked, and decorated with incised geometric and spiral motifs whilst later pottery was characterised by its hand painted red-on-buff designs.
The vase featured in the game may have been based on one of the early Ban Chiang vases in the Krannert Art Museum’s Asian arts collection. As you can see from the image below, both vases are primarily black with a reddish tinge and decorated with the same curvilinear designs. Vessels such as these were often found at burial sites and sometimes contained rice and other food offerings, which suggests they may have served a ritual purpose.
Although parts of the archaeological site had already been targeted by local treasure hunters, it’s said that the official discovery of the Ban Chiang site in 1966 was, quite literally, an accident. Harvard anthropology and government student Stephen Young had been walking along a path in Ban Chiang village with his assistant when he tripped over the roots of a Kapok tree and landed amongst some partially buried clay pots.
Excavations at the site have since revealed that the earliest graves date back to about 2100 BC and that the site had been continuously occupied for a period of over 2,000 years. More importantly, the discovery of bronze artefacts at the Ban Chiang site showed that bronze metallurgy did not spread to Southeast Asia from China as previously thought but had evolved independently. Up until then, the commonly held theory was that cultural development in prehistoric Southeast Asia had been stimulated by the influence of external forces, namely China and India.
The discoveries made at Ban Chiang suggest that northeastern Thailand may have been the centre of an independent and innovative cultural tradition that went on to help shape Southeast Asian history and whose cultural influences can be found as far afield as the Indonesian archipelago. Ban Chiang’s role in Southeast Asian cultural history earned it a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1992 and the site continues to reveal its secrets to this day.
If you’d like to learn more about Ban Chiang and its distinctive ceramic tradition, check out the links below:
- Ban Chiang (Wikipedia)
- The Ban Chiang Project (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology)
- Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (UNESCO)
- Video: Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (UNESCO/NHK)
- Ban Chiang, Thailand (About.Com: Archaeology)
- Arts of Asia: Ban Chiang Vessel (Krannert Art Museum)
- Archaeological Survey and Excavation of Ban Chiang Culture Sites in Northeast Thailand by William Schauffler (Expedition 18(4):14-26)
- Symmetry and Symbolism in Ban Chiang Painted Pottery by Penny van Esterik (Journal of Anthropological Research 35(4): 495-508)
- The transmission of early bronze technology to Thailand: new perspectives by Joyce C. White and Elizabeth G. Hamilton (Journal of World Prehistory 22: 357-397)
P.S. A huge thanks to Brandon Klassen of The Tomb Raider HQ Archives for his fantastic screenshot of the Ban Chiang vase in Tomb Raider 2013. You can follow him on Twitter under the username @tombraiderhq.