Urban Communities in Thailand, 5th to 9th Cent.


A review of Ideology, Identity and the Construction of Urban Communities: The Archaeology of Kamphaeng Saen, Central Thailand (c. Fifth to Ninth Century CE) by Matthew D. Gallon.

Matthew Gallon’s dissertation is a meticulously researched and lucid account of the Dvaravati culture and gives new insights into the rise of urbanism in Thailand in the first millennium CE. Over seven chapters the author studies the development of urban communities in the Dvaravati culture, based on regional remote sensing surveys, and detailed archaeological research conducted at Kampheang Saen, a mid-sized enclosed settlement of the early Dvaravati period. From the field work results he establishes a chronology of the village, and estimates the production and consumption of goods in the settlement over its period of existence. The work finishes with a discussion about the characteristics of Dvaravati urbanism compared to contemporary societies in Southeast Asia. With its clear structure, precise language and well explained figures and maps, the thesis is a stimulating read.

The first chapter provides a theoretical background of what influences the development of urban communities.  The theories of historic scholars, from Fustel de Coulange to Childe and Weber show the importance of ideology, religion, and other group identities as common factors to connect people of different social status in an urban space. Gallon provides a detailed literature review on past and modern concepts of urbanism and inter-site relationships, and the use of space in local and regional aspects as such, and on Southeast Asia in particular.

The second chapter lays out the environmental and historical setting for the development of the Dvaravati. Based on the work of Higham, Glover, White, Bellwood and others, the author gives a chronological overview of the landscape and settlements found around the Chao Praya delta; from protohistoric beginnings of small Iron Age villages, to circular and moated sites of the Bronze Age, until the emergence of the urban centres of the Dvaravati culture.

In the third chapter the author defines the term Dvaravati and introduces the archaeology representing it. A comprehensive literature review is given on the material culture associated, the extent and influence of the ceramic style, sculptures and monuments, which were found predominantly in the central valley, an agriculturally fertile region that supported a large population, while a vast system of waterways provided trading opportunities. Historically associated with the rise of Buddhist and Hindu influence in Southeast Asia in the 7th to 11th century, Dvaravati urbanism and political complexity emerged from a long trajectory of indigenous cultural development, while actively adopting foreign ideas; e. g. Dvaravati sculptures comprise local and South Asian styles. Recent studies have connected early Dvaravati styles to the 3rd century AD, placing it into a period of cultural development occurring all over Southeast Asia. Archaeological evidence was found over large parts of modern Thailand, even crossing cultural boundaries, except the low lying Bangkok plain, indicating that the coastline may have been further inland. While the Dvaravati culture initially consisted of loosely connected multiple chiefdoms, they may have unified into a centralized state that had its political centre at Nakhon Pathom.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the development and use of urban space in the Dvaravati period. Gallon discusses the evidence of the establishment of regional centers, how they interacted with each other; a difficult task due to lacking textural sources. To study the configuration of 23 moated sites and cities associated with the Dvaravati period, he used remote sensing imagery (LandSAT and Spot) and non-systematic surveys, and presents an overview on size and shape, and features like moats, ramparts and spatial distribution of religious monuments. For each site he describes the archaeological and interpretative work by other researchers and their respective discussion in academic literature. The great variety in investigated sites serves as points of discussion in regards of the chronological development and use of urban space. To discuss potential influences, the typology of moat plans, classified by size and shape, and particularly the late rectangular moats, are compared with contemporary development in Southeast Asia, India and China. Gallon questions the potential ritual meaning of geometric configurations, by arguing that due to lack of elevation the local population may not have had the chance to appreciate it. A wider perspective marks the interconnection of the centers to ritual places and monasteries in their periphery. Similar spatial configurations of other Dvaravati settlements are seen as evidence of closer connections, and a possibly centralized organization. Larger moated sites may have had administrative and redistributive functions for the smaller not moated settlements in their surroundings. The development of urban centers at key locations may have connected central Thailand with other regions, resulting in long distance trade and interaction. Uneven distribution of raw materials, different specializations and the riverine trading routes may have encouraged trade between centers, and forged new connections.

A detailed description of the fieldwork results derived from the Kamphaeng Saen Archaeology Project in 2009-2010 is given in Chapter 5. Systematic field surveys, core samples and test excavations in a midsize settlement that existed between the 5th and 9th century CE, revealed a large amount of ceramic material: unglazed, mostly undecorated, earthenware, among other finds. Gallon explains the analytical methods to interpret the finds, including archaeobotanical and faunal remains, and describes other diagnostic material, such as beads, ground stones and metal objects, while charcoal samples served for radio carbon dating. By comparing the results from Kamphaeng Saen to other settlements, he concludes that due to the little evidence of specialization found, it may not be representative of typical Dvaravati settlements.

Gallon uses Chapter 6 to draw conclusions from the archaeological results of Kamphaeng Saen on the development of the site, and its implications on the aspect of regional dynamics. Based on the carbon dates, the settlement was founded in the Early Dvaravati period, having its most intensive occupation from the 5th/6th century CE to the mid-7th century CE. The earthworks may have been installed for a multitude of reasons, from military defense, flood control, to a spiritual significance. Gallon discusses the use of space in Kamphaeng Saen, and presents an estimate on the economy, the production and consumption of a town this size. The town was abandoned after the 7th century CE, however may have served as a religious site later on. There are a number of possible reasons for the premature decline prior to the end of the Dvaravati period, its inhabitants moving to the countryside, or to the near Nakhon Pathom, which had become an important regional trading centre that drew people from all over the Dvaravati sphere of influence.

The author completes his study in Chapter 7 with a comparative discussion on Dvaravati urbanism and its similarities and differences with the centers of other societies that were founded in continental Southeast Asia at the time. With an outlook to recent research and newly developed theories on city models, such as John Miksic’ heterogenetic and orthogenetic centers and Roland Fletcher’s low density urbanism, Gallon explains how the local urbanism at Kamphaeng Saen can be understood. He discusses the opportunities and challenges that came with the development of urban societies in Thailand, such as economic complexity, political power, security, the forming of communal identities, and constructions of monuments, as well as the interaction with the rural hinterland. A challenge that Kamphaeng Saen, as a non-specialized, mid-size settlement, finally succumbed to.

Dr. Till F. Sonnemann
Postdoctoral Fellow
Universiteit Leiden; Faculteit Archeologie, Caribbean and Amazonia

Dissertation Information
University of Michigan. 2013. 718 pp. Primary Advisor: Carla M. Sinopoli

Primary Sources
Excavation reports
Visits to local archives

Image: Photo by dissertation author

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