Opinion & Analysis

What it’s like to work with the dead in Southeast Asia

As archaeologists, we not only work with the dead but also often with living cultures different from our own, writes Siân Halcrow.

OPINION:Oh, so you're like a historical bone detective?

That’s the type of comment I often receive when I describe my work to people.

While archaeologists do use many methods in common with forensics, the aims of our research are very different, and the relationships with the people we study are also different and wrapped up with much complexity.

I carry out my research in different parts of Southeast Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia. I focus on understanding the impacts of the intensification of agriculture on humans, and the roots of Asian civilisations, through the most direct means: The human skeleton.

Sian Halcrow conducts research in Southeast Asia

Sian Halcrow conducts research in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia. (Photo: Supplied/Sian Halcrow)

Southeast Asia is less well known archaeologically than East Asia and the “West”, but it is an important place to analyse human adaptation and disease evolution in its unique, varied biological and social environments.

The research in Southeast Asia is especially important as archaeological models based on subsistence change in the Americas, Europe or Near East are likely not relevant worldwide.

Some recent projects Im working on include the Plain of Jars sites in Laos, which are pending Unesco World Heritage status. I also manage the skeletal collection from a late Iron Age site in northeast Thailand, called Non Ban Jak. This work is especially important, in terms of looking at the development of social complexity directly prior to the development of the Kingdom of Angkor that extended its control into this region.

We work on painstaking excavating sites, recording burials in situ, and then dry, pack, transport, clean, and analyse the skeletons with the ultimate aim to disseminate this knowledge through papers and talks.

Cultural attitudes to death

As archaeologists, we are not only working with the dead but also often working with living cultures different from our own.

Whats not often investigated in our field is the way we feel about, and relate to, the people we work with – both the dead and the living.

Ethics are an important component of investigating cultural attitudes to death. But what is ethical is largely dependent on the social and cultural context.

The ethics of dealing with the dead are particularly complex for foreign archaeologists like myself working in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia has a long and often brutal colonial history, and archaeology was a favoured tool of the colonisers. Southeast Asians today are now becoming more conscious of maintaining their independence, including in research.

Over the past few decades, there has been a movement for local management of projects and genuine collaboration between foreigners and locals. Alongside this, there has been repatriation of human remains from many international museums back to local communities.

Many archaeologists working in Thailand are now dedicated to building local expertise through research and training. However, there is still a power differential in who holds the funding for excavation and specialty research facilities.

“Archaeological practice is an untapped opportunity to look at cross-cultural understandings of relationships between the living and the dead.”

As a New Zealander working in Asian archaeology, my belief system is often at odds with the people that we are working with in the past and present. My work with human skeletal remains from archaeological sites in Northeast Thailand is very much accepted by the Thai in large part due to Buddhism, where the body is seen more like a vessel.

But differences in beliefs were significant in my work with indigenous groups in the Cambodian Cardamom Mountains. The ancient people from these sites were likely animists. The practice of exhuming the dead would have been abhorrent to them. Our practice had to comply with the community beliefs of their relationship with the dead. All skeletal remains apart from small samples had to be reburied immediately after analyses.

A recent experience in Thailand really brought home to me the difference in how I interact with the long dead and the recent dead.

One day, our next-door neighbour came to our house where we were doing our analyses. She seemed interested in my work and asked if I could help her identify which bones were which. While I was bemused at why she would want to know this, I agreed.

She then invited me to her house and presented me with a large basket with the cremated remains of her late husband. She wanted me to identify the uncrushed fragments!

I often feel a disconnect with people from the past. Maybe this is some kind of coping mechanism, similar to what is often described by forensic anthropologists when dealing with the recently deceased. But looking at the cremated remains of the woman’s husband was very difficult for me emotionally.

Archaeological practice can be more than just analyses of scientific finds.

It is an untapped opportunity to look at cross-cultural understandings of relationships between the living and the dead, and therefore, the inner workings of our societies.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre