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Sian Halcrow

Data collection from the subadult samples in the lab at the Fine Arts Department.

Siân Halcrow

Lifting the bones of a child with an antiquity of at least 2,500 years

Siân Halcrow

Excavating a newborn burial from inside a large Bronze Age burial jar

Siân Halcrow

Excavation of an Iron Age adult burial.

Siân Halcrow

The main excavation square at Ban Non Wat.

Siân Halcrow

University of Otago

Siân is a PhD student in Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago, and is making a study of subadult health and disease in prehistoric Southeast Asia. She has planned two periods of fieldwork in Northeastern Thailand. The first, late November 2002 to mid-March 2003, was supported by an Asia 2000-NZASIA grant.


The overall aim of my PhD research is to produce a large-scale comparative analysis of subadult health in prehistoric Southeast Asia. For this purpose I will use skeletal samples from the Mun and the Chi River Valleys (tributaries of the Mekong River) in Northeast Thailand, samples that span from the Neolithic to the Iron Age (2500BC to 500AD).

I anticipate that, by using a biocultural approach, a comparison of health among the samples may illuminate the natural and cultural environmental factors that are important in influencing the health of a population. Changes in the cultural environment occur over time with the development of complex societies. This study can contribute to understanding the development of the socio-cultural developments in Thailand, a question pertinent to current archaeological investigations being carried out in this area.

Fieldwork is an integral part of my programme of study. Data collection from skeletal samples is essential if I am to address adequately my research questions relating to subadult health and growth in prehistoric Southeast Asia

I recently completed a first period of fieldwork in Thailand, from 25th November 2002 to 15th March 2003. There were two main components of this time in the field. The first was data collection from prehistoric subadult skeletal samples, housed at the Thailand Fine Arts Department in Phimai, and excavation of archaeological samples from the Northeast Thailand site of Ban Non Wat. Data collection involved the study of a total number of 140 subadults from the archaeological sites of Mung Sema, Noen U-Loke and Ban Lum Khao. I investigated and recorded bone elements present, estimation of age of death, collection of metric measurements of long bones and cranial bones, and any dental and skeletal pathology. Radiographs were acquired of long bones and dentition to assess growth and dental age respectively. A photographic record of dentition and pathology of the samples studied was also undertaken.

The second component of my fieldwork involved the excavation, data collection and curation of the skeletal remains from the site of Ban Non Wat in Northeast Thailand. This was carried out alongside Dr Nancy Tayles from the Anatomy and Structural Biology Department, University of Otago.

The excavation at Ban Non Wat is part of the "Origins of Angkor Archaeological Project" run by the Otago University's Department of Anthropology and the Fine Arts Department of Thailand. This is a multidisciplinary research collaboration investigating the development of the Iron Age as a precursor to the development of the Angkorian civilisation. The 2001-2003 excavation seasons have uncovered an archaeological sequence that spans from the Neolithic through to the late Iron Age, with a total of 118 human burials.

This site is important archaeologically, as Neolithic burials are rare in Thailand and no large cemeteries have been excavated until now. This site therefore gives a unique insight into the period from the Neolithic to the Late Iron Age. This extended period of occupation has additional research potential as it provides an opportunity to see if there is any health change over the whole prehistoric period in question.

Sample size in bioarchaeology is always an issue when exploring age structure of the sample, changes in health over time and differences in health between sites. The large, well-preserved sample uncovered from this site will be particularly useful for addressing these questions.

It is also interesting to note the discoveries of extremely rich grave offerings with very early interments at this site. This poses interesting questions surrounding the existing theories of social organisation development in Southeast Asia (a subject on which Otago's Professor Charles Higham has recently published).

Other activities undertaken while in Phimai included the analysis and preparation of osteological reports on two subadult individuals excavated from the archaeological site of Ban Kra Buaeng, Northeast Thailand. These were submitted to the director of the excavation, Dr Rachanie Thosarat of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

I was also lucky enough to visit an excavation in Lopburi, Central Thailand, directed by Dr Sawang Lertrit, an archaeologist from Silpakorn University, Bangkok. I was invited to present a "hands-on" tutorial on aspects of human osteology. In this tutorial I aimed to assist the students in identifying human bone in the field and develop their understanding of techniques of field recording, excavation and curation of human bones. Visiting this excavation was also invaluable in terms of meeting and making contacts with researchers in Southeast Asian Archaeology.

My activities at the site, which included excavation, lifting, field data recording and curation of the human remains, form the basis of my practical training as a bioarchaeologist. The large number of burials uncovered presented a challenging workload, and provided me with an opportunity to develop my skills in excavation considerably.

As a result of this fieldwork and data collection I plan this year to present papers at the New Zealand Archaeological Association Conference in April and a general paper, a requirement of my Asian Studies Research Grant (University of Otago), describing some of my preliminary results. In 2004 I plan to present my results to at least two international conferences including the American Association of Physical Anthropology Conference and the Palaeopathology Association Meeting.