History Podcasts

Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (UNESCO/NHK)

Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (UNESCO/NHK)

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Ban Chiang, Thailand is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in South-East Asia. It marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals.

Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai
URL: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/575/


Ban Chiang

Ban Chiang is an archaeological site located on the Khorat plateau of Udon Thani province in north-east Thailand. It was occupied from about 3600 BC to 200 AD. It was first recognized as an archaeological site in 1960, with preliminary excavations conducted by the Thai Fine Arts Department in 1967 and 1972. Since then there have been a number of collaborative excavations and other investigations by the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Fine Arts Department.

Occupants of the modern village of Ban Chiang (founded in the late eighteenth century AD) had long been aware of the archaeological site underneath their houses, but they did not start excavating material for sale until the early 1970s, when reports of the site reached wealthy Bangkok collectors and dealers (Gorman 1981, 1982 Lyons and Rainey, 1982). The villagers would sink shafts down to the required depth and then tunnel out, looking for the collectable red-on-buff decorated pottery that is found in iron-age burials, dating to the final centuries of the site’s occupation. Looting was at its height between 1970 and 1972, when material was being shipped out through the nearby US airbase at Udon (Thosarat 2001: 8). The local farmers are reported to have used the income derived from selling their finds for medical care and educating their children (Gorman 1982: 34).

Looting declined in the late 1970s, in part because of the presence of official archaeological excavation teams, and in part because of an Thai government decree passed in July 1972 making it illegal to buy, sell or export Ban Chiang pottery (though the site was already protected at the time by Thai antiquities legislation passed in 1961 (Thosarat 2001: 15-16)), and perhaps also because the most easily accessible graves had by then been exhausted. As a result, digging transferred to other sites in the region with a similar cultural assemblage. In 1982, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Chester Gorman, who had worked at Ban Chiang, reported that in the previous five years of survey not one site had been discovered intact (Gorman 1982: 34). He also drew attention to the production of fake pottery in neighboring villages. Made from local materials, these fakes were indistinguishable from original pieces. Some were composites of old and new material (Gorman 1982: 32).

On 28 September 1990, Ban Chiang was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The associated documentation claimed that looting had stopped at the site, but by 2001 it was clear that looting had recommenced at Ban Chiang and at other sites in the area, and that large quantities of material were reaching the United States (Thosarat 2001: 14). In 2008, several dealers and museums in southern California were raided by US federal agents on suspicion of selling and acquiring illegally-exported Ban Chiang pottery.



The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is a large, prehistoric earthen mound located in an agricultural area in the Ban Chiang Sub-district, Nong Han District of Udon Thani Province in northeast Thailand, within the watershed of the Mekong River.

Ban Chiang was the centre of a remarkable phenomenon of human cultural, social, and technological evolution in the 5th millennium BC, which occurred independently in this area of south-east Asia and spread widely over South-East Asia. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals. It has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992.

The importance of this archaeology does not limited only within Thailand. Ban Chiang Project under the Institute for Southeast Asian Archaeology (ISEAA) at Penn Museum established in October 2013 continues to builds upon the decades-long archaeological research programs in Thailand and Laos at the Penn Museum.

ISEAA continues to publish research findings from the archaeological site of Ban Chiang in a monograph series in the middle Mekong region (northeast Thailand and Laos). It develops and supports accessible online databases for scholars of Southeast Asian prehistory and support capacity-building in Southeast Asia for archaeologists, heritage managers, and related professionals. These serve the main objectives to protect and promote the cultural and environmental heritage of Southeast Asia.

Dr. Joyce White, longtime Director of Ban Chiang Project at Penn Museam and ISEAA Executive Director said “What is needed is a 21 st century online living digital resource archive for Thai archaeology that encompasses Ban Chiang and several other Thai sties whose data are at the Penn Museum and is expandable to other sites not only in Thailand but also Laos.”


Ban Chiang Archaeological Site

Ban Chiang is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in South-East Asia. It marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals. Discovered in 1966, Ban Chiang Archeological Site attracted enormous publicity due to the attraction of red painted pottery, the site has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992.

The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is a large, prehistoric earthen mound located in an agricultural area in the Ban Chiang Sub-district, Nong Han District of Udon Thani Province in northeast Thailand, within the watershed of the Mekong River. It is an oval-shaped mound formed by human habitation 500 meters x 1,350 meters and 8 meters high.

The site was first discovered in 1966. It has since been extensively excavated and its remains studied by Thai and international scholars. Since 1966 the dating of the site has been adjusted and refined over time in line with advances in the understanding and techniques of radiometric dating. This research has revealed that the site dates from 1,495 BC and contains early evidence for settled agrarian occupation in Southeast Asia, along with evidence of rice agriculture, associated technological complex of domesticated farm animals, ceramic manufacture, and bronze tool-making technology. The total area of the property is 67.36 ha of which approximately 0.09% has been excavated (as of 2012).

A series of excavations were found and displayed in Ban Chiang including spears, pottery, jewelry and farm tools. In addition to the tools and relics found at the site, there were also several skeletons that were unearthed. Moreover, rice fragments excavated were concluded that the earlier settlers in the area were farmers. All items discovered at the site are now on display at the Ban Chiang Archaeological Museum. This well curated facility provides information about each of the item that were collected at the excavation site. These items were able to showcase three main periods and six sub-periods during the prehistoric era in Ban Chiang.

The Ban Chiang Archaeological site and museum opens from Tuesday to Sunday, at 8.30 a.m to 4.30 p.m with the entrance fee is 150 Thai Baht per person.


Wiang Chet Lin (Wiang Misankorn)

Era: c. 500-1200 CEGPS Coordinates: 18.81288, 98.95267

A Brief History of Wiang Chet Lin

The Lawa people are considered by historians and the Thai people themselves as the original inhabitants of their country. That said, their native-born cities which once surrounded the modern city of Chiang Mai brought them into conflict, subjugation, and alliance with several generations of migrants.

The pinnacle of this was their tenuous relationship with the Dvaravati kingdom of Hariphunchai. This city was based in modern-day Lamphun and their records contain many stories of their relationship with the Lawa, who are represented as antagonists (from the Hariphunchai point of view).

However, the legendary Lawa founder of Wiang Misankorn is also the founder of Hariphunchai. The two cultures collaborated on Buddhist temples such as Wat Ku Din Khao and San Ku, which sits atop Doi Pui.

By the time that settlers from Chiang Saen established the Lanna Kingdom in the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Basin, the majority of the valley’s Lawa inhabitants had abandoned their cities, leaving their walled ruins for the Thais to rebuild into Wiang Chet Lin, Wiang Suan Dok, and Chiang Mai.

What Is There to See in Wiang Chet Lin?

Very little remains of any of the Lawa cities, as they were built over by the Thai newcomers when they founded Chiang Mai.

  • The circular Wiang Chet Lin city wall runs through the Huay Kaew Arboretum.
  • Wat Ku Din Khao is a Lawa-Hariphunchai-era temple in the Chiang Mai Zoo. is a Lawa-Hariphunchai-era temple at the peak of Doi Pui mountain.

How to Get to Wiang Chet Lin

Wiang Chet Lin sits at the northwestern edge of Chiang Mai city, at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. It is easily accessible by any city transport heading that way, including tuk-tuks, red trucks, and the city buses. Get off on the Huay Kaew Road outside the Chiang Mai zoo, and you’ll be in the heart of Wiang Chet Lin.


Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex

Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex is a jungle that covers five provinces of Thailand including Phetchabun, Chaiyaphum, Lopburi, Saraburi, and Nakhon Ratchasima. The entire jungle was covered by thick forest. The clearing of the forest began in the 19 th century with the name of the forest changing from Dong Phaya Fai to Dong Phaya Yen to mean “the forest has been tamed.” Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, which includes mountains, ranges, and several national parks, was listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The site covers a total area of 6,155 square kilometers.


The legacy of Ban Chiang: Archaeologist Joyce White Q&A | Isaan Record

Fifty years ago in August, in the village of Ban Chiang near Udon Thani, a visiting American student named Stephen Young tripped over an exposed tree root and fell atop the rim of a clay pot partly buried in the village path. His tumble set into motion two joint Thai-American archaeological expeditions to Ban Chiang in the 1970s that exposed the extent of prehistoric burial sites beneath the village, sites filled with thousands of pieces of pottery and metalwork buried as grave goods by Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples at different times between 4200 and 1800 years ago. The Ban Chiang finds revealed unexpected technological and artistic development among the peoples of the region and challenged prevailing ideas about the prehistory of Southeast Asia.

American archaeologist Dr. Joyce White is the Director of the Ban Chiang project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, USA, where she has studied the finds from Ban Chiang since 1976. She is an expert witness for the US Department of Justice in an ongoing antiquities trafficking case that in 2014 resulted in the return of many smuggled Ban Chiang items to Thailand.

Dr. White recently spoke to The Isaan Record about the legacy of the discoveries at Ban Chiang, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a renowned archaeological museum.

IR: For archaeologists, what have been the most important discoveries at Ban Chiang over the last 50 years?

Ban Chiang’s contribution to understanding the past is ever-evolving — what one archaeologist thinks is important another disputes and thinks something else is important. Moreover, some aspects of the ancient society need a great deal of more investigation and publication.

But there are two portions of the data that have now been thoroughly studied: the human skeletons, which are fully published, and the metallurgy, which is close to being published. Results from intensive study of these two datasets are important for debunking long-held stereotypes about the human past that derived from long-term archaeological research in the Near East, Europe, and Central America.

IR: What do the skeletal remains and metallurgical finds show?

The Ban Chiang skeletal evidence revealed that metal age agrarian societies in that part of Thailand were notably healthy and peaceful – [there is] no evidence for interpersonal violence consistent with regular warfare. The metallurgy was used for symbolic and utilitarian purposes. Only late in the Iron Age in the Upper Mun Valley (at Noen U-Loke) is there evidence that some amount of warring was occurring.

Significant ill-health is found in some prehistoric skeletal populations along the coast (at Khok Phanom Di in Chonburi province). But in Isaan, on the whole, people got along and ate a good diet. These results contrast with evidence from some other parts of the world listed above where population health declined with the adoption of agricultural economies, and metallurgy stimulated warring interactions.

IR: How have the discoveries at Ban Chiang challenged prevailing ideas of the prehistory of Southeast Asia?

These “discoveries” are still being digested by the field. It is so easy to want to sensationalize the past, and disease and trauma evoke emotions and attention that health and peace do not. But in my view, whenever archaeologists discover societies that vary from some expected “norm”, these are the societies that make fundamental contributions to understanding human diversity that “typical” societies do not.

The next step is to figure out why and how the prehistoric societies of Isaan established and maintained these peaceful healthy lifeways, and technically sophisticated but modestly-scaled metallurgy. I give a stab at that in the concluding chapter of the forthcoming Ban Chiang metals monograph, essentially relating the evidence to resource distributions and a dynamic networked regional economic system that had great time depth.

IR: What was daily life like for the Bronze Age people who lived at Ban Chiang?

We still need to undertake various studies to really understand the Bronze Age lives of Ban Chiang peoples. However, from what we know so far, I believe that much of their time was spent acquiring food from many different activities.

Plants were cultivated, including rice, but probably many other species as well. Animals were both bred and hunted. Many wild resources were collected, such as wild plants like yams, mollusks, frogs, and fish, with the activities varying depending on the seasons and the natural patterns of these resources, similar to subsistence activities in traditional Isaan villages today or the recent past.

The dry season was a time for craft activities, and clearly a lot of effort was expended in making pottery beyond what was needed just for cooking and storage. Pottery (and possibly other crafts like basketry) clearly was one means of aesthetic expression and a means of social networking. And social networking was a major focus, both within villages and village to village. Although some lands were cultivated, vast tracts were likely pristine forests, as [the] population density would have been much lower than today.


Ban Chiang Archaeological Site (UNESCO/NHK) - History

Heritage Tour to Northeast Thailand with Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan

Northeast Thailand, or Isan, with its natural borders formed by Phetchaburi and Dangrekranges and the Mekong River, is perhaps Thailand’s most remote and little-visited region. Yet,this is home to some of the richest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. This tour will take us to some of the most significant sites on the Khorat Pleateau –spanning from the prehistoric past to the later Dvaravati (6th century) and Angkorian (9th-15th century) cultures.

The tour will take us primarily through Nakhon Ratchasima, the gateway to the Khorat Plateau,and onwards to several monumental Angkorian ruins such as Prasat Hin Phimai and Phanom Rung. AtUbon Ratchathani, we will visit the enigmaticprehistoric rock art at Pha Taem National Park, located on a cliff face overlooking the Mekong bordering Laos.

Our last stop takes us to Udon Thani, where we will visit the Ban Chiang World Heritage Site,one of the first sites to put Southeast Asian archaeology on the world map, and the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, a sacred landscape featuring a long period of use from prehistoric times to the Lan Xang period. The Thai Fine Arts Department has recently announced their intention to nominate Phu Phra Bat as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

About Our Specialist Guide

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts in Bangkok. A Singaporean, he studied mass communication at Ngee Ann Polytechnic before pursuing archaeology at the University of Melbourne – a move sparked as a volunteer at the excavations in St Andrew’s Cathedral in 2003. He subsequently obtained his master’s degree in archaeology at Universiti Sains Malaysia and his PhD at the Australian National University. Since 2006, Noel runs the Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog and his research expertise is in the rock art of Southeast Asia. He has documented a number of rock art sites, including Gua Tambun in Malaysia, the Pak Ou Caves of Laos, and Poeung Komnou and Poeung Takhab in Cambodia. Noel’s most recent discovery was the invisible paintings of Angkor Wat, which was published in the journal Antiquity in 2014.


Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns (1991)

This is another historic and ancient town listed under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Thailand. This is an expansive site that consists of three historical parks: Sukhothai Historical Park, Si Satchanalai Historical Park, and Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park. These parks had managed to showcase the remains of three ancient cities in Thailand that were flourishing during the 13th and 14th centuries CE. The Sukhothai Kingdom, in particular, is the first kingdom to be established in Thailand.


How Penn Archaeologist Joyce White Became an Expert Witness in a High–Profile Smuggling Case

The woman with white hair and soft features is indeed Joyce White, Ph.D., founder of the Institute of Southeast Asian Archaeology (ISEAA) at the University of Pennsylvania. But that day, instead of affirming this, she said: “I think you have the wrong number.”

“Are you an expert on Ban Chiang?”

“. Yes,” she said, mimicking her hesitation as she re–enacts the conversation.

“You can imagine what’s going on in my mind. It’s not that far from 9/11, it’s the Department of Homeland Security, my god! What is the Department of Homeland Security doing with Ban Chiang?”

They were finally closing in on a smuggling ring that for years had been bringing in stolen artifacts from the Ban Chiang archaeological site in Thailand.

She, Joyce White, Ph.D. and archaeologist, was the world’s leading expert on the place. They needed her on the case.

From 2005 to 2016, White assisted the Department of Homeland Security as an expert witness in one of the biggest recent smuggling cases in the United States: Operation Antiquity.

“They said, ‘Well, will you come out for a little visit, a couple nights?’ So I said OK! I mean, a free flight to California, can’t turn that down…

“So somebody was gonna be sent to pick me up at 9 a.m. And we are walking to the car–it’s this white Chevy Tahoe parked across the street. And I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life, getting into a car in a city I don’t know. ’ And so I’m racking my brain as to what to do, but I’m trying to be polite at the same time.

So we get in the car, I’m in the front seat, and I say, ‘How do I know that you’re not kidnapping us?’ And he said, ‘I guess you need our credentials.’ So he whips out, you know, his thing with the badge and everything. Anyways. That’s just the beginning.”

That day, White and her student were asked to identify an estimated several hundred artifacts. Over the next 11 years, she would identify more than 10,000.

Dr. Joyce White spent years of her life trekking through the fields of northern Thailand, researching the Ban Chiang archaeological site. Years later, the field of her intellectual scrutiny became the epicenter of a global controversy.

Jonathan and Carolyn Markell were involved in smuggling hundreds of artifacts, from clay pots to bronze Buddhas, from the Ban Chiang site, before appearing in court in 2015. White, as an expert on the area, became an integral part of the investigation, identifying artifacts and testifying in court to ensure the return of these ancient objects to their rightful place.

Here’s how, in 2005, a Penn archeologist became an expert witness in one of the most visible international smuggling cases in history, and how the complex issue of artifact repatriation–of whether relics belong to museums or to the cultures they came from–plays into the politics of museum curation today.

White hadn’t even planned on studying Southeast Asian archaeology. When she first got to graduate school at Penn in 1974, she had been planning to do her dissertation in European archaeology. It was only for the sake of a part–time job that she started working under Chet Gorman, the leading archaeologist on the Ban Chiang site at the time. A few years in, White got her own office in the basement of the Penn Museum.

Since then, every adventure she’s been on has started in this office. It’s a cozy space with up to six people filling the two little rooms, often shuffling between computers. All around are ceiling–high cabinets overflowing with post–it notes, monographs, and National Geographic issues. The plaque outside bears White’s name and the name of the institution she founded: the Institute of Southeast Asian Archaeology, or ISEAA.

White hasn’t always felt quite so passionately about her work. “It was the most boring job on Earth,” she says. But one day, she witnessed Gorman giving a talk on his work to a small group, and saw a slide that captured her attention instantly. “I saw that slide, and I said: ‘Oh my god, this is me.’”

The slide showed Gorman walking his donkeys into a cave, lugging his material, passing rich jungles and fields where people were growing opium. (“Now, I have no interest in opium–I mean, maybe I would’ve at a younger age, but really that’s not my motivating thing.”)

She knew that this was where she wanted to be, and now she had a plan: she would go to the Ban Chiang site in northern Thailand to pursue plant–based archaeological research for her dissertation.

So she switched out of her European archaeology classes (“That professor was boring, this was interesting.”) and walked into Gorman’s office asking him to be her advisor.

“I don’t want any female graduate students,” was his answer. But White did what she does best: she persevered, and Gorman gave in.

Seven years later she was in northern Thailand, studying plants at the Ban Chiang site. It was a simple, “grueling but wonderful” life: she lived in a little house with a breezy downstairs and a shack–like kitchen in the back, working alongside a local farmer Long Lee (“Uncle Lee”) identifying plants and writing up her research. The isolation was pleasing. She was miles away from any major city, and finally surrounded by the fields she had first dreamt of years ago in the Penn Museum basement.

Photo: Ethan Wu Ban Chaing artifacts on loan to the Penn Museum from the Thai Government

It was by sheer luck, then, that White passed by the post office on that day in 1981. Normally, she only walked that far every two weeks. But that morning she stopped by and saw a telegram addressed to her, reading: ‘GO TO BANGKOK TO HELP WITH SMITHSONIAN EXHIBIT.’

Gorman had passed away. He had been sick with melanoma for several months. Now, his position as as a guest curator at the Smithsonian Museum urgently needed to be filled. White was quickly summoned to complete the task.

Meanwhile, the board of directors at the Penn Museum were conflicted over who should take over the Ban Chiang research. “One professor said to me, ‘What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m the one who knows the most about the site, I’m the logical person.’” Today, White remembers her professor’s reply with a mischievous relish: “‘That’ll never happen! You’re too young, you’re a student, and you’re a woman!’”

A few days later, that very same professor stood behind the director of the Penn Museum as he asked White to change her dissertation topic from plants to the chronology of Ban Chiang. “It’s interesting how things turn out,” she cackles. She took charge of the Ban Chiang site, and hasn’t stepped down since.

When the raids finally happened in 2008, White had been acting as expert witness in Operation Antiquity for three years. The investigators would send her pictures of artifacts for her to identify, usually just a few every month or so. The process seemed painfully slow.

“At one point there was this whole slew of [pictures]. I said, ‘You’re just letting Thailand be looted to pieces,’” she recalls. “And they kept saying ‘Oh, this’ll wrap up in a few months …’ and then a few months later, the same thing.”

In late December 2007, she got another fateful phone call: They were ready to do the search warrants.

They flew her to Chicago—“Chicago! I didn’t even know that was part of the case. They tell you as little as possible and you never know what’s going to happen.”

They went over the details in the parking lot of a mall. It was around –25 degrees Fahrenheit. They sat in a car, waiting for the ‘go’ to them and the 12 other teams back in Los Angeles that would be coordinating the raids at the exact same moment. Finally, at 8:30 p.m., they got the signal.

“So people pile into the cars, and I’m in the first car. Everybody has a bulletproof vest but me–the guy driving my car has two bulletproof vests. Finally the whole train of cars gets to some kind of secluded wood. And the garden is full of Cambodian statues, just out there.

“This was the private museum of this guy, the collector, whose name is McKlein. The team is creating a spreadsheet on the fly, they keep checking their computers. It was just extremely intense, assigning things for hundreds of objects to periods and time frames.

“I was the only person to do this, recording the culture, age, time period, authentic or not … In this case they were targeting what to focus on, and we only got a quarter of the stuff. It was around 2:30 a.m. I thought I had more time–and then they flew me to Los Angeles. It just goes on and on and on.”

Catching artifact smugglers is one thing. Repatriating objects that museums actually purchased is another. Nevertheless, White notes that the two are closely linked.

She says with some pride that since Operation Antiquity, Thailand has been actively trying to recover stolen artifacts from Western museums. In November 2018, Thailand’s culture minister announced that it was seeking the return of 23 antiquities that are currently in museums across the United States, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Penn Museum has been actively involved in the efforts to prevent collection of objects acquired through looting and plundering. The 1970 Pennsylvania Declaration states that the Museum “would purchase no more art objects for the Museum unless the objects are accompanied by a pedigree–that is information about the different owners of the objects, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case.” Months later, UNESCO would release a convention to prevent the same kind of thing.

However, the execution is not always so simple. On January 11, 2017, the Zhaoling Museum in China posted a message on its public WeChat page, calling for the Penn Museum to return two famous stone reliefs called the “Taizong Horses” or “Tang Horses.” The two horses, which the Penn Museum acquired in the 1920s, are part of a six–horse set, which were originally found together at the Mausoleum of the Tang Emperor, Li Shimin, dating back to the 7th century.

In January 2019, students noticed an unsigned and undated flyer being circulated across campus. The flyer called for the two horses’ immediate return to China without explicitly mentioning the museum. “The six horses are objects of repeated research in Chinese history, sung in poetry and literary writings,” reads the flyer. “They are an integral part of Chinese culture and a depository of spirit of the people.”

Photo: Ethan Wu Joyce White's award from the United States Attorney's Office Central District of California for being an expert witness in the Ban Chiang case

The Penn Museum bought the horses from a Chinese art dealer C. T. Loo in 1921. The flyer calls this transaction illegal, stating that according to the 1970 UNESCO declaration, “the theft and sale of the two horses were themselves crimes, as is smuggling them to the USA. UPenn buying them does not make the illegal legal.”

Adam Smith, an assistant professor and curator of the Penn Museum Asian section, is irked by such demands, which he says surface occasionally but never actually reach the Museum in any official capacity. He acknowledges that there is sometimes “an asymmetry between the museum and the people who produced the object.” But the primary role of a museum, he says, is to educate and tell the truth. Smith also notes that the 1970 UNESCO declaration, which the flyer references, was in fact spearheaded by the Penn Museum.

After having seen first–hand the amount of work that goes into the legal process of valuation throughout Operation Antiquity, White is all too aware that the repatriation of artifacts is a lengthy process, with little legal precedent.

She admits that the two cases are different on the surface–while Operation Antiquity dealt with cut and dry smuggling by Americans, the two horses in the Penn Museum were actually sold by a Chinese art dealer. How the dealer himself acquired the pieces, however, is unclear. In an email to the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2017, Penn Museum Williams Director Julian Siggers wrote that he was not aware “exactly whose hands [the reliefs] passed through before the Museum was involved.”

In an interview with artnet, White echoed the Pennsylvania declaration in advising transparency: “Shining a light on this murky area of the museum world will hopefully be a trend in the 21st century. If museums have clear legal backing for particular acquisitions, they can make their case in a court of law. Transparency should not be a problem for them.”

It was December 2015 when Operation Antiquity finally came to court. Jonathan and Carolyn Markell, an elderly couple who had been actively involved in smuggling, pleaded guilty. All that was left to be determined was whether or not Jonathan Markell would be sentenced to jail time.

White says that the judge appointed to the case, Dean Pregerson, was notorious for giving no jail time at all. The room was full of people, and they were not on the prosecutor’s side. Scores of the Markell’s friends and family (“and two Buddhist monks of different faiths!”) filled the pews, anxious to hear the decision.

White came up to the bar. She was asked, again, to confirm the authenticity of the objects, to reaffirm their value, to tell the court about the exorbitant cost that it would have taken to excavate them as part of a professional study.

The investigator came up, introduced himself, and played three tapes he had of the couples admitting full knowledge of their crime, which he had taken while operating undercover.

The evidence was incontrovertible. In the end, the judge sentenced Jonathan Markell to 18 months in jail for smuggling of antiquities and tax evasion.

“In my view,” says White, speaking more slowly, “it then became so sad that they did not properly pursue this case. In the end, they just didn’t have the stomach to go after the people … So often, these smugglers … they just get slapped on the wrist, or no one understands the value, or so on.”

“I think prior to this case only one collector–dealer type ever served prison time. Only one. And so here was a massive case, a whole conspiracy, well–documented, and they just kept dropping the ball in a million different ways.”

After the kind of life she’s had, spent fighting her way through sexism and bureaucracy, White isn’t one to understand why you would do anything only to stop halfway through. On her shelf is a print–out of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

A pause, and then she adds: “You know, there were numerous flaws in the proceedings and some such that the Chicago people, the material was actually returned to them, because of the legal flaws, and I just …” she drifts off, unable to continue.

Then she sits up. “Well, it’s a great story. I told the investigator several times, ‘The book, the movie! The book, the movie!’”

He wasn’t as enthusiastic, but of course, that would never stop Joyce White, Ph.D., leading archaeologist on the Ban Chiang excavation site in northern Thailand.

“Maybe I’ll get around to it someday,” she muses. “But right now, I still have a lot on my plate.”

Meerabelle Jesuthasan is a senior in the College. She is the long–term features editor for Street.

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