Travel Finds: Mysteries From the Bangkok “Antiques” Market

by Sindi Schloss, Graduate Gemologist

As a jewelry historian, we see the strangest things! Rarely do prehistoric artifacts tell the story of their intimate human association. Archeological research dwells in speculation about how an object was used or worn, thus it is compelling when objects are found “in situ”, in grave sites being worn on the body and thereby leaving no doubt as to their function.

Ancient sites in Southeast Asia have periodically been excavated and unfortunately looted over hundreds of years. Modern metropolis street markets often become the conduit of many “found” objects entering the antique marketplace. Such is the case in Thailand where jewelry and artifacts are regularly found in lands which knew ancient kingdoms, predominantly Ban Chiang and Lop Buri. Ban Chiang is located on the Khorat Plateau and has “become the cover name of an extensive prehistoric cultural tradition which flourished in northeast Thailand from approximately 4000 B.C. to 400 A.D.”1 Lop Buri, previously called “Lawo” was one of the more important ancient cities of the Khmers dating from the 10th to the 13th century A.D.

Recently on a trip to Bangkok, artifacts represented as being from Lop Buri were seen in the local “antique” market. Being unable to personally date or confirm the source, I began to research several of the objects seen.

Figure 1. Shell bracelets with human arm bone fragments.

Figure 2. Top whorls of conus shells pierced for wearing.

Figure 2.  Top whorls of conus shells pierced for wearing.

Most compelling of the objects was the double shell bracelet fused together by matrix and human bone (Figure 1). Specimens often have caliche or calcium carbonate encrustation. Similar examples have been found in Ban Chiang sites. Bone segments (usually the long bones of the wrists or lower legs) can be radiocarbon dated and ones from Ban Chiang have been found to date to 1300 B.C.E. to 560 B.C.E. The bracelets in the Ban Chiang examples were described as being Trochus sp. shell but this is highly unlikely. More likely would be the chank shell Turbinella pyrum which is has been fished from waters from the Bay of Bengal along coastal India for centuries2. These bracelets also have the circumference of chank shell bracelets from Ladakh and Tibet. Wrist bones bearing as many as twenty or thirty bracelets have been found and it appears that they were worn by both men and women. This determination was made from the fact that the male bones were more dense and larger in circumference than the female bones.

Also in the collection were 2″ to 2-1/4″ round, shell spires: discs with the center pierced and the spiral design of the shell forming the slight dome, most closely resembling the conus shell discs popular from Africa (Figure 2). A large shell bracelet measuring 4-5/8″ round and the caps were similarly encrusted with caliche and still have matrix embedded in their inside.(Figure 3). The bracelet has several exposed pearlescent areas which leave one to suspect an oyster species shell, as chank shells do not have mother of pearl composition. I have found no definitive information on the use of the smaller domed shells, but they could have been strung and worn as earrings.

One final piece de resistance is a bronze earring (ear plug), bearing an overall green patina and matrix (Figure 4). I have no additional information as of yet concerning this item and welcome any comments.

Always a puzzle and a mystery but always intriguing for the story held within.

1Ban Chiang: Art and Prehistory of Northeast Thailand. Labbe, Armand J. pg. 3,77-82.
2Jamey D. Allen article in The Bead Museum Quarterly June 2003, Vol. 13, No. 2