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Metallurgical traditions and metal exchange networks in late prehistoric central Myanmar, c. 1000 BC to c. AD 500

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Abstract

Myanmar has been notably underrepresented in recent studies of archaeometallurgy in Southeast Asia, despite its richness in both mineral and cultural resources and its potentially central role in long-distance exchange networks linking India, China and peninsular neighbours. Here, we present original analytical data on copper-base artefacts from several Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Myanmar. Observed microstructures range from as-cast, worked, to fully annealed; compositions include leaded copper, low-tin to high-tin bronzes, and arsenical copper/bronze. Lead isotope analyses indicate that the metal originates from different geological sources, including several that match the lead isotope signatures of known prehistoric copper mines in Thailand and Laos. These archaeometallurgical data, including evidence for secondary copper-base production, more than double those currently available for Myanmar and document the presence of multiple local alloying and working traditions, perhaps chronologically differentiated, as well as identifying possible links to primary mineral sources across the region. Overall, this adds significant new information to the emerging picture of Southeast Asian prehistoric metallurgy at the crossroads of several major ancient cultures.

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Notes

  1. Vincent C. Pigott did conduct some preliminary LI analyses of Thai lead minerals with Tom Chase, but they were not published and regional isotope archaeology did not spring forth at this juncture.

  2. Comparative data are also rare in neighbouring Yunnan and absent in Northeast India.

  3. See Dussubieux and Pryce (2016) for a detailed explanation of the wire bundles, but in summary, they are found interred with some individuals and may represent a means of exchange or commodity money due to their regular size and number and to their frangibility.

  4. SEALIP/MY/LPDT/1 is a modern copper sample from the Letpadaungtaung mine near Monywa.

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Acknowledgements

The excavation and study of material by the Mission Archéologique Française au Myanmar was conducted with the kind authorisation and support of the Myanmar Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and was financed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development. Kalayar Myat Myat Htwe’s training programme was financed by the generosity of Qatar Foundation. We also wish to express our gratitude for the administrative support of the French cultural attaché of the Institut français de Yangon, M. Charles Bonhomme, and his team. Finally, we offer our thanks to the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and pertinent critique, though any remaining errors are our responsibility.

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Pryce, T.O., Htwe, K.M.M., Georgakopoulou, M. et al. Metallurgical traditions and metal exchange networks in late prehistoric central Myanmar, c. 1000 BC to c. AD 500. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 10, 1087–1109 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-016-0436-7

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