Ancient Thai metalworking reveals history

Researchers from around the world will be gathering in Germany Nov. 12 and 13 to present a "festschrift" - a scholarly tribute - honoring two men, one of them a Penn professor emeritus, for their important contributions to the field of archaeometallurgy.

And one of the contributors to the festschrift, titled "Metallurgica Antiqua," is a Penn scientist and one of the few people hired in the United States to do archaeometallurgy full-time.

The festschrift honors Penn Professor Emeritus Robert Maddin, who helped found the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) here, and German metallurgist Hans-Gert Bachmann, at a conference at the German Mining Museum in Bochum.

Vincent Pigott in Central Thailand

The honorees, after successful careers in metallurgy, brought their technological know-how and understanding to ancient metals, virtually changing the field of archaeometallurgy, said Vincent C. Pigott, Ph.D., the Penn scientist who co-authored an article for the festschrift. Pigott is senior research scientist at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

The article Pigott wrote with German archaeomining expert Gerd Weisgerber argues that a strange-looking mountain in Thailand was the product of an ancient mining disaster some time after 1000 B.C. Phu Lon, or Bald Mountain, Southeast Asia's only excavated prehistoric copper-mining site, acquired its strange topography when some of the honeycomb of mine shafts and galleries collapsed under the weight of the land, wrote Pigott and Weisgerber, who is from the German Mining Museum in Bochum, Germany.

Pigott first excavated the site, dating to the first millennium B.C., with Thai archaeologist Surapol Natapintu in 1985. They found that Phu Lon was not just any local copper mine, but an important source of copper mining and processing for a large swath of Southeast Asia.

"We think that people from hundreds of miles downstream on the Mekong River were coming upstream for this massive ore deposit," Pigott said. What convinced them were fragments of crucibles exactly like those found to the south, at another Penn archaeological dig. "It's not accidental," Pigott said of the matching crucibles.

Pigott is one of the heirs of Maddin's and Bachmann's contributions to archaeometallurgy. He uses his knowledge of the structure of metals, examining tiny slivers to learn about the past. His lab holds MASCA's important library of ancient metal samples.

"In every artifact you have trapped the memory of its manufacture, everything done to that object - whether it was cast, smelted, hammered - the microstructure of the metal records those events," Pigott said.

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Originally published on October 29, 1998