Archaeology and culture

Why do we do archaeology at the Sepon operation?

The academic response

The technology and practice of mining has been essential to the development of modern nation states worldwide.
But, where and when did it all start? Who was the first person to realise that by heating a green rock it could be transformed into metallic copper? How was this technology spread around the world?

The archaeological sites discovered on the Sepon tenement are unique windows into the ancient history of metallurgy in Southeast Asia. It is only the third ancient mining area in the region to be investigated and the only one in Laos.

The on-going collaboration – since 2006 – between the Lao Department of National Heritage (DNH), MMG-LXML and James Cook University (JCU) has opened up huge new areas of study for archaeology and is of interest to the academic community world-wide.

The legal response

This work is carried out under the Lao Law on National Heritage (2005) administered by the Department of National Heritage of Laos. The work is part of a heritage management process and agreement between the DNH and MMG-LXML.

The community response

This series of fieldwork projects has brought together a unique community, at local, national and international levels. Workers from local villages, Vientiane and Australian students, archaeologists and government officials all muck in together as we dig by hand for the evidence of the first miners on the Sepon tenement.

Skills, language and stories are shared and we all learn new things during the projects. Networks are forged from the village to the capital and internationally as well.

What have we found?

So, so much! This is one of the most fascinating projects currently being undertaken in the archaeology of Southeast Asia.

  • Radiocarbon dating tells us that the mining and smelting of copper began at least 2500 years ago. Copper artefacts from Thai archaeological sites, that share the same lead isotope signature as ore from Sepon, indicate that mining began at least 3000 years ago.
  • Copper mining carried on to at least 500 AD at one of our sites. That means that there is well over 1000 years of previously unknown mining history on the tenement.
  • Prehistoric mining at Sepon was done in a very unusual way. There were many individual vertical shafts dug down to extract ore. Each was about 1.5-2.5m in diameter with wooden bracing surrounded by matting. Many shafts were over 20m deep, with some up to 40m deep. There is no evidence of horizontal tunnels or large chambers connecting the vertical shafts.
  • We know the date of individual shafts because at three of our sites (several kilometres apart) the wooden framing and matting remains preserved at the deeper levels. These provide the most accurate radiocarbon dates. Finding intact wooden structures from 2000 or more years ago is extremely rare world-wide.
  • At another site we have found the graves of the people who lived, mined and smelted copper and died on the Sepon tenement. These people were buried with the tools and products of their trade as grave goods – copper ingots and copper ore.

Other grave goods include bronze and iron weapons, chalcedony stone beads (these look like green and white jade) and pots that might have held food or drink to be taken into the afterlife.

What is the most interesting artefact you have found?

This is one of the most common questions that archaeologists are asked and it is always very difficult to answer. We are interested in everything!

However, there have been a few contenders for the number-one position recently. These include the intact 4m long canoes that were discovered buried 10m below the surface at one of our sites and the burial pot found at another site containing over 4000 glass and agate & carnelian stone beads – along with bronze bells and other jewellery items.

In the end, the winner (for now) is actually quite clear. In 2013 while working deep in one of the MMG-LXML open pits a woven, likely bamboo, basket was found. It was in the mud near to some 2000-year-old mining shafts we had been uncovering and was still brightly coloured red and black.

Was this an artefact or just something that had been recently discarded in the pit by local people out foraging near to the modern mining pit?

The science of radiocarbon dating had the answer and we now know that this basket was made and used about 2100 years ago. It contains copper ore (malachite) and was likely used to lift this ore out from 20-40m deep shafts to the surface where it could be smelted into copper metal. That metal was then traded across Southeast Asia.

Archaeology at Sepon FAQ

Do you want to know more? Here are a few FAQs about archaeology on the MMG-LXML mining tenement. Note that these are short answers. The Department of National Heritage of Laos should be contacted if more detail or clarification is required:

Is it only of academic interest?

No. Like most countries (and each state in Australia) Laos has legislation governing how the heritage of the nation is managed. This includes archaeological sites like those discovered on the MMG-LXML Sepon mining tenement.

The Department of National Heritage, under the Ministry of Information, Culture & Tourism of the Lao PDR administers this legislation.

When archaeological sites are discovered their significance, or level of importance to the Lao people, is assessed and a management plan is developed between the Department of National Heritage and, in this case, MMG-LXML.

Are all archaeological sites protected?

Not all sites are protected. And, there are different levels of significance and protection. In Laos, archaeological sites may be of significance at the local, provincial or national level. Certain sites such as Wat Phu and the city of Luang Prabang have world level significance.

How is significance assessed?

There are several ways of assessing the significance of archaeological sites. Generally three main criteria are referred to:

  • Scientific value. Can this site tell us something unique and new about the people and history of Laos? – this is where the academic/scientific interest comes in
  • Local community values. Do the local people value this site as part of their sense of identity or history?
  • Historical value. Is this site linked to important historical events that are of interest to the nation as a whole?

Why is James Cook University involved?

At the most pragmatic level, the Lao Department of National Heritage is a relatively small institution and partnering with James Cook University archaeologists expands its capacity to tackle the extensive archaeological work required on the Sepon tenement. Capacity is further extended when senior archaeology students volunteer to work on the project. 
At another level, James Cook University identifies as its core strategic intent as:

Creating a brighter future for life in the tropics world-wide through graduates and discoveries that make a difference.
The work with MMG-LXML and the Department of National Heritage is an example of this intent in action in several ways:

  • From our first collaborative archaeological excavation in 2008 projects have emphasised training and capacity-building for Lao government officials at all levels with responsibilities for managing cultural heritage,
  • By including student volunteers from JCU as well as professional academic archaeologists this project has been important in creating academic and learning networks – and some level of cultural understanding – between Australia & Laos,
  • JCU and MMG-LXML can be very proud of the part they have played in training the first ever graduates in archaeology from the National University of Laos (NUoL). The practical experience working at Sepon, as well as the peer learning between JCU and NUoL students is a truly unique contribution to the Lao nation and the recognition of its unique history,
  • MMG-LXML has taken another important step by supporting the building of the new ‘Culture Hall’ in Vilabouly town. This not only exhibits archaeological finds and tells of the long history of mining in the area (at least 2500 years of mining!) but also celebrates the variety of living cultures in the district.
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