Preserving history

Wearing a long-sleeve shirt and wide-brim hat, both hands clutching various digging tools, several men stooped down on the dry red dirt. With their feet planted firmly and under the supervision of archaeologists, they began digging in order to uncover the history of their homeland.

"We are telling stories of the past that nobody has known before," said Decha Sudsawad, head of Si Thep Historical Park. Si Thep -- situated just over 100km from Phetchabun city centre -- is the southernmost district of Phetchabun province. It is famous as a home to several historical structures, from religious sites to monuments, and artefacts dating back to the Dvaravati period and older, with traces of Hindu, Mahayana and Khmer influences. There are also human remains buried with pottery that date to the Iron Age. Excavation is ongoing in parts of the town.

The excavation process to preserve and develop the archaeological sites within the district was started by the Fine Arts Department in 1978. Si Thep Historical Park has since been open for public viewing, serving as a local centre for history, education and cultural tourism. Last year, the site attracted almost 100,000 visitors.

The team is currently working on an ongoing excavation project around Khao Klang Nok which is located about 2km from the historical park.

Khao Klang Nok -- a magnificent Dvaravati stupa measuring 64m in length and width, and 20m in height -- was constructed around the 8th-9th century. In 1963, it was named a historical site. Before, the site was buried under a mound, with trees growing on top. Except for pieces of laterite bricks protruding the mound, it would have passed for a normal hill. In the past, it suffered from looting and illicit digging as many believed there was treasure hidden beneath.

It wasn't until 2008 that archaeologists and the team from the Fine Arts Department began the excavation process on this particular site. The excavation took over a year before it was revealed to the public, followed by a restoration process to reinforce the structure's stability.

Remains of prehistoric human skeletons can be found at Si Thep Historical Park. Biopharm Chemicals

"You can see the differences in the colour of the laterite bricks. The ones we recently added come in a lighter shade as we want to make it apparent that it is new. This is so we can separate easily what is original and what is a new addition. It also serves as evidence for us how each restoration goes, and how many times the process has been done," explained archaeologist Suriya Sudsawad. "As the years go by, the bricks will turn darker with age and blend in a bit more."

The excavation process continues to unveil remains of smaller stupas that surround Khao Klang Nok. The archaeological team also recruits help from local men and women to aid them during the digging. This is something that has been done since the excavation of Khao Klang Nok itself.

When Khao Klang Nok was originally announced as a historical site, not all of its area were listed on the original documents. Hence, some parts of the land that were later found to contain historical sites are now owned by the locals. In working on this archaeological project, it is crucial to form a relationship with the land owners to make sure both history and people's lives can coexist peacefully with one another.

Suriya explained that the land owners were recruited to assist with the excavation, which created jobs and helped local people gain an understanding and appreciation for the site's historical significance.

More importantly, the project helps develop a bond the people feel with the historical sites in their hometown.

The excavation is still going on in Si Thep district. The team also recruits local land owners to help with the process. Photo: Melalin Mahavongtrakul

"Those who work with us love this place a lot because they know and understand what we're trying to do, that we want to preserve it for generations to come," said Suriya.

Her supervisor Decha agreed that it is indeed beneficial to have the locals on their side in their quest to uncover the past.

"When people see a big mound, they don't know what it is. But once we open it up, we see it's a stupa -- a sacred place of the people's faith in ancient times. The locals now feel respectful and proud that they are living in what was once considered to be a holy area," said Decha.

He added that the team is taking their time with each large and small site in the area, and that they are in no rush to dig up everything at the moment. He said the team is also waiting for technology to catch up with them to better preserve the sites, too.

"Excavation is, partly, destroying the site as we are exposing what was previously sheltered under the surface to deterioration from sunlight, wind, rain and other weather conditions.

Rock carvings in the shape of dwarfs can be found within the historical park. Photo: Melalin Mahavongtrakul

"If we don't go about the process with utmost care, then the data and the artefact could be destroyed," said Decha.

"We want to make sure the sites can last. If we rush now, with current technology, the site may lose some of its value. And we never know when new technology might come up."

With its rich abundance of history, Si Thep Historical Park is currently in the process of applying to be on the list of the Unesco World Heritage Sites. The team said they are now preparing documents and will be putting in efforts to push for their homeland jewel to attain the international recognition it deserves. "I think we have quite the potential. But, in the end, the decision will be up to the committee," Decha said.

In support of the project, the Thai pharmaceutical company Biopharm Chemicals recently donated 126 medical cabinets to 11 districts in Phetchabun province, including tourist attractions such as Khao Kho National Park and Si Thep Historical Park, for staff, tourists and locals to use. Previously, the company donated cabinets and medical supplies to Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex of the Eastern Forest, and several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the Western Forest.

Khao Klang Nok. Biopharm Chemicals



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