Rasmi Shoocongdej

(B.A. (Archaeology), Silpakorn University; Ph.D. (AnthropologyX, University of Michigan) is an associate professor of archaeology and a former chair of the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Archaeology, Bangkok, Thailand.

Archaeology as a Profession

How I was inspired to become an archaeologist

As I think back, I must have been 15 years old when I decide on my future career. At that time, I thought I was going to be a journalist. In 1976 I witnessed the university student rebellion against the corruption of the Thai military. I saw a number of them killed by the Thai soldiers. Unfortunately, no one has ever been arrested or punished for this acts. For this reason, I chose to be a journalist because I wanted to report the truth to the general public and the world.

When it came time to go to college, sadly, I could not get into the Department of Journalism because the national entrance examination created a limited number of seats in the department. Instead, I was accepted by the department of Archaeology, Silpakorn University.

It is fair to say that my interest in archaeology had been aroused quite by chance. As an undergraduate, I was a reasonably good student and did well enough in the archaeology coursework. I found my undergraduate experience the most memorable time in my life. In my junior year, I was elected head of the class and engaged in a number of public outreach activities, for instance, writing an article on Thai cultural heritage in a student newsletter, editing a student newsletter, establishing an Archaeology club, and crating a mobile exhibition on cultural heritage for school in rural areas. Without doubt, it was a crucial turning pointing point in my attempts to be a professional archaeologist. Moreover, I realized that I can be a journalist of the past and still maintain my sense of responsibility to society as a whole.

How I got my first job?

After graduation, I worked as a research assistant at the Fine Arts Department for a year and I went to study with Professor Karl Hutterer at the University of Michigan in 1984. There is no graduate program in anthropological archaeology and prehistoric archaeology in Thailand and at that time, Southeast Asian archaeology was offered as a topic of specialization at Michigan. While at Michigan, I applied for a lectureship at Silpakorn University. As there are few opportunities to teach in Thai universities, I decided to return to Thailand and accept this position. I have taught at the Department of Archaeology, Silpakorn University in Bangkok, Thailand since 1987 with an MA (1986) and PhD (1996) in anthropology from the University of Michigan, USA.

How I got my first job?

After graduating, I have further developed and extended my PhD. Dissertation in Lower Khwae Noi river basin (this area has been known from the movie Bridge Over River Khawe) (on Forager Mobility Organization in the Seasonal Tropical Environments: A View from Lang Kamnan Cave, Kanchanaburi Province, Western Thailand) which I am interested in explaining cultural change and the interaction between humans and their environments and would like to conduct comparative studies of the same environment in northern Thailand.  I belief that my current research can help us understand and explain adaptive processes and local environmental variability.

At present I have a long term project in highland Pang Mapha, Mae Hon Son province, northwestern Thailand since 1998 to present.  In 1998, I worked on the Cave Survey and Database System in Mae Hong Son Province.  This project aims to preserve the caves from rapid tourism development in the area.  Since 2001, I have been a principle investigator of the Highland Archaeology Project, a multidisciplinary research involving archaeology, physical anthropology, and dendrochronology, has carried out a long term research in Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son Province and will continue working in this area through present.  In order to understand the relationship between human and environments in highland Pang Mapha and before constructing a specific theoretical framework applicable to Thailand, this research project simply addresses a series of general issues concerning the evolution of social organization and the nature of culture change in the seasonal tropical environments.  Specifically, this research will elicit the elucidation of cultural history of archaeologically poorly known part of Thailand and the world. 

At present, I devoted my time to working with students as well as on a public campaign for the conservation of Thai and ethic heritages in Thailand.   As my current position is an associate professor of archaeology and a chair of the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Archaeology, Bangkok, Thailand.   My long term goal is to train a young generation of Thai archaeologist to enhance awareness of cultural heritage and to develop a sense of responsibility to the society. 

On an international level, I actively involves in archaeological developments and activities in Thailand and Southeast Asia.  For instance, I have been elected as a senior representative for the Southeast Asian and the Pacific Region in the World Archaeological Congress Council and an executive member of Southeast Asian Prehistorian Association. 

For a professional service, I am a co-founder and co-editor (with Dr Elisabeth Bacus) of Southeast Asian Archaeology International Newsletter (1992-present).   Also, I am an advisory board on Southeast Asian Archaeology for World Archaeology Journal (UK), Asian Perspectives (University of Hawaii, USA), Bulletin of Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA, Australian National University, Australia), Archaeologies (World Archaeological Congress). 

My research interests

My research focuses on the study of mobility organization of hunter-gatherers as one mechanism of adaptation in highly seasonal tropical environments.  My areas of specialization are late-to post-Pleistocene forager in the tropics, Southeast Asian prehistory, cave archaeology.  Lately, my interests include Nationalism and archaeology, archaeology and multi-ethnics education, lootings, arts and archaeology.  My research areas are along the western border of Thailand including Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi provinces.  My field experiences include northern, western, central, and southern Thailand; Cambodia, southwestern USA, and southeastern Turkey.

The most rewarding thing I have done/discovered

In Thailand, like many other developing countries, archaeological research are less priorities and it primarily focuses on fieldwork procedure and rescue archaeology for tourism.  Archaeologists have paid little attention to developing theory and methodology.  Throughout my career, I have committed myself carrying on a long term project in highland Pang Mapha because I believe that archaeology practice in Thailand requires appropriated theories and methodologies which applicable for our country and Southeast Asia. 

My professional achievement is my long-term research project in highland Pang Mapha. Academically, the excavations uncovered the skeletal remains of two individuals from Tham Lod rockshelter are the oldest homo sapiens sapiens found in northern Thailand and the largest excavated lithic workshop found in Thailand that dates to the Late Pleistocene period. It is important to note that there are less than 10 late Pleistocene sites found in Thailand.

 The consequence of long term research has helped the local ethnic groups, who are minority groups of Thailand proud of themselves and indirectly it has the potential to generate income and employment.  The project have taken place in highland Pang Mapha, a small district in Mae Hong Son Province in northwest Thailand bordering the Shan State of Burma.  Pang Mapha is distinctively diverse biologically and culturally, comprising various ethic groups who migrated to this area over several decades, including Shan (Tai), Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Hmong, and Lua.  Pang Mapha has a long been the target of government modernizing policies, such as opium eradication, encouraged by international donor agencies. 

I believe that the past can serve the present and the future.  Through the public campaign I am doing now, I hope that the research commitment can have an impact on a much broader scale not only regional but international levels.  I have worked closely with the communities in order to develop the site museums and guide training both children and adults.  In doing so, I have developed an integrated project (an art project) which has brought experts from various fields (e.g., archaeologists, anthropologists, artists, educators, architects, scientists, museologists) to help preserve the “archaeological heritage” of humankind.  Working closely with local and academic communities on heritage management at Ban Rai and Tham Lod rockshelter sites, demonstrates that archaeology is not only a science of the past, but also a discipline that cuts across all spatial and temporal boundaries.

Why being an archaeologist matters to me and how I make a difference

My contributions make the differences to Thailand and Southeast Asian archaeology in a number of ways. 

Most importantly, from an academic perspective, my research has recovered remarkable new data and contributed to the general anthropological study of hunter-gatherer adaptations in the tropical environments during the Late and Post-Pleistocene. 

As for profession, I am a role model.  I have changed the tendency of women archaeologists to assumed passive and supporting roles in research.  Most of women archaeologists tend to do only laboratory analysis and administrative tasks.  I am the first woman to teach the field archaeology course at Silpakorn University, where is the only institution in Thailand that provides training in archaeology.  I have continued designing and directing my own projects and have involved in all phases of research.

As a professor, I am working closely with students because it is the most effective way to directly help them achieve intellectual maturity and to develop a sense of responsibility to the society.

Equally important, I have promoted an awareness of the importance of education, especially, education and cultural heritage whenever I conduct my field research in rural areas.  I believe this can be an indirect way to provide an informal education to people who lack educational opportunities.

Lastly, I also have been working closely with the local communities in the different processes of archaeological research.   I hope this will increase cooperation in fighting against the illegal antiquities trade and the destruction of archaeological sites which is a serious problem in Thailand as well as other areas in the world. 


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