U.S. professor helping preserve ancient cave coffins in Thailand
An American conservationist who once restored Abraham Lincoln’s wooden furniture has been working with Thai counterparts to preserve a collection of nearly 2,000-year-old wooden coffins found in a cave in Northwestern Thailand, a significant archeological discovery.
The work represents another example of the bonds of friendship and collaboration between the U.S. and Thailand, which are celebrating 190 years of diplomatic relations this year.
Craig Deller, a conservationist from Madison, Wisconsin, traveled to Thailand in February to help Thai archaeologists develop a plan to protect and preserve about 30 teakwood coffins found in a cave in Mae Hong Son province near the border with Myanmar in 2016.
More coffins have been found in other caves nearby in the area. Mae Hong Son is a mountainous province in Thailand’s northwest with some of the Kingdom’s most lush forests and landscapes. It is home to both Thai and various tribal people.
“I have been in other caves but there was nothing like this,” said Deller, adding that it was the teak coffins were oldest wood he has ever worked with. “Wonder. Just wonder. I was in awe of what I was in the presence of,” added Deller.
Deller is a senior objects conservator trained by the Smithsonian Institute, and an elected Fellow with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. He said that that tests show that the wood for the coffins was cut in 265 A.D.
At that time, northern Thailand was inhabited by Thai tribes that had begun migrating from China, Hmong people, and the people of the Pye Kingdom in what is now Myanmar. It is not clear to which group the coffins belonged.
Nonetheless, the archeologists and researchers made sure to observe Buddhist rites in handling the coffins and treat them with care and respect.
According to the Southeast Asian Archeology website, Deller’s trip and research work financed through part of a $220,000 U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation grant awarded to Silpakorn University (in Bangkok).
“The fund is designed to foster technical exchanges in wood conservation with American experts and encourage local youths and ethnic communities to be involved with their heritage,” the website said.
According to the Madison.com website, the region in which Deller traveled is rich in prehistorical and historical sites. Some of the earliest known sites were investigated in the late 1970s by American archaeologist Chester Gorman, who found evidence of human habitation as early as 11,500 years ago. Researchers have recorded the existence of about 85 caves and rock shelters with the remains of ancient log coffins.
Photo courtesy of https://madison.com/news/local/madison-man-works-to-preserve-coffins-in-thai-caves/article_83737191-0b98-5d31-931b-5b67a747ae21.html