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The Southeast Asian water frontier: coastal trade and mid-fifteenth c. CE "hill tribe" burials, southeastern Cambodia.


In mainland Southeast Asia, the so-called water frontier unified an otherwise geographically broad and culturally disparate economic network of long-, medium-, and short-distance trade of the 14th–17th century CE “Age of Commerce.” Focus on the rise of the larger port towns supporting this burgeoning maritime trade (e.g., Ayutthaya, Melaka, Hoi An) has overshadowed smaller maritime operations that must have serviced less regulated coastlines. In this paper, we evaluate the evidence of likely supply lines for relatively remote sites in the Southern Cardamom Ranges of southwestern Cambodia. We present the results of a geochemical analysis of ceramics from two contemporary and short-lived assemblages: comprehensively dated mid-15th c. to mid-17th c. CE burial complexes in the Cardamom Mountains, and a dated shipwreck (KohS’dech) recovered from waters off the adjacent coastline. We compare the shipwreck assemblage with other wreck assemblages to contextualize it within larger maritime exchange patterns. The KohS’dech wreck assemblage appears typical of a Southeast Asian short-haul coastal trader of this period, with a cargo consisting of a range of utilitarian household ceramics: large, medium, and small glazed stoneware storage jars, earthenware cooking pots, stoves and mortars, and “tableware” bowls. Comparison of burial, shipwreck, and reference ceramic compositional data confirms the jars and fine wares predominantly came from multiple production centers in Central and Northern Thailand. The few Angkorian jars identified in the burials were evidently heirlooms from what was, by the mid-15th c. CE, a likely defunct Khmer production complex east of Angkor. The results of this provenience analysis highlight (a) the Cardamom burials as an example of previously undocumented unregulated coastal interaction and (b) the relatively sophisticated and coordinated market-oriented strategies of inland ceramic producers at this time. For mainland Southeast Asia, the water frontier integrated not only ethnically diverse maritime port communities, but also those in more remote inland regions.

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