An Archaeologist in Myanmar

This is a series of five lectures, covering two thousand years of Myanmar archaeology, history, art and religion. It looks at the development of huge walled cities that traded as far across as Rome in the early First Millennium, at the kingdom of Bagan which united all of what is now Myanmar, and at Mrauk-U, a later Buddhist kingdom, “the Venice of the East”, that engaged with Dutch and Portuguese traders and was a major force for centuries on the east side of the Bay of Bengal. You will discover that not for nothing was Burma called the Golden Land: they sure did have lots of gold.


  • Face-to-Face


  • Stadtner, D. M. (2011). Sacred Sites of Burma: Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm. Bangkok, River Books.
  • Research papers by the lecturer can be downloaded free from


  • The Pyu cities: Early in the First Millennium, several huge cities surrounded by brick walls were built across old Burma. They traded with India and as far away as Rome, built Buddhist (and Hindu) shrines, worked in gold and semi-precious stones, and used an exotic coinage stamped with symbols of gods and kingdoms. We examine the origins, functioning and fate of these cities, named for the “Pyu” script used in their inscriptions.
  • Bagan: Around the 11th century, a centralised kingdom, Bagan, began to build thousands of Buddhist monuments, decorating them in a style originating from India. Did these people invade Burma, or were they locals taking over and expanding their influence? We examine the competing theories, and try to separate folklore than fact. And we discover through the architecture and art that this was a wealthy land. In 1988, during one of Burma’s many periods of political turmoil, residents of Bagan made a good living mining gold in the ancient city: gold not natural to the soil, but washed there from the tops of gilded buildings by centuries of rain.
  • The Jataka - stories of Buddha’s previous 550 lives: Buddhism promises a better future life to someone who is good in their present life: and as a corollary, you are rich or royal in your present life because you earned it in a past life. We look at how reincarnation worked as a social control in old Bagan. The importance of this belief in reincarnation is shown in the sculptures and paintings of Bagan, which deal with some often rollicking folk tales of Buddha’s previous lives.
  • Buddha’s mother goes to the hairdresser and other events in the life of Buddha: Our course interweaves history, archaeology, architecture, religion and art, and this lecture focuses on the significance of Buddha to the modern Myanmar Buddhist through the artworks of the Bagan period. Our title is chosen, only a little flippantly, to demonstrate the humanness of Buddha to his followers: yes, one of the great images of Buddha’s personal history is his mother having her hair done by her servants, demonstrating that she was worthy, as a royal princess, to be the mother of the great sage. Stone reliefs of the Bagan period follow Buddha through his life.
  • Mrauk-U: After Bagan faded away in the late 13th century (we won’t spoil the surprise by telling you why) a new Buddhist kingdom grew on the west coast. Known as Arakan, its capital was Mrauk-U. Hundreds of Buddhist monuments were built, mainly of stone. Traders, mercenar-ies and missionaries from Europe were astonished by the golden and bejewelled “idols”, and the general prosperity of the kingdom. Your lecturer’s most recent research program was to help put together a proposal for World Heritage inscription of this jungle-clad city.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand the broad sweep of Myanmar’s history over the past 20 centuries
  2. Appreciate why Buddhism remains such a force in old Burma today
  3. Identify broad architectural periods in Myanmar, from Pyu to modern.
  4. Gain an idea of just what must happen to an archaeological site for it to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

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