Project Phongsali: Our collection of cultural artifacts continues to grow. Some items may be difficult to bring to the USA.

March 21, 2010

Villagers use this bowl and stone to grind homemade gunpowder. It's a nice addition to our collection but may be difficult to get through airport security.

Day 48

I continue to make purchases for our museum collection back home.  I’ve picked up several child-made toys, a wooden rice steamer, a skein of raw silk, and some wedges for splitting firewood. The wedges are wood themselves but feel as hard as steel.  (What species of tree?)

Then today I came upon a man pounding charcoal in a wooden mortar with a stone pestle.  Turns out, he was making homemade gunpowder.  After admiring his tools, I asked if he would make an identical set for me.  He laughed and said “You don’t make a stone pounder; you walk the river until you find a stone that’s just right.”

But he did agree to make the hardwood mortar.  I had assumed that the man carved the bowl with a chisel, but he set me straight.  To guarantee that the mortar will bear up to the constant pounding by the stone, the bowl must be formed by burning away wood until the proper shape is achieved.  The fellow thinks he can have my mortar ready in two weeks.

When I have an item made-to-order, I usually attempt to trade the new item for used.  Villagers think I’m crazy to make such trades, but I strongly prefer artifacts for the collection that show a patina of age and use.  My one concern about purchasing a used mortar is whether the residue of gunpowder will create a problem for me when I pass through airport security on the way home.

I doubt that it will, as my boots, my sleeping bag, my duffle bag, my computer case, my camera equipment, my books, everything I own, has been repeatedly exposed to the TNT residue that I carry back to camp on my clothes everyday.  To my knowledge, I’ve never set off any airport security alarms.

Earlier in the week I saw a couple of men taking turns grinding down a block of explosive that they harvested from a device we call the “Five-Inch Rocket.”  The Lao name for that piece of ordnance translates as “red explosive.”  It’s robustly flammable but fairly stable; a small sliver serves as an excellent fire starter.  When a block of the stuff is forced through a fine-toothed grater, the resulting powder can be used as gunpowder in the villagers’ homemade muskets.

The men that I saw reducing the stuff to dust were using something akin to a cheese grater and were going at the block with all the enthusiasm I’d put into a block of aged Parmesan over a bowl of pasta.  A little bit of red explosive goes a long way.  The fellows’ fist-sized block was going to fire a lot of muskets.  We’ve seen yard-long tubes of red explosive here, some with and some without rockets attached.  If the rocket is present we destroy the device; if the rocket is gone, we turn the explosive over to villagers for their use.

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