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Archaeology talkfest seeks to bury the myths

Update: March, 27/2012 - 09:43


Link to the past: Ancient temples in My Son where devotees worship Linga and images of God Siva, the protector of Cham Pa kings. — VNA/VNS Photo The Duyet
Drumming up debate: Visitors inspect an ancient Dong Son bronze drum. These drumsdate back to 2000-2500 BC. — VNA/VNS Photo Phuong Hoa
Fire power: Bronze arrows of the Dong Son civilisation. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
History lesson: Visitors enjoy an exhibition of Oc Eo artefacts, held in HCM City. VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Vu

Different viewpoints and more explanation

Several members of the Vietnamese archaeological community approached by the Viet Nam News have expressed their reservations over some of the views presented at the conference, especially regarding the Dong Son drums and the introduction of agriculture.

Dr Vu The Long, formerly of the Institute of Archaeology, remained unconvinced that domesticated dogs and rice arrived in Viet Nam with people from the Yangtze River Valley. "Remains of animal bones and plants do not always survive for a long time underground in the hot and humid environment of Viet Nam. So far, the evidence found spans a very large area, from southern China to northern Viet Nam. As we discuss a path of development, we need to have more persuasive evidence before coming to a conclusion."

Dr Bui Van Liem, also quoted in the article, explained that "Dong Son drums were found all over Southeast Asia, but mostly in North Viet Nam, corresponding to the location of ancient Dong Son people. The number of bronze drums found in tombs of Dong Son, a mould for casting bronze drums found in Bac Ninh Province, and the carved images on these drums (like stilt houses, rice harvesting, beating drums, boats and many other elements) fit the lifestyle of Dong Son people. They reflect the knowledge and psychology of the ancient Vietnamese."

A recent conference on Vietnamese history dug deeper into techniques and interpretations in an effort to uncover the real truth about the nation's misty past. Rachel Poser reports.

Eating dog meat may be a controversial practice in Viet Nam today, but it turns out to be one of the country's oldest traditions.

In Southeast Asia, man has been consuming his best friend for as long as he's been planting rice, according to Australian National University Professor Peter Bellwood, who spoke at the International Colloquium of Archaeology in Viet Nam early this month.

Bellwood told the assembled researchers that domesticated dogs and cultivated rice were introduced into Viet Nam by people who migrated south from the Yangtze River Valley around 2000BC. Bone analysis revealed that this northern group mixed with an existing population, genetically similar to Melanesians, to form the ancestral core of the modern Vietnamese people.

Viet Nam's tumultuous recent history is well-known around the world, but beyond stock images of misty jungle and ruined temples, few can conjure a clear picture of the country's more distant past.

Many Vietnamese can only sketch a faint timeline that begins with a foggy notion of indigenous cultures, races through the thousand years of Chinese rule, notes the resistance movements and the formation of independent states before it arrives, all too quickly, at colonialism and the contemporary period.

The international colloquium, held at Ha Noi's Goethe Institute from February 29- March 2, aimed to illuminate the murky depths of the chronology for a global audience, in preparation for an exhibit of Vietnamese archaeology and history that will travel to Germany in 2014-15.

Foreign and Vietnamese scholars convened to identify the objects, sites, and concepts that would best illustrate the past 4,000 years of Vietnamese history to the German public.

Over the course of these three days, archaeologists and curators slowly stitched together the rich patchwork of Viet Nam's cultural fabric. The programme included lectures on the terracotta decoration and imperial architecture at Thang Long, the sensuous stone sculpture of the Champa Kingdom, and the patterned bronze drums of the Dong Son culture, among many others.

"Vietnamese cultural heritage is hardly known in Germany, so most people think only about the terrible wars of the last century. We want to change that," said project liaison Stefan Leneen.

Leneen expected that loan negotiations would be carried out this summer between Viet Nam and the three German institutions hosting the exhibit: the Museum of Archaeology in Hern, the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim and the new Archaeology and History Museum in Chemnitz.

In addition to its curatorial role, the conference provided an opportunity to assess the current state of archaeology in Viet Nam, address debates in the scholarship and set a course for future research.

Both the Vietnamese and foreign scholars expressed a high degree of satisfaction with recent progress in the field, while still pressing for improvements in technique and interpretation.

Director of the Viet Nam National Museum of History Dr Nguyen Van Cuong urged increased use of scientific methods and greater "objectivity", a call that was echoed by several scholars in their presentations.

Ian Glover, Emeritus Reader of Southeast Asian Archaeology at University College London, said Vietnamese scholars still needed to take a more expansive view of their research, reaching outside modern borders and integrating their studies into regional interpretations.

"Some are already doing it," he acknowledged, "but Vietnamese archaeology has, in the past at least, been too inward looking and also over-concerned to fit archaeological findings into a semi-mythical and rather nationalistic historical framework."

This tension was most evident in the discussion of the famous Dong Son bronze drums, which are proudly displayed in museums throughout Viet Nam and have become a potent symbol of the country's Bronze Age origins.

The Dong Son culture developed in Viet Nam's northern Red River Valley during the Warring States Period in China and rose to prominence during the Qin and Han dynasties, between the seventh century BC and the second century AD. Living in a network of militarized settlements, Dong Son people were skilled metalworkers who produced arrowheads, axes and bells in addition to the drums.

At the conference, Dr Bui Van Liem of the Viet Nam Institute of Archaeology, and Charles Higham, Professor of Archaeology at Otago University in New Zealand, both gave papers on Dong Son culture and presented divergent views on the drums.

Liem maintained that the "Dong Son drums originated with the Viet people, whose influence on the surrounding regions is evidenced by the drums that have been found in southern China and Indonesia".

Liem said he believed the Red River Valley to be the epicenter of drum casting, adding that their occurrence in other regions could be due to "exchange or imitation".

Higham objected to any thesis that interpreted the drums as a unilateral effort of the Dong Son people. He noted that very little evidence of drum manufacture has been found thus far and advocated for more extensive excavations around key prehistoric sites.

"To regard them as a unique attribute of the Dong Son culture cannot be sustained by their wide distribution and clear regional styles," he said.

While debates of this nature may appear technical and unimportant to a non-specialist, they can have profound repercussions for the beliefs and behaviour of modern societies. Cultural, ethnic and religious groups often anchor their identities on past events, constructing narratives that can create extraordinarily strong attachments to historical customs, objects, or places.


Link with past: The head from a stone statue of God Brahma that belongs to the Cham Pa culture. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Ha
After life: A statue of Ganesa, Son of the God Siva, kept in Tien Giang Province's Museum. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Ha
Resurrected: A stone statue of Bodhisattva Kwan Yin from the 7th-8th centuries. — VNA/VNS Photo Quang Nhut.
In front of the main staircase in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Ha Noi stands a large replica of a Dong Son bronze drum etched with images of President Ho among the people, forming a clear link between the Bronze Age culture and the modern nation.

Viet Nam is far from alone in struggling to negotiate the intersection of past and present. For example, excavations in the Middle East are often fraught with interpretive difficulties because they have the potential to bear on the politically charged Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Questions about who was here, and especially who was here first, tend to become much more significant when those same ‘whos' are embroiled in a contemporary controversy, to the detriment of other (more interesting) lines of inquiry.

This point was also illustrated during the conference when Dr Tong Trung Tin of the Institute for Archaeology announced that improving the country's underwater archaeology program would be its next major endeavour. While the decision is certainly a justifiable one considering the country's more than 3,000km of coastline, it also comes at a time when Viet Nam is concerned with reasserting its sovereignty in the East Sea.

Tin said that Viet Nam wanted "to work with international partners, especially on the East Sea path, in order to attract the attention of both experts and the public on this topic." In May, Ha Noi's Viet Nam National Museum of History will open a three-month exhibit titled "The Silk Road on the East Sea," which would showcase Viet Nam's dominion over the East Sea as part of the route, according to Dr Nguyen Van Doan.

China, it should be noted, also plans to intensify its archaeological activity in the region. At the "Powerful Nation Forum" on March 12, the Chinese Deputy Minister of Culture said the country would build an archaeological centre in the East Sea and a working station on the Hoang Sa (Paracels) Archipelago.

Viet Nam has said these activities "seriously violated Viet Nam's sovereignty."

Despite these complications, Glover said he has seen "local archaeologists become better trained, more confident, and determined to set their own agendas for research" throughout his more than 50 years of working in Southeast Asia.

At the conference, Professor Le Thi Lien distinguished herself as one of these pioneers, presenting a detailed report on the Oc Eo culture that flourished in southern Viet Nam from the second to seventh centuries AD.

Le stated her interest in "how ancient people perceived and exchanged cultural value" and seems to have successfully situated her investigation within its larger religious, economic and social context.

Her excavations at the urban site of Oc Eo have yielded an abundance of artefacts, a few of which are suggestive of long-distance trade, including Roman coins and jewellery, Chinese sculpture and Indian beads.

Conference participants agreed that the country was moving in the right direction with regard to theory and method. In fact, they were less concerned about the influence of politics on archaeology than the influence of economics, citing the rampant looting of sites as the most pressing problem that will face Vietnamese archaeology in the 21st century.

"The pace of looting is accelerating and there are far too many ignorant ‘collectors' prepared to buy unprovenanced artefacts, thus feeding the demand to destroy archaeological sites. It is little more than cultural rape," Higham said.

Educating the rest of the world about Viet Nam's rich history may draw attention to this problem and contribute to slowing the trade of illicit antiquities. The international colloquium and the upcoming German exhibit are meaningful steps in the effort to expand the global view of Vietnamese cultural heritage, and may ultimately help to preserve it for future generations. — VNS

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