Friday, July 30, 2010

New Insights into Hanoi's Prehistory

The links here, from the China Daily Post and Thanh Nhien, discuss the recent archaeological discovery (in April, this year) of approximately 15 "tombs" (read earthen pit graves) dating to the "Phung Nguyen" culture c. 3,500 BP, within the urban Dong Anh district of Hanoi, in advance of ongoing development. The excavation was lead by my colleagues Drs. Nguyen Lan Cuong and Lai Van Toi of the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology (Vien Khao Co Hoc). The photo above-left is of Professor Lan Cuong himself hard at work*! The results of the excavation indicated that men, women and children were buried in this cemetery, and that the local "aristocracy" (here defined as individuals with a somewhat greater quantity of diverse ceramic and bronze grave goods), consisted of adult individuals with their upper incisors removed (a practice referred to as tooth ablation in the bioarchaeological literature). Numerous studies can now be done on these individuals to determine their place of birth, any familial connections within this so-called "aristocracy," dietary, health or activity differences between the sexes, comparison to other sites, etc. Let the science commence!

Although I take semantic issue with use of the term "aristocracy" when referring to the social organization of this still-poorly understood time period, the material culture found in the graves, and in surrounding and overlying archaeological stratigraphy, all make sense as belonging to the Red River plain Bronze Age sequence. The uppermost soil stratum was even reported to contain "a system of holes believed to be the outer most rampart of the Co Loa citadel," but this claim will certainly take more excavation over a wider area, and further analysis, to verify. Regardless of the final verdict, the recovery of an intact prehistoric site with burials in urban Hanoi is quite fortunate, as many of the objects, especially the ceramics and bronze artifacts, are common finds in urban "souvenir" shops, even if many of them turn up through field plowing in surrounding areas. Furthermore, uncontrolled development has damaged several sites throughout urban Vietnam. The fact that the Phung Nguyen burials were 1.5m under the modern ground surface no doubt helped preserve them. Hopefully, this is the first of a series of new sites that will be discovered and carefully excavated before they are destroyed as Hanoi continues to "modernize." Fingers crossed.
*=photo from Thanh Nhien

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