Archaeological and palaeo-environmental investigations of the Pre-Funan period in the Mekong delta - Southeast Asia
Since 1993, the Commission for Archaeology of Non-European Cultures of the German Archaeological Institute has been undertaking annual fieldwork in Vietnam. During the first ten years, this work was concentrated on the excavation and investigation of sites belonging to the Iron Age Sa Huynh culture of the last centuries BC in central Vietnam.
In 2003, a new research project was started at the Gò Ô Chùa site in Long An province, just 2 km south of the frontier between southern Vietnam and Cambodia. Gò Ô Chùa consists of a range of three mounds - 450 m long, 150 m wide, and 4 m high. All three contain the remains of settlement, salt-making and a large burial ground. The site is situated about 100 km to the west-north-west of Saigon and at least 140 km away from the present seacoast near the 11th parallel north.
In the next few years, field research should be extended to similar sites with salt-making ceramics on both sides of the border with Cambodia, in Long An and Svay Rieng provinces. These investigations should clarify the natural sources, technological methods, former coastline and cultural and exchange network of this salt-making area before the Funan period.
A second focus of research are the time span and cultural position of the graves of Gò Ô Chùa.
By joint excavations from 2002 to 2004 by the German Archaeological Institute and Hanoi University at the jar burial site of Lai Nghi in Quảng Nam province in Central Vietnam 63 burials were excavated and at present the results are under interpretation.
Among the rich offerings are more than 10.000 beads made from precious stones, glass and gold, many iron tools, bronze vessels and two mirrors. The most finds are dated in the 2nd/1st century BC.
The excavation campaigns at Gò Ô Chùa started in 2004. The whole area of the Gò Ô Chùa site covers about 65,000 m2. During the previous excavation seasons up to 2006, the joint German-Vietnamese team have been investigated seven trenches with a combined area of 231 m2 in all three parts of the site.
In 2007, surveys were undertaken on both sides of the southern Vietnamese-Cambodian border.
Anthropological examination of about 50 individuals at the burial site has been completed.
Archaeological and geological surveys are planned to find similar salt-making ceramic sites and to solve the landscape-related questions.
The first volume of the excavation publication is in progress, to introduce the previous finds and excavation results at Gò Ô Chúa through about 15 papers by different specialists.
So far, cultural deposits up to 2.60 m in depth at the centre of the mounds, decreasing to 0.60 m near the edges have been discovered. The distribution of finds indicates that at least 40,000 m2 contain large deposits of ceramic pedestals. Following a rough estimate, all three mounds at the Gò Ô Chùa site could include 10-20 million fragments from about 2-4 million pedestals.
The main pedestal type has the same shape as those found on European salt-boiling sites of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age. They were used as supports, and had been set unfired in many rows in the kilns, with their funnel-shaped ends either standing on the ground.
So far, we have not recovered any kind of pottery whose form or large quantity would support the assumption that they had been used as salt-boiling pots. Probably the boiling vessels were made out of organic materials like bamboo, coconut or palm spathes, the outer surfaces of which were protected by a lime coating, as described in both historical and ethnographic records.
Radiocarbon dates from different points and layers within the pedestal refuse mounds suggest a continuous occupation sequence from 1000 to 500 BC.
Moreover, at Gò Ô Chúa a large burial site overlies these refuse layers. The graves are dated to different periods, but mostly in the period from the 4th to the 1st century BC. Hitherto, 64 graves have been excavated - the largest series of skeletal remains so far discovered either in southern Vietnam or southern Cambodia.
Most graves are inhumations. Women, men and some children laid out on their backs very close to each other and oriented with their head to the southeast.
Besides, seven jar burials for infants were found and have to been dated earlier to about the middle of the last millennium BC.
From the size of this cemetery across all three areas of Gò Ô Chùa, and from the burial density, we have to assume a total of more than 1,000 individuals.
In the graves, we discovered iron arrowheads and spears, chisels and daggers; ring ornaments and axes made of bronze; and beads and bracelets made from glass or stone. Noteworthy are tiger tooth amulets and other ornaments and tools made from bone, antler or turtleshell. Many of the dead had sets of pottery in their grave, some conserving food remains (mostly fish or pig bones). In addition, beside pig jawbones, an entire pig skull was also deposited. Certainly, the most beautiful offering found so far is a pair of ivory bracelets with incised line decoration. Each bracelet consists of two halves, connected together by a pair of bronze hinges - at present, a unique find in Vietnam. In addition to these finds, the cultural layers containing burials have also yielded a rich ceramic collection, including 220 spindle whorls, 10 clay moulds for bronze-casting and 800 circular sherds, perhaps used as scrapers by the potters.
Our Vietnamese partners are archaeologists from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Vietnam National University, Hanoi (Dr. Lâm Thị Mỹ Dung, and Nguyễn Xuân Mạnh) from Hue University (Lê Duy Sơn) and from the Museum of Long An province (Dr. Bùi Phát Diệm).
Scientific cooperation efforts exist with:
Prof. Dr. Norbert Benecke, Natural Scientific Department of the Head Office of the German Archaeological Institute (Zoology);
Karsten Brabänder, University of Bochum (Analysis of glass objects);
Michael Francken, University of Tuebingen (Anthropology);
Dr. Michael Prange, German Mining Museum in Bochum (Analysis of stone and metal objects);
Dipl. Phys. Andreas Scharf, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Physical Institute Dep. IV, group KORA (AMS) in Erlangen (14C-analysis);
Dr. Joachim Wahl, State Office for Historical Monuments of Baden-Wurttemberg, Dep. Preservation of Archaeological Remains in Konstanz (Osteology).
Andreas Reinecke 2004: Reiche Gräber - frühes Salz: 600 Tage Feldforschungen auf Dünen und Reisfeldern (Vietnam): Expeditionen in vergessene Welten. 25 Jahre archäologische Forschungen in Amerika, Afrika und Asien (AVA-Forschungen Band 10). Aachen, 209-241.
Andreas Reinecke 2008: Briquetage und Gräber in Go O Chua (Vietnam): Zeugnisse der Prä-Funan- bis Angkor-Periode im Mekong-Delta: Zeitschrift für Archäologie Außereuropäischer Kulturen Bd. 2, 2007, 395-402.
Andreas Reinecke 2009: Early Cultures in Vietnam (first millennium B.C. to second century A.D.): Nancy Tingley (ed.), Arts of Ancient Viet Nam. From River Plain to Open Sea. Houston, 23-53.
Michael Francken / Joachim Wahl / Andreas Reinecke 2010: Reflections of a hard life - Burials from Go O Chua (Vietnam): Proceedings of the fourth Meeting of Junior Scientists in Anthropology ed. by C. Buhl, F. Engel, L. Hartung, M. Kästner, A. Rüdell, C. Weisshaar. Freiburg, 16-23.
Andreas Reinecke 2010: Early Evidence of Salt-Making in Vietnam: Archaeological Finds, Historical Records, and Traditional Methods: Shuicheng Li / Lothar Falkenhausen, eds., Salt Archaeology in China, vol. 2: Comparative Studies. Beijing, 137-159, color plate 1-7, plate 1-2.
Andreas Reinecke 2012: The Prehistoric Occupation and Cultural Characteristics of the Mekong Delta during the Pre-Funan periods: Dominik Bonatz / Andreas Reinecke / Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz (eds.), Crossing Borders in Southeast Asian Archaeology. Selected papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Berlin 2010. Singapore (in press).