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The Dongson man with war axe on his shultern as handle of a bronze dagger of 2300 years old.


During excavation 2004 in Du Sang rock-shelter ( Kim Boi, Hoa Binh) > Articles >

Archaeology of Death in Vietnam [8/6/2008]


 Paper presented in SEAEAA conference, Sigtuna, Sweden 2002

Archaeology of Death in Vietnam

( from Hoabinhian to Donsonian)
by Nguyen Viet and Nguyen Thi Oanh
Center for SEA Prehistory, Hanoi
1-      Hoabinhian death
1.1 .     Where we could see Hoabinhian buries in Vietnam
In Vietnam, Hoabinhian existed during 18.000 – 6000 BP. Almost discoveries on Hoabinhian in Vietnam happened in the lime stone caves or rock shelter, where the earth ground contains shells of mollusks, animal bones and stone tools made from stream pebbles. That evidenced the Hoabinhian used natural caves or rock shelter for housing. Till today there is only one case of Sap Viet (prov. Yen Bai) reported as an open air Hoabinhian site. The human skeletons were found in the such Hoabinhian sediment only casually [1], and in many cases they were uncomplet or belonging to laterer ages.
There are two explainations caused such situation :
a-      The deads were buried not so enough carefully that their body were disturbed by animal as the people leaf all out the caves.
b-      The Hoabinhian people were acting mainly out of the caves. Their death happened almostly outside caves, where they collected the food. Their bodies were buried anywhere near the place where they died. Somebodies, who died suddly or because illness in caves, were buried in the caves or out near the caves. Only skeletons of the deads, who buried in the cave sediment, were retained to present. It’s also our hypothese in research on Hoabinhian death.
1.2.Some notes on Hoabinhian cemetery in Vietnam.
There are only 19 buries, which allow a study on Hoabinhian cemetery (Chinh ed., 1989 and Tan ed. 1998). 90 percent of the dead were buried in lying sleeping squat position. Somes dead were buried in sitting squat position. All skeletons are adult, not yet seen any children’s bones. There were no clear evidences of the given the things as tools or juvelry for the dead. The hoabinhian people hadn’t yet clear different knowledge between the death and the living. Man though that the death was perhaps only a long and special sleeping. The dead were buries in a natural limestone pit or with big stones arounding the body of the dead. We donn’t think such stone circle using for marking the grab, but only for housing the dead. Red ocre was used populary in hoabinhian cemetery. In some buries the dead were given with big bivalve as food and tool material. In the case of Mai Da Dieu, at the horizon of 6000 – 8000 BP occurred burial field, that means the hoabinhian people used this rockshelter to bury concentrally the dead in different layers. Man unearthered here about 26 hoabinhian buries, of which almost were buried in squat lying position and somes in squat sitting position. It evidenced the continuity evolution into Dabutian cemetery from the late phase of Hoabinhian.
1.3.Hoabinhian Anthropology
Australo-Mongoloid or Melanesien elements dominated on the researched hoabinhian and Bacsonian skeletons. The traces of trauma on the teeth evidenced a relative hart situation in food regime. The oldest hoabinhian was about 80 years old. In some cases man found from hoabinhian sediment pieces of human skeletons, those were burned or flaked. It was hypothesed a canibanisation in Hoabinhian. In hoabinhian Lang Gao cave, M. Colani discovered 20 human skulls. But we haven’t any evidences to confirm them to belong to Hoabinhian. Till today we regard the best collection of hoabinhian skeletons in Vietnam is from Mai Da Dieu [2].
2-      Dabutian Death
The Dabut culture was a hoabinhian Holocene adaptation. Since about 10.000 BP, the Hoabinhian, who was living in the bordering area between mountain and lower young plains, carried out a new food exploiting strategy. They exploited mainly the swampy food resources, which developed increasing under more rainfall and warmer climate. A part of Hoabinhian leaf the mountainous valley and moved into swampy regions. Somes of them weren’t living in the caves or rockshelters, but in open air settlements, where requested to use more pottery and polished stone tools. The Dabut Culture began since ca. 8.000 BP but developed during 6.500 BP to 5.000 BP. And in this culture, the first real burial field in the open air Kokkenmoeding Da But was recovered. In another site of Dabut Culture – the site Con Co Ngua man excavated here 104 skeletons. 100 skeletons were lied in squat position ( 98 sitting and two lying ). Dabutian air open housing with a food strategy depened closely on swamp molusc lead to long term settle in a form of pre-village. Such living way requested more using edge polishing pebble tools for house or selter making as well as increasing pottery. Those changes differed the Dabutian from their hoabinhian ansestor. And a special settlement for the dabutian dead occurred (Viet, 2002).
At that time, the dead were housing closely in settlement (burial field was at the same place of livings). In the site of Con Co Ngua, for example, more than 100 skeletons located in a place of ca. 200 sq. m. , where distributed also human humus sediment of livings. Each dead was buried in sitting position in a cylindrical pit. The ceremonies for the dead were not so far in compairirng for hoabinhian dead : some evidences of using red ocre. Similar as the case of Hoabinhian, the children skeletons were found very barely. The livings hadn’t given any ceramic for the dead. Stone tools were given casualy. The knowledge on a difference of living to the dead was not yet clearly. The society of the dead at that time was once closely to the livings ( the dead seat as they were living in a special situation : no more movable ). However there were some notable cases of Dabutian cemetery. E.Patte reported the using an adult skull as container to put there a baby skeleton. Such skull was buried in the bottom of a cylindrical grave, which contained an another adult skeleton (Patte, 1965). In another case, human bones were unearthered in burned situation. Recently man excavated at Con Co Ngua a collectiv grave, in which about ten skletons were temporary buried (Vinh, 1980).
In the same temporal horizont, man could see such burial field in the Quynh Van culture – an another post Hoabinhian adaptation in food strategy at the highest Holocene sea transgression. This culture distributes in the Nothern of Middle Vietnam (povinces Nghe An and Ha Tinh). Radiocarbon for this culture showed from ca. 5.000 to 3.500 BP. Here man found at the site of Quynh Van 31 buries. All were in sitting squat position in cylindrical pit. 25 of them were given with flaked stone tools (Chinh, 1966). Southward in province Quang Nam, man excavated in the kokkenmoeding site of Bau Du (5030 +/-60 BP) five skeletons in sitting squat position (Tan ed., 1998).
Anthropological studies showed the domination of Australoid elements on the skulls of Da But, Con Co Ngua, Quynh Van and Bau Du. They belonged to Mongoloid-Australoid or Melanesien race. The children’s graves are still big question in that age. The absence of children cemetery suggested a special customs for their death, which didn’t remain any traces for archaeology.
3-      Cemeteries in the late neolithic hunting collectors
There were in Vietnam groupes of late neolithic hunting collectors. They were represented by some sites in Dong Nai culture, Bien Ho culture. In most recent man excavated a very inportant burial field of those people in Ninh Binh ( Nothern Vietnam ) – site of Man Bac. A 14C-dating for this site is 3530 +/- 50 BP. But the first human occupation here could be estimated till more than 4000 BP. The food remains evidenced a life basing mainly on wild food resources as marine molusck, wild animals. Bones of pig showed them might be domesticated. The Man Bac occupator produced pottery with decoration, used populary small rectangular polished axes as well as stone rings, stone ornament tubes. Daily works for food were perhaps fishing and molusk collecting. The bone artifact collection demonted usualy hunting wild animals.
Here the dead were lied straight and up facing in small ovale eathern pit with a deeph of ca. 50 – 70 cm. Many children and baby’s skeletons were found near together with adult. Earthenware pots were firstly given for the dead, mainly in head, also in body or in foot, without difference of given things for adult and for children . The dead were given also polished rectangular stone axes and stone rings. Living’s knowledge of the death was in a new stage. The dead was prepaired before buried and the things what he brough with, are daily used ones. At that time each dead was given with one or several earthern pots. However man didn’t see the difference of social rangs in such graves. Three skulls of excavated skeletons were assigned to be living drawed two lateral teeth, those located direct closely at two central incisors of upper jaw. This happenes suggested the relationship to the same skulls of Peinan culture in Southeast coast Taiwan. The Man Bac people belonged perhaps to Austronesian.
Anthropological researchers identified Man Bac skeletons into Indonesien race.
4-      Cemeteries in early Rice-Growing Villages
The dead had his real home in Vietnam at about 4.000 BP. It was the age of many late neolithic – early metall age cultures as Phung Nguyen, Hoa Loc, Ha Long, Go Ma Vuong… The owner of such cultures were living in real villages. Somes of them represented a living way of an agricultural society as the case of Phung Nguyen culture. Rice remains found very much in the late phase of this culture. Those are Oriza Sativa, which belonged almost to large type – a developed type of Oriza Sativa. The growing rice established new cultural development, in which occured many settlement with rich potsherd layers, many domestical animal bones and rice remains. The non-food productions of pottery, stone tools and specially jade ornament artifacts evidenced the stablish surplus in the food production thanks rice-growing. In the case of Lung Hoa cemetery, the living spended many time for prepairing “house” for the dead. Here man found the graves with relative big earthern pits. Somes of them were dug till ca 3 m and with two or three steps. The dead were given with many grave findings, which were their daily things : stone tools, jade ornaments and pottery. Every dead were given meal of pig head.
The babies skeletons were found at that time mainly in the potteries, firstly at Den Doi (4000 – 3500 BP), perhaps (Viet et al, 1981). Since 3.500 – 3.200 BP, the potteries containing babies skeletons were found frequenter and usually nearby fire places.
Adult dead’s housing in big potteries was typical in Pre-Sahuynh Culture as Go Ma Vuong. Similar as another temporal site in northern Vietnam, the dead were given many beautiful potteries and stone jeweleries.
During Pre-Dongsonian (3500 – 2800) many big burial fields in the Delta of Ma River were excavated. At Quy Chu site we found the border between livings housing and burial field since about 3.000 BP (Viet, 2002b). That means the dead were estimated by livings to have a special place differing to housing place of livings. Here we had seen also firstly the evidences that the livings reconized the skeletons of anserstors, who died and was buried long ago. Diging the grave for the new dead in same cemeterial place man saw bone of old graves. Such bones were collected and puted them carrefully on the body of new dead. The grave findings were given to the dead relative regulary : each dead with a vase, a top (probably for water and for food ) at scull area. Some cases with richer pottery or richer ear rings had been seen. But we couldn’t yet confirm any hauptling’s graves. A grave of shaman might be dicovered at Quy Chu, whoes skeleton shown as small child, but the skull was biger than an adult one. Only that skeleton among over 40 excavated graves was found a neck-chain with canines teeth of dog. Some graves with double or more skeletons one upon anothers. The metall grave findings were usualy daily tools, but found in very small number. The dead were lied mainly with skull oriented to the mount ( if cemetery in mount foot) or to the sea ( East ) in straight and up face position. Two double graves were recovered, in each of which man lied two dead ( man and woman ) up over another. In another case of Nui Nap cemetery, man excavated in 1976 a Dongsonian grave with four human skeletons, three of them were first buried and one was second buried.
      Almost human skeletons of Pre-Dongsonian remained strong elements of Australoid, but elements of Mongoloid had increased clearly. Man assigned the Quy Chu, Nui Nap people as one of South Asian or Indonesian race.  
5- Dongsonian Cemeteries
Dongsonian – or Dong Son Culture in Vietnam was regarded as the highest developing culture of late prehistory of Vietnam. It began since 7th – 8th century BC and ended with the complet occupation of Han dynastry at 2nd century AD. According almost vietnamese researcher, the Dong Son culture belonged to Iron Age and distributed mainly in North Vietnam, southward only to Deo Ngang ( 18o N – latitute ) and northward in southern Kwangzi and Kwangtung of China.
The Dongsonian cemeteries were very multicoloured. Depending on the grave situation man divided them into several burial types : buried in earthern jars, buried in natural earthern pits ( with aditional potsherds or stone betting ), buried in wood-coffin or in bambus/cyprus mattes…The dongsonian burial fields were always nearby and outered to the housing places of livings. There were many big and concentrated cemeteries as Dong Son, Thieu Duong, Lang Ca, Lang Vac …The earlier Dongsonian dead were buried mainly in the eathern pits without wood coffin. Later, in some dongsonian groups, which were living in river mouth areas, were buried almost in wood coffins or in bambus/cyprus mattes. In another case as Lang Vac, the dead were lied in some big eathern pots making a ceramic sarcophagus.
The differences between ethnic, profesional and social groups could be seen through analysing grave findings and regional and generational clusters. At that time man could estimate some social constructions of chiefdom. The wood-coffin of Viet Khe could be assigned as grave of a high rang person. Some graves unearthered in Lang Vac or Lang Ca cemeteries with grave findings of bronze drum or hundred bronze spearhead, axes evidenced clearly the economic and social high rang of the dead. However the richer graves weren’t yet concentrated in a special cemetery but mixing in the same burial field with more poor graves. That suggested familian clusters of each Dongsonian cemetery.
Professional grave findings were found in many cases. For example, the complet tools for bronze maker (at Lang Ca), for wood lack worker (at Duong Du), for weaver (at Yen Bac) and for dancer (at Lang Vac)…The surplus of weapon as grave findings in the late Dongsonian evidenced the increasing millitar actions in the area. It was seemly under influence of waring waves from Yangzi areas.
The differences of grave findings happened also in children’s buries, especial clearly in the late Dongsonian. In the case of Quy Chu, for example, one of the same children ceramic jar buries, those located in a small place and closely another, was very rich with bronze ornament rings and dagger while others very poor without anything.
The head huntings might be seen through some cases, where the skeleton without head, or the grave with only head in a bronze situla. The images of head hunting were demonstrated on the bronze drums, situlas or on the dagger handle [3].      
            Anthropological research confirmed the increasing of Mongoloid elements in the Dongsonian skulls. However, the dongsonian peoples belonged to Indonesian or Ancient Southeastasian – a Southern Mongoloid with strong Australoid elements (Cuong, 1996).
Chinh, H.X., 1966. The shell-midden in coast of Nghe Tinh ( in vietnamese ). Somes Reports of Vietnamese Archaeology, Hanoi.
Chinh, H.X. ed., 1989. The Hoabinh culture in Vietnam ( in vietnamese ), Hanoi, 260 p.
Cuong, N.L.,1996. Anthropological Research on Dongsonian Skeletons ( in vietnamese), Hanoi.
Patte, E., 1965. Les ossements du kjokkenmodding de Da But. Bulletin de la Societe des Etudes Indochinoises, Vol 10, fasc. 5.
Tan, H.V. ed., 1998. Archaeology of Vietnam – Part 1:Stone Age, (in vietnamese), Hanoi, 457p.
Viet, N. and Vinh, B., 1981. The baby’s jar grave in Den Doi and elsewhere ( in vietnamese ). New Discovery of Archaeology in Vietnam, Hanoi.
Viet, N., 2002 a. The Dabut culture – Hoabinhian adaptation during Middle Holocene ( in vietnamese). Paper for Colloqium on Dabut Culture, Hanoi, May 2002.
Viet, N., 2002 b. Exacvation at Quy Chu – Bronze Age Settlement and Cemetery, in print.
Vinh, B. 1980. Excavation at Con Co ngua – a premier report ( in vietnamese ). New Discovery of Archaeology in Vietnam, Hanoi.

[1] Till 1999, of 125 hoabinhian sites discovered in Vietnam occured 35 hoabinhian sites reported recovering human bones, in which there are only 19 buries. It’s very few, while Hoabinhian existed here about 15 thousands years long.
[2] There are till today 28 buries recovered from four excavations in Mai Da Dieu : 1984 (three hoabinhian buries), 1986 (15 hoabinhian buries and 1 Sonvian bury), 1988-89-91 (8 hoabinhian buries) and 1996 (1 metal age bury).
[3] This dongsonian dagger belongs to Pham Lan Huong collection, Paris - Geneve.




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