Archaeological Highlights, a Vietnamese blog on archaeology, history, methodology, and other issues, has an interesting recent post which questions how the archaeological materials that have been unearthed in Vietnam can represent the continuous development of a local people.

In the twentieth century, Vietnamese archaeologists identified various “cultures” or “periods” based on the archaeological materials found in the area of theRed Riverdelta. Moving from the oldest to the youngest, these were the Phùng Nguyên, Đồng Đậu, Gò Mun, and Đông Sơn cultures/periods.

As far as I know, since about the late 1960s or early 1970s it has been largely believed that this succession of cultures represents a process of continuous development of a local people. What the author of this entry points out, however, is that the evidence in support of this claim is weak.

To quote, the author states that:

“In terms of cultural characteristics: After the Phùng Nguyên culture is the Đồng Đậu culture and then the Gò Mun culture (collectively called Pre-Đông Sơn). Although the pottery traditions of the Nguyên, Đồng Đậu and Gò Mun have some shared traits, it is more common to see unique elements, from the shapes and materials to the decorative markings. People in the profession just need to take one look, and without even handling them they can distinguish between these pieces of pottery, because they have very clear characteristics for each period, such that by the time one reaches the Gò Mun period one can hardly detect any traces of Phùng Nguyên pottery reflected in the pottery of Gò Mun anymore.”

Về tính chất văn hóa: Sau văn hóa Phùng Nguyên là văn hóa Đồng Đậu, rồi đến văn hóa Gò Mun (gọi chung là Tiền Đông Sơn), ba truyền thống gốm Phùng Nguyên, Đồng Đậu, Gò Mun tuy có một số nét chung nhưng phổ biến là những yếu tố riêng từ loại hình, chất liệu đến hoa văn trang trí. Người trong nghề chỉ cần nhìn thôi, chưa cần sờ đã có thể nhận diện những đồ gốm này vì chúng có những đặc thù giai đoạn rất rõ ràng và sang đến giai đoạn Gò Mun thì chả còn thấy mấy bóng dáng gốm Phùng Nguyên ảnh xạ trong gốm Gò Mun nữa.

In other words, the author’s point is that when the differences in the pottery for these periods far outnumber the similarities, how can we argue that they represent the continuity of a local people? The author then encourages those who are more knowledgeable to pursue this issue further.

I was really happy to read this, as I share this same sense of frustration. What is undeniable is that the field of archaeology in Vietnam became very politicized just as it was getting started in the 1960s.