A few years ago historian Hayden Cherry published a very nice article which among other things talked about the early years of archaeology in French Indochina. [“Digging up the Past: Prehistory and the Weight of the Present in Vietnam,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 4.1 (2009): 84-144.]

The first archaeologists in French Indochina were all Europeans, and what Cherry interestingly points out is that they were mainly amateurs (Goloubew, Colani, etc.), and as might be expected of amateurs, their excavations did not follow the professional norms of the time for conducting archaeological excavations.

What this means is that these “archaeologists” essentially did not document what they did (by noting how far down an object was found or what layers of sedimentation were visible, etc.). They just dug things up from the ground and then talked about the objects they had unearthed.


I was reminded of this article today when I came across some pictures that the Smithsonian Institution has digitized that are apparently part of a collection of materials belonging to Olov Janse (1892-1885), the Swedish archaeologist who led excavations at Đông Sơn in the late 1930s.

Janse was, at least theoretically, more professional, but these pictures make me wonder what exactly “professional” meant in the 1930s. In the picture above, for instance, we see Janse keeping his hands clean as he observes the excavation work while a Vietnamese man uses what looks like a pickaxe to pound away at the earth. . .


There are other pictures which show local villagers crowding around to watch the excavation work. . .


. . . including this picture which seems to show boys who are taking care of water buffalo stopping by to see what was going on.


Then there is this picture which is labeled “Preparation for Ceremony Prior to Excavation of Han Dynasty Burial Mound 1937.” What ceremony was this?? Were offerings made to the spirits of the people in the tomb before the excavation began? If so, did Janse ever mention that in his writings?

So while Cherry has examined the actual archaeological reports that were produced about excavations in French Indochina in the first half of the twentieth century and pointed to a lack of professionalism, these pictures help us envision what the context was like in which these people conducted their work.

People like Goloubew, Colani and Janse set the foundation for the study of archaeology in Indochina, and apparently that foundation was created with pickaxes, buffalo boys, offerings to spirits, and limited documentation.

So what part of that foundation is actually solid? And how do we know?