I’m reading a book on the emergence of “early states” (nhà nước sơ khai) in the Red River Delta. This book claims to be based on archaeological evidence, but what I find in reading it is that the book ultimately relies heavily on information in texts to interpret archaeological evidence.

As is well known, when the full story of the Hùng kings emerged in the late-14th or 15th centuries, it stated that the first Hùng king established a kingdom called Văn Lang and that it contained 15 regions (bộ).

Around a century ago, Henri Maspero called into question the accuracy of this account, and pointed out, for instance, that some of the names of the 15 regions were first coined during the time of the Tang Dynasty, and therefore, could not be names that had existed more than 1,000 years before that time.

vl

Information that is as problematic as the claim that there was a unified kingdom called Văn Lang and that it was divided into 15 regions is precisely the kind of information that archaeologists should put aside and try not to use to interpret archaeological evidence. What I see in this book, however, is the opposite.

Instead, we find statements like the following, that “Archaeological materials have not yet found the tomb of the most important ruler of the community of ancient Việt people during the time of the Đông Sơn, but the tombs of regional rulers have been found.”

Tài liệu khảo cổ học chưa tìm được những ngôi mộ của thủ lĩnh cao nhất của cộng đồng cư dân Việt cổ thời văn hóa Đông Sơn, nhưng các ngôi mộ thủ lĩnh địa phương đã phát hiện được đây đó.

daggers

How do we know that there was a ruler who was the most important? And how do we know that there were regional rulers under the authority of that supreme ruler? If we haven’t found archaeological evidence for this, why would we assume that such a person existed? And why are we calling the people who lived in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC “ancient Việt”?

In another passage the author maps out different groups of people (tộc người) that archaeologists have identified, and says that in doing so it is hoped that this will enable us to “tiệm cận” with the “regions” of the Hùng king period.

Với giả thiết công tác của chúng tôi, mô hình nhà nước Văn Lang – Âu Lạc phân bố trên 3 khu vực lớn mà sau này sẽ trở thành 3 quận lớn. Ba khu vực này chúng tôi gọi là khu vực Tiền Giao Chỉ, Tiền Cửu Chân và Tiền Nhật Nam. Dưới 3 khu vực này, chúng tôi xác lập các tộc người và địa bàn cư trú theo tên gọi các địa điểm khảo cổ nổi bật, hy vọng sẽ tiệm cận được với các “bộ” thời Hùng Vương và An Dương Vương.

drum

The language here is extremely vague. “Tiệm cận” is a noun used mainly in math. In English it is known as an “asymptote,” that is, “a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance.”

So I guess what the author is trying to say here is that in mapping out the various groups of people that archaeologists have identified, we can come close to finding the 15 regions from the time of the Hùng kings.

At the same time, however, the author puts the word “regions” in scare quotes to imply (?) that we can’t really be sure if those regions actually existed.

figure

There is a great deal of vagueness and imprecision in writing like this. Ultimately this author cannot put aside the textual information about antiquity, even though that information was recorded over 1500 years later and scholars have demonstrated how problematic it is.

I think this is a shame, as it would be fascinating to know what we would see if we interpreted the archaeological evidence on its own, without reference to Hùng kings, Văn Lang, states (nhà nước), supreme leaders, regional leaders, fifteen regions, etc.

If we looked at the archaeological evidence on its own, without looking at it through texts that were written many centuries later, what would we see?