Archaeology garners a lot of respect in Vietnam. It is seen as being much more “scientific” (khoa học) than a field like history, as historical texts thought to be unreliable, whereas archaeological artifacts are seen to be more stable.
In reality, however, archaeology is only as good as the interpretations that are made of archaeological evidence, and those interpretations can easily be politicized.
This is exactly what happened in North Vietnam in the 1960s.
In 1967 on the occasion of the death anniversary of the Hùng kings (a practice that began in the early 20th century under French influence), the editorial board of the North Vietnamese academic journal, Historical Research [Nghiên cứu lịch sử] published a two-page call for historians to study what they labeled the “Hồng Bang period,” that is, the period of roughly much of the first millennium BC.
The authors of this article pointed out that in the effort to write a history of Vietnam from a new perspective the problem of the Hồng Bàng period still needed to be resolved. They then recounted the information from texts about this period (for an English translation of that information, see the section on “The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan” here).
After having done so, they noted that this information has a legendary or mythological quality to it. That is why, they noted further, French scholars had dismissed the Hồng Bàng period as legendary, a view that was upheld by historian Trần Trọng Kim in the late colonial period, and by scholars in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era.
In contrast to French and South Vietnamese scholars, the authors of this article stated that historians in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (i.e., North Vietnam) had researched for at least ten years the problems of the Hồng Bàng period and the Hùng kings. They claimed that with many materials as evidence, scholars such as Văn Tân, Trần Văn Giáp, Đào Duy Anh, Đào Tử Khai, Trần Quốc Vượng and Hà Văn Tấn had all demonstrated (chứng minh) that the individuals whom we call the Hùng kings are not legendary or mythical figures, but are individuals of flesh and bone who had actually lived in roughly the first millennium BC.
The authors then confessed, however, that “Although the conclusions of historians in the North have academic and intellectual value, they do not yet have the power to persuade everyone” (Kết luận của giới sử học miền Bắc mặc dầu vừa có giá trị khoa học, vừa có giá trị tư tưởng, nhưng chưa đủ sức thuyết phục tất cả mọi người). That is why there was a need for historians in the North to research this topic more deeply and more systematically.
The way that the authors suggested that historians should do this was first of all by looking at texts. Historians were asked to look first at Chinese and Vietnamese historical texts that were related to the Hồng Bàng period and the Hùng kings. In addition to that, they were to carefully examine legends and records about spirits that talk about the Hùng kings, and that in doing so they were to focus on the area of Vĩnh Phúc and Phú Thọ provinces, the region which historians had determined from their study of texts must be the heartland of the Hùng kings’ kingdom.
Finally, scholars were encouraged to carry out archaeological excavations in Vĩnh Phúc and Phú Thọ provinces “to see what was left behind from the period of the Hùng kings” (để xem thời kỳ các vua Hùng còn để lại những gì).
Why was it so important to resolve the “problem” of the Hồng Bàng period? On the one hand, scholars in North Vietnam wanted to know what had existed in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC because they had been engaged in a big debate (following Marxist historical ideas) about how to periodize Vietnamese history, and for this they needed to know when a primitive communist society had existed, and when that had been replaced by a slave society.
By 1967, scholars in the North did not have enough evidence to resolve this question, so that was one reason why the editors of Historical Research wanted people to research the Hồng Bàng period in more depth.
At the same time, there was also a political reason why the editors of Historical Research wanted people to research the Hồng Bàng period in more depth, and they clearly stated in this article that “. . . resolving the problem of the Hông Bàng period will resolve a problem of political importance.”
The editors stated that if the ancestors of our nationality (nếu tổ tiên dân tộc chúng ta) started to develop strongly from the time of the first millennium BC with the purpose of marching towards become a “civilized society” (xã hội văn minh), then that says that from very early on the nationality of Viet-nam has been a nationality that with abundant vitality that established a unique culture in the area of what is now the Northern region of the country.
The editors then say that, “That is an honor for our ancestors, and it is also truly a source of pride for our nationality, a nationality that has established its country since a long time ago, that has its own culture, has that defeated foreign invaders numerous times in the course of history, and which will now certainly defeat the American empire and complete the enterprise of making the Fatherland independent and unified.”
This document reveals with 100% clarity the connection between scholarship and politics in North Vietnam in the 1960s. On a political level, someone decided that it was important for the war effort to show that the North had the most legitimate claim to rule over Vietnam, because the North was the heartland of the Vietnamese nation/ality (dân tộc).
The problem was that there wasn’t strong evidence that such a nation/ality had existed prior to the period of Chinese rule, so the order in 1967 was to “find that evidence”!!
Now when people truly engage in “scientific/academic” (khoa học) scholarship, the one thing that they are never supposed to do is to decide what it is that they want to say first, and then to try to find evidence to support their ideas. Instead, in “scientific/academic” (khoa học) scholarship, scholars are supposed to examine evidence without preconceived ideas or biases, and to then interpret that evidence.
What this document from 1967 shows, is that no such “scientific/academic” (khoa học) environment existed in North Vietnam at that time. To the contrary, this was a 100% political enterprise. Scholars were told what it is that they were supposed to find, and then told to go find it.
This was doubly tragic for archaeology, in that besides the fact that archaeologists were being told what to find (i.e., “thời kỳ các vua vua Hùng còn để lại những gì”), they were also being asked to interpret their findings based on information in historical texts.
To be truly “scientific/academic” (khoa học), archaeologists should just look at what they find and interpret it. They shouldn’t assume that historical texts are correct (because often they are not). But in 1967 North Vietnam that was not an option. The powers-that-be had decided that the texts were correct. They just needed more evidence in order convince everyone that what was written in texts was true (vì “chưa đủ sức thuyết phục tất cả mọi người”. . .).
What is so depressing about this is that in some ways it is true that archaeological evidence is more “scientific” than historical information, but once archaeological evidence has been politicized, I think that it becomes harder to reverse politicized interpretations of archaeological evidence than it is to re-interpret historical sources.
As long as historical sources are not destroyed, scholars can go back and relook at them. In the case of archaeological findings, however, if archaeologists do not make detailed records of their excavations and make those records and the artifacts that they dug up available to other scholars, then it becomes very difficult to re-interpret those findings.
In the 1960s, a great deal of archaeological work was conducted in North Vietnam, but 1) it was politically motivated, and 2) I can’t find the detailed records and the artifacts of many of the excavations from that time.
So in the end, archaeology, which is supposed to be more “scientific” than history, ends up being just as problematic.