Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Matters of the past mattering today

The past can be very important for those living in the present. My research experiences as an archaeologist have made this very apparent to me. Echoes from the distant past can reverberate and affect the lives of contemporary communities, and interpretations of the past can have important ramifications. Varied contemporary issues related to politics, cultural heritage management, tourism, development, sovereignty, and ethnogenesis can all be tied to reconstructions of the past.

This kind of dynamic is evident across many countries today, particularly those that have experienced recent histories of conflict, regime change, or newly gained independence. One does not need to look very far to see poignant connections between the archaeological past and the politics, lives, aspirations, and agendas of different communities. Millennia after Roman imperial domination, the appropriation of a Celtic past in parts of Europe has been significant in efforts to construct national identities. In Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, monuments stand today to commemorate Celtic tribal leaders who challenged Roman hegemony, even though knowledge of these leaders is sometimes based on sketchy history and scant archaeological evidence. After independence from French colonial rule, successive regimes in Cambodia each emphasized real or imagined links to an ancient and glorious Angkorian Empire. On the Korean Peninsula, professional archaeology began during the Japanese annexation period and in the ensuing years, after independence and civil war, tremendous weight was placed on the origins of a Korean ethnic identity. From these and countless other examples, it is clear a distinct connection exists between the symbolic capital of the ancient past and the variegated social and political needs of the present.

My current research on ancient Vietnam can be viewed against this backdrop. Like elsewhere, the past here has been closely connected to national identity. With a long history of complex interactions with numerous Chinese regimes throughout the past two millennia, capped by colonial encounters with the French throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is little wonder that concerns over nationalism and postcolonial identity would come to have such a powerful effect on the constructions of a Vietnamese past and cultural identity.

Statue of Cao Lo at Co Loa, commemorating the legendary military advisor or holy man that produced the mythical crossbow for the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

Ask anyone in Vietnam to name the geographic crucible for Vietnamese early history and civilization, and the answer is Vietnam’s northern region, that of the Red River Valley. Being adjacent to southern China, the history of this region and of embryonic Vietnamese civilization is thus inseparable from that of China. The two civilizations share a long and complicated history of interaction. One particularly impactful era began at an ascribed date of 111 BCE, when the imperial Chinese Han commenced a process of annexation over this region and precipitated what are known as the periods of Chinese domination. A Chinese authority would hold power here almost continuously until the tenth century CE. After independence from China and throughout the ensuing millennium, Vietnamese royal court chroniclers and scholars sought to describe a deep Vietnamese history, one with roots firmly planted in the Red River Valley prior to Han annexation. As part of these efforts, various folk tales and traditions were officially recorded.

A prominent feature in these folk tales is the ancient capital city known as Co Loa. Romanticized accounts tell of its emergence as the seat of power for the legendary Au Lac Kingdom at 258 BCE. According to legend, the king possessed a magic crossbow that could vanquish all enemies, not unlike Excalibur in Arthurian tales from the UK. Analogous to Camelot, Co Loa holds significance within a Vietnamese collective imagination, and its remains still sit on the landscape today outside Hanoi.

I have had the great privilege of collaborating with Vietnamese archaeologists at Co Loa, the largest site of the region. Our ongoing research has not yielded indisputable proof of the Au Lac Kingdom’s existence, at least not in my estimation. Nevertheless, for me, questions about the existence of legendary kingdoms, while truly fascinating, may not be the most important. Perhaps the most significant aspect of our research is that we have vital new data indicating Co Loa emerged sometime around the third century BCE, predating a Han imperial footprint in northern Vietnam. This allows us to conclude that a local and powerful society did indeed exist in this time and place, adding a vital case study to knowledge about emergent civilizations in Southeast Asia. Just as importantly, the evidence confers a measure of cultural power upon this archaeological story, replete with artifacts, remnant architecture, and sacred landscapes. The archaeology amply shows us that today’s Vietnamese cultural identities are complex products of cultural interactions and development that began thousands of years ago.

Popular notions of archaeology conjure up images of ancient relics and sites, but archaeologists are very aware that the material record of past lifeways is composed of more than just artifacts and ruins. Powerful meanings can also be heavily inscribed in landscapes, making certain locations culturally important, perhaps even sacred. For the Vietnamese today, the site of Co Loa – along with its assemblage of surrounding landscapes, remnant architecture, and artifacts – all serve as a wellspring of cultural potency for contemporary matters related to ethnicity, identity, and heritage.

In the end, I have been fortunate to be both participant and witness for an elaborate dance between the worlds of the living and the dead. As archaeologists, we give voice to the peoples of the past and need to be mindful in how our theories, interpretations, and reconstructions can be consumed, reconstituted, and repurposed by others. Artifacts, ancient monuments, and landscapes can all undergo transformations into cultural capital. The past, whether real, tangible, embellished, or imagined, can be a particularly powerful and alluring source of symbols, narratives, and ideas.

Featured image credit: An entrance to the innermost area of Co Loa. Currently, this area is the site for the temple, known as Den Thuong, dedicated to the Au Lac king. Photo courtesy of Nam C. Kim, used with permission.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Glover

    Interesting but the theme needs more development

Comments are closed.