Field Report: Vietnam – Another Source Country?

Damien HufferCommentary, From the field, Report1 Comment

As followers of the antiquities trade in general will be well aware, the illicit looting, smuggling, and display of artifacts from prehistoric and historic sites truly remain a global problem. Yet, the on-the-ground situation in certain regions, such as Mainland Southeast Asia, remains under-reported. Although UNESCO conventions, better monitoring and conservation, and increased calls for repatriation by Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia has curtailed the trade in historic period frescoes and statuary from the regions’ numerous early states and empires (from Funan, to Dvaravati, to Champa and Angkorian Khmer), the trade in prehistoric artifacts continues unabated. Since at least the 1980s, the looting of innumerable archaeological sites throughout the region, primarily in Cambodia and Thailand, has continued to mar the landscape and enrich the profits of middle-men at the expense of local interests. Furthermore, the mid-later prehistoric (c. 3,500-1,500BP) sites most commonly targeted belong to a very poorly known time period, during which profound changes in daily life, contact with the outside world, and the rituals of death were occurring. A more accurate understanding of these developments is crucial to explaining the origins of the states mentioned above, but every site looted before archaeologists can reach it, or salvaged after the fact, is another piece of the puzzle lost.

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For my initial contribution to this blog, as an early-career archaeologist and physical anthropologist with connections to ongoing excavation and outreach projects in Vietnam and Cambodia, I would like to share my observations and opinions about the sale of authentic antiquities in Vietnam, as observed and documented over several trips, the most recent of which ended only one week ago. On the surface, it might appear that the looting problem there pales in significance to the more organized situation in Cambodia, Thailand, or other world regions. However, it appears that this situation is changing. To explain, let me share some brief observations from my most recent research trip (November 2009-January 2010).

Through excavations, classwork and my own reading and research, I have begun to familiarize myself with the diversity of artifacts one might encounter in archaeological sites of various locations and time periods throughout Vietnam, and the contexts they likely derived from, if encountered on the open market. During my latest trip, I stayed in an area of Hanoi (West Lake District) in which many “souvenir” or “antiquities” shops have opened in recent years, primarily along the main street connecting this district to the center of the city, or “Old Quarter” (see above left). Although national heritage law stipulates on paper that any authentic object older than 100 years can not be openly sold, the enforceability of this mandate is very difficult.

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It is important to note that most objects sold in antiquities shops in Vietnam’s cities are either Vietnam (American) War relics (real and fake), antiques from family collections indeed made in the 20th century, or replicas of historic-period Chinese ceramics, and even some private collectors and shop owners seek to work with officials to create a national registry where vendors can register family collections as authentic pieced with provenance in order to legally sell them. However, not all urban dealers are in favor of this plan, as the State has supreme confiscation rights, even though international treaties apply to illegal exports from Vietnam, and individual “possession rights” for “heirlooms,” “national treasures,” etc. are recognized. Of course, the vague definition of what might constitute a “national treasure” ensures that many important historic period objects are still sold without provenance, salvaged from shipwrecks, or even sometimes looted from sites or monasteries…to say nothing of prehistoric artifacts. The current situation as I’ve encountered it on the ground in my investigations suggests that the trade in small items from prehistoric/early historic contexts continues unabated…anywhere these items can be mixed into larger antiques collections, and find a ready (and GROWING!) tourist market.

While in Hoi An, an ancient port city on the central coast of Vietnam, I was browsing the many side streets of the city’s “Old Town” district, itself a World Heritage site (as much of the architecture dates from the 1500-1800s). Although the number of shops catering to tourists inside the Old Town itself (supposedly a more commerce-free zone than the newer section of the city outside of the World Heritage boundaries) has increased markedly since my last visit in 2005, the ambiance of the place felt the same. I was saddened, however, to come across several “souvenir” shops openly selling metal, glass and stone artifacts (see above right), including several quite beautiful restrung necklaces, clearly deriving from late prehistoric Sa Huynh and early Cham cultural sites (most likely burials), as the central coast region has long been known as the archaeological heartland of these consecutive cultures. As more excavation, research, and museum display of these artifacts has been done by international teams, the more that accidental finds have been recognized as valuable, and the more deliberate looting has increased.

According to the shop’s owner (from whom I received permission to take artifact photographs), new shipments would come into his store every couple of months, mixed in with other objects…from an area no more specific than “around My Son.” It’s likely that the middleman delivering the artifacts was never told himself, if the original discoverer even knew. No, seeing such objects for sale does not guarantee that they were deliberately looted (as opposed to accidental field finds), but the contexts of many Sa Huynh glass and bronze items as grave goods makes it likely…and does that even matter when an artifact is offered for sale to an unsuspecting tourist? I think not… How much? $70 would get you a small bronze bell (at that shop), $250 a medium sized one, $80 a corroded bronze spear point or fragment of spiral bracelet, beads for $10 a pop. By my reckoning on that day, this was one of six or seven similar shops in the area… An ever-present problem indeed!

What can be done? It’s hard to say. While collaborative excavation and student training and outreach is increasing, life remains difficult, and still centered around agriculture, ensuring both continued supply and incentive. Likewise, tourists and expatriates continue to pour into the country (and region). Many provincial museums remain small, under-visited and under-funded, although I’ve noticed this changing, at least in the north. While some tourists do buy replicas of some of the more elaborate historic bronze and iron objects, it remains too easy to acquire the real thing, and while those I’ve talked to on the street (motorbike drivers, food vendors etc.) might be both impressed and baffled that one would devote their life to “ancient things” (the literal translation of archaeology in Vietnamese), I have rarely gotten the sense that prehistoric times/artifacts are thought of as “heritage” to most people. This, I feel, has to be the first step, or else more direct intermediary measures such as closing legal loopholes to the local trade or increasing monitoring, will not be enough. For my part, I will continue to work in the area; excavating, educating and sharing all I can about ancient life in a country I feel privileged to explore.

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Damien Huffer is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and department of Anthropology. He earned MA and PhD degrees in archaeology and physical anthropology from the Australian National University and has active research interests in human osteology, bio-archaeology, the Southeast Asian and global antiquities trade, and the online trade in human remains, and new methods of archeological outreach.

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