Category Archives: Archaeology

My Son – Temples in the Jungle

During a recent holiday in Vietnam I visited the temple precinct of My Son, the principal religious center of the Champa. The following are a few photos (read many) of this day trip with a bit of background for good measure.

Who were the Champa?

Essentially the Champa were a collection of independent polities who ruled central and southern Vietnam from around the second century AD. The independent states became united in the fourth century under the rule of King Bhadravarman of Indrapura during the 4th century. Between the 7th and 10th centuries the Cham controlled the trade in spices and silk out of the South China Sea. Hoi An was the main port of the principality of Indrapura and whilst the capital of the Champa was in the area of the modern village of Dong Duang – both are situated near to My Son.

Map of Vietnam – Hoi An and Da Nang are roughly central on the coast.

From around the fourth century the Cham adopted Hinduism as their principle religion although many were eventually converted to Islam from the 10th century onwards. Today whilst the majority are Muslim there are still some that retain the Hindu faith and traditions.

The name Champa comes from the Sanskrit word ‘campaka’ which refers to species of flowering tree similar to a magnolia.

By 1832 the northern Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang had annexed and absorbed the Cham polities

My Son

My Son is situated in a valley near the village of Duy Phu approximately 69km from DaNang and was the site of religious ceremonies for the HIndu Cham rulers between the 4th and 14th centuries. It also served as a royal burial place. There are in excess of seventy temples in addition to many stele containing important inscriptions in both Sanskrit and Cham.

An aerial view of the now jungle covered valley, the bare patches are some of the temples accessible to the visitor.

The Hinduism of the Champa was Shaiva with elements of local religious cults such as that of the earth goddess Lady Po Nagar. A number of the features at My Son are the linga – a black stone pillar representing Shiva and the yoni representing the mother.

Unfortunately the valley was carpet bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war and many of the temples were severely damaged and in some cases totally destroyed. In recent years efforts have been made to rebuild the temples (the work is ongoing).

The hollows are indeed bomb craters – this part of the site has been left untouched – as awful as the bombing of such an important site is, the act is part of the history of My Son and as such needs to be remembered and preserved if we are to learn anything from it.

All but one of the temples are constructed from red brick (the only stone built temple is in the area known as B1). The decorative carvings which adorn the temple exteriors were cut directly into the bricks themselves. Although there has been some discussion about the type of mortar used in construction of the temples, it is now generally accepted that the mortar consisted of a sticky clay solution similar to the brick clay.

There are four types of buildings –

  1. Kalan – the brick sanctuary used to house the diety.
  2. Mandapa – the entry hallway associated with a sanctuary.
  3. Kasagrha – ‘fire-house’ usually with a saddle shaped roof and used to house valuables or to cook for the diety.
  4. Gopura – the gate tower leading into a walled temple complex.

In addition to the many sculptures and statues there are numerous stele (32 known in total) dating between the 5th and 12th century. The stelae can refer to a foundation of a temple, altar or pedestal. As historical documents they are very useful as they list names of kings, cities and occasionally describe important historical events such as the wars between Champa and Cambodia in the 12th century. The statues and carvings are usually representations of Shiva, also there are guardian statues found outside the temples.


The monuments of the My Son sanctuary are the most important constructions of the My Son civilization. The tower temples have a variety of architectural designs symbolizing the greatness and purity of Mount Meru, the mythical sacred mountain home of Hindu gods at the center of the universe, now symbolically reproduced on Earth in the mountainous homeland of the Cham people. They are constructed in fired brick with stone pillars and decorated with sandstone bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Their technological sophistication is evidence of Cham engineering skills while the elaborate iconography and symbolism of the tower-temples give insight into the content and evolution of Cham religious and political thought.  

From the UNESCO world heritage centre website
https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/949

The First Archaeologists

People have always been interested in the past, as far back as Nabonidus who ruled Babylon from 555 – 539BC who had a keen interest in antiquities to such an extent he even excavated down into a temple to recover the foundation stone which had been laid some 2200 years prior.  Nabonidus also had a museum of sorts where he stored his collection.  During the Renaissance those with the wealth to travel and collect began to keep cabinets of curios.  In these you would find ancient artefacts displayed alongside minerals and natural history pieces. 

“…the Renaissance attitude to the examination of the past…involved travel, the study of buildings and the collection of works of art and manuscripts.” (K. Greene 1983).

Initially it was classical antiquity which grabbed the attention of the well-to-do but after awhile eyes began to turn towards relics of their own past. The great stone monuments of North-western Europe became the immediate focus, places such as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in Britain.  Some of these gentlemen scholars would make systematic and accurate surveys of the monuments, which are still useful today, even if there were the less scrupulous who dressed up treasure hunting as scholarly research.  These antiquarians were in essence the first archaeologists and their contributions can still be useful today.

In Britain several antiquarians stood out between the 16th and 18th centuries.  John Leland (1503-1552) held the post of Keeper of the Kings Library and such travelled extensively throughout Britain.  Even though his main interest was in genealogy and historical documents he also recorded non-literary evidence as part of his wider researches, one of the first to do so. 

William Camden (1551-1623) learnt not only Latin but also Welsh and Anglo-Saxon in order to study place-names.  At the age of 35 he published ‘Britannia’ a general guide to the antiquities of Britain.  His descriptions of the ancient monuments are very detailed and he was one of the first to make a note of cropmarks and their possible links to sites no longer visible – an important part of aerial photography today.  Camden was also interested in other forms of material culture such as pottery as a source of information on the past, a concept regarded eccentric at the time.

William Camden (portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

In the mid 17th century John Aubrey was one of the earliest writers to assign a pre-Roman date to sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill.  His belief that such places were built and used by the Celts and Druids was so revolutionary there are still some who won’t let it go.  Following in Aubrey’s footsteps was William Stukeley (1687-1765) who although trained as a physician spent a great deal of time conducting extensive fieldwork in Wessex during the 1720s.  His highly accurate and detailed surveys of Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are still used today.  Stukeley’s recording of the avenue of stones (now destroyed) leading from Stonehenge to the Avon aided present day archaeologists in their search for them.  However, in 1729 he was ordained and then attempted to use his fieldwork to establish a theological connection between the Druids and Christianity.

William Stukeley’s drawing of the Kennet Avenue – sensible and accurate fieldwork…
And then there is the more fantastical of Stukeley’s drawings – his interpretation of the Avebury landscape and it’s Druidical temple…

“Just as Dr Stukeley may be said to be the patron saint of fieldwork in archaeology, so can the Rev. William be held to be the evil genius who presides over all crack-brained amateurs whose excess of enthusiasm is only balanced by their ignorance of method.” (K. Greene 1983)

At the same time, across Britain, lesser well known antiquarians were busy studying and recording their own local areas.  In the county of Cornwall this was no different.  The earliest known antiquarian was Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony, he was a member of the “The Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries” and in 1602 published his county history, “Survey of Cornwall”.  Perhaps the most well known and often cited antiquarian was William Borlase (1695-1772) who like so many began collecting natural rocks and fossils found in the local copper works in Ludgvan where he was the local pastor.  In 1750 he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society and by 1754 he had published “Antiquities of Cornwall” which he then followed with “Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly and their importance to the Trade of Great Britain” in 1756. 

Zennor Quoit as drawn by William Borlase (1769)
Zennor Quoit as seen today (photo from wikicommons – geography.co.uk – 902) This highlights why early antiquarian researchers should be dismissed immediately as having nothing to contribute to our understanding of the past.

Borlase’s great great grandson – William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899) – continued with the tradition of antiquarianism conducting some of the first excavations in Cornwall at Carn Euny in 1863.  Copeland Borlase published many articles and books on the antiquities of Cornwall, including a two volume book titled “Ancient Cornwall” in 1871 and a year later “Naenia Cornubiae: a decscriptive essay, illustrative of the sepulchres and funereal customs of the early inhabitants of the county of Cornwall”.  There were also a lecture on the tin trade and a monography on the Saints of Cornwall, not to mention a piece on the dolmens of Ireland and one on the mythologies of the Japanese.

William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899)

William Copeland Borlase also spent a great deal of time getting his hands dirty excavating large numbers of barrows in Cornwall.  He has been criticised for poor archaeological practice in only writing up a small percentage of those he excavated.  Nothing makes an archaeologist bury their face in their hands then the lack of a written record for an excavation.  Copeland Borlase often employed the services of John Thomas Blight (1835-1911) as an archaeological illustrator, although Blight was a well known antiquarian in his own right.  He published two books regarding the crosses and antiquities of Cornwall, one for the west and the other for the east of the county. 

Blight’s drawings of Carwynnen Quoit were recently rediscovered by the lead archaeologist, Jacky Nowakowski, during her researches prior to the excavation and restoration of the quoit.  In particular, the pencil drawing which had actual measurements was very useful in the interpretation of a stone pavement discovered during the excavation when combined with modern techniques.  The archaeologists were able to get a better understanding of the positioning of the quoit within the Neolithic landscape.

Throughout the country there have been numerous societies which promoted the work of antiquarians beginning with the prestigious Royal Society.  Even Cornwall had its own Royal Institute of Cornwall which is still operating today and currently manages the Royal Cornwall Museum as well as the Courtney Library which holds all manner of documents dating back into the 1700s.  These early scholarly societies however, did not focus on one aspect of research, natural history, geology, botany and other gentlemanly pursuits were all encouraged.  This attitude of open discourse across a variety of disciplines is one of the hallmarks of good archaeological research today. 

Archaeology is defined as the “study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of material culture” (The Penguin Archaeology Guide).  It is the recovery, description and analyse of material culture with the purpose of understanding the behaviour of past societies.  Material culture is defined as anything which has been altered or used by humans – it can be as small as shark tooth with a hole drilled into it for a pendant or as large as a European cathedral.  To study archaeology in general is to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ – as a subject it borrows from history, anthropology, geology, chemistry, physics, biology, environmental sciences, ethnography to name but a few.  Archaeologists have never been afraid of pilfering theories, methodologies and techniques from other disciplines.

The value of the early antiquarians does not necessarily lie in the outdated interpretations but in the production of often accurate and highly descriptive illustrations, field surveys and texts that are the basis of many manuscripts.  Some of these ancient sites are now lost and/or destroyed, and the antiquarian illustrations are all we have as a record.  Fieldwork will always be a fundamental part of archaeological work and the antiquarians of the past where the very first fieldworkers and the societies they belonged to provided the basis for the discipline of archaeology.

Green K. (1985) Archaeology – an Introduction. Routledge.

http://www.giantsquoit.org   A website detailing the excavations and restoration of Carwynnen Quoit.

The Terracotta Warriors – An Exhibition of Immortality.

The Terracotta Warriors are famed throughout the world and have been on my bucket list for quite some time. So imagine my excitement when I heard that a handful were to visit New Zealand.  The following is just a few photos of the exhibition on at Te Papa, Wellington until April

But first some background

Like many of the great archeoloagical discoveries the terracotta army and the mausoleum of the first emperor Qin was really quite accidental. It was in the spring of 1974 that the local villagers decided to sink a new well a good couple of kilometres from the already well known mausoleum of Emperor Qin. After digging down for about five metres through numerous archaeological layers they eventually began to bring up bronze objects and parts of the warriors themselves.

The importance of the villagers finds was eventually realised and it was this discovery which was to form a catalyst for further extensive research and excavation in the area. The First Emperor’s Mausoleum refers to the complex of funerary remains which pertain to the burial of the First Emperor, it is a massive area with a vast complex of structures.

“…the most important remains of the tomb complex include the cemetary’s architectural structures, tomb tunnels, tomb burial chambers, the gate watchtowers, walls, roads and coffins, as well as accompanying tombs, pits and mausoleum villages. The mausoleum is also the product of supreme engineering and architectural efforts, including the construction of massive dykes and channels to prevent flooding, underground sluice walls, drainage channels, man-made lakes and ponds and so on. There are also a large number of facilities that are protective of, and associated with, these mausoleum structures, such as the remains of factories and workplaces, kilns and the tombs of those working on the mausoleum. There would o be fording places, wharfs and the like.” (Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality – edited by Rebecca Rice)

With that one paragraph we realise that there is so much more to a site, a place than just the sensational. A fact which is important to remember when dealing with any archaeological site…

Whilst the terracotta warriors are the main attraction for this travelling exhibition there are also a wide range of artefacts on display from many burial sites and dated over a wide period of time. Please excuse the poor quality of some of the photos, flash photography was not allowed, (all photos are my own).

Just a few of the bronze items found in the burials of the Qin and Han Dynasty.  These are three legged cauldrons – the one the front is Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the one at the rear belongs to the Warring States (before the Qin) 475-221CE.
Pottery will always have a part to play in deciphering the past – these examples belong to the Han Dynasty. The tubular one in the middle was for storing grain and the other two are simply described as pottery bowls.
These delightful pottery fish are from the Qin Dynasty (221-206BCE) and are believed to be childrens toys, they were thought to originally contain a small stone causing them to rattle.
Not the best photograph…but this jade and agate pendant is from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BCE).  “The sound of tinkling that accompanied the wearing of such pendants both regulated the wearers pace and kept evil thoughts at bay”.
These seemingly plain and uninteresting discs of jade actually have a far greater meaning than their appearance might suggest. 
The ancient Chinese fashioned jade in the circular shape they imagined Heaven to be. Jade discs like these were used to worship Heaven, and were placed on the bodies of the dead to ensure immortality”. 
Here we have examples of belt buckles. The object to the front is gold inlaid with agate, 
hematitie, turquoise and shell – it is dated to the Western Han dynasty (206BCE – 9CE).  It is made from a single sheet of gold and hammered into design that includes animals both real
and mythical. The belt buckle to the rear is made from bronze and is dated to the Han dynasty.
Again excuse the photo quality – described as ‘sword blade with inlaid openwork hilt’, it is a very mundane description for what is 
an impressive artefact.  The blue decoration are inlaid turquoise. The sword is dated to the Spring and Autumn
period (771-475BCE).
The display of bronze arrowheads reminds us that whilst many of the atefacts speak of great artisanal skill 
and a culture rich in meaning it was also one where martial rule was equally important.  These arrows are dated to the Qin dynasty (221-206BCE) and were for use with the crossbow and instrumental weapon in the defeat of the nomadic tribes.  
“Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the Terracotta Army Pit 1. Each archer would have carried sets of 70, 100 or 114 arrows in hemp quivers on their back”.
Decoration was everywhere in ancient China – the above is one of many roof tile-ends, I particularly liked the deer motif. These objects protected the rooflines and eaves of a building. The deer symbolises longevity. It is dated to the Warring States period (475-221BCE).
This is a much larger roof tile end and was excavated from the site of the Qin Yellow Mountain Palace. It is thought that the abstract pattern represents two dragons in mirror image. It is a pattern/imagery associated the most with the First Emperor.

As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin excavations and building started at Mt Li (the location of the tomb), while after he won the empire more than 700,000 consripts from all parts of the country worked there…they dug through three subterrnean streams and poured molten copper nd bronze to make the outer coffin, and the tomb was file with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious tones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any theif breaking in would be shot. All the country’s rivers, the Yellow River and the yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the Earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning forever.


(Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian)

At this stage in time the First Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavate but the high levels of mercury recorded might suggest that the above quote was not an exageration…Sima did not mention the terracotta army in his description of the Emperor’s burial. The army occupies four large pits and it is estimated there are 8000 soldiers with only 3000 excavated. On average each soldier stands 180cm tall and weigh around 100-300 kilograms. There are foot soldiers, archers, armoured officers, wooden carriages and horses. All face east and it has been suggested that they are there to protect the Emperor in the spirit world from those he killed during his conquest of China…

Armoured military officer
Armoured General
The kneeling archer
The chariot horses – the hole visible on the side show where a wooden chariot would have been attached.


A modern replica in bronze of a chariot – the detail even down to the all the individual reins and straps was fascinating to see.

After the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty rose to prominence and whilst their style of rule was quite different from the the First Emperor they did continue with the tradition of large scale mausoleums. The following photos are from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (157-141BCE); a Han general’s tomb at Yangjiawan (also of the Western Han – 206BCE-9C).

These small figures are the Han version of the First Emperor’s army – orignally they would have had wooden movable arms and have been clothed. There purpose was also to protect the Emperor Jing in the afterlife.
One of pair on isplay these two lion like mythological creatures date to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220CE). It is thought the may have been placed in front of a nobles tomb.

The above are the remains of a tomb gate from the Eastern Han dynasty. These were regarded as doorways between Heaven and Earth, the iconography suggests a celestial journey needed to reach Heaven after death. The battle scenes on the horizontal lintel hint at possible challenges on that journey.

And Now For Some Humour…

I originally wrote this article for Hubpages but over the last couple of years I have seriously neglected that writing avenue.  Anyway, I thought I would republish here might amuse some of you lovely readers.

Can Archaeology Be Funny?
It would depend on who you spoke to but in short, yes! It is often a humour born out of discomfort, sunburn, blistered hands, sitting through lectures that can test even the most ardent follower of archaeological theory. And lets not forget the constant need to defend ones subject choice. Whatever you do never ask an archaeologist about dinosaurs or worse – aliens…it is often hard to judge their reaction…

BBC meme
All of that aside, here is a short article with a few funny bits just to lighten the moment before we head into another (more serious) article. Have fun, don’t take it seriously and feel free to add your own funny moments in the comments.

An Alternative Glossary
Activity Area – Scatter of artefacts where archaeologists like to imagine something happened.
Artefact – (UK spelling) Any object that looks as if people made or used it.
BP – Nothing to do with petrol, simply an abbreviation for ‘Before Present’. As archaeologists tend to live in the past, their ‘Present’ is actually 1950 (the year radiocarbon dating was invented).
Barrow – A tumulus.
Culture – Archaeological term for regional groups of similar artefacts, often equated with different peoples, it is also the thing which grows on mugs and plates found in the excavation hut.
Dating Methods – Courtship rituals adopted by archaeologists who want to dig together…
Gender Archaeology – Feminist archaeology.
Hypothesis – A guess.
Lecturer – One who talks in someone else’s sleep.
Living Floor – Floor on which archaeologists think people lived.
Megalith – A big stone.
Microlith – A small stone.
Necropolis – An area of tombs; a kind of city set apart for the dead…think Cheltenham (UK)…
Posthole – Any hole too small to be a storage pit.
Ritual – All-purpose explanation used when nothing else comes to mind.
Spoilheap – Mound of discarded dirt resulting from an excavation, usually placed in the exact spot the dig director decides to excavate in the last two day of the dig…
Storage Pit – Any hole to big to be a posthole.
Theoretical Archaeology – Last resort of the desperate; those who can’t dig or just don’t like getting dirty/have an aversion to fresh air.
Theory – A series of hypotheses.
Tumulus – A barrow.

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This Is Important…
There are a few basic rules everyone about to embark on their first excavation needs to remember and they are as follows.
1.  The most interesting part of the site will be under your spoilheap, or at least outside   the area you are digging in.

2.  The most important find will turn up on the last day or when you are pressed for times and funds (have you ever excavated a cremation burial by the light of a jeeps headlights?).

3.  Finding anything worthwhile will involve extending your dig and in any case it will not be what you are looking for.

4.  If in doubt, hack it out.

5.  Only falsify data where absolutely necessary: every site is unique, excavation destroys it, so nobody can ever redo your work and prove your wrong.

6.  Painted potsherds are always found face down.

7.  The number potsherds rises the longer you sit on the box they are stored in.

8.  The number of mutates (big grindstones) recovered at the site depends on the distance to the excavations vehicle.
(From: Bahn P. 1989 Bluff Your Way In Archaeology)

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How to Read Archaeological Texts

It takes a special kind of person who happily reads archaeological reports without falling asleep – that is true dedication. The problem arises with the language used by those who write, designed to bamboozle, often causing the reader to glaze over. This is deliberate, the true aim is not to disseminate their knowledge but in effort to fool their bosses and keep their jobs (because as we all know working archaeologists are rare breed).
Below you will find a list of some of these phrases and what they mean in reality – hope it helps keep you awake!

‘Just possible’ – I’m pretty certain but I can’t actually prove it; the reader will see how cautious and clever I am being.
‘There is some evidence pointing towards…’ – There isn’t any but it would be nice if there were.
‘The evidence suggests that…’ – If it were twisted beyond recognition.
‘It would be premature to suggest’ – But wouldn’t it be fun.
‘All the evidence taken together points to…’ – It all points in different directions.
‘No right thinking scholar can doubt’ or ‘the discerning reader will observe…‘ – These are my final trump cards.
‘Further research may indicate…’ – Mine certainly doesn’t.
‘Adverse excavation conditions…’ – the recording was terrible.
‘There was no evidence of…’ – if there was, we didn’t see it.
‘The object crumbled to dust on exposure to air’ – Joe sat on it.
‘The relationship between the layers was uncertain…’ – Joe dug it away when we weren’t looking.
‘It was not possible…‘ – We didn’t think of it until afterwards.
‘A flimsy structure’ – Moira planned the postholes.
(From: Rahtz P. 1985 Invitation to Archaeology)

 

Hope this has given you a giggle – do keep in mind though it is entirely ‘tongue-in-cheek’- except the alien and dinosaur thing…seriously don’t mention it…

Thanks for reading!