Traditional Funerary Rites Provide a Glimpse at Mystery Neolithic Vietnamese Culture
3,000 years ago, a small community on a Vietnamese island disappeared. No one is certain why, but even their very existence is a surprise. Luckily for archaeologists, it seems that their traditional funerary rites could provide clues to practices in the past.
A chance discovery of broken ceramics, following a flat tire, soon led to a grave site on Quan Lan Island in the Ha Long Bay region of Vietnam. ABC News reports the initial hints of the discovery’s importance were unearthed in 2016. However, it took two years for a Western Australian archaeologist, author and historian, Bob Sheppard, to get permission from the Vietnamese government to excavate alongside a team which included Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project (VMAP) representatives.
It all started with a few pieces of broken ceramic. ( Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project )
Sheppard said , “These ceramics — as they turned out — are around 3,000 years old. We did excavations this year at that site and we've come up with material from the ancient people who lived on the islands in Vietnam 3,000 years ago.”
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The two-year wait could have been a trying time for Sheppard, as he has already experienced the potential for disastrous results due to delays. For example, he told ABC News a bulldozer had smashed up a 1000-year-old site in the same area while he was awaiting permission to continue work there.
The most interesting find so far at the graveyard was an open Neolithic burial with grave goods. Sheppard described the find:
“When they [Vietnamese locals] dig the bones up they leave the grave open. The archaeologists were walking through the grave yard and found this open grave. There, in the spoil mound from the grave, was all these Neolithic ceramics and a beautiful polished stone axe.”
A polished axe was found at the Neolithic gravesite in Vietnam. ( Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project )
You may wonder about the strange condition of the grave – the answer is cultural. If the ‘old ways’ are followed, the funerary process in Vietnam is complex. Off Road Vietnam provides a description of a traditional Vietnamese burial practice: It begins with placing the body of the deceased on a bed under a net. Some areas place bananas on the dead person’s stomach to distract an evil entity from eating his or her intestines, others sometimes place a knife on the belly instead, to protect the dead person from evil.
The body is then prepared for burial by the family washing and dressing it in white clothing (a color associated with death and the color the deceased’s loved ones are expected to wear ).
Vietnamese mourners in white. ( going slowly )
Vietnam Tourism explains that a chopstick may then be placed between the teeth (so the deceased’s mouth is open) and both coins and rice are placed inside.
“Then the body was put on a grass mat laid on the ground according to the saying ‘being born from the earth, one must return back to the earth’.” [Vietnam Tourism]
While the body is still at home - sometimes for days or even weeks - family and friends visit the people in mourning and offer condolences, support, and perhaps even money to help pay for the elaborate funeral rites . Special meals are eaten, and mourning music fills the air along with the loud wailings over the lost loved one.
A Vietnamese funeral arrangement. (going slowly )
When the family is ready for the interment, there is a large funeral procession in which the deceased’s friends and relatives accompany the body to the burial ground while dropping votive papers (symbols of money for the dead) along the way.
The funerary procedure doesn’t end when the coffin is buried. The family mourns their loss for three days at home then they return to the grave and worship. Vietnam Tourism writes the family stops the practice of leaving rice for the deceased at the altar after 49 days. And, “after 100 days, the family celebrates tot khoc , or the end of the tears.”
Muong funeral - Vietnam Museum of Ethnology - Hanoi, Vietnam. ( CC0)
But they haven’t forgotten the dead. They hold anniversaries one and sometimes two years after the passing. On the mark of the third year, Off Road Vietnam explains, the coffin is exhumed, the bones are cleaned and arranged into the right location, and then the remains are placed in a smaller earthenware coffin. At this time the bones are reburied.
It was this information on the funerary rites of Vietnam which tipped the archaeologists off to a possible explanation behind the seemingly odd appearance (at first glance) of the Neolithic burial. It also led to more discoveries around the site.
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Ceramics, tools and materials were found about half a metre beneath the surface. This coin was found at a more recent site nearby. ( Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project )
There is a more fascinating and unexplained nature to the grave site: no one has been able to explain to Sheppard and his team who the people were. Sheppard told ABC News:
“I think the biggest mystery is what happened to them. There is no evidence in the stratigraphy [rock layers] in the archaeology above this level. It seems to be some cultural or natural event happened that destroyed this culture around 3,000 years ago.”
“There is no evidence in the stratigraphy [rock layers] in the archaeology above this level” – archaeologist Bob Sheppard. ( Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project )
There is hope that more clues may be brought to light when the archaeologists return to the site in 2019.
Top Image: Decorations placed around a coffin at a home funeral in Da Nang, Vietnam. At left, placed in front of the coffin, is an altar featuring a framed photo of the deceased and a pot for offering joss sticks. At right are a number of flower bouquets with attached condolences, and in the background are a number of vertical banners, also offering condolences. Source: Dragfyre/ CC BY SA 3.0