Co Loa: An Investigation of Vietnam's Ancient Capital

By Kim, Nam C.; Van Toi, Lai et al. | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Co Loa: An Investigation of Vietnam's Ancient Capital


Kim, Nam C., Van Toi, Lai, Hiep, Trinh Hoang, Antiquity


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Introduction

Mainland Southeast Asia is an excellent and under-utilised region for comparative studies of early state formation, with great potential for examining changing spatial configurations of human-environment relations through time (Stark 2006: 422). Ongoing archaeological and historical research on complexity can particularly benefit from a growing body of Vietnamese data from periods of early ranked society, information that can contribute to the mounting evidence for how and why small-scale, egalitarian communities developed into complex societies in pre-modern Southeast Asia.

In this paper we present the results of investigations at the abandoned fortified settlement of Co Loa, which potentially forms the node of such a polity in the Red River delta near the Gulf of Bac Bo, north of Hanoi. We offer a dated sequence of construction and advance the case that this sequence signals the rise of an indigenous state society in north Vietnam, one which only later came under the influence of Han China.

Historical context

The conventional reconstruction of the protohistory of the northern Vietnam region during the second half of the first millennium BC benefits from various sources, including Vietnamese oral traditions and Chinese historical records (O'Harrow 1979; Taylor 1983; Tessitore 1989). These two sources, however, offer contradictory accounts. Chinese historical texts suggest that Vietnamese civilisation was a by-product of Chinese colonisation, describing how the imperial Han began colonising the region in 111 BC, consolidating control during the first century AD. Not surprisingly, Han texts maintain that agricultural, metallurgical and political sophistication emerged among the local barbarians in Bac Bo because of imperial annexation, generally denying in situ and indigenous cultural development (O'Harrow 1979: 143-4).

In contrast, oral traditions hold that Bac Bo was the nucleus of an indigenously developed Vietnamese civilisation with powerful kingdoms ruling over vast populations before the arrival of the Chinese (Taylor 1983: 3-23; Tessitore 1989: 36). In particular, Vietnamese chronicles describe an indigenous Au Lac polity centred at Co Loa during the third century BC. In approximately 258 BC, a man named An Duong Vuong (also known as Thuc Phan) purportedly overthrew the Van Lang polity, consolidated power over the local communities with the establishment of the Au Lac Kingdom and constructed the fortified citadel known as Co Loa as his capital (Taylor 1983: 19-21). This event significantly predates the documented solidification of Han control over the region, which occurred when Han general Ma Yuan quelled a Vietnamese rebellion in AD 43 and local Dongson warrioraristocrats were incorporated as a Han Empire province (Higham 1989: 202, 290-91). At that point, a loosely imposed Han tribute system was superseded by a full Han administration (Higham 1989: 291). Compounding the uncertainties are textual accounts describing the overthrow of the Au Lac polity in approximately 170 BC by Zhao Tuo, a former Qin general, who then incorporated Co Loa's area into the rule of the Nam Viet (or Nan Yue) polity (Pham 2004: 202). Given these conflicting historical reconstructions and reliance on imperial texts and semi-legendary accounts, archaeology is the only means by which researchers can effectively test claims of pre-state warfare, emergent complexity and early state formation.

Archaeological context

The indigenous community is recognised materially by the Dongson culture (approximately 600 BC-AD 200), widely perceived as providing a foundation for Vietnamese identity. First recognised on the basis of excavations at the cemetery and settlement of Dongson, the culture is renowned for its giant ceremonial bronze drums lavishly decorated with ritual scenes and depictions of warriors (Figure 1) (Higham 2004: 58). These objects imply the presence of ranked and complex polities with large populations living in the highly productive agricultural areas of the Bac Bo region (Wheatley 1983; Tessitore 1989; Miksic 2000; Stark 2006). …

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