A team coordinated by Tura Beach archaeologist Dr Judith Cameron has discovered and preserved the oldest complete shroud found in Southeast Asia, dating back some 2,300 years to the Bronze Age Dongson culture.
The cloth was found in a wooden boat-shaped coffin covered by thick black mud in a canal in the Red River plains area of Vietnam in December last year.
In what has been hailed as a major find, team leader Professor Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University said that the boat coffin – unearthed at Dong Xa, 50km southeast of Hanoi – was possibly also the oldest in Southeast Asia.
But Dr Cameron, who is Australia’s only textile archaeologist, said that the shroud was the primary artifact and the major target of the research team.
“We targeted water-logged sites because the best places to find perfectly preserved materials is in those areas or in deserts,” she said.
But finding the material is only part of the battle.
“Old cloths found previously have been lost when exposed to light,” she said.
Dr Cameron, also of the ANU, is working under a three-year Australian Research Council grant in collaboration with the National Museum of Australia to study archaeological textiles and improve laboratory conservation techniques in Vietnam.
In an expedition which had something of a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel about it, her team of two Australian and two Vietnamese archaeologists and four materials conservators from the museum started out using ground penetrating radar but found it would not work in the thick mud.
They then decided to drain one of the irrigation canals where local villagers had recently found a large Dongson era drum.
“This required government approval and we were given only 24 hours to complete the exercise,” she said.
“After walking up and down the canal watching the water drain from it, we saw a coffin protruding.
“We excavated using labourers hired from among the local villagers and had a huge group of Vietnamese spectators looking on.
“When the excavation was completed, the coffin was taken to Hung Yen provincial museum by truck.”
Her team blacked out the room and using only controlled lighting took several days, working 10 hours a day, to remove the soil from the cloth with small trowels and paint brushes.
“Heat and light have a devastating effect on organic material which has been hidden away for 2000 years,” Dr Cameron said.
They found a bark lid over the coffin, which contained the body of an adult male.
Covering the body was the complete shroud measuring 2281mm by 637mm.
Dr Cameron said the shroud had been placed in a freezer in Hanoi for interim preservation until her team can return to Vietnam in July.
“Nothing like this has been done before in Southeast Asia. Conservators do not normally go on excavations with archaeologists,” she said.
“We have the only complete shroud found in Southeast Asia.
“Our expedition was called the Dongson Textile Project and its main aim was to find textiles.
“The coffin itself is also important and it is being preserved in a polyethylene glycol solution,” she said.
“It also contained Chinese coins from around 200-300BC, some glass beads, a pottery jar at the head of the corpse and inside it a lacquer bowl, but the shroud is the primary artifact.”
Dr Cameron said the Dongson people are revered by the Vietnamese as the beginning of the ancient Viet race.
They are believed to have settled the Red River Delta area around 700 BC.
“It is a very onerous responsibility to ensure we do not damage such precious cultural material,” she said.
“The shroud is very rare and the most essential thing is to make sure we don’t lose it.”
Dr Cameron said that the cloth was so well preserved because oxygen in the atmosphere had not been able to penetrate the dense black clay/mud in which it was found.
Other shrouds of similar age that have been found in other places have disintegrated within hours through a process known as chemoluminosence.
Dr Cameron said she had put the age of the shroud at about 2,300 years and described it as having the thickness of linen – about 2/3mm.
The team also excavated a further 20 secondary burials from the same Dongson period which contained many more examples of cloth, embroidery, weaves and dyes used in prehistoric times.
She said prehistoric textiles take on the colour of the soils in which they are found, but after washing some of the samples, dyed fragments were found.
Dr Cameron said the discovery had made her team celebrities in Vietnam.
“We were on national television and in the newspapers and featured at a Dongson culture conference,” she said.
Dr Cameron said the decision to be made when they returned to Vietnam was whether to proceed any further with investigation of the shroud or to preserve it as an exhibit.
“I will be going back for two weeks this month to check on its condition and then in July with the museum conservators when we get our new round of funding,” she said.
“There could potentially be many more prehistoric textiles at waterlogged sites in the area,” she said.
“The question is how much more material can we handle. There are so many canals that have not yet been investigated.”
Dr Cameron said the shroud and other pieces of cloth found at Dong Xa appear to have been made from bast fibres such as ramie or hemp and the matting underneath the shroud to have been made from seagrass (sedge).
“Women produced the cloth,” she said. “We know that because the production tools are found only in women’s graves.”
Dr Cameron said she first went to Vietnam seven years ago to look for cloth production tools and it had taken several years to gain the confidence and acceptance of her Vietnamese colleagues, resulting in this first Vietnam-Australia collaboration of its kind.
She said that while debate continues on the origins of the Dongson people, her view is that the Dognson groups in Vietnam were inextricably linked to Bronze Age groups from the area of South China now known as Yunnan and Guangdong.