Underwater Archaeology: Excavations in Viet Nam

By Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien (Chief Curator of National Museum of Vietnamese History-Ha Noi)

During the last decade of the 20th century, there were several ancient wrecks that were found in Viet Nam. Among those, the following five wrecks surveys and recoveries are especially remarkable.

I. Five ancient shipwrecks excavated in the sea of Vietnam.

1. Vung Tau ancient wrecks (1690)

In June 1990, the wreck Vung Tau, which was approximate to 15 km far from the Hon Cau Island at 40 m depth water beneath the sand of 0.6m to 1.0 m was recovered. Viet Nam Salvage Corporation (Visal) was licensed to collaborate with the Swedish Company Hallstrom Holdings Oceanic using the America driving equipment and divers from America, British, Canada, Viet Nam to recover the wreck. Until July 1991, the recovery was finished. The wrecks of 32.71m long and approximately 9m wide was measured and drawn by the divers. Thousand of artifacts were recovered from the wreck. Most of them were Chinese porcelains dated back to 1690 (1). The key archaeologist who participated during the projects was an Australian, Mr. Michael Flecker.

2. Hon Dam ancient wreck (15th century)

In May 1991, the wreck in Hon Dam – Phu Quoc Island (Kien Giang province) was recovered. This was ancient wreck which Jeremy and Rosemary Harper mention in seminar on porcelain held in Hong Kong in 1978 (2).

Visal recovered the wreck base on its experiences accumulated from the Vung Tau wreck project. The wreck lied at the over 40m depth. Some parts of the wreck were burried under approximate 2m sand. It was measured at about 30m long and 7m wide. The artifacts above the surface of the wreck were curdled in big blocks by oyster. There were about 16.000 pieces of celadon and brown porcelains recovered in the wreck. The most special ones were the port shaped bowls with segmented open rim of 38cm diameter and weighted 03kg. The specialists assumed that those porcelains were made by the Sawankhalok’s Kiln (Thailand) in the 15th century (3). The recovery was participated by the Vietnamese divers and two key archaeologists Michael Flecker (Australian) and Warren Blake (New Zealand).

3. Cu Lao Cham ancient wreck (15th century)

From May 1997 to July 1999, the wreck in the sea of Cu Lao Cham Island (Hoi An – Quang Nam province) was surveyed and archaeologically excavated. The wreck at the 70-72 m deep. The National Museum of Vietnamese History, Visal and Saga Horison (Malaysia) were performed the excavation. The Chairman of the Excavation Committee is Dr. Pham Quoc Quan, Director of the National Museum of Vietnamese History. There were also many archaeologists from Oxford University (England), Kebangsan University (Malaysia), Czechoslovakia and many divers and crew from Viet Nam, Malaysia, England, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand... The excavation showed tracks of a wreck of 29.4 m and 7.2m wide with 19 berth and spaces. Wood of wreck hull was fairly good. Some tenons on some bulkhead beams were still quite firm. Over two hundred thousand artifacts were recovered in the wreck . Most of them were made in Chu Dau – Hai Duong province – Vietnam in the 15th century.

Besides, this excavation was attended by foreign saturation divers and Director of Operation is Mr. Ong Soo Hin – Director of Saga Horizon and the Bound Mensun – The Director of the Archaeology who is the Director of the Marine Research Department of London University Oxford – England.

4. Ca Mau ancient wreck (1723 – 1725)

From August 1998 to October 1999, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Visal and Museum of Ca Mau performed the archaeological excavation of the wreck in Ca Mau . The Chairman of the Excavation Committee is Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien- Chief Curator of the National Museum of Vietnamese history.The excavation was headed by the archaeologists of the National Museum of Vietnamese history through diving operation of Visal’s divers who have an international certificates 3.I.U. The wreck was in the sea depth of 36 m with some obscure tracks of 24m long and about 8m wide. More 60 thousands of artifacts were recovered. Most of them were blue and white glaze porcelains and multicolor painted glazed ones and were made in China. Inscriptions in blue on the base of some bowls and cups indicates that they were made during the Yongzheng reign (1723–1725). The project had been especially done by only Vietnamese divers under supervision of the Vietnamese archaeologists. In 2002, the excavation result was reported in the book with title “ The Ca Mau Shipwreck- 1723- 1735” .(4)

5. Binh Thuan ancient wreck ( 16th – 17th century)

From 2001 to 2002, the wreck in the sea of Binh Thuan province was surveyed and archaeologically excavated. The National Museum of Vietnamese history and Visal performed the excavation. The chairman of the Excavation Committee is Dr.Nguyen Dinh Chien, Chief Curator of National Museum of Vietnamese History. The excavation showed tracks of a wreck of 23.4 m long and 7.2 m wide with 25 berths and spaces. Over 60 thousands of artifacts were recovered. Most of them were blue and white glaze porcelains and multi-colour painted glazed ones and were made in China. Origin of goods carried on board the ship from Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province; Dehua kiln complex, Fujian province and Guangzhou kiln complex, Guangdong province.

The ship and cargo are dated to the late 16th to early 17th century, the same of Wanli reign of late Ming dynasty. The excavation results were noticed in the scientific report by Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien and Dr. Michael Flecker.(5)

II. Some experience in excavating and handling the artifacts of ancient shipwrecks.

1. Pre-excavation:

Most of the wrecks were accidentally found by fishermen while fishing. Therefore, it is needed to have further proper surveys to clarify the nature of the wrecks. Then to complete the relevant procedures as well as to arrange the excavating equipment.

• Arranging the personnel for the project as archaeologist, divers, conservators logisticts, guards of the site…

• Close circus television including diving masks KMB, underwater communications, diving control and video.

• Grids and sticks to set on the surface of the wreck.

• Space and instruments to wash the artifacts from sand and mud; package to transfer artifacts to the storages on shore.

• Form for analysis, statisticts of the recovered artifacts.

• Spaces and instruments for conservation, desalination, restoration and making scientific archives of recovered artifacts, which must be well treated numbered before taking the final classification. All artifacts data will be computerized under management and administration softwares.

2. Process of the underwater archaeological excavation:

• After the arrival of the means, which carrying personnel and equipment for the excavation at the site, the means will anchor over the wreck position. Based on the diving report the archaeologists will set up a core line as an azimuth for coordinates by connecting some visible parts of the wrecks such as beams, masts…Then the perpendicular aluminum grids with each side of 02 m long will be fixed above the wreck and having sides parallel to the core line and marked by rags.

• The excavation operation will be routinely arranged between the archaeologists and divers. Through the close circus camera with masks KMB 17 and the underwater communications, the diver masters will help archaeologists in the Excavation Committee to supervise and check up on the drives for the effect of air lists or the recovery of artifacts.

• At the depth of 35-40 m, we apply the air surface supply diving method. At the sea level below 4-5, every day we can operate 6-7 diving shifts, each two divers. The total diving time of one shift is 45 minutes (including time for decompression). Every diving shift will be followed up by log books with the video to their activities.

• The archaeologists will supervise the excavation through the monitors, to note what happening underwater and on board, especially concentrating on the drafting draws of divers, discussing and deciding which grid will excavated next.

• After the artifacts being pick up and put to baskets and lifted up, the archaeologists will initially classify and pack artifacts in the rubber baskets, which numbered and covered by nylon nets. Those baskets then will be put in to the sea water tanks waiting for transferring to the storages on shore or to the archaeologists barges. The delivery of these baskets must enclose the artifacts forms for the following up and statistics of artifacts in each grid, with name of divers, diving shift, date, people making notes and description.

• The sea usually has big swell at the sea level of 4-5 at the depth of 72 m in April 1999; we applied the saturation diving method. Following to this way, there were 2 shifts, 11 hours a shift (working time of 22 hours a day). The divers get up the grids, using air lifts, recovering the artifacts, putting into numbered rubber baskets and to the big steel baskets which could contain thousands of artifacts. Then the crane lifted up the steel basket to the barge. The archaeologists and workers washed the artifacts and numbered them and then put them in to the plastic tanks which were numbered too. The artifacts of each type were chosen and numbered, taken photograph, technically drown. With the recovery, the recording and drawing of the site were also undertaken usually.

3. Onshore post excavation

Big tanks or rubber tanks with fresh water were used to contain the artifacts for a number of days. Then the water was checked by the solution AgNO3, HNO3 and the desalinated equipment. When the saltiness was finished, artifacts were dried. Then the conservators recorded the result using the form NO6/TCCM.

• Chipped artifacts after begging put in the separate nylon bags, they were washed, cleaned and then restored by clue UHU or PVA. The separated parts of artifacts needed to be restored (boxes of two parts, kettle with lid and spout, handle...)

• The artifacts in the baskets after had been treated and completed the desallation were classified, numbered and noted in the following forms:
B4/TCCM: Condition form.
B5/TCCM: Dimension and photograph form.
B6/TCCM: Conservation form.
B7/TCCM: Artifacts (see annex) data sheet.

• Took photographs and technical drawing of the shapes and design of artifacts...

• The computerization of the data from the above forms with photographs and technical drawing help the archaeologists to recognize the disposition and the density of artifacts and the situation of the site. Based on the above mentioned matters, the archaeologists will answer the questions related to the wrecks such as dating back of the wreck, ship-owner art value…

• From the study result of the wreck, the archaeologists will make a scientific report with full of drawings of the site, typical kinds, ornamental objects, designs of decorations, video tapes of the survey and excavation. It will then be promulgated as a studying book and exhibited.

* *

Viet Nam is a country of over 3,000 km shoreline, lying on the international trading marine road. Form the early day, Vietnam created an economy and culture liaison with the other countries in the world. Underwater archaeological excavations in Vietnam through above five projects could be considered as the potential initial steps. Even though this work is new with our archaeological activities, but we have a lot of chances to share our underwater archaeological excavation experience with other countries. The recent excavations have proved the successful co-operation between us with organizations and specialists in the world for Vietnamese underwater archaeology.

The five ancient wrecks in Vietnam were archeologically excavated, specially the wrecks at Cu Lao Cham, Ca Mau and Binh Thuan. This will contribute more information to study process of the international marine road as well as the trading liaison at Vietnamese sea during the past centuries.

(1). Christie’s Vung Tau Cargo, Amsterdam 1992. Nguyen Quoc Hung: Excavation of the Antique Treasure at the Sea Bottom Hon Cau (Vung Tau) – Archaeology Magazine Issue N03 – 1992 (page 62- 73).
(2). M. Roxanna Brown. The ceramic of South East Asia. Their Dating and Identification – Kualalumpur, Oxford University Express, 1997.
(3). Pham Quoc Quan and Nguyen Quoc Hung: Thai Ceramics at the Wreck in Phu Quoc- Kien Giang. Culture and Art Study Magazine Issue N01 (108) – 1993 (page 66- 67)
(4). Nguyen Dinh Chien: The Camau Shipwreck 1723 – 1735. Hanoi, 2002.
(5). Nguyen Dinh Chien and Michael Flecker: The Scientific Report on Binh Thuan Shipwrecks. Ha Noi, 2003.

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