Vietnam’s Archaeological Treasures
Interview with chief curator Andreas Reinecke

Die Schätze der Archäologie Vietnams
© Bild: LWL

Shipwrecks, giant bronze drums, dragons’ heads and an 8m-high walk-through temple: Vietnam’s Archaeological Treasures is an exhibition that brings spectacular finds from Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites to Germany for the first time, presenting ten thousand years of history in a single show. 

Starting in October 2016, the show will be touring three museums in Herne, Chemnitz and Mannheim. The chief curator of this special exhibition is Dr. Andreas Reinecke, Southeast Asia consultant on the Commission for the Archaeology of Non-European Cultures at the German Archaeological Institute.
LWL: How did you hit upon the rather exotic subject of Vietnamese archaeology? What is it about it that appeals to you so much?
Reinecke: In den 1970s I followed the Vietnam War and its consequences closely. During my studies I had a great many amiable fellow students from Vietnam around me who were studying history or “archival science”. All that made me curious about the country’s history. Besides, Southeast Asia in the 1970s was believed to be a region of early neolithization and a particularly early Bronze Age. That was not subsequently borne out, but to this day there is still a tremendous appeal to working in a region that still has big research gaps and whose culture was so completely different from European prehistory.
LWL: In the latest issue of Archäologie in Deutschland you say there are more archaeological digs in Vietnam than in any other country in Southeast Asia. How come?
Reinecke: For one thing, archaeological field research in Vietnam is better funded than in neighbouring countries. For another, there are more people studying and working in archaeology in Vietnam than in Laos or Cambodia. But there’s another reason: Vietnam is one of the Southeast Asian countries with the highest population densities. It has ten times more inhabitants per square kilometre than Laos, for example. What’s more, areas on the coastal plains, in the Delta areas and along the large rivers that have been particularly attractive for settlement since neolithization 4,000 years ago have become extremely densely populated and developed over the past 50 years. That means the destruction of archaeological strata and a rapid abundance of finds. So the great discoveries of the next 30 years are more likely to occur in the far less densely populated high plateaus, which have become increasingly accessible over the past 15 years with the extension of the road network.

Our hope lies with the young generation of archaeologists

LWL: Where do you see the main differences between German and Vietnamese archaeology?
Reinecke: The differences are manifold, but the biggest differences might be in the way we handle the tasks after excavation: restoration, analysis, storage and publication of finds. In the next few decades a great deal must change in Vietnam. That will require new ways of working in many different aspects. So our hope lies with the young generation of archaeologists in Vietnam.
LWL: You’ve been chief curator of the exhibition since 2012. What ups and downs have you been through since then?
Reinecke: One of the exciting things during the years of preparation was working at over 30 provincial museums with support from Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture. It was a unique opportunity to get to know the museums’ storerooms, my colleagues and unknown finds. One of the “downs” was definitely the pressure over the last eight months, partly due to the complicated negotiations concerning the participating museums, exhibits and transportation variants. That was a hard nut to crack – I literally broke a tooth over it!
LWL: Can you explain the underlying idea of the exhibition? What is your goal?
Reinecke: In contrast to previous exhibitions, we wanted to show as much new and unknown material as possible, and despite the constraints we succeeded, which will spur further research. Since this is the first “archaeological exhibition” of such breadth in Europa, we also strove not to present just any old facet of cultural development, but examples from every possible region and era.

Furthermore, we wanted to integrate Vietnam’s most important World Heritage sites into the exhibition, and we succeeded with My Son [Hindu temples] and Thang Long [Imperial Citadel]. After all, it was about the past 55 years of German-Vietnamese relations in the field of research. That could be better presented in the catalogue than in the exhibition itself. Still, we were able to firmly anchor in the exhibition the history of the first German-Vietnamese archaeological expedition in 1964. And then there was the presentation of one of the most important German Archaeological Institute digs at the Bronze Age salt works of Go O Chua in South Vietnam. We also wanted exhibits “with soul”, for which we know how they were discovered, where, by whom and in what context the finds took place. That gives the exhibits informational value far beyond the individual objects and makes it possible to tell little stories. Our goal was, among other things, to focus on archaeological work in Vietnam overall and to spur further research with new interpretations and datings.

Unsightly fragments are transformed into scientific treasures

LWL: Do you have a favourite exhibit?
Reinecke: That’s a tough one because there are plenty of exciting exhibits: one of them is the Viet Khe tomb, which holds more bronzes than any other in Southeast Asia. 2,200 years ago, a segment of a dugout canoe was converted into a coffin and fitted out with 90 bronzes and other burial gifts. It was discovered by chance in 1961 along with four other “boat coffins” in North Vietnam.
In archaeology, it isn’t always the big, beautiful or valuable items that cause a stir and become “favourite objects”. Sometimes it’s unsightly fragments that are transformed under close scrutiny into scientific “treasures”. There are some in the show. But visitors can also look forward to an over 60 cm long nephrite [jade] sceptre from the second millennium BC or the largest bronze drum of the Dong Son civilization, which weighs about 200 kg, both of which are masterpieces of craftsmanship.
LWL: The catalogue to this special exhibition grew to 600 pages. How important is this voluminous book to you?
Reinecke: “Hiding” behind the exhibition catalogue is the first compendium of Vietnamese archaeology and history in the German language. And it will probably be the only one of its kind for the next twenty years. Especially the exhibits section contains a great deal of new material that is not to be found in the Vietnamese or English literature and is bound to spark some exciting debates in future.
LWL: Thank you very much for the interview!
  • Andreas Reinecke Foto: Luyen Reinecke
    Andreas Reinecke (Photo: Luyen Reinecke)
  • The chief curator elucidating the exhibition Photo: Katja Burgemeister
    The chief curator elucidating the exhibition (Photo: Katja Burgemeister)
  • A Dong Song drum from the exhibition Photo: LWL/Binh
    A Dong Song drum from the exhibition (Photo: LWL/Binh)
  • Emperor Minh Mang’s golden dragon seal Photo: LWL/Binh
    Emperor Minh Mang’s golden dragon seal (Photo: LWL/Binh)
  • Stone Age jade sceptre Photo: LWL/Binh
    Stone Age jade sceptre (Photo: LWL/Binh)
  • Lion figure from the exhibition Photo: LWL/Binh
    Lion figure from the exhibition (Photo: LWL/Binh)
  • Andreas Reinecke inspecting archaeological finds Photo: Andreas Weisgerber
    Andreas Reinecke inspecting archaeological finds (Photo: Andreas Weisgerber)
  • Andreas Reinecke (right) explains interesting findings in Vietnamese archaeology Photo: Andreas Weisgerber
    Andreas Reinecke (right) explains interesting findings in Vietnamese archaeology (Photo: Andreas Weisgerber)

This exhibition was developed by the LWL Archaeology Museum für Archäologie, the Staatliches Museum für Archäologie in Chemnitz and the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim in close collaboration with the Commission for the Archaeology of Non-European Cultures at the German Archaeological Institute (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, DAI), under the auspices of German Foreign Minister Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Vietnamese Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Nguyen Ngoc Thien. Study and adventure tour operator Gebeco is a cooperation partner for the exhibition.