Archaeology Adventures in Vietnam

Milly Bendell recording ceramics

Over the past nine years The Vietnam Maritime Archeology Project (VMAP) has facilitated ten successful volunteer projects in Vietnam (2008-2016).  Initiated by Dr Mark Staniforth (formerly of Flinders University)  and Dr Le Lien Thi (formerly of the Archaeology Department of Vietnam), VMAP’s aim is to protect Vietnam’s underwater cultural heritage by:

  1. undertaking maritime archeological research;
  2. training students and terrestrial archeologists in maritime archeology techniques; and
  3. raising awareness of the importance of underwater cultural heritage within the  local government and general public via the Nautical Archeology Society (NAS) training courses.

This work has greatly expanded our understanding of Vietnam’s maritime heritage and as a result, the Vietnamese Government established a Maritime Archeology Department in 2013. This was a significant step taken by Vietnam in protecting underwater cultural heritage that is under constant threat of being looted. In recognition of this important work, in 2016 the Department was upgraded to the Center for Underwater Archaeology. This is fantastic news for the future of Vietnam’s maritime past.

Dr's Mark Staniforth and Le Lien Thi

In June, 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend an ‘Advanced Marine Geophysics for Maritime Archaeology’ fieldschool run by VMAP.  I spent 9 days, scuba diving in the tropical clear waters on Cu Lao Cham Island (Quang Nam province), eating local cuisine and undertaking on board lectures and practicals by a wide range of people, including, a ceramics masterclass whilst wading at the shoreline at Bai Xep site and on board longitude and latitude training whilst anchored in between two of the many smaller islands.

Charlotte Looram, Milly Bendell and Stephanie Morris following an impromptu ceramics masterclass

Our fieldwork consisted of a preliminary underwater survey at the Bai Ong shipwreck on Cu Lao Cham Island.  This is a 16th or 17th century vessel and was identified by the VMAP participants in 2014. At the site we also placed permanent survey markers, a tough task in hammering and gaining correct positioning whilst underwater.

Next, was a site inspection and remapping of a stone anchor site. A strong current required our divers, including myself to be alert and cautious whilst on the surface, testing our skills. We then moved to the shoreline of Bai Cut Site and surveyed the ceramics located at a previous outlet for the river that ran down the hill into the ocean. The ceramics are related to a kiln which is located close by to this outlet, littering remains throughout the area. We were lucky enough to have an impromptu ceramics masterclass whilst wading in the crystal clears waters too. Such a bonus. The day was ended with a photoshoot of the team and Damien Leloup holding an Explorers Club flag. The flag has travelled to the top of everest and to the bottom of the ocean at the titanic. A very exciting moment to be a part of.

Ceramic Scatter at Bai Xept

The next day was dedicated to the use of an ROV or Remote Operated Vehicle (Teledyne Seabotix vLBV300-5), nicknamed Rygh after our visitor, Charlotte Rygh, who is writing a children’s book on the sites in Vietnam and their relationship within the local community, maritime cultural heritage and oceanic sustainability. The results from archaeological fieldwork has the potential to create endless possibilities for information sharing, education and entertainment.

Dr Damien Leloup piloting the ROV

Our days at field school were all work, work, work but our nights were spent exploring the local cuisine, with Dr Mark Staniforth leading the group to a new restaurant every night. We were also lucky enough to have our boat captain and deckhands take us to an authentic fish market restaurant for dinner. We got to sample fresh catches from that day, which were delicious. The highlight of the trip was the daily boat ride back to Hoi An; we were lucky enough to encounter fishing boats heading out for the night’s catch and an electrical storm that personally I will never forget!

Storm cell over Hoi An

For more information about VMAP, to follow their adventures in archaeology or find out how you can get involve, check out VMAP on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Thanks also to Ian McCann and VMAP for generously allowing us to use their images. 

About Milly Bendell

Milly Bendell is an aspiring maritime archaeologist. She is completing a post-graduate certificate in maritime archaeology at Flinders University, an internship with ArchaeoMar Australasia and is training to be an AIMA NAS Assistant Tutor. Milly has a passion for diving, maritime archaeology and aims to work in outreach and cultural tourism.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2016