Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Sojourn into the Foodways of Prehistoric Southern Vietnam-Michelle Eusebio

A Sojourn into the Foodways of Prehistoric Southern Vietnam
By Michelle S. Eusebio
Graduate Student, University of Florida Department of Anthropology and winner of a recent SAS grant

Through the assistance of the Society for Archaeological Sciences Student Research International Travel Award, I was able to travel to Southern Vietnam during Spring 2014 to participate in the excavation of the Lò Gch site (fig. 1), Long An Province, Vietnam for three weeks, and the post-excavation activities at the Long An Provincial Museum in Tân An City for two weeks. This archaeological research was undertaken in collaboration with the Australian National University (ANU), the Center for Archaeological Studies of the Southern Institute for Sustainable Development (H Chí Minh City), and the Long An Provincial Museum, as well as directed by Dr. Philip J. Piper of ANU.

Figure 1. The Lò Gch site with ongoing activities: excavation, recording, mapping, flotation, sorting, and drying of washed excavated materials. Photo by the author.

I chose to specialize in organic residue analysis due to my interests in foodways and my background in chemistry prior to studying archaeology. In general, residue analysis “utilizes analytical organic chemical techniques to identify the nature and origins of organic remains that cannot be characterized using traditional techniques of archaeological investigation” (Evershed 2008:6). My research investigates foodways in Neolithic and Metal Age Southeast Asia through the chemical analysis of food residues obtained from earthenware pottery. My objectives are to identify food items prepared and/or served in a variety of ceramics, as well as to establish key biomolecular markers based on a modern comparative reference collection, which is helpful for the identification of different foodstuffs. The majority of the pottery samples derive from four sites in Long An Province, Vietnam: Rch Núi (Neolithic, 1500-1200 BC, Piper et al. 2014), An Sơn (Neolithic, 2200-1300 BC; Bellwood et al. 2011), Gò Ô Chùa (Early Bronze-Iron Age, ca. 1000 BC; Reinecke 2012), and Lò Gch (900-600 BC; Bui 2008; Piper 2013).

My goals in participating in the excavation of the Lò Gch site were to select samples with the highest potential to produce organic residues, to perform experimental cooking in locally made modern earthenware pottery, and to collect biological samples of food items from Southeast Asia. The last two goals are crucial for building a comparative database for compound specific carbon isotopes of palmitic (C16) and stearic (C18) fatty acids from important food sources in Southeast Asian prehistory. Stable carbon isotope ratios of C16 and C18 fatty acids of food sources vary geographically (Gregg et al. 2009). Thus, the published databases from other geographic regions may not be applicable for Southeast Asia, and a comparative database for the region is greatly needed to be able to securely identify the former contents of ancient pottery.

I arrived at the Lò Gch site on the afternoon of April 24, 2014. The excavations had already been ongoing for five days. The daily routine consists of breakfast by 6:30 am, arriving at the excavation by 7 am, a lunch break between 11:00 am and 1:30 pm, back to excavation by 1:30, leaving the site by 4:30 pm, and dinner by 6:30 pm. I joined the fieldwork for three weeks. There were times that the field activities had to end earlier due to the rain. On my first two days, I was introduced to the already-established system of processing and curating the recovered materials. This includes recording bulk soil samples for flotation and wet sieving, cleaning artifacts and faunal remains, sorting of dried wet sieved materials (fig. 2), packing and cataloguing all cleaned ceramic sherds and faunal remains, writing soil and floor descriptions, context recording, and assigning numbers to unique artifacts for a separate catalog. I was also able to catch up with the progress of the ongoing excavations.    

Figure 2. I (in floral hat, second from left) and others were sorting materials from wet sieving. Note also the large stoneware jars at the back and left, which are filled with fermenting fish sauce. Photo by Quy T. K. Tran.
While helping out with the processing and curating of the recovered materials, I occasionally visited the three trenches for updates and looked out for trays filled with freshly excavated pottery sherds. Before these trays were given to our washer, I screened the pottery and then collected those that I selected for residue analysis (Fig. 3 left). During the last two days of excavation, there was so much pottery being recovered from the first occupational layer of the two trenches that it became difficult to keep up with the screening of the pottery from the trays. I also assisted with the excavation of the biggest trench to be able to expose the natural layer and finish recording on-time for the scheduled departure from the site. I was able to select and recover in situ one pottery sample while excavating the first occupational layer. I collected more from this layer by surveying the washed pottery being dried under the sun.   

Figure 3. Left: Screening and selection of archaeological pottery samples for organic residue analysis. Right: Fish cooking in an earthenware pot. Photos by the author.

Experimental cooking of fish in local modern earthenware pottery was done while the excavations were ongoing (Fig. 3 right). The cooking of different freshwater fishes had already started before I arrived, since the ichthyoarchaeologist of the team is building a fish reference collection for future identification of fish bones recovered from this and other sites around Southern Vietnam. By boiling these fishes in the pot, the oils were extracted and incorporated into the pot’s matrix and the meat was easily separated from the bones. The bones were then further cleaned and curated for the reference collection. We also bought another pot and cooked marine fishes.
Collection of plants and processed animal samples was also done. Pig and chicken bones were acquired from the nearby village. One specific variety of dried freshwater fish as well as brown rice were acquired from the nearby market. It was originally intended to collect millet, a C4 plant, due to the identification of its remains from Rch Núi (Castillo 2014); however, it is not presently available in the area. Fortunately, the remains of another C4 plant, which is Job’s tears, were recovered from the excavation of Lò Gch and its plants are available within the vicinity of the site. It is presently utilized as food and medicine in South, East, and Southeast Asia (Burnette 2012). Sedges (Scirpus sp. sensu lato), another C4 plant, were also recovered in Rch Núi (Castillo 2014) and are available in the immediate vicinity of the site. Leaves and stems of sedges and Job’s tears were collected in lieu of millet.   
 I gained several advantages by participating in this fieldwork. First, I had an opportunity to undertake “on site” selection and collection of unwashed pottery samples, which have a higher probability of yielding organic residues compared to washed samples. Second, I gained direct knowledge on the provenience of my samples by helping out with the processing and curating of the materials, frequently visiting the trenches, and familiarizing myself with the systematic and efficient recording system. Third, my interactions with archaeobotanists and zooarchaeologists provided me with access to direct knowledge of the faunal and floral specimens being recovered from the excavations that I can compare to my residue analysis results. Fourth, this knowledge helped me to modify my sampling strategy of important plant and animal food species from southern Vietnam and Southeast Asia for building a reference collection. Finally, I was able to observe and experience the present-day foodway practices (Fig. 4) of the people living in southern Vietnam. These include rice planting, a preference for preparing and serving fish dishes in earthenware pottery, and household scale production of fish sauce in large stoneware jars. The research team got to enjoy numerous simple and sumptuous meals.

Figure 4. A glimpse into the present-day Southern Vietnamese foodways. Upper left: Women farmers planting rice. Upper right: Cá kho t (braised fish in caramel) is cooked and served in an earthenware pot. Lower left: Hotpot meal to be served to the excavation team. Lower right: Members of the excavation team enjoying the last lunch served by the hosting family living near the site. Photos by the author.

Post-excavation activities occurred for two weeks at the Long An Provincial Museum. The work usually began at 8:30 am, followed by a lunch break between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, leaving the museum at 4:30 pm, and a group dinner by 6:00 or 6:30 pm. I helped with sorting the dried wet sieved materials, describing sampled floors and soil matrices, and archiving records. Six more varieties of dried freshwater and marine fishes were purchased from the Tân An City market. These and other biological samples gathered from the vicinity of the Lò Gch  site were curated, recorded, and packed for export to the University of Florida as soon as permits from the US Department of Agriculture are granted. I curated and recorded the pottery sampled from Lò Gch. Aside from the opportunity to conduct on-site sampling at Lò Gch, I was able to modify my sampling strategy when applied to An Sơn, targeting the trench indicated as the cooking area, and gained permission to sample surface residues from a whole pot excavated from Gò Ô Chùa known to contain fish bones. Archaeological and experimental pottery samples were exported to the University of Florida after permission was granted by the Vietnamese government.    
Through the results of the analysis of samples I collected during this successful and rewarding trip, I am looking forward to contributing to discussions of diverse pottery uses and foodway practices, the assessment of the feasibility of applying organic residue analysis to artifacts from tropical areas, and adding to existing databases for compound specific and bulk isotopic analyses in Southeast Asia and worldwide. 

Bellwood, Peter, Marc Oxenham, Bui Chi Hoang, Nguyen Thi Kim Dung, Anna Willis, Carmen Sarjeant, Philip Piper, Hirofumi Matsumura, Katsunori Tanaka, Nancy Beavan, Thomas Higham, Nguyen Quoc Manh, Dan Ngoc Kinh, Nguyen Khanh Trung Kien, Vo Thanh Huong, Van Ngoc Bich, Tran Thi Kim Quy, Nguyen Phuong Thao, Fredeliza Campos, Yo-Ichiro Sato, Nguyen Lan Cuong, and Noel Amano. 2011. An Sơn and the Neolithic of Southern Vietnam. Asian Perspectives 50:144-175.

Bui, Van Liem. 2008. Di chi Lò Gch, Long An. Khao Co Hoc, Vietnam Archaeology 2:26-44. (In Vietnamese).

Burnette, Rick. 2012. Three Cheers for Job’s Tears: Asia’s Other Indigenous Grain. ECHO Notes: A Regional Supplement to ECHO Development Notes 13:1-5.

Castillo, Cristina. 2014. Preliminary Archaeobotanical Report: Rch Núi Trench 1. Unpublished report.

Evershed, Richard P. 2008. Organic Residue Analysis in Archaeology: The Archaeological Biomarker Revolution. Archaeometry 50:895-924.

Gregg, M.W., E. B. Banning, K. Gibbs, and G. F. Slater. 2009. Subsistence practices and pottery use in Neolithic Jordan: molecular and isotopic evidence. Journal of Archaeological Science 36: 937-946.

Piper, Philip J. 2013. The excavation of Lò Gch : A late Neolithic and early metal age site in southern Vietnam. Unpublished project proposal.

Piper, Philip J., Marc Oxenham, Noel Amano, Peter Bellwood, Fredeliza Campos, Cristina Castillo, Jasminda Ceron, Michelle Eusebio, Bui Chi Hoang, Nguyen Kien, Carmen Sarjeant, Thu Hong Vuong, and Rachel Wood. 2014.  Preliminary Report on the 2012 Excavations at Rch Núi, Long An Province, Vietnam. Unpublished report.  

Reinecke, Andreas. 2012. The Prehistoric Occupation and Cultural Characteristics of the Mekong Delta during the Pre-Funan Periods. In Crossing Borders: Selected Papers from the 13th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Volume 1, edited by Dominik Bonatz, Andreas Reinecke, Mai Lin Tjoa-Bonatz, pp. 239-256. National University of Singapore Press, Singapore.