STUDIES IN GLOBAL ARCHAEOLOGY 13

STUDIES IN GLOBAL ARCHAEOLOGY 13
S T U D IE S IN G L O B A L A R C H A E O L O G Y 1 3
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
THE CREATION OF HERITAGE IN VIENTIANE, LAOS
ANNA KARLSTRÖM
Department of Archaeology and Ancient History
Uppsala University
2009
Dissertation presented at Uppsala University to be publicly examined in Geijersalen, Centre for
the Humanities, English Park Campus, Thunbergsvägen 3P, Uppsala, Saturday, June 6, 2009 at
13:00 for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. The examination will be conducted in English.
Abstract
Karlström, A. 2009. Preserving Impermanence. The Creation of Heritage in Vientiane, Laos.
Studies in Global Archaeology 13. 239 pp. 978-91-506-2077-1.
This thesis is about the heritage in Vientiane. In an attempt to go beyond a more traditional
descriptive approach, the study aims at bringing forward a discussion about the definition, or
rather the multiplicity of definitions, of the concept of heritage as such. The unavoidabe tension
emanating from a modern western frame of thought being applied to the geographical and cultural setting of the study provides an opportunity to develop a criticism of some of the assumptions
underlying our current definitions of heritage.
For this particular study, heritage is defined as to include stories, places and things. It is a heritage that is complex and ambiguous, because the stories are parallel, the definitions and perceptions of place are manifold and contested, and the things and their meaning appear altered, depending on what approach to materiality is used. The objective is not to propose how to identify
and manage such a complex heritage. Rather, it is about what causes this complexity and ambiguity and what is in between the stories, places and things. In addition, the study aims to critically
deconstruct the contemporary heritage discourse, which privileges material authenticity, form and
fabric and the idea that heritage values are universal and should be preserved for the future and
preferably forever.
In Laos, Buddhism dominates as religious practice. In this context, the notion of material impermanence also governs the perception of reality. Approaches to materiality in Buddhism are
related to the general ideas that things are important from a contemporary perspective and primarily as containers for spiritual values, that the spiritual values carry the connection to the past, and
that heritage is primarily spiritual in nature and has little to do with physical structure and form.
By exploring the concepts of restoration, destruction and consumption in such a perspective, we
understand that preservation and restoration are active processes of materialisation. We also
understand that destruction and consumption are necessary for the appreciation of certain heritage expressions, and that heritage is being constantly created. With this understanding, this book is
an argument for challenging contemporary western heritage discourse and question its fundamental ideology of preservationism.
Keywords: Vientiane, Laos, heritage, impermanence, preservation, restoration, destruction, immateriality, materiality, narrativity, Buddhism, animism
Anna Karlström, African and Comparative Archaeology, Box 626, Uppsala University,
SE-75126 Uppsala, Sweden
© Anna Karlström 2009
ISSN 1651-1255
ISBN 978-91-506-2077-1
urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-101166 (http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-101166)
Cover illustration: Vientiane survey 2003, Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth and monk at Vat Nak.
Insert: photographs and illustrations by Anna Karlström unless otherwise stated.
Lao translations: Oudomphone Bounyavong.
Published and distributed by: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Box 626, SE-751 26 Uppsala, Sweden.
Printed in Sweden by Edita Västra Aros, 2009
CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
7
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS IN LAO
11
NOTE ON TRANSCRIPTION
14
INTRODUCTION
15
PART I
STORIES
1. OTHERS’ STORIES
Envoys and explorers – confirming their own identities
Colonisers – emphasising difference and power
Scientists – searching for truth and origin
Contemporary archaeological stories
Imperialist structures
25
2. INSIDE STORIES
Use of written sources – searching and researching history
Heroes – strengthening identities
Professionals and politicians – developing and defending nationalism
Nationalist structures
53
3. NARRATIVITY
Narrativity as knowledge
Narrative structure and scientific truth
Orality and literacy
Creation and location through stories
73
PART II
PLACE
4. VIENTIANE
An archaeological site
Archaeological surveys 2001-2003
83
5. CONTESTED DEFINITIONS
Urbanism
Mandala and meuang
Lao culture area
Maps and imaginary landscapes
99
6. ALTERNATIVE ARCHAEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS
Origins and developments of a city
How to get water
Border markers
111
PART III
THINGS
7. MATERIAL CULTURE, IMMATERIAL CULTURE
Material culture studies
Immaterial materiality
Animism
Popular Buddhism
141
8. VIENGKHAM AND SAY FONG
Archaeological excavations 2003-2004
Military camps and moated sites
Temples and stones
The city of 300 temples
155
9. UNDERSTANDING MATERIALITIES
Absence and presence, spiritual and material
Things as meaning
Time and origin
Authenticity
Materiality and immateriality in flux
177
PART IV
HERITAGE
10. PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE: A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS
The rise and development of a heritage discourse
Preservation
Impermanence
191
11. PRESERVATION AS CHANGE
Restoration and conservation
Destruction and decay
Consumption, looting and loss
199
12. HERITAGE CREATED
211
SUMMARY IN LAO
217
NOTES
223
REFERENCES
227
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
To put it simply, I find writing a challenge, but also a joy. Now, there is an enormous
debt I wish to express to all of you who have been involved, but I find it difficult to
fully express this debt in an acknowledgement. I hope to have, at least to some extent,
returned your generous support by completing this thesis, which is why I find writing
not only a challenge and a joy, but also a duty. Having said this, and having written the
book, I nevertheless take the opportunity to express in words in the following acknowledgement what some of you have contributed with.
Before anything else, I wish to mention my first teacher in archaeology, Inger
Österholm, who at the very beginning inspired me to continue study archaeology and
enthusiastically encouraged the idea of going to Laos, and her husband, Sven Österholm, who shared with us students his profound knowledge about archaeological
methods. Two years ago, Inger passed away, and one year later, Sven followed her. It is
with deep sadness I realise that I will never be able to share with them neither the content of this book nor any other archaeological inquiry. At the very beginning were also
Elisabet Lind, Per Sørensen and Peter Fogde, whose contributions were in different
ways decisive for my first meeting with Laos. For that invaluable help and encouragement, I will always be indebted to them. Another person among those who have been
there from the beginning is Anna Källén, who has accompanied me all along the way.
Without your stimulating company, as dear friend and colleague, I would have been so
much poorer in thoughts and in words. I thank you for that, and for all the good times
we have shared along the way.
Laos has become a part of me, mainly owing to the project that started a few years
after that first meeting, and that now ends with this thesis. I could not have accomplished this if it was not for my friends and colleagues in Laos. This book is to a large
extent yours. You shared with me your stories, your land and your ideas about past and
present. I owe my deepest gratitude to many more than I could ever acknowledge here.
I have expressed my gratitude to some of you in your own acknowledgement, thanks to
Oudomphone Bounyavong who elegantly turned my English words into Lao. Nonetheless, there are a few I want to acknowledge here too. The Ministry of Information and
Culture in Vientiane has been my cooperation partner over the years, and without the
great knowledge and generous help from colleagues at the Department of Museum and
Archaeology and at the Lao National Museum the archaeological investigations in
Vientiane could never have been realised. My heartful thanks go to every member of
7
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
the staff there. At the very beginning, Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy and Viengkeo Souksavathdy inspired me to choose what to focus on in my research. I will always be indebted to them for that. I am also grateful to Thonglit Luangkhot, who played a decisive role in the initial phase of my project. Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth and Kanda
Keosopha have been the persons who have conducted most of the fieldwork together
with me. You deserve very extra special thanks, because during fieldwork we have not
only worked together, but also lived together. By assisting me with introductions and
insights, and teaching me about everyday life in Laos, you have made it possible for me
to deepen my understanding of Laos, its past and present, and to deepen the relationships with all persons we have met and interacted with throughout the project. I owe
you big thanks.
I also wish to acknowledge others who have made generous contributions to my
fieldwork in and around Vientiane. I want to thank Michel Lorrillard for always keeping
the doors open to the EFEO office in Vientiane, and for sharing and discussing your
research material with me. Alan Potkin and Catherine Raymonds have also always very
generously shared their ideas and research material with me. Thank you so much for
that. At the Lao National Museum I was lucky, even before my PhD project began, to
meet Marion Ravenscroft, whose friendship has accompanied me since. At the museum
was also Bronwyn Campbell, who in the later phases of my work provided invaluable
help in the production of the Viengkham and Say Fong exhibitions. My heartful thanks
goes to Göran Franson, who volunteered during the excavations in 2003-2004. With
kind assistance from Lennart Hasselgren, the Thai-Lao georadar team helped me to
identify invisible structures, which later on were dated thanks to very generous support
from Andrew Murray at the Nordic Laboratory for Luminescence Dating in Roskilde.
The staff at Finnmap provided me with detailed and beautiful maps. For this, I am very
grateful. Throughout the years, during which I conducted fieldwork in Laos, I always
received the support I needed from the Swedish Embassy in Vientiane. They also financially supported the production of the Viengkham and Say Fong exhibitions.
If we continue on the international scene, I wish to express my gratitude to Pisit
Charoenwongsa and his staff at SEAMEO-SPAFA in Bangkok, who hosted me for
three weeks and helped me in my initial aspirations to better understand the vast field
of contemporary Southeast Asian heritage management. In Bangkok, Heather Peters
and David Feingold opened the doors to the UNESCO office and were inspiring in the
(vast) field of anthropology in Southeast Asia. Thank you for being stimulating discussion partners in an early phase of this project. Peter Schalk contributed, also in an early
stage, with his profound knowledge about Buddhism and guided me in different ways,
giving me a better understanding of this deeply fascinating area. Ian Glover, Joyce
White, Rasmi Shoocongdej and Magnus Fiskesjö have also, in different ways, been
influential and inspiring to my work in Southeast Asia. Thank you all. In late 2007, I
had the opportunity to spend four months in London. At the department of anthro-
8
PREFACE
pology at UCL, I met and interacted with many who have had profound impact on my
thinking about some of the issues addressed in this thesis. I am especially grateful to
Daniel Miller for including me, during this period, in his group of doctoral students,
and to Elizabeth Moore for inviting me to the SOAS seminars.
This project rests on the financial support from different institutions and funds. I
am indebted to Sida/SAREC for overall financial support, to STINT for the scholarship that made my stay at UCL possible, to Margareta Biörnstad’s Fund for International Heritage Cooperation for covering my stay at SEAMEO-SPAFA, to the Royal
Swedish Academy of Sciences for covering fieldwork expenses, the Swedish Research
Council for a contribution to the OSL datings, and the Nordic Graduate School in
Archaeology for the possibility to participate in rewarding PhD courses. My warm
thanks also go to Grant Evans, William Logan, Musée Guimet, EFEO and Diethard
Ande at White Lotus Press for allowing me to reproduce your photos in this book.
My deepest gratitude goes to Paul Sinclair for patient supervision, constant encouragement and generous support. I remember our first meeting, when I aspired to become a PhD student. You scrolled the globe on your desk, eventually found Laos and,
after some negotiation, agreed that my ideas had potential to draw on for an application
for funding a PhD project. I thank you, Paul, for including Southeast Asia in your
global research frame, for sustaining my imagination to pursue this project, for being a
great supervisor and a good friend. I also want to acknowledge my other supervisor,
Frands Herschend, who has always and at any time been available for reading, commenting and discussing. Your invaluable assistance during the last year has been decisive for the completing of this book. You have also made me realise that there are
plentiful interesting and possible directions to choose among for future projects, and
that they are limited only by my own imagination.
In the years since I started as a PhD student, I have found myself excited by the
support from and discussions with colleagues at both Uppsala University and Gotland
University. Many are you who have contributed in different ways, and at different
stages in this process. Anna Källén, Vicky Saenz, Fredrik Andersson, Carina Johansson,
Kristin Österman Andersson, Johannes Siapkas and Lotta Hillerdal have provided
opportunities to improvement of the text by reading and generously commenting on
various drafts. I wish to thank you for not only being stimulating colleagues, but also
good friends. To Åsa Larsson, I wish to say that I am delighted to have shared office
space with you over the last years. I appreciate your company and your extraordinary
capacity to take an active interest in others’ challenges and problems. To Lotta Mejsholm (my sister in turmoil the last months), Cia Lidström-Holmberg, Lena Johansson
de Chateau, Johan Hegardt, Anneli Ekblom, Kalle Lindholm, C-G Ojala, Daniel
Löwenborg, Karin Bangtsson, Anna Gatti, Fredrik Hallgren, Thomas Eriksson, Christian Isendahl, Neil Price and Alex Sanmark, I wish to express my gratitude for being
great colleagues and friends throughout the years. I deeply thank the staff at the de-
9
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
partment of archaeology in Uppsala, in particular Christina Bendegard for sharing with
me your friendship, Birgitta Karlsson for carrying heavy administrative matters on your
shoulders and, together with Elisabet Green, for professionally solving and structuring
practical challenges of various sorts. Elisabet, you deserve extra special thanks also for
revising my English. Gotland is the place where it all began as I entered Inger Österholm’s archaeology class many years ago. Gotland is the place I always return to, as it is
also my home. I am indebted to the staff at the department of archaeology at Gotland
University, in particular Alex Andreeff for good company and for lending your office
desk, and Gunilla Runesson for generously providing me with working space even
though I have no formal connections to your department. History and the fact that I
count as a local resident seem to be enough, and for that I am grateful. Paul Wallin and
Helene Martinsson Wallin have been stimulating colleagues and good friends over the
years. I am happy that you too have Gotland as your home. There is also a group of
ethnologists, historians and art historians at Gotland University that I wish to acknowledge. I have benefited a lot from sharing working space with you and always felt included in your realm, physically as well as when it comes to thinking of and discussing
professional matters, and participating in seminars. My very special thanks go to Carina
Johansson for invaluable friendship, writing and reading support and stimulating conversations about work and about all sorts of other things. On Gotland is also Birgitta
Gustafson, who I thank for always being enthusiastically curious and generously supportive, and the Impro group in Visby, which, during the final writing-up phase, fuelled
my spirit.
With immeasurable love and gratitude I thank my fabulous family: Vanja, Bosse,
Inga, Jenny, Tomas, Hanna, Edvin, Margareta and Henrik, who always give me their
unqualified support, and Bosse, with whom I sadly was unable to finish the inspiring
and interesting discussions that we had started a few years before he, too early, passed
away. I particularly want to acknowledge my parents for their genuinely positive way of
thinking and their everlasting energy in solving practical problems and taking care of
the little ones. You are invaluable! Invaluable and dearly loved are also my little men,
Joel and Maurits, and Tomas, thank you for your unconditional encouragement and
patience, for your attentiveness and careful reading. It is also to you I owe the awareness of the poetic possibilities in everyday life. Thank you all from the bottom of my
heart!
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NOTE ON TRANSCRIPTION
There exist various systems for transcribing Lao script into Roman letters. While some
have a preference for old French standard spellings, others choose among a number of
alternatives developed within English-speaking readers. As one could expect, the system worked out by French writers and speakers can be misleading for English writers
and speakers, and vice versa. In the absence of common official standards, I have generally used a system that tries to reproduce as closely as possible the Lao pronunciation
with sounds that exist in English.
Consonants in the Lao language are, in general, pronounced as in English. The ‘h’
that follows any consonant indicates that it is aspirated. Vowels in Lao are either short
or long, but I have not differentiated these in my text. The tonal components of the
Lao language have also been left out. I have tried, as much as possible, to keep to familiar spellings. For place names, not so familiar to the general public who do not live in
the area, I have used the same spelling as is used in each village respectively, so as to be
faithful to my informants’ pronunciation. Similarly, I have spelled persons’ names, in
accordance with their own spelling. For the names of Lao authors, I have kept the
spelling used in the publication.
Even if this system sometimes lacks in consistency, I hope I have provided enough
information for those who want to use my work, as my aim is to facilitate both the
reading and the identification of places, people and ideas that appear in the book.
14
INTRODUCTION
In June 2004, when I was about to leave Laos after finishing my last fieldwork, the
Prehistoric Section in the Lao National Museum was renovated. The rooms were repainted, worn out electric cables were replaced by new ones, and the exhibitions were
reorganised. While a few of the museum staff moved around exhibition cases, we were
putting up panels with photos from our archaeological excavations in Viengkham and
Say Fong, and placing showcases in front of them. The museum arranged an opening
ceremony when the renovation was finished. After the ribbon was cut and the speeches
ended, I went back to the small building behind the museum. Originally, it was built as
an Hôtel du Commissariat in 1914 by the French colonial administration. Now policemen from the countryside working in Vientiane lived there. The house also included
storerooms for excavated artefacts from the few archaeological investigations that had
been carried out in Laos during the last decade. I spent many months in one of these
storerooms, as I used it as a temporary office while in Laos. Now, the finds from the
Viengkham and Say Fong excavations were already packed and stored up in boxes and
I just had to arrange some final things, take down my books from the shelves, close the
windows and lock the door. Then I treaded on those bricks, again, exactly as I had
done almost daily while spending my days at this temporary office. The bricks, some
told they could be as old as from the ninth century, had been placed in a heap outside
the small building by Lao archaeologists some years ago. The archaeologists had collected them in an attempt to rescue what could be rescued of the material remains that
once made up the city walls of Vientiane. As years passed and rain flooded the open
space between the museum and the small building behind, the heap decreased in size.
Bricks were taken from the heap and put in front of the entrance to the storeroom as
filling material, and memories of their origin slowly faded. So, when I treaded on the
bricks again this time, it struck me that they were actually the very reason for everything
I came to do in that office. The fact that the city wall of Vientiane was dramatically
demolished and deliberately thrown in the Mekong was the starting point for what
came to be my PhD research project.
It was during the planning phase, in early 2000, and I was driving and walking
around in Vientiane together with Viengkeo Souksavathdy from the Ministry of Information and Culture. He told me we were to see the ancient city walls. Just outside Thalat Sao, the morning market, I thought I had waited too long and that we had gone too
far, so I asked, ‘well, where is this wall?’ ‘We are driving on it’, he replied, ‘but the bricks
from the wall construction are now in the Mekong or elsewhere, as building material’.
The same dialogue was repeated when we reached the outskirts of Vientiane later on,
15
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
driving from Ban Phonkeng to Ban Nong Hai, where I expected to see and follow the
extension of Vientiane’s outer city wall. I was indeed affected by this insight and upset
because of this ruthless cultural heritage destruction.
Initially, my aim was to study the urban development of Vientiane, from the earliest
phases to contemporary times. However, because of the disappearance of Vientiane’s
ancient city walls I decided to also include an investigation of the practice of cultural
heritage management. Based on results from these investigations, I hoped to be able to
suggest guidelines for how to best protect and preserve the remains from ancient times
in the continuously ongoing urban development of Vientiane, a development that did
not seem to prioritise history at all, or at least not its physical remains.
Later that year, one of the old temple buildings, a sim, at Vat Ou Mong in Vientiane
was being replaced by a new one, as an act of merit-making. The village had saved
money for years and finally the plan could be realised. This is a description of what
happened during those days, by Alan Potkin who documented the demolition process:1
Between 11 and 13 December, 2000, at the full moon of the winter solstice, the people
of the village gathered for the festive demolition of the old image hall at Vat Ou Mong,
to be replaced with a new sim; seen to be a merit-making activity that would much enhance the beauty and prestige of the temple compound. The un-reinforced masonry
building, which dated to the 1920s, was cracked in several places, some of the woodwork was termite-damaged, and the roof structure and tiles had been rapidly deteriorating. But the interior, which was completely covered with wonderful naïve murals illustrating the Phralak-Phralam (the Lao Ramayana) – painted during only thirteen days in
1938 by the talented but inexperienced draftsman-monk, Thit Panh, with the help or
hindrance of seven boy novices – was still perfectly intact (2001).
This sim was one of only a few rare structures comprising depictions of the beloved
epic, and one of the oldest in Vientiane. During the process of demolition, the villagers
who were gathered at the temple site seemed quite happy about the pulling down of the
structure, shouting and clapping their hands. I also saw this, at a distance. At first, what
I saw confused me, but the confusion almost immediately turned into curiosity. And
soon, after talking to some of the happy villagers, I began to understand the situation,
and the reasons behind the joy and excitement that surrounded it all. In fact, I did not
really understand it, but I understood that here was something that needed to be explored if I was going to deal with the heritage of Vientiane in my PhD project. This
incident was vital for the (often winding) direction that this thesis has taken, and has
accompanied me since along the way to its completion. I wanted to understand a world
where decay and destruction seemed to be necessary for religious practices and beliefs
to be maintained, a world where my ideas of heritage management were radically overthrown.
For that reason, I completely changed my initial aims. This book is now an argument for challenging contemporary heritage discourse and question the fundamentalist
16
INTRODUCTION
ideology of preservationism that prevails within this discourse. My critique of the contemporary heritage discourse falls within the frames of the general critique against
modernist and essentialist scientific ideals and colonial power structures. This critique
is, of course, not new. It has existed as different ‘post’-isms within academia since the
1960s, such as postmodernism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism. This is the conceptual space within which I move. I do not state my theoretical position more detailed
than this here, even though I am aware of that such a statement often is presented in
the introduction to a PhD thesis. However, part of the argument of this book is that
theoretical frameworks and positions continuously change, and should do so. Therefore, I have actively chosen to include theoretical discussions in each part of the book,
relevant for their specific themes, instead of presenting a general statement of theoretical position in the introduction. This book should, accordingly, be read as a piece in
and a contribution to a continuously ongoing heritage debate.
Heritage is created in the present. For that reason, my starting point is the present context. My understanding of heritage in Laos is that it consists of stories, places and things.
People, stories, places and things of today, or how they are perceived today, are always
at the heart of this study. However, this heritage is complex and ambiguous, because
the stories are parallel, the definitions and perceptions of place are manifold and contested, and the things and their meaning appear altered, depending on what approach to
materiality we use. Combining these parallel and alternative definitions and ways to tell
stories, relations to places, and approaches to things, their materiality and immateriality,
is no doubt a challenge. My aim is not to propose a standard for how to identify and manage a heritage of Vientiane, valid for the future, but instead to describe the complexity and
ambiguity of what I identify as the heritage of Vientiane. This book is not about the
stories, or the places or the things. Rather, it is about what causes this complexity and ambiguity and what is in between them. To be able to explore what is in between, the structure of
the book does, however, follow these categories: stories, places and things that together
make up heritage.
STORIES
When I looked for and asked about material remains from past times in the villages that
were included in the initial survey, the answers usually evolved around stories about
places and things. I wanted to know the past and the content of Lao heritage, and I had
an idea that material remains from the past are the producers of such knowledge. However, there are different knowledge producers and different ways of producing knowledge. It seemed as though I was able to know through the stories, rather than through
the material remains. The concept of situated knowledges (Haraway 1988) opens a space
for communication between these different ways of producing knowledge, and helps to
break down the boundaries within and between scientific and non-scientific knowledge
17
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
production (Engelstad and Gerrard 2005:10f). Stories are a sort of situated knowledge.
As such, they are valuable and necessary for my interpretations of the heritage of
Vientiane. Therefore, I have devoted part I of this book to the stories.
Even though my intention is to use an inclusive approach, I am retelling the stories
of others, and these stories unavoidably sanction some voices while silencing others.
Still, I have the narrative form very much at heart. I support an analysis of narrative
practice as the means of better understanding the past, and the idea that the past should
be approached both through narrativity and by narrativity; using stories and their contents as source material to complement the things we study, and using its form to create
new archaeological stories of the past. You will meet stories with another typeface in
the text, a form that might need an explanation here. The reason to this demarcation is
that I want to highlight their form, and the essence of their content, and not their exact
content. Sometimes, they are stories I listened to during our surveys. Sometimes, they are
stories based on written sources with more or less direct quotes. Sometimes, they are a
mix of these. All of them are, however, my interpretations of others’ accounts, written
or told. Where I base these stories on written sources, and where I make direct quotes,
there are always references to the original text before or within the story.
When we tell archaeological stories, we arrange events from past times into chronologies and systems, so that the events and their significance are easier to distinguish
and understand within an archaeological mind-set. This arrangement is a consequence
of a modern western perception of time as linear and teleological. This modern western
understanding of history and archaeology was born in and maintained by an imperial
world with Europe as its centre, and is often claimed to be the only legitimate knowledge of the past. Therefore, the beginning of this story about Laos’ history and heritage
lies elsewhere than in Laos itself. In the first chapter, I use the historical stories about
Laos, told by others than the Lao people, as an alternative history of research where I
also want to give a picture of the complex context of which I am part as a professional
Swedish archaeologist working in Laos. What are the official stories about Laos’ history,
why and how were they created? To answer these questions and to give a background
idea of previous understandings of Laos and Vientiane I will present the discourses of
writing and telling history, the imperialist structures that formed the foundations for
research about past times in Laos. I do that through the accounts of the early envoys
and explorers, the colonisers and the scientists. Through an archaeological account, I
illustrate how these foundations for research also direct contemporary Southeast Asian
archaeology.
My point of departure is that knowledge about the past is much more than what can
be defined through archaeology and science. I do not agree to the claim that modern
western understanding of history is the only legitimate knowledge of the past. There are
more stories to be told; stories that can also help us to better understand different cosmologies and perceptions about the past. I call them inside stories, as they are found
18
INTRODUCTION
within Laos, and they are the content of chapter 2. The purpose of presenting these
inside stories is to explore the variety of stories told, and analyse the underlying mechanisms that create different pasts, or stories about different pasts.
In the third chapter, I conclude this first part by presenting a theoretical framework,
in which I argue for the indispensability of narrativity when dealing with the past. I do
that by exploring the narrative form and its relation to knowledge, science and fiction.
Most of the stories gather around a few main themes, departing from creation and
location, explaining origin, the significance of and relation to place, but the approaches
and meanings differ. By looking at contexts in which these stories are created and told
within the theoretical framework I have sketched, I hope to reach a better understanding of how and why they differ. Offering you this palette of stories, my intention is
therefore neither to present a comprehensive historiography, nor an integrated homogenous history of Laos, but to explore and investigate the problems and potentials
of narration. I will do this by analysing the positions we have within the narratives,
marked by difference and power.
PLACE
Part II is about place, its definitions and its relations to people and pasts. This part
functions as the archaeological framework for the entire project, but also includes an
analysis of concepts and definitions about place. For my description of Vientiane and
its pasts I have been inspired by the general starting point that place is neither a fixed
nor a permanent frame of reference inside which events would occur, but instead a result
of interactions (Latour 1987:228). It is an active rather than a passive entity. I have been
thinking, reading and writing about Vientiane as a socially constructed place, a product
of the imagination of different groups and individuals, their desires and expectations,
reflecting various attachments and meanings. Attachments and meanings that can be
represented materially, and, as Wendy Ashmore formulates it, ‘additionally, or alternatively – and more challenging for archaeologists – the attachments and meanings may
reside in memories, shared orally, if at all’ (2004:259). These attachments and meanings
may be different and contrasting for different groups or individuals, both at any specific
time and through time. In the case of Vientiane, it may be perceived as a marginalised
place, a historic city, a national capital, a tempting big city, a home for Lao, Hmong or
Swedish people etc, or as an archaeological site.
In this part, I explore what the pictures and ideas of Vientiane and its pasts are, and
how these pictures and ideas are and were created. I start, in chapter 4, by placing Vientiane in its present context, and look at how and why it is viewed as an archaeological
site, by others and by me. Thinking about a place needs a coherent body of definitions.
Definitions that speak the same language as the actual context they intend to describe.
For Vientiane, I have identified a few contested definitions, which I describe, analyse and
open up in chapter 5. I do not believe that there is one past, or that there is one true
19
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
history. Stories about Vientiane’s urban pasts are created at different places and at different times, and could easily be understood as contested interpretations. On the basis of
the broadened definitions, the sixth chapter is a presentation of a variety of interpretations about Vientiane’s pasts, which becomes an alternative archaeological framework,
valid for this particular project. And so, the interpretations, which at a first glance seem
contested, rather become complementary interpretations.
THINGS
In part III, varying understandings of materiality in relation to the past are discussed.
How is the past perceived in the present through things and material practices? What
are the relationships between people and objects, and between material and immaterial
culture? In chapter 7, focus is on materiality in general: different approaches used when
studying material culture, and perceptions of materiality in Buddhism and animism. The
section about animism and Buddhism does not only describe perceptions of materiality.
It also explains popular Buddhism in general, and as such it is the basis for the discussions in part IV. Then, in chapter 8, I explore the things themselves. I include my own
archaeological fieldwork as one example of material practice, and examine this together
with other kinds of material practices I have met during my investigations. Two case
studies, the excavations in Viengkham and in Say Fong, exemplify the plethora of material and immaterial approaches to the past. In the last chapter of this part, chapter 9, I
analyse the processes of materialisation and dematerialisation, by looking at absence
and presence, immateriality in relation to materiality, time and origin, and authenticity.
By illustrating various ways of understanding and relating to the past through things,
and by exploring perceptions of materiality in Buddhism and animism, which together
make up most people’s everyday world in contemporary Laos, this part is in a sense
also a continuation in my exploration about how archaeology and archaeological narratives are constructed in the present. In previous parts, I focused on text, language,
images and places. In this, I instead focus on understandings that could be gained
through things.
HERITAGE
Even though archaeology and heritage management are fields practiced in parts of the
world where people consider themselves as Buddhist, the consequences of these practices and beliefs are hardly ever taken into consideration, or even discussed. Buddhist
archaeology (as a subfield within archaeology) often starts from a historical perspective
and focuses primarily on material concerns in early Buddhism: its origin, art and architecture, and the typology of Buddhist monuments, artefacts and sites (cf. Coningham
2001:61-95), on socio-political relationship to the non-Buddhist world (in history) and
how archaeology can contribute to our understanding of religious practice (cf. Fogelin
20
INTRODUCTION
2006). More rare are discussions on how Buddhist ideologies, cosmologies and values
are related to perceptions of heritage, which means starting from a contemporary perspective. There are, however, a few examples where this is done. Anna Källén combines the historical and contemporary perspectives in her PhD thesis when she explores
how the site Lao Pako is perceived and used today, and the reasons for this (2004a). In
addition, Denis Byrne focuses on the field of heritage studies and starts from a contemporary perspective in his paper in a World Archaeology issue on Buddhist archaeology.
He claims that current preservation practices prioritise original, physical structures and
fabric over local religious practice (Byrne 1995:266-281). This results in an exclusion of
other discourses, which might not even regard the objects as archaeological. Heritage in
these contexts is primarily spiritual in nature and have little to do with the physical
continuity of the heritage’s structure and form (ibid:267).
It is no longer the things and their essential value as evidence of something that
happened in the past that is the only interest in the field of heritage studies. From the
old model of heritage as material, more and more focus is now on heritage as social
action (cf. Byrne 2008). While heritage as material presupposes an essential and universal definition of material culture, heritage as social action allows us to appreciate how
material culture is defined and redefined in a continuous circularity and also how it is
valued differently. Heritage is a mode of cultural production and it produces something
new (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998:150). It is something we create and it is continuously
changing. Yet, it ‘exists within a historical context that has been created by various
influences that reached their zenith throughout Westernised societies’ (Harrison et al.
2008:1).
Following the idea of heritage as social action, I devote the last part of the thesis to
an exploration of the ways heritage is thought about and related to in the different
situations I have been involved in: from my academic point of departure to the actual
context where I have done my fieldwork. As an illustration of the complexity and ambiguity of heritage I start my discussion from the concept of preservation, because this
taken-for-granted principle that everything must be preserved is the foundation on
which the whole contemporary heritage discourse rests, regardless whether heritage is
identified as material or as social action. I am profoundly critical against this generally
accepted idea of preservation. Is it relevant, or even possible, to impose these modern
scientific principles of conservation and preservation in a Buddhist context? That is, a
context where the Buddhist notion of material impermanence governs the perception of
reality.
I set out in chapter 10 with a brief review of western heritage discourse and explore
motives for preservation. The following section describes in philosophical terms the
Buddhist idea of impermanence, according to canonical Buddhism. I am not advocating
this ideal as the solution to the problems faced in present archaeological heritage debates, but find it relevant and challenging to use for discussing larger issues concerning
21
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
preservation. Buddhist ideology is based on the canonical ideal, but includes alternative
worldviews. This popular Buddhist reality saves us from uncritically adopting an extremist non-preservationist attitude, which is discussed in chapter 11. Here I pick up
some concepts and explore their meanings. These are concepts that derive from the
preservationist ideal, but involve other and often contradictory meanings in a Buddhist
context. Different, and parallel, worlds add different meanings to these concepts. I
argue, as a concluding part of the entire thesis, that while recognising these different
worlds it becomes impossible to unreflectingly urge heritage preservation and to continue discussions about how this preservation is best done (through restoration, conservation etc.). Instead, we must challenge this taken-for-granted presumption that preservation is a fundamental need, and acknowledging it as an active process that means
change and that creates something new.
22
I: K M B
L MH K B > L
1. OTHERS’ STORIES
The replacement of speculation on the past by scientific enquiry
took place in Europe during the course of the 19th century. In
Southeast Asia, there was no such development, and in due
course, European workers laid the foundations of archaeological
investigations.
– Charles Higham (2002:16)
The creation of the Other needs not only a teller or writer who constructs the object.
There also needs to be a listener or reader. The storyteller establishes borders. By
adapting these and reacting upon what is within and outside those borders, the listener
or reader makes a kind of treaty with the storyteller. A treaty, which is the prerequisite
for how the picture of the Other is understood. It is thus not only a question of who
tells and writes, it is also about who listens and reads. In history writing We write for
Us, which implies a dislocation of culture. It is an exclusion, a sort of monopoly on the
interpretations of the past. At the same time, there are fractions in the process of othering, which makes the dislocation contradictory. It is not only we and them; there are
several layers in between and around too. There is also a reciprocal relationship, a them
and we. Otherness is always present, but should be acknowledged as a fluctuating,
contemporary relation always ready to change direction. In my own research situation, I
am the Other. I am falang, the stranger, the antithesis and the mirror in which my Lao
colleagues, friends and informants reflect their own Lao identity.
In the following part I examine a variety of stories of the past produced within different settings and periods, although they all follow imperialist structures. These stories
were exclusively written for a European or western world audience, and what makes
them so interesting so that it is necessary to bring up here, is that this is what constitutes the foundation for our contemporary perception of the past of the world. This is
the foundation for the modern discipline of archaeology and for me as an outsider in
Laos. To be able to acknowledge otherness and to understand western scientific frames
of reference we must explore how this foundation came into being.
First I want to mention a few lines about how I use ‘narrative’ and ‘story’, since
these concepts appear interchangeably in the text. The question of the definition of
25
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
narrative and of story is of vital importance and always present in the history debate. In
contemporary critical theory some philosophers of history make a distinction between
these terms, where narrative represents an all-embracing sequence of completed actions, whereas story concerns episodes, their structures and constructions, and is considered a limited genre. However, to use both concepts in their broader meaning (i.e.
simply an account of a connected sequence of happenings (Roberts 2001:16)), more or
less as equivalences, allows me to concentrate on the storytelling, the actual activity in
its most fundamental sense. The intention here in this part of the thesis is to focus on
the circumstances in which stories are told, by whom, how, and why, not only the actual content of the story, to understand some of the reasons to this multitude of explanations and versions.
ENVOYS AND EXPLORERS – CONFIRMING THEIR OWN IDENTITIES
Today, areas inhabited by ethnic Lao people extend across the heart of the Southeast
Asian peninsula, from the borders of Cambodia in the south, to the Chinese province
of Yunnan in the north, and from Thailand and Burma in the west, to the frontiers of
Vietnam in the east. This vast land is isolated from the coast, and as a result of this,
most early European visitors to the Southeast Asian peninsula never travelled far
enough into the interior to gather even the scantiest of information about the land of
the Lao.
A group of Portuguese were probably the first Europeans to venture into Laos, during the first half of the sixteenth century. These envoys were accompanying a Burmese
representative on a mission from Pegu to Luang Prabang (the royal capitals of Burma
and Laos at that time) and back. Spanish envoys followed the Portuguese a few decades
later (Ngaosrivathana and Ngaosrivathana 2002:95, 103-149). Despite this, the area was
almost terra incognita to western mapmakers prior to the second half of the nineteenth
century (for early cartographic work on Southeast Asia cf. ibid:98ff, Brébion 1910,
Fraisse 1948 and Fell 1988), and was charted mainly through cartographic imagination.
One of the first books ever published in Europe about Laos, was Jesuit Giovanni
Filippo de Marini’s Delle Missioni de’ Padri della Compagnia de Giesv Nella Prouincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino, which left a printing house in Rome in 1663.
This book is primarily based on information from the travel log of the missionary Giovanni Maria Leria, who worked in Laos between 1642 and 1648. Its English title, when
first published in 1998, is A New and Interesting Description of the Lao Kingdom, which says
everything about its contents: a description of the land, the people, the Court and Government of the kingdom, its religion and customs. Only the first part of the original
manuscript is included in this translation. The second half, which is not included, describes the actual activities of Father Leria. Leria was not the first missionary to enter
this part of the world. Since the early days of Christianity, missions had been sent out in
26
STORIES
the world to encourage people to follow its convictions. Each organisation had its own
routine and there was no general or universal Christian strategy for salvation. Leria was
chosen to continue what another Jesuit named Borelli had intended, when he all of a
sudden died. Thus, Father Leria who was going to the landlocked, most remote area in
this region – the Lao kingdom – to learn about culture, study the language and customs,
but most importantly to spread the words of Jesus.
Another, and even earlier European visitor, who later on wrote about Laos, was the
Dutch merchant Gerrit Wuijsthoff, who was in Laos during 1641-1642. He kept a
journal of his experiences with the Lao, their country and their king, which was published in 1669 in the Netherlands. Wuijsthoff was stationed at the Dutch East India
Company in Lovek, then capital of Cambodia, when a Lao trade delegation invited
them to Vientiane to meet the king and discuss trading opportunities (Feldberg 2005).
He was then selected as their man. It is interesting to note here that the Lao side took
the initiative. However, while the Lao were interested in establishing a direct trade with
the Dutch to bring profits, products to the Lao market, curiosities for the Lao nobility,
and not least strengthen the king’s regional power base, there was only one reason for
Wuijsthoff to visit Laos: to expand the Dutch East India Company’s trade and make a
profit. The trade seems to have been on equal terms, and Wuijsthoff’s descriptions of
Lao merchants and merchants from surrounding countries are quite neutral. In this
respect, one can say there was a power balance between the Dutch and the Lao, and no
such imbalance that has been observed later on in the colonial period. Still, there are
huge differences in the attitude towards the other side. While, as mentioned earlier,
Wuijsthoff is only focused on searching trade opportunities and then realises that he
might fail, which results in a quite unfriendly and patronising approach towards the
Lao, the Lao and their king treat the Dutch delegation with great honour and respect
(ibid). These were the only extensive accounts of Laos until two centuries later when
the French appeared. I call these early visitors envoys. In contrast to the explorers, here
represented by the French, they travelled alone. The explorers appeared in groups.
French explorers, scientists and officers were engaged in Southeast Asia from the second half of the nineteenth century. At that time, France was a vanquished country
searching for national renewal. Overshadowed by Great Britain these explorers were
believed to acquire an Asian empire to rival British India (Cooper 2001:11ff). France’s
colonial vocation can be seen as a result of this ‘imperial competition’ with Great Britain. In 1858, Henri Mouhot was among the first of these French explorers to embark
on a journey to Southeast Asia. Mouhot is famous for his description of Angkor, whose
ruins he ‘discovered’ and whose story he popularised for the European public. He also
reached Laos during his three-year long travel, which he described as a botanical expedition (Mouhot [1864] 2000). This travel became his last, as he died in northern Laos in
1861.
27
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
A few years later, the Mekong Exploration Commission, ‘one of the most fruitful
and most glorious explorations of our time’ (Garnier [1885] 1996:ix), set out for Laos
under the direction of Commander Doudart de Legrée in 1866. It was mainly a scientific journey, a geographical project, and consisted of a small group of people. Apart
from de Legrée, the group included Francis Garnier, who mapped the journey and was
in charge of the study of commercial routes, meteorology and astronomy, L. Delaporte,
who was in charge of drawings and administration, L. Joubert and C. Thorel, who were
medical doctors and in charge of geological, anthropological and botanical studies, and
Louis de Carné, who was an attaché of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the
main aims of the mission was to explore the Mekong and its suitability as a north-south
trading route.
Ten years later, when the Mekong Exploration Commission among other more successful findings concluded that this was not an ultimate trading route, another Frenchman Dr Jules Harmand followed and set out on a scientific mission to Indochina. One
of his goals was to establish an alternative trading route, to build a west-east trade axis
from central Laos to what was then Annam, now Vietnam. The list of explorers can be
made very long, but this is just to illustrate how parts of Southeast Asia were appropriated, acquired and accrued by France and its imperialist expansionism at the end of the
nineteenth century, preceding the colonisation of Indochina.
Written stories from these explorations illuminate both the positions of the explorer
and the construction of the explored space, as gendered. The perspective is European
and masculine, and it presents two seemingly opposing representations of the explored
land and people; the Gentle Savage living in harmony with the sumptuous nature, and
the Wild Man living in the dangerous and uncontrolled jungle. However, in both representations the explorer unambiguously poses as the hero, as a precursor discovering
something original for the first time, and as brave, taming the wild.
Preceding the early Age of Discovery2 was the European longing for, dreaming of and
imagining about mythical, unknown places. This is what Panivong Norindr calls the
‘colonial phantasm’ (1996:16ff), an ideological projection onto reality where fantasies
about coloniser and colonised, about the fulfilment of unconscious wishes underlying
the dreams of a physical and cultural society. This colonial phantasm can be traced back
to the centuries before the establishment of Indochina. The phantasm incorporated the
vision of this land as Utopia – characterised by fertility, happiness, abundance of natural
resources, similar to the mythical places and islands of the European imagination during
this period (Johansson 1999:228). Those mythical places were filled with fantastic,
marvellous riches, but also inhabited by fantastic and marvellous people. When nature
is described in such terms it is positive, but when people are it is accompanied by a
negative intimidating feeling.
28
Members of the Mekong Exploration Commission: de Lagrée, de Carné, Joubert, Thorel, Delaporte and Garnier, from left
to right (drawing by Émile Bayard from a photo by Mr Gsell), reproduced from Garnier 1996 [1885].
Francis Garnier observing the position
of the sun (drawing by A. Marie from a
watercolor by Delaporte), reproduced
from Garnier 1996 [1885].
Dr. Thorel discovering and collecting
exotic plants (drawing by E. Tournois
from a watercolor by Delaporte), reproduced from Garnier 1996 [1885].
A fresco from the Peunom
temple in Thakek, supposed
to depict Gerrit Wuijsthoff
(drawing by Delaporte,
member of the Mekong
Exploration Commission),
reproduced from Garnier
1996 [1885].
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
…the mountains with which it is surrounded on all sides and which remarkably fortify
it and defend it against foreign attack, as well as being very rich and possessing abundant wood for all kinds of use so that they do not need to look for it outside the kingdom. Entire forests of tall trees located at the foot of these mountains also prevail
around the kingdom. They form an enclosure as charming as one can possibly find, in
such a way that it looks as if these trees were planted there to serve as ramparts and
dikes, protecting against huge water flows which fall with extreme violence. […] Each
takes as much as he needs, because when the rains are abundant and they continue a
long time, this water streaming down never stagnates or form swamps, but flows
through certain torrents to the lowest places and into the great river which they call the
mother of rivers and which is sub-divided into several arms – almost all become navigable, and can be profitably used to contribute to the kingdom.
In his description of the greatness, riches and power of Laos, de Marini ([1663]
1998:2) lulls the reader into security and confidence. By using value laden words, such
as charming when describing the enclosures, he creates an image of this land as totally
harmless, as a Garden of Eden: untouched, happy and rich, surrounded by a natural,
safe and secure wall saving the inhabitants from being confronted with the unkind and
unpleasant outside world and all its difficulties. They were even protected against violent flooding (cf. The Flood of the Bible). It is a picture of a place where man lives in
harmony with nature and just takes what he needs. This is written as a confirmation to
a European audience of what the world was like in its paradisal beginning, safe but also
primitive. De Marini continues: ‘…the Laotians are very docile, very good-natured and
great lovers of rest […] for little things one gives them they demonstrate perfect satisfaction and contentment’ (ibid:11). Through such a description of the Lao people the
narrator makes them harmless and deprives them of the varied and versatile set of
characters that is part of any human being. They become dehumanised.
Jules Harmand was another of those who trampled upon viable societies in the
name of bringing civilisation to these, in his view, primitive people. His views on the
natives are collected in the 370 pages long Domination et Colonisation (1910). In an English translation parts of the excerpts from this volume read as follows: ‘Dressed only
with a necklace of glass beads and shells and with a piece of cloth as big as a hand
which passes through their belt and between their buttocks, they look dazed, soft and
timid’ (1997:34f). Nudity strengthens the picture of a dehumanised people, and so does
the description of the people as docile and dazed, as if they just came out from the
jungle, virgin to culture and unknowing of the world outside.
This is the idealised image of the Gentle Savage, who lacks aggressiveness, greediness and evilness. This virgin place on earth with its innocent inhabitants lay there
warm and welcoming, waiting to be discovered and explored by the explorer, the
knowledgeable white man. The land and its people become feminised. These gendered
representations were expressed in the images and perceptions of the European visitor.
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STORIES
The conceptualisation of the reality those explorers met in this so far undiscovered
country, was shaped into stories within a discourse saturated by nineteenth century
European male imaginations and dreams, legends and myths about the Other.
Another often-portrayed picture of Laos and its people was one corresponding to
mythical features and other strange creatures. Such mythical places were also the land
of the wild and untamed. The discovered reality was associated with a marvellous dimension, which included fantastic as well as monstrous aspects, positive as well as
negative. Thus, primitiveness is not only soft and innocent, it can as well be dangerous
and wild, and so the Gentle Savage is turned into the primordial Wild Man. This wildness must be controlled, and could so be done by making it negative and bizarre, and
by describing these wild men as cowards with poor miserable minds, who were victims
of their superstition. Harmand (ibid:233) writes:
From everything that I have already said about the life and customs of the tribal populations of Indochina, one has been able to convince oneself of their miserable state and
of the feeling that dominates all their actions, that hangs over their entire existence, i.e.,
fear! It is fear that has inspired their way of interpreting nature, what one can call their
religion, and this characteristic harshness, which determines that all the imaginary beings which populate, according to them, the open space and the surroundings of their
huts, are busy only with tormenting humans. They do not conceive that spirits, which,
in their imagination are gifted with supernatural powers, could use these for anything
but doing evil. All their offerings have the objective of pacifying them; all their prayers
and ceremonies are made to calm their furies and hatred, never to thank them for what
happiness could have come to them, never to attribute the success of undertakings to
them. For these poor minds, power and justice are fused and they are so well habituated to this tyranny that the idea of revolting against it does not even enter their minds.
Superstition is in the modern nineteenth century discourse regarded as something
peculiar, and indeed frightening, as the explorer cannot control it. Wuijsthoff mentions
superstition in his account of local Lao customs as being its primary and most interesting expression. Bad omens and certain actions that will invoke nature are mentioned,
and he concludes that ‘…the Lao have a lot of these heathen superstitions and bizarre
ideas. […] More than anything in the world the Lao believe in these convictions’ (cited
in Feldberg 2005).
Besides being wild, superstitious and filled with fear, the Lao people are described as
animal-like and retiring: ‘they are extremely lazy and they undertake nothing but agriculture and fishing and entirely neglect the sciences and the arts. Generally speaking, they
lead an animal life, without wishing to engage in work which requires some application
of the mind’ (de Marini [1663] 1998:13). In this account, which is a narrative on customs and natural qualities of the Laotians, science and the arts become what civilised
people do or at least should be interested in, indicating that only they (the modern) are
thinking and using the brain and mind. By telling us that the Lao people not only neglect
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PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
these matters, but they do not even wish to engage in them, they are portrayed as animals, living a simple and primitive animal-like life, focused on practical activities, such
as obtaining food. In this discourse, there is a strict distinction between the thinker and
the doer. Thinking means qualified, doing means unqualified. By their wish to do no
more than what is needed, they become even more unqualified. They are not only wild
and dangerous animals, they are also lazy.
Thus, the obsession with origin in nineteenth century discourse means in this case that
the land and people of Laos were presented as pristine, virgin, safe and inviting, as well
as dangerous, wild and untamed. However, they are always presented as something
original and authentic, and despite the seemingly opposing representations, they are
always regarded as primitive in comparison to civilised European Christians. The norm is
the white man – the wonder of civilisation. These stories produce ambivalent and oppositional images of the native. They are monstrous, but because they are primitive and
lazy, they become even more monstrous. This evolutionist perspective, where differences
between modern and primitive are essential, has also as its nucleus a desire to find the
original. Inherent in this explorism, the search for authenticity and originality is a dissociation and distancing from the Other. In his Time and the other Johannes Fabian criticises anthropology and its denial of coevalness. While the anthropologist is placed in a
‘now’, the objects of study – the Other – are placed in a ‘then’, a time not contemporary
with our own. And so, a picture of the Other is created, by simply placing the Other at
the beginning of a time scale (Fabian 1983). In the same way, the explorers, finding
something that alluded to their idea of the original, authentic and untouched when they
arrived to Laos, regarded this land and its people as belonging to another time, to a past
time. With the privilege that comes with being the storyteller, they arbitrarily arranged
the plot so that their own culture and intellect were placed on top of the stage of development. The authentic other constituted its origin and foundation.
If we take a closer look at the explorer, he was (discursively) always a Man, and he is
still considered to be the first modern hero. By feminising the conquered land, as described above, the idea of the explorer as a male hero was created and maintained. Laos
was, unlike the surrounding countries, to a great extent unexplored by Europeans before the nineteenth century. Common in the travel accounts are descriptions about how
the explorer penetrates virgin land and how dangerous it is. Francis Garnier gave priority to portraying such experiences, rather than the people he met:
…we found ourselves proceeding along a narrow path, so narrow that it was sometimes
impossible to walk next to each other. Armed with the machete … we had to cut left
and right to open up a passage. Nevertheless, it seemed that we were following some
sort of path on which others had walked, or rather, climbed, before us. Thus we advanced keeping a close watch and the rifle cocked, ready for any encounter.[…] From
32
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there, the path became even steeper. The shaking rocks were only supported by lianas,
which kept them together. We continued to climb, grabbing stones and plants
([1885]1996:175f).
These are the tough experiences of an explorer, mapping the mountains of Attapeu
in southeastern Laos in late 1866. Garnier describes how they almost sacrificed their
lives to finalise their explorations. That was actually what happened to Commander de
Legrée, the leader of the Mekong Commission, and to Henri Mouhot and others before
him, who had lost their lives during their explorations. This adventurous approach,
through which an imperial character is constructed and applied to heroic men, is particularly interesting here. Adventure constitutes a personal challenge to the explorer,
who, by performing a series of exploits to meet this challenge, sacrifices his own personal needs for the greater cause and lifts himself above the level of the private person
to become a courageous and persistent hero (Mills 1994:36f). Sara Mills, writing on
gendered knowledge produced in an imperial context, confirms that this imperial character was set outside the private.
These male accounts are often related to colonial expansion at state level, whereas
the few accounts written by women are individual, more private and not at all adventuring or heroic (ibid:37). One example of a female traveller’s account from Laos is In Laos
and Siam, an English translation of Mme Marthe Bassenne’s travelogue. Armed with a
camera, she photographed and wrote during a trip up the Mekong at the end of 1909.
Bassenne’s travelogue was originally published as six different articles in the French
travel magazine Le Tour du Monde in 1912. Already in the introduction she writes that
‘this [i]s a book of impressions and feelings’ ([1912] 1994:vii). There are not very many
travel texts written by women, but those who exist are read and interpreted as if they
were only about the individual impressions and feelings (i.e. private) and not at all involved with the general imperial enterprise, which is a male domain. In this case, the
separation between colonising men and colonising women overrule the one between
coloniser and colonised. These ambivalent presentations of the explored and the explorer show a variety of conflicting and contradictory discursive forms (Bhabha
1994:66ff), always present within the process of Othering and in the creation of narratives. These ambivalences are essentially what force us to try to go beyond that which,
following Fazlhashemi (2001), I choose to call a monologue over meetings, where only the
superior is allowed to speak.
It was primarily a desire to explore new territories that motivated Europeans to travel
east in the seventeenth century, unlike the conquering of the New World in the west.
Even if the prerequisites and strategies for going east or west from Europe were different, the gains were not entirely different. The prosperous and cultivated Chinese culture
had been known for a long time in Europe, and it was understood to be widely different from the European Christian culture. The Chinese had for example introduced geo33
A missionary with his group, meeting Marthe Bassenne at the bank of the Mekong
river in south Laos in 1909 (photo by Bassenne), reproduced from Bassenne
1994 [1912].
An early impression of Lao landscape and people near Vientiane, caught by Marthe Bassenne in a photo from 1909, reproduced from Bassenne 1994 [1912].
STORIES
graphical writing and produced maps already more than 1 500 years ago, of a quality far
better than anything being produced in medieval Europe (Unwin 1992:55). The main
motive for exploring the east was the temptation of exotic goods, even though this
brought about a desire to govern and control the world trade, as well as an intellectual
colonisation, which, it can be argued with my piece of work here as a point in case, is
still ongoing today. Another reason for this explorism was not only commercial interests,
but also religious justification. Natural resources and potential treasures that were to be
found in this unknown land, and the heathens and infidels that needed to adopt the
Christian belief, constituted the driving forces in the exploration of the East, the lands
of the orient sun. An unknown world outside Europe was ready to be discovered and
explored, and a new professional category – the explorers – was established (ibid:5565).
Discursively, the explorer was always a man, and he was assigned the task of categorising foreign people and their culture, but the documentation and description was
exclusively directed towards a European audience. Reports, journals and travel books
were produced, and stories about the Other served as a contrasting picture for the
creation of a European identity. If we read the accounts straight off as if they displayed
their meaning only in the surface structure, these accounts read as monologues over
meetings. Even though, between the lines, the accounts reflect some sort of reciprocal
relationship between explorer and explored, the reader remains the same and untouched, never intermingling with the Other. These accounts and travel writings aimed
to deliver scientific knowledge to a wider public. Nevertheless, it also gave scientific
authority to Europe (Pratt 1992:30-37). Travel writing and documentation of people
and their culture form an integral part of a genre, in which stories about the Other
served as negative reflections of civilisation, where the main goal was to construct the
author’s or reader’s own identity. It was a way to better understand their own modern
European culture. Texts are developed into stories, which developed into documentations of the author’s experiences (Fazlhashemi 2001:177ff). Despite the explicit ambition to contribute with information and explanations about other cultures, it is rather
the author’s own cultural settings and identities that can be understood through these
writings. Consequently, these accounts about the Other instead become accounts about
the tools that form the basis for distinguishing the Other from Us. The ambivalence in
the representations of these travel accounts shows that the form and content of the
explorer’s narratives was determined by their own cultural setting rather than the actual
setting they explored. They sought their own origin, and this search was done and mediated through a monologue. We have to read these accounts as palimpsests, created
within conflicting and contradictory discursive frameworks (Hulme 1992:12ff), where
differences in the process of othering are multiple. The narratives I have presented
above provide ambiguous pictures of Laos and Lao people, and as such they most of all
reflect a discomfort and unease with the situation.
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PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
COLONISERS – EMPHASISING DIFFERENCE AND POWER
Now we move on towards the next phase of early contacts between Southeast Asia and
Europe – the colonisation of Indochina in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On
the other hand, there is actually no distinct line to be drawn between these two phases.
What I have just described as a confirmation of the envoys’ and explorers’ own identities through a definition of and distinction between the Other and Us, is of course a
point of departure also for the European colonisers entering Southeast Asia in the
footsteps of the heroic and adventurous envoys and explorers. While I earlier focused
my argumentation on how the envoys and explorers confirmed their own identity, I will
now show how this was developed into a system marking difference and power.
In 1893, the French incorporated Laos in the colonial administration of Indochina as a
protectorate, but it was not until 1899 that Laos became a united administrative part of
Indochina. Therefore, in 1899 the colonial period formally started. August Pavie was a
key person in this process. He continued and completed the efforts of Mouhot and
Garnier. These early explorers had initially hoped to find great wealth in the Far East
through their explorations, but as these hopes were shattered, the aims changed, and
what ultimately moved Pavie and the colonial administration forward was the desire to
promote the grandeur of France and spread its ideas and its civilisation (cf. Evans
2002:44). August Pavie was considered to be a very experienced representative and he
was at home in this part of the world, since he had spent almost two decades in present-day Vietnam and Cambodia, travelling and recording, widely and persistently.
Pavie showed a great interest in people, even though this interest mainly aimed at discerning potential ‘French subjects’ to mould into almost perfect Frenchmen (StuartFox 1997:21f). Pavie decided ‘to make of Laos a French country’ (Le Boulanger
1931:277).
The Mekong became an important and determining factor for the exploitation of
Indochina. It was regarded as both an artery for commercial development and as an
important link between the different protectorates in Cambodia and Vietnam, and the
French called it ‘our river’ (Stuart-Fox 1997:23). Pavie was the person in charge of
defining Laos’ current cartography, and so today’s western border of Laos came to be
largely demarcated by the Mekong. Hence, through Pavie’s cartography, the Mekong,
this ‘natural’ frontier became a separating border instead of the connecting link it used
to be for the people living in the Lao culture region3 on both sides of the Mekong. As a
separating border, the Mekong became a political boundary dividing the Lao people
between French and Siamese (today’s Thailand) control, naturally a French statement
about who was in charge of the decision-making.
This is an example of how the French colonialists brought with them the nationalist
concepts of state and nation. For the French, Laos was a nation only in the sense of
36
STORIES
geography and cartography, and it was not an expression that reflected a social or historical reality. At the time, there was no sense of a Lao nation among the people who
inhabited the area. Ideas of spatial and social ordering that were practiced here at the
time instead evolved around concepts like meuang and mandala. The meuang is not only a
traditional spatial (territorial and political) unit; more importantly, it is a space that
defines a system of relationships between people, from village level to what is equivalent to our modern state levels. In the words of Marc Askew, it is a ‘flexible and mutual
idea of spatial and social ordering’ (2007a:22). Traditionally, these meuang are elements
that together constitute a more expansive kingdom – the mandala. In Buddhist and
Hindu art, these mandalas are often represented as circles, describing the idea of the
cosmos. The mandala states are focused on sacred centres ruled by a king with divine
power to create worldly order, and by using the concentric mandala metaphor, it also
gives the ruling centre legitimacy to mark its power over the subordinate surroundings
(ibid:23).
Consequently, these fundamental differences in perceiving the surrounding spatial
and social organisation resulted not only in confrontations of mere physical nature, but
also, and not least, it was a clash between different worlds. During the colonial period,
nationalism in Laos was the same as supporting the French, a so-called French sponsored nationalism, known to and used by a small elite of Lao intellectuals educated in
the French system, and in the French language. After the 1930s this nationalism focused its efforts on demarcating the Lao from the Thai. Therefore, the Lao slowly
adopted the idea of a nation, which could be seen as yet another French victory in the
struggle of marking power (Evans 2002:40ff, 70-92). However, ironically it was also this
nationalism, after having grown in the minds of the Lao for about 50 years, which
finally made the French Indochina collapse.
What also came along with the nation were the ideas and ideals of modernity (cf. Evans
2002:62ff). The old-fashioned and uncivilised Lan Xang – the land of a Million Elephants – was to be changed into modern and civilised Laos. A modern nation needs a
modern capital city, and the old Lan Xang capital of Luang Prabang was rejected in
favour of Vientiane, a former capital that was now in ruins along the bank of the Mekong. It was a suitable choice for many reasons. First of all, the place was uncivilised,
because what met the first French when they arrived were overgrown ruins and uninhabited forests. One of the most important reasons why Vientiane was chosen to become the new capital was that with a ruined site, the French were allowed to reconstruct and create a city, which best suited their purposes.
Secondly, the people were also conveniently uncivilised. In line with the general European idea that an absolute necessity in civilised modern nations was to offer education,
schools opened and teaching was prioritised. Everybody trusted the young people to
direct the country towards development, prosperity and modernisation. As France was
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PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
regarded as the model of modernity, it was not the culture and history of the Lao that
was taught in school, but the European history and that of the French with roots in the
European Classical period. Lao students were sent to France for further studies and
because they had been taught to value and appreciate modern ideals, they were thrilled
to see a modern civilised place. This was of course not representative for the whole of
the Lao population. The few ‘lucky ones’ who got the opportunity to study constituted
the small Lao intellectual elite. This group, which in practice included the ones that
were supposed to lead the country towards modernisation, accepted the colonial and
often rigid political structures because it gave them security. In addition, through their
education they benefited directly from modernity when they were given administrative
authority (Logan 2007:76f). In the 1930s, it was reported from the colony that the administration of Laos was successful, because it did not interfere with the old native
administration; it just gave it an appearance of modernisation. Nevertheless, in fact it
was the French-educated Lao and Vietnamese that constituted the top with which it did
not interfere, and thus it was successful, from a French point of view. Difference and
power was obviously marked by the colonial authorities through their control of education. By offering this controlled education, the educated were also controlled, the ones
that were to lead Laos towards progress and well-being.
Whether the administration of Laos was successful or not, there was always a distance between Europeans and Lao, between colonisers and colonised, Us and the
Other, as the natives were always threatening the integrity and the cultural Self of the
European. This is what Nicola Cooper calls ‘boundary anxieties’ (2001:145). It resulted
in residential segregation, especially when European women were around. When men
were alone they often preferred to ‘go native’. This was not in the sense that they became like the Lao, as they still needed to keep the distance, but by taking Lao women,
phou sao, as their wives or mistresses. Another group of colonisers went further and did
not want to maintain their distance. In their desires of becoming like the ‘true natives’
they were prepared to go beyond any cultural or moral borders. The surrounding colonial society kept them at a distance by excluding them and accused the Lao for being
guilty of seduction. In a novel written by Louis-Charles Royer in 1935, this is expressed
very clearly: ‘…others really loved Laos; but it was they who had been ‘colonized’.
They had been contaminated by the native indolence; they let their lives just flow along…’
(in Logan 2007:87, my emphasis). This ‘indigenisation’ meant having native wives,
smoking opium and living in boredom, and ultimately rejecting the homeland (Cooper
2001:159). By favouring the exotic, they were seen as losers, hopelessly contaminated
and not welcome back to civilisation. Turning the concepts around by claiming that
those who did not act like true colonisers were instead colonised by the Lao to become
like them can also be seen as a way of safeguarding the control within the colonial
power.
38
August Pavie, standing third from left, in 1893 when Laos was incorporated in French Indochina.
A Frenchman with phou sao and child
representing ‘les joies de la famille’,
reproduced from Logan 2007.
moulded and educated in the French system,
reproduced from Evans 2002.
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
In many aspects, the idea of making Laos into a modern nation is contradictory: it is
a modern nation, but still exotic, and at a distance. Thus, it was both an attempt to
modernise a land and a people while at the same time preserving its culture and heritage. This contradiction created the invented image of Laos and its people. This image,
founded during the colonial period, remains much the same as the current image of
Laos and the Lao people.
In western eyes, Laos has always been seen as a land in-between, from the earliest explorations until today (for example in Grant Evans’ book title A short history of Laos, the
land in between (2002)). This was the case also during the French colonisation. Nicola
Cooper catches this pertinently and develops it further writing about the making of
Indochina in general, saying that the ‘colony is in some senses a nowhere’, that ‘nowhere was becoming a somewhere’, and further on that French Indochina ‘served also
as an imagined elsewhere’ (2001:1f). These can be useful words to describe the specific
Lao scene as well.
The actual area that became Laos was for the French a place in-between, an unexplored and empty space ready to mould, develop, and fill with new societies and identities – a nowhere. Essential for this part of the colonisation process was the exotisation of
the Other, the unknown, and also the idea of something original and virgin that was
about to be explored. The exotic is not something that exists prior to its ‘discovery’; it is
rather embedded in the very concept of discovery (Fabian 1983:135). From the Age of
Discovery, as mentioned earlier, until today, the exotic is displayed through objects.
Taken out of their original contexts, these objects are given meanings and significances
that they never had, derived from the imposition of European cultural values. Once this
was done in Laos, the nowhere became a somewhere, a place for the French to call theirs,
for example by naming it as part of ‘l’Indochine française’ and by introducing their
nation concept as mentioned earlier. Part of the story here can also be explained by the
fact that the French were struggling themselves during the entire nineteenth century to
‘cultivate’ their own peasants – parallels can be drawn between rural France and the
colonies in relation to the civilised urban society of ‘La France’. Consequently ‘French
imperialism is best understood as an outgrowth of French nationalism’ (Evans
2002:42). Thus, Laos as somewhere means that it was chosen as stage for plays of a nationalistic character, which reveals more about the imperial nation France than about
the actual colony. Thus, Laos became an elsewhere. It served as an imperial imagination, a
colonial phantasm and an opportunity for national aggrandisement (ibid:43), also in
relation to other European countries. In comparison with Africa for example, Indochina is characterised in colonial discourse by its glorious background with cultures
flourishing thousands of years ago (even though the colonial discourse maintained that
the area at the time for colonisation was inhabited by uncivilised people). By choosing
such a place, the French could claim that they were superior to the rest of the Europe-
40
STORIES
ans. Therefore, Laos as an elsewhere comes first and foremost to represent French grandeur and nostalgia (this was also the main aim with the international colonial exhibition
held in Paris 1931, where Laos was pictured as an exotic image and Indochina as a
shining example of what French colonising spirit could achieve). George Cœdès
(1959:20) described this rediscovered, already prosperous but hopelessly forgotten
elsewhere in his introduction to the history of Laos:
It might indeed seem presumptuous if some African tribe whose stage of human development had remained very backward were to claim equality with the most civilized nation of Europe, and this notion has been carried over and applied to Indochina, forgetful of the fact that with a very few exceptions the tribes of Africa have no past,
whereas, in Indochina, the history of Viêt-Nam dates back to before the Christian era,
of Cambodia from the 6th century, and of Laos from the 14th century.
…and stated the superiority of France and the French (ibid)…
Unfortunately most Europeans – and I am not speaking of the French! – are ignorant
of practically the whole Indochinese history and are still at the stage of Saint-Hilaire’s
summary opinion when he wrote in 1861 that India beyond the Ganges was “scarcely
worth a historian’s glance”.
This ‘no-, some-, and elsewhere process’ reflects how the past can be used in a double
and somewhat contradictory manner. From being a nowhere, where the past is completely defeated and eliminated as Laos is considered to be a blank page, through a
somewhere, where the past is quite neutral and uncared for as new agendas are introduced from outside independently of the current state in the actual area, to becoming
an elsewhere, where the past is emphasised and accentuated positively. This also reflects
that one way to handle the discomfort and unease in this ambiguous situation is to
politically and economically conquer and dominate the land and the people living there.
Narratives created in a colonial situation thus reflect the same gendered imbalance
between the colonised and the coloniser, as was described earlier between the explorer
and the explored, although it is now more focused around political and economical
issues marking difference and power.
SCIENTISTS – SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND ORIGIN
The early explorer’s accounts are regarded as ‘accidental discoveries reported in nonarchaeological publications with no organizations supporting either the discoveries or
publications’ (Solheim 2005:30). After the explorers came the colonisers. In addition,
these colonial officials on mission in colonised territories started archaeological investigations. Or rather, the explorations continued, because the first excavations were car-
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PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
ried out by these officials as a hobby and often in a treasure-hunt manner, without any
claims to be scientific.
As a reaction against and result of this, the École Française d’Extrême Orient (EFEO)
was created in 1898. It is an institute dedicated to the study of the civilisation of French
Indochina; its history, archaeology and philology included. It was rooted in European
antiquarianism and came out of an attempt to satisfy nationalist aspirations (cf. Glover
2003:24ff, 2004:338, Groslier 1966:155f, Higham 2002:20ff, Källén 2004a:37). With the
aim of understanding the progress from barbarism to civilisation and find the origins of
civilisation, which was the latest scientific trend in the European metropoles, it was primarily the monuments and monumental sites of Indochina that caught the interest of
EFEO. These sites then served as examples in science and the arts to help illuminating
the past of European countries, while the colonial administrations appropriated the
great monuments to give legitimacy to their colonial rule (Anderson 1983:178-185).
The mission at EFEO started with the conservation of monuments and collection
of manuscripts, and the staff and scholars who were less formally connected to the
institute continued the activities during the following decades by identifying, classifying,
documenting and excavating sites. The ‘golden age’ of archaeological research in Southeast Asia had started, and reached its peak in the 1930s and 40s. The men (with one
exception) behind the scene, more or less formally connected to EFEO, were researchers in archaeology, history, geology, arts and architecture. The establishment of EFEO
was thus an important turning point for professionalism in archaeology and heritage
management. Even though the missions of this time period were carried out with aims
that are not always valid today, they still function as important principal sources for
contemporary Southeast Asian archaeological research.
The archaeological work of EFEO was primarily focused to the area around Hanoi,
where the institute had its headquarters. Little was done in the neighbouring country of
Laos. Archaeological reports from northern Laos, written by Madeleine Colani
(1932,1935, cf. Källén 2004a:57-63), and from explorations and excavations by
Edmond Saurin and Jacques Fromaget are examples of the very few one can find from
this period. In the 1910-1920s, Henri Parmentier documented the art of Laos and to
some extent included archaeology, which he published in his book L’Art du Laos
(1954). As for Indochina in general, the work done on Laos was not only a restoration
of monuments for the sake of the monuments themselves, but also for the French to
cement its legitimacy as a worthy substitute for royal power (mostly temples and religious monuments were restored), and to find new national symbols. The activities of a
colonial institution such as EFEO must therefore always be ambiguous and contradictory: it was there to show and strengthen French power and grandeur, and meanwhile it
created the foundation for indigenous nationalism as it helped the pride for indigenous
culture to grow.
42
Early scientists Goloubew, Finot, an un-named Khmer and Parmentier, from left to right, among the ruins of Angkor (courtesy EFEO).
That Luang, one of the monumental sites in Vientiane that caught
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
Apart from within EFEO, there was almost no communication at all between archaeologists working in different parts of Southeast Asia before the 1930s. Research was
only done by a few men, whose professional relations were on a very personal, almost
private level. The lack of interest in sharing information more officially was perhaps the
reasons why the rest of the world knew so little about Southeast Asia’s history at this
time. Thus, the general idea in Europe at the time after the Second World War was that
there was not much worth looking at concerning prehistory and history in Southeast
Asia (Solheim 2005:30).
The first generation of prehistorians working in Southeast Asia just after the colonial
period and the Second World War adopted the culture-historical mode of archaeological procedure focusing on material form and typology and explanations of changes as a
result of diffusion (preferably from west to east, not the reverse). George Cœdès, one
of the early and most prominent scholars of Southeast Asian archaeology, states in his
introduction to The Indianized States of Southeast Asia that it was Indian civilisation that
expanded and brought philosophy, religion, art, literature, yes everything, to Southeast
Asia (1968:xvi). Similar to much of the colonial explanations for complex societies in
‘primitive’ parts of the world, Cœdès and many with him saw that the only possible way
that these states could have developed was through external intervention, and that it
was impossible to believe that such advanced civilisations as the earliest Southeast
Asian states could have developed from within the area, by the native people themselves.
The ideas that fuelled research then suddenly changed from understanding the past
through studies in an evolutionary and then diffusionist framework to focus on functionalism. This was a reaction against the colonial discourse. Nevertheless, in the same
way that the colonisers wanted to rescue the people and the land of Indochina from its
hopeless primitivity and bring it to modernity, the early scientific archaeology was legitimised by that it offer indigenous people an indigenous origin to their culture. Researchers tried to find explanations to the development of states from within mainland
Southeast Asia instead, and searched for an indigenous growth of civilisation. In the
same way as the colonisers regarded themselves as brave and doing the Indochinese
people a favour by leading them into modernity, this ‘rhetoric of paternalistic benevolence’ (Norindr 1996:44, cf. Källén 2004a:40) is also applicable to what archaeological
science tried to do for the indigenous. Southeast Asian prehistory was an abstract mental construct, primarily satisfying certain needs and desires in western society, but of no
significance to more than very few of them who lived in the area.
One of the first critical texts on this concern, from within the discipline, is written
by Warwick Bray and Ian Glover 1987. They examine British archaeology in the third
world and pose the question if it is to be seen primarily as scientific investigations or as
cultural imperialism (Bray and Glover 1987:109-116). Bray and Glover write that the
whole concept of prehistory is a European one and that the European intellectual envi-
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STORIES
ronment profoundly influenced the direction of the studies in the third world
(ibid:110). Science was considered the only way to reach truth, and once again, an unequal relation of power was established, as Indochina turned into nation states of Mainland Southeast Asia.
During the decades after the Second World War indigenous archaeology done by
indigenous archaeologists started to grow strong, and the European nationalism that
had fuelled archaeology was turned into indigenous nationalism. National research
institutes were soon created all over Southeast Asia, but the activities took quite different directions in the different countries. The new generation of researchers maintained
strong connections to their former colonisers by receiving education abroad. The ‘new
archaeology’ entered the scene and to some extent replaced the former culturehistorical oriented archaeology. By trusting the universality of scientific methods paired
with functionalism in a multidisciplinary approach, the previous colonial ideas of hopeless backwardness were challenged and Southeast Asia instead became regarded as a
place of innovation and originality throughout history. Men still dominated the scene
throughout the decades that followed the 1960s. Bruce G. Trigger has said that the
‘new archaeology’ that had the ambitions to solve the problems of colonial archaeology
could equally be called a mode of imperialist archaeology (1984:363f), because it still
denies fundamental values and local traditions just as colonialist and evolutionary archaeology did when they compared European culture with primitive cultures of the rest
of the world to gain knowledge of their own origins.
CONTEMPORARY ARCHAEOLOGICAL STORIES
In the paragraphs above, I have described the early interactions between Laos and
Europe. I have separated the envoys, explorers, colonisers and scientists into categories
to better understand the different dynamics in the interactions between the Other and
Us. Nevertheless, the envoys and explorers, the colonisers and the scientists are not at
all separated from each other. One category develops from the other, and they overlap
and intermingle with each other. They are all illustrating the same basic imperialist
structures. These structures are also the foundation for present-day Southeast Asian
archaeology. Let us thus now move on to the contemporary scene and see what the
standard prevailing scientific archaeological story is. We start with the general picture of
how, where and why the early states of mainland Southeast Asia were developed. Even
though Laos is seldom mentioned in this archaeological literature, the following narrative becomes relevant as it function as the archaeological framework for my investigations of Laos and Vientiane.
Iron Age societies in mainland Southeast Asia were complex enough to form the basis for the
development of states. It means that the origins of civilisation are essentially rooted in local
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changes. Nevertheless, there were interactions with surrounding areas. Consequently, along
with influences and a selective adoption of Indian religious and political ideas, the coastal communities started to grow and gradually developed into the interior valleys of mainland Southeast
Asia (Higham 1989:190f).
Over the last decades, a large number of Iron Age sites have been investigated and excavated (cf. Higham 1989:190-355, 2001, 2002:228-347). Archaeological knowledge about this
area and period has increased dramatically, and together with Chinese written sources, it indicates that independent village communities were dispersed over mainland Southeast Asia
during the first millennium BC. In the end of that millennium, chiefdoms were established along
the coastline in response to increased maritime exchange, an increased population density, and
agricultural intensification. This, in turn, resulted in the first state during late Iron Age: the establishment of Funan in the first centuries AD (Higham 2002:229-242). This area was a nodal point
for transporting goods, and close to the Mekong delta. The Mekong was the major transportation route inlands and had been so for millennia. Maritime trade, walled cities, brick temples,
cities linked by a network of extensive canals, writing systems and monumental statuary were
among the characteristics for this new phenomenon. An extensive trade network is also indicated by coins from the Roman Empire, finds from the Mediterranean, scripts from India and
exotic goods from China. The flat, deltaic land, which formed great part of this area, was able to
support the cultivation of rice, and this intensified agriculture constituted a crucial part of the
development of this early state. As a centre of political power Funan declined and was finally
abandoned in the sixth century, concurrently with the growth of inland agrarian states further to
the north.
In the seventh century the Mekong valley region saw the emergence of another state formation, Chenla (ibid:244-253). One explanation for the changed geographical focus is that the
demands of production to satisfy new trading relationships forced inland communities to further
increase and develop agriculture. These agrarian societies grew automatically stronger at the
same time with the reduced importance of maritime trade in the coastal areas to the south. The
Chenla states were primarily Buddhist, but with a Hindu influence. We are now used to call this
culture Khmer, and later in the ninth century, it was going to make the foundation for the Angkorian Empire. Along the valleys of the Mekong and its tributaries, numerous stone and brick
temple structures now compose a rich archaeological record.
Similar to these are the architectural remains that frequently appear in coastal Vietnam,
where the Champa state emerged in the second half of the first millennium AD (ibid:268-278).
Similar to the Chenla culture and civilisation, the Champa state was built on a mix of Buddhism
and Hinduism, which can be clearly identified through the architectural, sculptural and monumental elements found among the widely dispersed sites. The interior plains west and north of
the coastal areas and the Mekong river valley, including the above mentioned states of Funan,
Chenla and Champa, were also participants in this state development phase – and here the
Dvaravati state emerged.
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STORIES
This is my own interpretation of what others previously have formulated. The archaeological account, in my words, is based on already existing literature and the writings of
some of the most authoritative researchers in Southeast Asian archaeology. Based on
Charles Higham and three of his all-embracing books on Southeast Asian archaeology
(1989, 2001, 2002), this particular story focus on early state formations. I have chosen
to present the story in this way to offer the reader a feeling for and an impression of the
form of a standard archaeological narrative. I want to analyse the form and the use of
certain expressions, rather than the exact meaning of the content.
For this account I have chosen Higham’s books, since they comprise a systematic
presentation of current archaeological ‘evidence’ (Higham 2002:backcover), and appeal
not only to archaeologists but also to those interested in the general history and culture
of Southeast Asia. The word evidence is often used throughout the whole book, as it is
in most of the other books representing this archaeological narrative form. Evidence is
defined as ‘one or more reasons for believing that something is or is not true’ (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), which in its broadest sense includes anything
that is used to demonstrate the truth of a statement. It means that for example archaeological finds and stratigraphies are evidence for certain events in past times. This in turn
implies that by revealing them, the archaeologist is able to tell the truth. However, the
problem of truth is a complex philosophical discussion, which I will not go any deeper
into. However, I would like to mention Bruno Latour, since in his Pandora’s Hope
(1999), I find a sensible theory of truth that suits the aims of my study here. When
approaching the problem of truth, Latour argues against the Aristotelian traditional
concept of truth, which is truth as correspondence between intellect (mind/soul) and
object, by saying that there is truth and there is reality, but no direct correspondence
between them. Further on, he suggests a more fluid approach by saying that ‘there do
not exist true statements that correspond to a state of affairs and false statements that
do not, but only continuous or interrupted reference’ (ibid:64, 97). The archaeologist’s
self-imposed power to tell the truth about a certain event in the past, by presenting
evidence, must also be seen in relation to the specific situation when and where the
evidence is excavated. In this case it is Southeast Asia, where Buddhism is a dominant
influence in culture.4 Truth in Buddhism has another meaning than in western philosophy. In Buddhist philosophy, the theory of the four noble truths is fundamental. In this
context, the truths are equivalent to ‘realities’, and concern suffering, its nature and
origin, and how to relinquish the suffering. To search for the truth and origin through
archaeological evidence might therefore not be the only way to approach a Southeast
Asian past.
Let us go back to the story about state formation in Southeast Asia again. Exactly
that, state formation or state development, are other concepts that are often used in the archaeological stories about this particular area and period. It assumes a universal idea of
a state, which can be applied in any culture-specific context. However, more relevant
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and useful concepts or words for the area that constitutes present-day Laos are instead
meuang and mandala. Using concepts that are created and well established in one part of
the world to describe similar events in other parts of the world also results in an imbalance, analogous to the one between coloniser and colonised as described above. The
universal standard year numbering system: Anno Domini, which uses the abbreviations
AD and BC, and Common or Current Era, which uses CE and BCE, is another example
of these powerful and taken-for-granted expressions, created and used within the archaeological narrative. The question is for whom that era is ‘common’. It still takes a
Christian point of departure. In present-day Laos, it would be more pertinent to number the years by relating to Buddhist Era5 (BE). The problems that occur when claiming
to use universal concepts like these are further discussed in chapter 5.
The story above is created to fit into an archaeological framework. It presents technical, social, economical, political and cultural dynamics and developments in a wellorganised way, concerning both time and space. An overall motive is to search for and
explain origins: origins of civilisation, origins of states, origins of physical structures etc.
This search for origin presupposes a linear teleological worldview, where each step
towards development is a positive achievement. It is a development from simple to
complex, from primitive to civilised. Iron Age in the text above does also illustrate this
presumed universal human evolution. The three-age-system in itself is based on the
same foundations as the idea of the primitive, where a universal and linear evolution is
generally accepted. Nevertheless, I will use it continuously when needed, but as an
archaeological construction, necessary for understanding the archaeological context and
narrative I am part of and here dealing with. The archaeological narrative often uses
passive words, such as ‘resulted in’, ‘developed into’ and ‘growth of civilisation’ (e.g.
Higham 2002), which imply diffusionism and a predetermined course of event where
one situation automatically leads to the next, without any options. This taken-forgranted linear teleological worldview is valid as a point of departure not only in
Higham’s contributions or my own fieldwork reports, but in most of the recently published literature about Southeast Asian archaeology.
In his book on the early civilisations of Southeast Asia, Dougald O’Reilly focuses on
different explanations to the development of complex societies and to the rise of early
civilisations, by bringing together ‘evidence from archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy,
and history’ (2007:6). It all ends in a few explaining models based on and referred to
ideas moulded in the 1960s to the 1990s (ibid:145-202), when the functionalist ‘new
archaeology’ was still entirely dominant, and where scientific truths about the past are
extracted from artefacts and structures through evidence. One of the most recent books on
general Southeast Asian archaeology Southeast Asia – from Prehistory to History published
in 2004 is another example. Much of the book revolves around discussions about outof Africa movement, about ‘strikingly monumental civilisations’, about ‘developments
of rich communities’, and about ‘coexistence of colourful tribal cultures alongside these
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STORIES
developing civilisations with their distant trading links’ (Glover and Bellwood 2004:117). The majority of the chapters in the book have ‘the origins of…’, ‘from … to …’ on
a linear time scale, or ‘the archaeology of early…’ as their titles. In his Early Cultures of
Mainland Sountheast Asia (2002), Charles Higham shows that the hunter-gatherer sequence now stretches back over 40 000 years. He describes the transitions to rice cultivation, explores early farming communities, looks for the origins of copper and bronze
casting, and describes cultural complexity in Southeast Asia during the period when the
first states emerged. Moreover, in An Archaeology of Asia, which is edited by Miriam
Stark, the articles are divided into parts covering ‘formative developments’ and ‘emergence and development of complex Asian systems’ (2006).
The history of archaeology in Southeast Asia has been treated more thoroughly
elsewhere (cf. Solheim 2005), but by this brief account I hope to have demonstrated
that the thread that runs through this history is the urge to understand the origins of
something, might it be in an evolutionist, diffusionist, functionalist, multi-disciplinary,
or ‘indigenised’ way. Still, as it was in colonial discourse, the complexity is used as a
marker of where on the linear scale of development people and environment are to be
placed. The more complex societies are, or in other words, the more similar they are to
modern western society, the better, the more important, and the more central they are
considered to be. This is exactly the story that Southeast Asian archaeology is largely
reiterating today (cf. Karlström and Källén 2003:20f).
IMPERIALIST STRUCTURES
Nicola Cooper concludes in her France in Indochina – Colonial Encounters that the colonial
stereotypes of Indochina have re-emerged and are very popular again in France and
that they have been renewed since the 1980s (cf. Norindr 1996):
For a variety of reasons, however, Indochina seems to have lent itself more readily than
France’s other former colonial possessions to a nostalgic, complacent, backwardlooking and exoticising view. Indeed the term Indochina seems still to function largely
as it did previously in the French imaginary. That is to say, as a signifier for an exotic
Other; a utopian and ahistorical space onto which are projected collective fantasies and
longings. Today, time past and incomplete memory conspire to create again that void in
which desires and regrets entwine (Cooper 2001:205).
This colonial nostalgia, through which parts of mainland Southeast Asia is remembered and reconstructed romantically as Indochina, still permeates much of what is
carried out in the name of science in this area today. Archaeology has, as discussed
earlier, its roots in the colonial world, but science as such rather reflects more profound
imperialist structures in modern western thought from the nineteenth century onwards,
which make up one comprehensive discursive package linking explorers, colonialists
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and scientists together. The explorers confirmed their own identities by separating the
Other from Us and placing the self on a higher level of development. This confirmation continued with the colonisers who dominated the Other and marked difference
and authority through political and economical power. Finally, the replacement of speculation
on the past, the truth and the origins of this land and people have been identified and
defined through science.
It is a mutual relation and creation. Colonial roots are shaping the archaeological
discipline and archaeology is important for shaping the colonial world. This archaeology, as we recognise it today, which is different from the preceding antiquarian research, was formed in early nineteenth century Europe. Shortly thereafter, the word
colonialism appeared in the English language, and was referred to as a systematic phenomenon, meaning the practices and characteristics of a colony. The word colony describes a settlement or a group of people established in foreign (often hostile or conquered) territory, who was still directed by and subject to the metropole. With the
words of Edward Said ‘”imperialism” means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes
of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; “colonialism”, which is
almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant
territory’ (Said 1993:8). Even though neither colonialism nor imperialism, as words used
in the English language, had appeared when the first Europeans arrived in Laos, based
on the earliest descriptions of Laos, I am convinced that what is included in our current
understanding of these concepts definitely was present already when Father Giovanni
Maria Leria and Jesuit Giovanni Filippo de Marini, the Dutch merchant Gerrit
Wuijsthoff and the other Europeans first came to Laos. There are mutual relations and
creations in all situations involving colonialism/colony and imperialism/empire, thousands of years ago as well as today. Living in a postcolonial world, means that underlying colonial structures with its inherent injustices still characterises our world today. It
does not really matter whether colonies and colonialism have been there for 150 years,
500 years or always, or whether the structures or ideological forces are called imperialism or colonialism. What matters is that we as archaeologists, when we tell stories about
the past, understand that we are part of this dislocation of cultures, if we let our stories
be dominated by tangible values and scientific discourse, at the sacrifice of elusive and
intangible structures and worldviews.
This unbalanced relation, when only one part is allowed to act or write, is also a kind
of intellectual colonialism. Colonialism and imperialism are seen as dealing with material culture. A colonising power dominates over a territory. Focus is on the rights over
things and land rather than rights over people. I think that this is not a result of the
character of colonialism, but rather depends on academic interests in colonialism and
the past. In other words, it reflects our relation with the material world in modern
times. It might be easier to scientifically analyse rights over land and capitalist structures
than human interactions, and therefore label colonialism in the unknown past as some-
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thing dealing with hazy things such as rights over people. By using the texts above,
written from seventeenth century and onwards, I hope to have illustrated that rights
over people and things were and are still the main, but also the most difficult and dangerous part of modern colonialism and imperialism. Moreover, that it is rather the fact
that it is not considered being as valuable and important as scientifically measurable
phenomena such as land or economics or even science itself, which is the reason why it
is thought of as belonging to the past.
This critique is, of course, not new. European imperial rule over large parts of the
world has been justified by arguing that colonisation was an inevitable part of the Modern project and necessary to the predestined development of human society, and colonial encounters tell more about the coloniser than about the colonised. However, imperial relations cannot be regarded in simplistic terms as an infliction of power from one
to the other, but as a mutual relation creating a ‘contact zone’ (Pratt 1992:4ff), or ‘third
space’ (Bhabha 1994:53ff), which are spaces created in the meeting, thus heterogeneous
and assymetric. Something new is created in this space, which can be found neither
within the dominating domain itself, nor within the dominated domain.
In line with this, contemporary archaeology in Laos is something new and on its
own, very different from the archaeology that dominated the colonial era. The postcolonial archaeology of Laos has in some sense evolved as a reaction against colonial
images of the culturally incapable primitive indigène, and is instead focusing on internal
cultural changes and local developments. Yet, despite such differences, the vital concepts of race and development that were created and validated within colonial discourse
are inherent in and still part of the foundations of contemporary archaeology in Laos.
Contemporary expressions of the past in Laos can be understood as a complex fabric
of threads of representation from colonial time archaeology, but there is not necessarily
a direct or close relationship between the contemporary representations and that which
they once represented. It is therefore necessary to take into serious account the discursive structures, surviving from their colonial context until today, that give meaning to
these threaded representations. By understanding how contemporary archaeology in
Laos largely is based on these same structures we have to question if it is possible, or
even desirable, to agree that ‘the replacement of speculation on the past [in Southeast
Asia was introduced by Europeans as they] laid the foundations of archaeological investigations’, as it was formulated by Higham in the introductory quote.
Much has been said about the envoy, the explorer, the coloniser and the scientist,
and about the explored, the colonised and the scientific object. However, there is still
much more that must be said, if we are going to better understand the ambiguities and
nuances of the colonial situation. Unfortunately, there are no Lao accounts from as
early as the seventeenth century, contemporary to de Marini and the other European
ones. Neither are there any from the nineteenth century, at least not written in the same
way and style as those that I have presented so far. There are in fact direct sources from
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the Lao side, but they have not been regarded as scientific enough for archaeology.
These historical chronicles date back to the sixteenth century, and are part of a narrative tradition that will be dealt with in the following chapter.
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2. INSIDE STORIES
To be sure, these communities [i.e. the five ethno-linguistic
categories in Laos...] have not gone through the same historical
process […]. Such are those historical realities that nobody can
deny or distort. […] We may therefore argue that all the communities are the masters of the soil of Laos. All can claim to
belong to the country […]. And they all must have the right to
political, administrative, economic and religious advantages, as
well as to the promotion of their arts and culture in a spirit of
equality and according to each group’s specificities.
– Khamphone (in Pholsena 2006:113)
Now we turn to the history stories produced within the Lao context. I prefer not to
regard these portrayals of past times as more true or valuable than the ones described
above, neither less true nor less valuable. They are not in themselves representing an
alternative view of history. We will not find the solution to the problem of writing
history, by merely adding small stories to the grand narrative. Rather, it is the construction of subjectivity itself that must become a central point of inquiry. This is a subjectively
constructed history of Lao stories. Nonetheless, this entire book is nourished by the
grand narrative of which I am inescapably a part.
To begin with, there was a story… or more exactly many stories, told by many
voices, telling about many places, and ending in many different ways. When I started
listening to stories, they all seemed disparate, unconnected, and even incoherent. As the
years passed, and stories were told and retold, it seemed to me that they started to conflate. Like clusters, they gathered around a few main themes, departing from creation
and location, explaining origin and significance, and the relation to place and to things.
Virtually dealing with these same issues, the stories were far from uniform. It was
through the very act of storytelling that the circumstances from which the stories were
told could be discerned, and so the content of the story became meaningful. In my
attempt to understand local knowledge, I listened to the stories told. The storytellers are
people that I met and interacted with during the time I spent doing archaeological
surveys in Vientiane. I try not to categorise these persons as a collective, but treat them
as individuals who are living with their own stories.
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In this chapter, focus is put on the more general stories in Laos, but it should be
remembered that there are also many other stories, some of which will be presented in
the following chapters. My initial aim was not to collect stories, so they came to me in
bits and pieces, unstructured, unplanned in different circumstances, caused by a variety
of reasons. ‘Unofficial stories’ told and lived by people involved in the project through
oral tradition and collective memory, are juxtaposed with ‘official’ ones found in texts.
However, the distinction and juxtaposition of unofficial and official stories is by no
means dichotomous. Stories are dynamic, as is knowledge, and this makes the line between these two kinds of stories difficult to draw. They overlap and echo each other.
This account is therefore a merging of these story fractions and stories that I later gathered from written sources.
With the following paragraphs I want to argue that distinctions between oral and literal tradition and between non-fiction and fiction have to be rejected when working
with Lao history and prehistory (as with other histories too). Therefore, I will start by
looking at how written sources have been and are used in a Lao context. From there I
move on to explore different explanations of the past. I will also consider the different
conditions and different aims nations, groups of people and individuals can have when
they/we create stories.
USE OF WRITTEN SOURCES – SEARCHING AND RESEARCHING HISTORY
The famous Lao folk epic Khun Bulom tells the story of the origin of the Lao people. It
is one of the most popular stories told, and most Lao people know it by heart. Its content is fluid and imprecise and continuously changes, because in Lao literature there is
no concept of a fixed ‘authentic’, or original, text. Traditionally, works of Lao literature
has been referred to as ‘books of search’ (Koret 2000:226). The main reason for this is
that the group of people involved in maintaining the literary tradition composes, transcribes and performs narratives, always searching for ways to improve the contents of a
story, with the purpose of finding better ways to communicate what has already been
said. They have to rely on their individual knowledge of the literary tradition in general,
being an integral part of their daily lives rather than something learnt or studied. The
stories often have their foundation in religious teaching, taken from the Buddhist scriptures. The process of learning and teaching is therefore intimately associated with religion (ibid:227f). Buddhist writing itself emanated primarily from an oral tradition, and
this strong underlying oral tradition has directed the way and style of writing. Still today,
oral narration is a tradition held in high esteem. Scholars from the Department of National Research of Art and Culture at the Ministry of Education (NIU 2007a) in Vientiane have said that:
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…oral tales, told from generation to generation, are as significant to us as any archaeological object, ritual or custom. These folktales help us to have insight into our own
past. We may find information from all kinds of sciences hidden in the folktales such as
history, sociology, tribal studies, cultural studies or literary studies
The explanation for the importance of the search could also be that most of the stories in Laos were not produced by the royal court, but in villages where they have been
transcribed to serve the needs of village society. This continuous copying and development of the contents of these stories means there are no original stories, because they
are considered to have originated beyond the memory of any living Lao, and that there
is no concept of individual authorship to a given story. An unknown author of a
chronicle dated to late sixteenth century found in Luang Prabang ended his story with
the following words:
…and in the future, if any scholar wishes to supplement or develop them [the texts of
the chronicle of Khun Bulom, my comment], they shall do so according to what their
ears have heard and what their eyes have witnessed, for this land has no other chronicle.’ (in Phothisane 2002:77)
During the twentieth century the search turned into research. Stories are still copied in
temples, but most of the copying has been replaced by analysing. The research object –
the stories – has often been restructured and adapted to fit the rules of the analysis.
During the colonial period, the earliest works of modern Lao literature appeared. Traditional Lao writings and storytelling, then viewed as remnants of an undeveloped past,
were replaced by modern literary traditions. Composed and circulated exclusively
among the Lao elite, who studied in French schools, spoke the French language, and
learned about French history and culture instead of their own Lao, this literature did
not influence the majority of the Lao people very much.
Much more influential for people’s everyday life was the revolutionary literature
from the 1950s and onwards. Traditional literary forms have since the revolutionary
movement in the 1950s been used to serve political ends, in what can be described as a
communist hybrid between traditional and modern literary forms. Today the Lao government use literary symbolism to construct the country’s past and present, to create a
national identity and take pride in cultural independence. This is illustrated by an example of how the Lao Patriotic Front6 made use of traditional literature, literary forms and
religious beliefs to expound their course. The revolutionary leader Phoumi Vongvichit
states that preservation of books, spoken language, literature and national cultural characteristics is truly patriotic and helps the Lao people to strengthen their national identity. In Vayakaun Lao, he wrote 1967 that the loss of Lao independence to the Thai, the
French and the Americans caused a ‘bastardization of the Lao language [which is] a
result of the influence of foreign languages on the Lao’ (in Koret 2000:246, cf. Enfield
2000:269ff).
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Traditional poetic phrasing use for example Mount Meru (the centre of the universe
according to Lao Buddhist cosmology) and the name of the Buddha or the Buddhist
religion. In poems composed and used by the Lao government, on the contrary, these
sequences are replaced with words connected to the party or with phrases such as ‘party
meeting’. Evil, mythological features found throughout Buddhist literature that are
presented as defeated demons in traditional poems, are in the government literature
instead used to describe imperialists and the feudal classes (Koret 2000:246ff). Phoumi
Vongvichit, who was Minister of Religion and Fine Arts, was also involved in the Buddhist sangha (the Buddhist community or clergy, i.e. monks and nuns). He regarded the
sangha as a potential propaganda organ for opposition against the Americanisation of
Lao society, and for the propagation of Lao cultural values.
This governmental appropriation of traditional literary metaphors has certainly affected Lao people’s understanding of their own past. It seems almost too obvious that
what counts in narratives and writings about the past are not the actual past, but the
present idea and the present presentation of it. I will conclude this with Paul Ricœur.
He argues that the only way to solve the aporias within the philosophy of history is to
let competing versions of a history be merged, or rather to let them be used against
each other to make corrections and appropriate changes in the proposed and presented
stories (2006:309). I agree with him, and therefore I also argue that the traditional Lao
search should be regarded as an alternative, and equally valued way of writing history as
the research.
HEROES – STRENGTHENING IDENTITIES
I will now focus on the traditional Lao writings and storytelling for a while. Contrary to
modern literary traditions the traditional storytelling represents, in the modern world, a
less valued knowledge, because it is the knowledge of the ordinary people who are
often marginalised in history writing. Still, it is the most common knowledge, and the
most common stories told are these traditional stories.
A thing that confused me from the beginning of my survey was that when I listened
to the traditional stories I found it almost impossible to clearly distinguish what derived
from non-fictional and fictional history respectively. Distinctions between different
narrative forms are often difficult to use for guidance, but inspired by the Lao Language and Culture Learning Resources at Northern Illinois University (NIU 2007b),
this is what I mean when I use historical chronicles, myths, legends and epics as the narrative
categories in traditional Lao storytelling. Historical chronicles are believed to be true accounts, dealing with real places, real people and real objects, often connected to the
social elite. Even though they are regarded as non-fictional narratives, they include
historical data as well as myths, which are categorised as fictional. Myths evolve around
what happened in a remote past, explaining the creation of the world, and the origins of
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human beings and social relations. In particular, these myths revolve around issues
concerning the Lao people and their religious rituals, often dealing with the activities of
gods and demigods, and relationships between gods and humans. Myth is timeless; it
supplies paradigms for human behaviour by being re-enacted in ritual performance, and
so it gives meaning and value to life (Miura 2004:53). Myths are regarded as sacred.
Legends are, like myths, explanatory narratives, but more secular than both the historical
chronicles and the sacred myths. Legends are relating to origins of names and places, or
natural phenomena like animals and trees, sometimes as part of a larger story. Epics, on
the other hand, have been written down quite recently, if at all, and have a strong connection to oral tradition, telling stories about culture and civilisation.
The most prominent mythical hero in Laos is Khun Bulom, the first king to lead the
Lao people into prosperity. The content, or the very idea of the story of Khun Bulom,
is said to have been ordered by king Vixun in Luang Prabang in 1503 (Stuart-Fox
1997:10f).
We are back at the very beginning of the world. Heaven and Earth communicate with each
other. In heaven, the ruler is Phaya Thaen. On earth, there are three chiefs, who govern a brutal
and unruly humanity. Civilisation has not yet made its appearance; men live by hunting and
fishing. The king of heaven wishes for a share, he even demands the chiefs of earth to provide
him with offerings, but without success. They forget and continue to forget. Phaya Thaen then
becomes so angry so that he causes a big flood on the earth. The chiefs of mankind had foreseen this catastrophe and built themselves a floating house, on which they float to heaven and
pledge Phaya Thaen for forgiveness.
After the flood has subsided and the earth appears once more, the three chiefs return, bringing a buffalo, with which Phaya Thaen presented them. They settle at a place, which since this
event was called Meuang Thaen (the land of the heavenly spirits or celestial deities), and by
means of the buffalo they start cultivating rice to provide offerings to the king of heaven. Soon
the buffalo died, and a climbing plant grew out of its nose. From the plant grew three enormous
gourds. Cries were heard from inside the gourds and the three chiefs of earth decided to make
holes in them, first with a hot poker and then with a knife. From the hole blackened by the hot
poker came first a dark-skinned people called kha, and from the hole cut with the knife came
later the Lao. The chiefs of mankind started teaching the people how to survive and live. They
taught them about traditions, how to respect the elders, how to have funeral ceremonies and
how to call the spirits of the deceased. They also taught them how to build households and how
to plant rice and vegetables.
More and more people populated the earth and soon they were too many for the three chiefs
to manage. Therefore, they went to Phaya Thaen and asked for help. Then, Phaya Thaen sent
his own son, Khun Bulom, to rule over the chaotic, earthly realm. The monstrous climbing plant
continued to grow vigorously until it covered the whole sky and blocked the sunlight. Khun
Bulom sent an old couple, Pu Nyoe and Ya Nyoe, to cut it down. They sacrificed their lives to do
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so, and have since then been remembered. The bridge to heaven (i.e. the climbing plant) collapsed and the people on the earth now had to manage themselves; Phaya Thaen was tired of
helping solving the problems all the time.
The human world prospered again. After that, Khun Bulom ordered his seven sons to build
their own cities with people from the gourds. The oldest of his sons, Khun Lo, founded the first
Lao dynasty of Luang Prabang. Before the sons traveled to their cities, Khun Bulom taught them
to follow the ancient kingly rules, which covered everything that was necessary for all the cities
to live in peace and harmony. Khun Bulom established order and made up regulations, which
later became ‘Khun Bulom’s Law’. Not long after that, Khun Bulom died and his sons held a
royal funeral, appropriate for the great king.
This story is a chronicled myth. It is a mythological account, but when first written
down in the sixteenth century it became a chronicle. Definitions of time and space are
approximate. Even though ‘back at the very beginning of the world’ indicates a sort of
experience of both time and space, we do not know exactly when this happened, and
we do not know exactly where. However, we do not need to, because these chronicles
(there are several other chronicles documented and translated, but the Khun Bulom is
the most well known by far), reaching back into a mythical past, aim at explaining the
creation of the Lao world, the origins of Lao people, and Lao cosmology. This story
fuses the world of human beings where Khun Bulom represents the royal lineage back
to the very first king of Laos with the world of the gods to which humans can enter and
exit if they are on good terms with the gods. Episodes such as the one about the great
gourd of heaven is used to explain the creation of the world and the origins of human
beings, and the offering incident (and what happens if these are neglected) together
with the story about the cut down of the climbing plant (which is annually remembered) are used to explain the cosmology.
Parts of the story work as a moral lecture explaining everyday life and rituals. A lesson on how to become good citizens is given by the part telling about the moment
when people came out from the gourds. Here we are taught how to respect elders,
arrange ceremonies, build households, and how to perform and maintain the cult of the
ancestors. Another part of the story – that of the climbing plant – tells us about the
relationship between gods and humans. The plant constituted the bridge between
heaven and earth, on which the three chiefs of the earth travelled back and forth to
heaven to ask Phaya Thaen for advise on how to manage the still not civilised humanity. When the old couple Pu Nyoe and Ya Nyoe were asked by Khun Bulom to cut the
climbing plant down because it had become overgrown and blocked the sunlight, they
not only sacrificed their own lives by doing it, the connection between heaven and
earth was also put to an end. Furthermore, this part explains the word nyoe, which appears after action words in the Lao language (before people start to eat they usually say
ma nyoe gin nyoe, which means ‘come grandmother and grandfather, please eat’). Accord-
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STORIES
ing to the Khun Bulom myth, the old couple’s last wish before the creeper fell down
and killed them was that they wanted to be remembered among the earthly people, by
calling their names to join every activity.
It is indeed problematic to talk about ethnicity in a historic context, as our present
definitions of ethnicity and cultural belonging are fairly recent constructions. Ethnicity
and human cultures are not essential, but continuously constructed and changed, most
scholars agree today. However, because stories change, and because we create the past
in the present, my interpretation of the Khun Bulom story is based on contemporary
versions. The only way we are able to understand this story is in relation to current
political and social situations in Laos, even though it is a story about the past. This is
perhaps most obvious when it comes to national identity, which in its present official
form is based on ethnic grounds.
The official national identity in Laos today is associated with the dominant ethnic
group Lao, and the name of the nation-state is even conflated with the ethnic term –
Laos is easily understood as the country in which Lao people live, even though they
comprise only around 50% of the national population (Chazée 1999). Over the last
decades, there has been a debate about the origin of the word Lao, about reliable definitions and about the relation between the ethnic group Lao and the nation-state Laos
(cf. Briggs 1949:62ff, Chazée 1999, Condominas 1970, Le Bar et al. 1964:188-216, Viravong 1964:6ff, Stuart-Fox 1993). I will not account for this in detail here, because it has
already been done very well elsewhere (e.g. Evans 1999:1-30). However, from this debate it can be concluded that such a conflation of ethnicity with a nation-state construction is always problematic, and that all the people who live in Laos but are not considering themselves to be Lao are always and inevitably reminded of their difference
(ibid:7). This is the inherent character and logic of a nationalism that strives for cultural
standardisation.
The term kha, used in the story above to describe the black people who were the
first to exit the gourd, is today a pejorative term used to classify certain groups of people as belonging to the ethnic minorities living in upland Laos. The Lao term kha originally refers to a class and social representation. The French used it to construct a
pseudo-scientific category (Pholsena 2006:27), and included in kha all the others that
were not ethnic Lao lowlanders. This ethnic-objective categorisation thus ignored the
multitude of languages, customs, rituals etc among the different people who fell under
the categorisation kha. Vatthana Pholsena says that there existed a cultural, political and
geographical distance between people living in the lowlands and the highlands already
during the time when the country was united as the Lan Xang kingdom in the fourteenth century. Nevertheless, the idea of an ethnic identity, where the kha ‘were turned
into an objective ethnic category’ (ibid), was created during the French colonial period.
Moreover, the formal definition that we see today, with reference to ethnolinguistic
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groups, was not made until after the revolution (cf. Evans 1999:23, Trankell 1998) by
the government of Laos, to solve the problems of being a multiethnic and multinational
country. This was done by placing the Others within the national project. All residents
were to be called Lao, followed by a suffix; Lao Loum for the Tai- speaking groups
living in the lowland along the river valleys, Lao Theung for the Mon-Khmer-speaking
groups living on the slopes of the mountainous areas, and Lao Soung for the TibetoBurman-speaking and Hmong-Mien (Yao)-speaking groups living in the highlands. This
can be seen as yet another way of emphasising the centrality of the ethnic Lao to the
definition of Laos (ibid). However, this classification and categorisation does not formally exist within the nation’s present-day constitution. Instead, general reference is
made to ‘ethnic groups’ as well as to the ‘multi-ethnic Lao People’ (Drouot 1999). Still,
and ironically, these groups are subject to unjustice, and groups as well as individuals
are discriminated (Ovesen 2003).
The Khun Bulom legend was written down in the early days of the Lan Xang kingdom. By describing how a gourd, created by the king of heaven, is growing on earth
(where uncivilised creatures live by hunting and fishing) and how the civilised Lao
people entered the world from inside this gourd, the flourishing history of the Lao in
Laos is confirmed and the ruling ethnic group’s sovereignty is explained and naturalised. This part of the legend also explains the existence of the dark-skinned people, the
kha. Through the Khun Bulom story, we are told that the kha got their dark skin by
mistake, when a hot poker instead of a knife made the hole in the gourd. This is obviously, for the ethnic minorities, an unfavourable explanation of the cultural composition of people in Laos.
Here we can also trace a contradiction for present-day Laos. Ethnic coherence implies a strong united nation-state with a united people, based on a common history of
the creation of a modern nation. Ethnic diversity, on the other hand, attracts international tourists, which is one of the most important factors for strengthening the national economy in the country. It also gives advantages in a globalising world, which
becomes more and more sensitive to ethnic issues, and which consequently supports
projects paying attention to ethnic minority needs (Pholsena 2006:26). Nevertheless,
these ethnic minorities, which are internationally seen as representatives of a multicultural and diverse compound of people in Laos today, are still the kha in domestic discourse, and are in practice oppressed and looked upon with suspicion. Thus racial and
ethnical as well as political ideas of the nation can be traced in the Khun Bulom legend.
Another important hero in the legends of Lao history is Fa Ngum. He undoubtedly
existed as a person, even though he appears more or less as a mythological feature in
several legends. This is one version and one part of the legend of Fa Ngum, written by
Maha Sila Viravong (1905-1987), who was the most prominent author in Laos in the
twentieth century. His book Phongsavadan Lao (History of Laos) traces Lao history from
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its earliest town settlements down to the period before the French occupation in the
late nineteenth century, and tells us about the foundations on which the country Laos is
built today. This is probably the most well known written-down version of the creation
story of Laos, by a pioneer in the study of Lao culture in modern times. Originally
written in 1953 and first published as a school textbook by the Lao Ministry of Education in 1957, it became a standard textbook of Lao history for most Lao students up to
at least 1975 and has become a reference of Lao history for many foreign students since
its first publication. Phongsavadan Lao and many other historical chronicles are not originally written but rather transliterated from palm leaf manuscripts into modern Lao
script by Maha Sila Viravong and others in the twentieth century. The palm leaf manuscripts were originally written in other scripts, such as Pali and Sanskrit for example,
and date back hundreds of years. The part of Phongsavadan Lao, which is about Fa
Ngum is long and detailed, but can be summarised as follows:
Fa Ngum was born in the year of the naga, year 1859 in the Buddhist Era (which is the year AD
1316, see also note 5). He was the son of Chao Fa Ngiao and Khun Phi Fa. At birth, he had a
complete set of 33 teeth. This unususal and unprecedented feature of the newly born prince led
the advisers of the king to the conclusion that this was a bad omen. Therefore, they suggested
that the prince was to be placed on a raft and let him float away along the river. Chao Fa Ngiao
had no choice but to agree. The raft with Fa Ngum floated along the Mekong for about a year
before it arrived at a spot, known as Li Phi. There, a Khmer monk picked him up. Fa Ngum was
brought up and educated by this monk, and at the age of six, Fa Ngum was taken to the palace
of the Khmer king. As he soon proved to be a very clever and intelligent student, he was given
the hand of the king’s daughter – Nang Keo Keng Ya – when he reached maturity. This was of
course also a way of strengthening the bond of friendship between the Lao and the Khmer
kingdoms.
When so Chao Fa Ngiao died and his brother was put on the throne, Fa Ngum asked his father-in-law, the Khmer king, if he could get permission and a Khmer army to conquer the Lao
kingdom. This was granted, and in the year 1892, when Fa Ngum was 33 years old, he and his
wife said goodbye to the king of the Khmer kingdom and headed in the direction of the Lao
kingdom. After several attacks and take-overs on the way north, Fa Ngum finally reached his
uncle, who then ruled the Lao kingdom. The uncle, king Fa Kham Hiao, tried several times to
fight prince Fa Ngum’s army, but was driven back every time. Ashamed of his defeats, king Fa
Kham Hiao committed suicide by poisoning himself and his wife. The same advisors and ministers that had previously abandoned Fa Ngum now invited him to the throne of Xieng Thong.
Prince Fa Ngum was enthroned in the year of 1896 and officially became king, given the name
of Phragna Fa La Thorani Sisatanakanahud.
From then on, King Fa Ngum spent several years conquering different territories, and his
kingdom Lan Xang was continuously expanding. Vientiane was finally invaded in 1898, followed
by a reorganisation of the whole kingdom. Having completed this the king and his men cele-
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brated the victory, through a celebration that lasted for seven days and seven nights. Ten elephants, 1 000 oxes and 2 000 buffaloes were killed for this occasion. After this, a new internal
policy was announced: no banditry or unnecessary fighting was allowed, internal cooperation
and defence of territory was privileged, continuously reporting from the people to the king and
praying for protection was asked for and those not following these directions was to be judged
and jailed. In addition, the most important was that the cult of spirits and ancestors was now to
be stopped and Buddhism introduced. King Fa Ngum resided in Xieng Thong and three children
were born to him in his marriage with queen Nang Keo Keng Ya. She died in the year of 1911,
and after that king Fa Ngum showed signs of great disinterest and intolerance in the administration of his once very well organised kingdom. After a few years, he was deported and in 1917,
he died.
This story is regarded as a historical chronicle, but could also be seen as an epic, as it
is the basis for the very strong idea of king Fa Ngum as one of the main contemporary
heroes in Laos today. He is seen as the father of the nation, the person who for the first
time in history unified the people in a unified territory, the Lan Xang kingdom. Not
only was the nation born with Lan Xang, but also Lao traditions. It is not as clear here,
as it is in the Khun Bulom legend, how people should live their everyday life. The policies that Fa Ngum announces for his new kingdom are very brief, but still they are
focused around how to behave to become a good citizen. The main themes of the
legends are thus the detailed descriptions of how Fa Ngum and his army fought and
conquered the land that was to become the Lan Xang kingdom. Concluding remarks
are added after each of the fights, emphasising that he is a true hero, this Fa Ngum:
brave, structured, clever and strong. He had three children, which was not too many
but not too few, and a wonderful wife, whose death was so disastrous so that it ruined
his whole life; this was the only thing that could affect the hero in such a negative way
that he lost his heroism, which was also what eventually put an end to his life.
After all, what is this heroism? And why do we need heroes to admire and marvel
at? Well, two thirds of the population in Laos have grown up with very brief or no
knowledge at all about the recent past of the country in the twentieth century period
and its struggles preceding the creation of Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) in
1975. The stories people told when they began to speak about the past in the 1990s
were episodic and fragmented. Narratives presented to the public, in schools and offices, exclusively bring up the inevitable development of the Lao PDR, and the Communist Party as the centre of its history (Evans 2002:234ff). I would argue, together
with Grant Evans, that this neglect of parts of the history has resulted in a distorted
picture of the recent past in Laos. One of the explanations of these ‘hero king cults’, of
which Fa Ngum and Khun Bulom are the strongest (there are others as well, for example Khun Lo and more recent ones such as king Sethathirat (1548-1571) and king Chao
Anou (1804-1828)), is perhaps that people have felt the need to relate to a very distant
62
#!!!
"
Lao people entered the world. Sculpture at
‘Buddha Park’ near Vientiane.
!
"
– the Lan Xang kingdom.
The spirits of Pu Nyoe and Ya Nyoe appear every year during Lao new year celebrations. Here, they perform their dance in Luang Prabang in 1909 (photo by Bassenne), reproduced from Bassenne 1994 [1912].
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
past, inhabited by heroes of more or less legendary character. In this way, they stay safe
not having to discuss the kings in more modern history, because the Party still claims to
interpret the past with all rights reserved (ibid:235).
However, in the last decade it has been an outspoken wish within Laos to come to
grips with its history, and not necessarily write it from an explicitly partypolitical communist perspective. As part of this campaign, it was decided to choose four kings to be
formative for the history of Laos. Among these four was of course Fa Ngum, because
he had contributed to national defence and economic development (Stuart-Fox
2003:89). As a result of this, the 650th anniversary of the foundation of Lan Xang kingdom was greatly celebrated with festivals and processions in the year 2003 and a statue
of Fa Ngum was erected along the main road leading from the airport to central Vientiane. To the strategic role of Fa Ngum for the foundation of Laos, was now also added
his significant role as an introducer of Buddhism to Laos. This was, in opposition to the
Marxist theories behind the People’s Democratic Republic, openly announced and
honoured in practice during these celebrations. Thus, from 2003, Fa Ngum was officially a heroic and strategic person uniting and leading the country into prosperity for
the first time, and unofficially the hero who brought Buddhism, traditions and culture
to the united, but still multi-ethnic, Lao people.
Myths and legends are there to maintain and explain history, ritual traditions, relationships, social behaviour, and to link the past, the present and the future. Local knowledge, derived from myths and legends reinforce a sense of self and belonging (cf. Miura
2004:51-112), and is sometimes even crucial for survival. For most Lao people, this is
the knowledge. The myths and legends are the history. Myths and legends are constantly
changing and it is in this forum the oral and the literal can be merged without the need
of distinguishing the one from the other. The narratives about Khun Bulom and Fa
Ngum offer to the Lao people and their country an origin. As heroes, Khun Bulom and
Fa Ngum give political legitimation, because it is important to be a united people in a
united country in relation to the surrounding world. National identities are constructed
and expressed in different ways and with different purposes, and beliefs and cosmologies are founded, maintained and confirmed.
PROFESSIONALS AND POLITICIANS–DEVELOPING AND DEFENDING NATIONALISM
Now we turn to nationalism and explore how it is developed and defended in different
ways. First, we look at a nationalist genealogy, and return for a while to the Khun Bulom story, and to Maha Sila Viravong. This is also from his Phongsavadan Lao.
Let us first take a look at the history o f the Lao people… Our Lao race had come to existence in
the universe at the same time as the Chinese, and can on this ground be considered as one of
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the most ancient races of the world. The people had known a wide range of splendor and progress, no less than other races of the same era. At first, the ancient Lao people established
themselves in the valleys between the rivers Hwang-Ho and Yang-Tse-Kiang of the present
Chinese mainland and built two cities there. After various invasions and struggles between
Chinese and Lao, the Lao people fled southward. Periods of independence succeeded periods
of being under Chinese control. Finally, the greater part of the Lao people migrated down to
establish themselves along the Nong Sae lake, situated east of the Mekong river in Yunnan
province in present mainland China. The Lao could now build up their unity and strength and
had subsequently succeeded in building their own cities. The people who lived in the Nong Sae
independent kingdom from the middle of the seventh century (beginning of second century AD)
experienced times of happiness, alternating with times of struggle and invasion until 1192 (AD
649). At this point, king Sinulo eventually united the different Lao principalities into one unique
kingdom and administration, thus making Nong Sae one of the most prosperous kingdoms of
the time. The king died and his son succeeded to the throne, and so did sons after him, until the
year 1272, when Khun Bulom Rajathiraj (Khun Bulom) was enthroned. He was said to be a very
valiant king, well developed and experienced in the art of warfare. He was in fact the monarch
who added the largest area of territories to the Nong Sae kingdom. After him, his first son, Khun
Lo became king. A prosperous era of several hundreds of years followed, but in 1797 the Mongols invaded and occupied the Lao kingdom of Nong Sae, which thereafter lost its independence and became a Chinese colony.
Let us now focus on the Lao territory… The area, which today constitutes the territory of
Laos, included parts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam 2 500 years ago. It
was then called Souvannaphoum Pathet or Meuang Xieng Thong (thong means gold) for the
reason that these same areas were known to be rich in gold ores. They also gave the name of
Meuang Xieng Thong to their capital city. Souvannaphoum Pathet was first inhabited by people
of Khmer and Lwa origin. The Khmer race is of ancient Indian descent. This race has nowadays
given birth to various ethnic groups known as the Khmer, Mon, Khamu etc. The Khmer had
established themselves in the south, before any other races thousands of years ago, and
formed two large kingdoms. The Lwa race constitutes one major element of the ancient Lao
people, who had settled in the northern part before the Khmers. The part of land they occupied
extends from Lopburi in Thailand, up to the kingdom of Xieng Sen touching the frontier of Yunnan of the present Chinese mainland. The Lwa were not as civilised as the Khmer, and when
the latter pushed their influence towards the north they practically came to occupy the Lwa
territory. As time went by, the Lwa had lost all their originality as well as their power and gradually became Khmer citizens and finally, the Lao citizens of today known as the kha.
Contrary to the version of Khun Bulom presented first, Maha Sila Viravong’s version is focusing on time and place, and strictly follows the form of a historical chronicle. In his Phongsavadan Lao, he includes this story to describe how Khun Bulom as a
real person established the kingdom of Meuang Thaen (1964:13-24). The events are
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described in detail with exact dates and place names, and they are reported in a neutral
style without being valued. Maha Vila Virovong writes without any interpretations or
subjective judgements. It is a story that is meant to be objective and therefore scientific, but
this objectivity results instead in an illusory exactness and truthfulness. With his history
of Laos, Maha Sila Viravong’s main objective is to place the Lao (Ai Lao, which in his
account is equivalent to a Lao race) as far back in time as possible. The form he
chooses is perhaps not so surprising, as this narrative form of history writing has become compulsory for modern nations. However, it is also obvious that Maha Sila Viravong hides his objectives behind the form of a traditional chronicle.
…Sila Viravong makes an attempt to define Laos as a nation, rightly or wrongly, in
terms of people, that is all those who call themselves Lao and are descended from
common ancestors, and in terms of territory, that is all the land under the rule of the
Lan Xang kingdom and its successors. Phongsawadan Lao is therefore the history of the
Lao nation and not simply the royal chronicle of the old kingdom of Lan Xang. Laos is
a nation with a common identity formed basically by a people of common stock who
have settled on this land.
As the Thai historian Chalong Soontravanich states in his analysis of Phongsavadan
Lao (2003:115), Maha Sila Viravong provides a timeless and legitimate story for a new
Lao nation and its unified people already in the first chapters of his book defining Lao
language, literature and religion as essential parts of the Lao identity. Khun Bulom is
regarded as the founder of this Lao national identity, and by relating the national identity to a myth of ethnic descent, the result is a strong and enduring vision of the Lao
nation.
Following a discourse of nationalist historiography where legend and history conflate, Maha Sila Viravong traces the origins of a people, and racial continuity in a linear
movement from ‘the time and place of Others to the time and place of self-realization
as a sovereign race’, which is also the case in the nationalist discourse of Thailand
(Winichakul 1994:108). There are many similarities in the roots to and structure of this
nationalist historiography between Laos and Thailand. However, this is analysed and
discussed elsewhere (e.g. Pholsena 2006:79ff) so I will not study these relations in detail.
I just conclude that Maha Sila Viravong has contributed much to the distinction and
establishment of an exclusive Lao version of the past and the origins of a Lao people,
by popularising a genealogy of the Ai Lao people in his Phongsavadan Lao. By including
the traditional epic and heroic narrative of Khun Bulom and modifying it to fit his
nationalist historiography, Maha Sila Viravong also represents the shifting point from
traditional to modern Lao historiography.
Let us now continue with nationalism based on equality. One of the results of French
colonialism, as discussed above, was that the colonial state taught the indigenous nationalists their nationalism. This means that the Lao initially learnt from the French to
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identify nations according to modern concepts of race and identity, and later on, they
changed the positions of the actors around and used the same arguments against
French colonialism (Evans 1999:16ff). Thereby, another version of nationalist history
focusing on continuation and homogeneity was created.
This version is here represented by former Prime Minister Katay Don Sasorith, in
his contribution to explaining the history of Laos in Kingdom of Laos. Katay Don Sasorith was a leading person in the Lao independence movement during the 1940s. He
speaks in terms of races and claims that ‘the populations that are racially Laotian descend from the same common ancestor, Khun Borom’ (Sasorith 1959:24), and that
there is ‘a continuation from Lan Xang to today’s Laos’ in terms of social and political
definitions of race, nation, country and state, and that ‘Lan Xang, unlike many other
empires past and present…was extremely homogenous’ (ibid:29). The whole of Laos
‘spoke the same language, honoured the same genii, cultivated the same religion and
had the same usages and customs’ (ibid). At this stage, when fighting against the colonial power, it was important that the country was united. One way of uniting the state
was to narrow the gap between peoples so that they could show greater loyalty to the
state than to particular ethnic groups (Pholsena 2006:90f). The ethnic groups were
therefore studied and classified according to their degree of development, but also with
the aim of cultural recognition: increased knowledge about ethnical differences would
help to increase acceptance of these differences. In this discourse of identity propagated
by the communist leadership, the multiethnic groups were included into an idea of Lao
citizenship where national unity was put first. What happened in practice was that the
already set ethnic boundaries were maintained, which in the long run led to further
suppression instead of acceptance.
Here it is interesting to see how nationalistic ideologies and perceptions of the past
dramatically change, in times of equally dramatic changes and turmoil because of war
and political struggle. Using the same story as Maha Sila Viravong did to promote a
nationalist genealogy, the communists now saw the Khun Bulom myth as evidence that
would strengthen the idea of unity, because all Lao people (the Lao and the kha) originated from the same soil (the gourd) – a metaphor of brotherhood. This idea of a common population in a common geographical space, with same bonds and roots and
culture, was perhaps the starting point for what Vatthana Pholsena calls an ‘indigenised’
historiography (ibid:97) or indigenised nationalism, to which I turn now.
Working with Lao archaeologists means working with professionals who are assumed
to be able to speak for parts of a non-western population. The Lao archaeologists and I
share much of a common language of archaeology as these archaeologists represent a
sort of social elite, often educated in the west. In the initial phase of our cooperation we
shared the belief that in general, people both value and need the material remains of
their past. However, as the fieldwork proceeded, we also came to share an interest in
67
A common population in a common geographical space, with the same roots and culture. This billboard reads: ’together preserve and enhance the beautiful national culture’ (photo by Grant Evans), reproduced from Evans 2002.
On Lao 1 000 kip notes,
women representing the three
ethnic groups: Lao Soung,
Lao Loum and Lao Theung
(from left to right), illustrate
"
of Laos.
STORIES
local knowledge, which endorse not only the value of material remains, but also the
value of oral traditions and the transference of cultural practice and beliefs. Being part
of the Lao archaeologists’ everyday life and reality, these oral narratives had never previously been taken officially into consideration in their professional lives, and they were
therefore not seen as important or even relevant to our work. Some archaeologists still
ignore this part of the heritage, and focuses exclusively on the archaeological record,
artefacts and samples analysed and dated. This is stated quite clearly by for example
Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, Director General for the Department of Museums and
Archaeology at the Ministry of Information and Culture in Vientiane. In his booklet
Prehistory in Laos, which is a short summary of the preliminary results from his fieldwork
that constitute the basis for his ongoing PhD research at ANU in Canberra, Australia,
he declares that:
Our long past deserves to be a subject of research. The public including the school
children is now requesting a scientific explanation to our ancestry since they do no longer
believe that man was neither born from a gourd nor from celestial creature as ‘explained’ by the famous Khun Burom Rajathirath legend. Myth should not be confused with
reality (Sayavongkhamdy 1996:1, my emphasis).
Contrary to what is now said by the Ministry of Education (see page 55) this statement reflects another, and opposing, way of relating to the past. This is how Thongsa
Sayavongkhamdy presents evidence of Neolithic, and perhaps Paleolithic, human habitation in northern Laos:
Tam Hua Pu cave site in Luang Prabang province was surveyed in 1993 and excavation started
in 1994. Its first recorded social usage dates back to 8 000-12 000 years ago. Artefacts unearthed at the cave suggest that it served two different purposes at two different periods of
prehistory.
Initially, Tam Hua Pu existed as a habitation site for a community of hunters and gatherers.
With its spacious chamber, a wide entrance enabling good natural illumination, a dry and flat
floor and a natural opening at the apex of the rear cavern allowing ventilation, the cave provided
as ideal shelter to its Paleolithic inhabitants. The terrace in front of the entrance must have been
a valuable complement to the cave since it could be used for domestic activities under a good
light, while being protected from rains by the overhanging cliff. The cave’s immediate environs
provided a generous supply of wild animals and plant resources for the prehistoric community to
whom agricultural practices were not yet known. These people went to ponds, swamps, streams
and the Mekong river to fish and collect freshwater shells. They hunted deer and trapped various kinds of animals. Stone tools that were found inside and around the cave are typical for
early hunting and gathering communities. They might also have used tools made of other perishable materials. Unfortunately, the exact date and duration of this first occupation by a pre-
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agriculturist society cannot be precisely gauged as archaeological evidence of early life in the
cave was significantly disturbed by subsequent usage.
Around 2 000-3 000 years ago, Tam Hua Pu existed as a secondary burial site for a potteryproducing community, which lived in man-made shelters and which had developed an economy
based on agriculture (rice cultivation and animal husbandry). The cycle of the plant growth and
harvest had rendered these people sedentars. Settlements gradually developed into villages.
Primary burials are believed to have been conducted close to the village. After partial decomposition in pits, bodies and burial objects were exhumed and transferred to Tam Hua Pu cave. The
second burial meant that the ‘living floor’ of the cave was disturbed. Hoabinhian artefacts of the
previous occupation were surfaced and mixed with remains from the second occupation.
This story is also created to fit into an archaeological framework (cf. ‘Contemporary
Archaeological Stories’ page 45). As there is no archaeological department at the national university, those who work as archaeologists are educated elsewhere, in the western part of the world, or in countries formerly or still governed by a communist regime.
The active dissociation from myths and legends in Sayavongkhamdy’s case is nourished
by the desire of being scientific, because only by being scientific we can know, as modern people. Much of the ideology behind archaeology in Laos today concerns this.
Because Lao people have not been interested in searching for their history through
things before, this is something archaeologists must teach them to do. It does not really
matter if some already think they know, through the explanations of for example Khun
Bulom, it is only the objective actual artefacts, or the scientific evidence, that can tell
the truth. Therefore, the interest among Lao archaeologists for alternative explanations
of more ’unscientific’ character, such as myths and legends, is quite mild. On the
agenda of archaeological research in present-day Laos is instead mainly the search to
find the indigenous roots of civilisation. The most popular topic when studying the past
is to focus on early human societies and how they developed into today’s modern Laos.
This has run parallel and partly together with the international archaeological research; a
quest for local and authentic origins, based on scientific evidence.
Contrary to this research in prehistory, the research field of Lao history is very much
focused on oral knowledge and the intangible, and is more closely connected to literature, anthropology and ethnology. Of course, these sources of information are primarily
constituted from material remains, such as palm leaf manuscripts and inscriptions, but
the immaterial heritage is still in focus and regarded as the heart of Lao cultural heritage. In earlier historical research, Lao history has been approached primarily through
the historical chronicles. The territory which forms present-day Laos was divided into
several independent kingdoms at various times in history, and each of these kingdoms
had their own chroniclers. The chronicles of Luang Prabang, for example, offer a fairly
uninterrupted record (at least for the northern part of Laos) from prehistoric times up
to the present century (Phothisane 2002:73). The contents of these chronicles can be
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divided into three periods: prehistory leading to the foundation of the Thaen kingdom
by Khun Bulom in AD 757, the transition period up to AD 1316, and the historical
period, which starts with the birth of king Fa Ngum. These sources have largely, and
almost unquestioned, constituted the foundation for the entire history writing of Laos
until quite recently. Michel Lorrillard, the present Director for the EFEO office in
Vientiane, is critical of the fact that manuscripts are the only sources used to approach
Lao history, and that they are used uncritically, with only few questions raised as to
their true value or origin (Lorrillard 2006b:388ff). This critique is indeed justified if we
believe in a Lao history, a sequence of events that are there to discover, a chronology
describing what really happened in the past. However, if we are more interested in how
this past, as a creation, is constructed and presented today and what these stories can tell
more than the actual events, we might listen to what former Director of the Lao National Museum in Vientiane, Souneth Phothisane, has to tell. Even though the accounts
from the first and second periods covered in the Luang Prabang chronicles are considered to be legends, Souneth Phothisane regards them as containing valuable clues about
and insights into the characteristics of the Lao culture, reflecting concepts and memories of the Lao people: ‘An understanding of any people can be reached only by bringing together many facets of historical analysis, including factual records, legends, various forms of art, ways of life and ritual observances’ (Phothisane 2002:74). Such
sources lead to an understanding of the creation of a people rather than of the actual
events.
By naming different periods and styles with local prefixes, Phothisane suggests that
‘the mysteries of Lao history’, its origin and cultural development, are to be sought after
within Laos (2000:1-60). This nationalistic approach is thus similar to Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy’s objectives to find indigenous roots to civilisation. And interestingly it
does not only use the present-day Lao borders as its space, as both Phothisane and
Sayavongkhamdy claim sites in contemporary Thailand as belonging to the ancient Lao
(Pholsena 2006:100ff).
NATIONALIST STRUCTURES
By presenting the various sources and reasons for writing different stories of Lao history, I hope to have shown beyond doubt that there are no distinct borders between
literal and oral, fictive and non-fictive, scientific and unscientific knowledge in Lao
history writing. Myths and legends that are told, retold and written down, chronicles
and palm leaf manuscripts and archaeological finds intermingle with each other in the
creation of a past.
It is also difficult to distinguish definitions and representations of identity and nationalism from each other. Is there a Lao identity, which is not a national identity? Must
nationalism always be connected to political parties, demarcation, ethnical exclusion
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and racism, or can it function as an inclusive force that helps all people whom it embraces to achieve valuable identities? Discourses of nationalism change simultaneously
with changes in socio-political and economical situations. Laos has experienced an
extremely turbulent twentieth century, which has resulted in continuously shifting explanations to the origins of the people and lands of Laos. Inspired by Vatthana Pholsena’s ethnography of the politics of culture, history and identity in post-war Laos
(2006), I can distinguish three different trends in how the past is used and nationalism
is developed and defended. In the decades after French colonialism, narratives about
the past were seen as constant and objectively telling about the origins and development of a people in a linear movement. Ethnic continuity between past and present in
this trend represents a longue durée and, as far as I can see, this – a nationalist genealogy – is
also the master narrative of Lao history today. In this chapter, the myths and chronicles
about Khun Bulom and Fa Ngum represent this phase. During the following decades,
nationalism tended to become more of a political (read: party political) question and
was used in propaganda and party programmes, as can be read here in the accounts of
Katay Don Sasorith. The communists celebrated folklore and interaction between
different ethnic groups. People were seen as diverse, but equal – a nationalism based on
equality, but with false acceptance. This all ends up in a present nationalist discourse,
here represented by Souneth Phothisane and Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy. They want to
show that Laos and the Lao are indisputably part of the modern world, yet at the same
time demonstrate their absolute difference from the modern western nation. In this
third trend, a modernist history is argued for, with all that it brings in terms of scientific
evidence, ‘correct’ use of data and documentation, research and analysis. The local
perspective is determining in this indigenised nationalism. Still, the ideas and definitions of
identity, race, ethnicity and nation were introduced with the European civilisation missions and colonialism, which as we remember primarily aiming at distinguishing Us
from the Other.
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3. NARRATIVITY
Through narrativity we come to know and orient ourselves in
the social world; we establish order, make distinctions, draw
boundaries; between self and other, inside and outside, home
and world. Through narrativity we construct our identities. We
are all located or locate ourselves in social narratives and
through them we became what we are. The positions we have
within these narratives are marked by difference and power.
– Anna Johansson (1999:223)
Writing history is determined by the disciplinary setting it is written in. This also means
our perception and conceptualisation of the past is very much determined by the limits
of the specific discourse in which it is produced. In our modern worldview, the evolutionary perspective is present and obvious. Teleological historical development is taken for
granted, from oral to written culture, where small local stories are regarded not as important for our understanding of people being in the world as the Great Stories – the
grand narratives. However, the art of creating stories about the past have existed long
before the academic discipline of history writing. Small local stories and oral traditions
have been, and are still to a certain extent, regarded as a valueless form of knowledge
and not scientific enough to tell the truth.
By exploring the narrative character of knowledge here, the contents of the different
stories and the ways in which they are told, I profoundly question this established development.
NARRATIVITY AS KNOWLEDGE
Stories structure, connect and contextualise what we experience in everyday life. Telling
stories is a universal human activity for creating and communicating our perception of
the world, to others and to ourselves. Although the kinds of stories vary widely, storytelling is one of the most ubiquitous of human activities. It is the form of complex
communication that is earliest accessible to children, and by which they are basically
acculturated. It helps us to organise our impressions and experiences in a form so that
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the world becomes manageable and easier to grasp. Through storytelling and history
writing, we conceptualise what remains chaotic and mute (Ricœur 1991:99-116). The
chaotic becomes ordered, the unfamiliar familiarised, and the fragmentary becomes
entirety. We place ourselves in the world, by describing past and current events. Storytelling is a form of knowledge, not only a way of describing things that happened in the
past. Its etymology is the Latin word narro, which means telling or describing. It also
originates from the Latin gnarus and Sanskrit gna, which means to know (Prince 2003).
To tell something is to reveal what you know, or simply to know. Consequently, what is
told – the story – is mediated knowledge.
Although storytelling still today is subordinated scientific knowledge, it has been increasingly accredited as a form of knowledge in scientific contexts over the last decades. This
has mainly to do with the narratology debate in the philosophy of history, which began
in the 1960s. The starting issue for the debate was whether historical narratives are
explanations of past events and that the validation of the explanation is embedded in
the very structure of the narrative, which implied that to understand history, the reader
must be able to follow a story (cf. Danto 1965, Gallie 1964, White 1965). The other
option was whether, in very general terms, narratives are mere constructions made by
the historian and that writing a story is one thing and the process of history is another
and separate (cf. Mink 1987). Central for the debate was the questions of if, how and to
which extent we are able to understand the historical past through narratives. I will not
further describe the course of events in these philosophical discussions on history and
narrative, as others have done that very well already. I only conclude that the debate is
still ongoing and that it has become central for the discipline of philosophy of history,
although its focus has continuously changed. In very general terms, it still deals with
similar concerns as it evolved around 40 years ago: the narrative character of history
and the question of the extent to which the discipline of history is essentially a narrative
mode of understanding the past. It has also brought up the question of whether reality
has the shape of a narrative, or if the narrative merely is a way of structuring representations of a past (Roberts 2001:1ff). What seems to bring the many different standpoints
and criticisms together is however, that narrative is actually constitutive of history’s
search for and claim to knowledge. Narratives and narrativity are central to the entire
historical enterprise.
All the stories that I have come across in my investigation have helped me to create
my own story about Vientiane’s pasts. Above all, the fact that they appeared has forced
me to critically analyse the signification of stories to history writing in general, to analyse how, why, by and for whom stories are created. What increasingly fascinates me,
rather than their veracity, is what these history stories tell us about people and their
relation to their past. Consequently, my very general point of departure is that stories are fundamental for understanding people’s relations to their past.
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NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AND SCIENTIFIC TRUTH
I am also concerned about the narrative structure of scientific knowledge. Although
there is no universal structure for how a story should be told, instead the narrative form
is necessary to make sense of the knowledge mediated through science. In ‘scientific’
anthropology and ethnology, for example, transcription is regarded to be the first phase
in the creation of the scientific text, as it claims to be exact. However, in relation to what
is it exact? Speaking with Clifford Geertz, the scientific text is fiction, because scientific
accounts must be regarded as created and creative texts (1977:3-31). The writer cannot
possibly regard herself as neutral when producing accounts of reality, but rather as
someone who interpret others’ interpretations. Thus, the historian becomes a person
who interprets others’ stories – a storyteller. This does not necessarily mean that historical narratives are fictional, but that there are always more stories to tell. Think of
how much is lost between the actual moment of the interview and the tape, and think
of that even more is lost in the transcription when the interview becomes pure blackand-white text. Gone is the language body speaks, the tones of joy, irony or sadness,
facial expressions, pauses… Some even claim that as human beings, we construct our
lives and act in the world in a narratively structured way, and that narratives take the
same form as the storytellers’ reality is constituted (Somers and Gibson 1994:61ff). We
all, historians and non-historians, are storytellers.
Here I must make a distinction between history as process (what is lived) and history as narrative (what is told). An often-repeated catchphrase in this ongoing debate in
the philosophy of history, introduced and used by Hayden White (cf. 1973, 1978) and
Louis O. Mink (cf. 1987), is that lives are lived and stories are told. It is impossible to
know the process, unless you have experienced it yourself. The knowledge about what
happened, however, can only be mediated through narrativity. The mediation is not a
process that can be represented exactly in diagrams or by numbers in a table – the mediation is the process told. Therefore, without the telling there is nothing to say, no ‘objectively’ obtained scientific data to mediate. The narrative form is therefore essential for writing
and telling scientific texts and accounts.
Narrativity implies a mode of thinking, which is on a par with ‘scientific thinking’. One
of the most prominent philosophers who has acknowledged and visualised narrative
knowledge in relation to science and scientific knowledge is Jean-François Lyotard. In
The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge (1984), he claims that narrative is absolutely crucial for human consciousness. Acknowledging the existence of meta narratives
or meta discourses, I do agree that there are narratives in which universal claims are
made about human nature and society, and that I am indeed part of this enterprise
producing a ‘narrative about narratives’. Acknowledging this also means acknowledging
the existence of small, local stories in which the creation of meaning is made from a
perspective of everyday experiences. It also means acknowledging that scientific knowl75
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edge is legitimised not by neutrality or ‘objectivity’, but by its reference to a meta discourse. Postmodernism implies and is characterised by a change in the valuation of
significance in these small and grand stories. Lyotard means that the meta discourse has
lost its credibility in the postmodern state. This would result in a disintegration of the
grand narrative. Lyotard means that non-scientific (narrative) knowledge should add to
modern scientific knowledge (ibid:26):
…the former’s existence is no more – and no less – necessary than the latter’s’. Both
are composed of sets of statements; the statements are “moves” made by the players
within the framework of generally applicable rules; these rules are specific to each particular kind of knowledge, and the “moves” judged to be “good” in one cannot be of
the same type as those judged “good” in another, unless it happens that way by chance.
It does not mean that narrative knowledge should replace scientific knowledge. To go
from scientific to non-scientific knowledge would imply a false (scientific) appreciation
of the otherness of the Other: now when we are finished with the scientific us, it is time
to focus on the non-scientific other. This can in no way solve any problems. It is ‘impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the relevant criteria are different’ (ibid). The production
of a scientific text, with narrative structures and contents included, inevitably leads to
certain authorisation, where the scientific storyteller chooses to let some voices be
heard and others not. Only by acknowledging the meta history and the meta discourse
is it possible to situate ourselves and reflect upon our positions as text producers or
(hi)story writers. This is the only way to be responsible for what we are writing. History
writing is connected to ethics and power, and the actual writing is moral rather than scientific.
Apart from making narratology a form of knowledge in scientific contexts, those involved in the early narratology debate taking the ‘linguistic turn’7 also advocated that
the aim to create history as representation of truth can never be achieved, because in
history writing the past is basically created through language. This sceptical view thus
implies that real events are not constructed in a narrative way, and that the very nature
of narrative is that it imposes a content and a form on the events it is representing,
which they cannot have in themselves. Narrative accounts must present a distorted
picture of the events to which they relate and are therefore unable to represent real
events (cf. Mink 1987, White 1987:44). In opposition to this, David Carr, in his book
Time, Narrative and History (1986), held the idea that historical narratives always aim at
telling what really happened in the past, that narrative is a mode of being rather than of
knowing. Even though it is now generally recognised that stories tell as much about the
circumstances they are created and told in, as they tell about the actual event they are
representing, the most extreme sceptical view held by for example Mink and White has
been criticised not only by Carr, but also by other historians.
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I am convinced that narrative is essential to our understanding of the past. As I am
also convinced that the inclusion of different stories is crucial to be able to speak about
a past in a way that is ethically acceptable, I have adopted the idea of ‘historical realism’.
I do not try to tell the truth about real events in the past, but rather try to write truthfully about reality through representations of the past in the present. Stories always
evolve from human reality and involve people’s actions, feelings, perceptions, priorities
and experiences. Stories are not telling the truth, they are rather truth-telling, as they reflect and
create people’s different realities, which is each person’s own truth, recent and/or historical, depending
on the reason for that specific storytelling.
The narrative character of knowledge is increasingly being acknowledged. This approach, which illuminates scientific representations as narratives, also acknowledges
that narratives are crucial for understanding both the nature of social reality – its ontology – and how to gain knowledge about it – its epistemology (Somers and Gibson
1994:41ff). Reflected in stories are perceptions of the world, which become as important as the contents and the facts embedded in it. In order to understand what is said in
a story the listener/reader must expose herself to it, and try to relate herself to the other
worldviews, which are communicated. This is how interpretation develops. The truth of
historical narratives is not a matter of fact but of values.
ORALITY AND LITERACY
If it is now clear that narration is a form of knowledge, it is still a kind of knowledge
that in modern society is subordinated to scientific knowledge. In its oral form, it has
been regarded as primitive and in its literary form as fiction.
A leading scholar on the topic of orality and literacy was Walter J. Ong, who by writing his book with the same title (Orality and Literacy) in 1982 hoped to map out the
changing boundaries of human thought by tracing shifts from the use of oral communication, via script, and print, to electronic information. He writes that oral and literary
traditions represent two different ways to express oneself, and also two different ways
of thinking and perceiving knowledge (Ong [1982] 2002). To learn or to gain knowledge in an oral tradition requires a close and imaginative identification with a skill,
whereas writing separates the knowledgeable from the knowledge – objectively, analytically and linear (ibid:57-68, 160-169). Apparently, Ong’s point of departure is a cultureevolutionary perspective, where changes in personality and social structure are explained to be the results of an imagined teleological and universal development of writing. Ong bases his ideas on a clear distinction between orality and literacy, but as his
own writing presupposes that he himself is part of the literacy it is a distinction, which
carries the concealed imperialist politics of a white, civilised man claiming that there are
higher (more true, civilised), and lower (primitive) forms of knowledge. Similarly, Wal77
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ter Benjamin claims in his classical essay The Storyteller, written in 1955, that storytelling
has reached its end, because the wise premodern European man, to whom he pays
homage as the ultimate narrator, no longer exists ([1955] 1999:83-107). It must be assumed that Benjamin bases his argument on that the narrating subject is the white
European man. He argues that along with early twentieth century modernity, after the
First World War, the story has lost much of its function as mediating life experiences,
and as gifted storytellers become more and more rare, the significance of narration has
dramatically decreased (ibid). Nevertheless, I am convinced that the judgment of oral
narration as something less and less valuable only reflects this early twentieth century
white-man’s-perspective.
We can regard Ong and Benjamin as examples of and contributors to the general
idea of literacy as a more developed means of expression than orality. Understanding
literacy as superior to orality also implies a continuation of retelling the grand narrative
rather than valuing the so-called local and informal histories. Nonetheless, oral history
has a great potential in that it allows the lives of ordinary people, and groups who are
underrepresented in the records of a community, to be given a proper place in general.
Thus local history does not have to be ‘small’ in the sense of narrow-minded and parochial, as it may very well reflect broader themes, such as moral issues rather than particular events. This was a criticism raised in early postmodernism, already decades ago.
Those critical voices were reacting against modern western thinking where the concept
‘oral tradition’ was part of the construction of the Other, associated with primitive
thinking, ignorance, illiteracy, and lack of culture and civilisation – a form of knowledge
also suitable for women and children. They argued instead that both traditions are
synchronic, that they are intertwined and dependent on each other. Some scholars go
even further and say that the distinction in itself between oral and literary traditions
must be rejected, since the question what oral tradition is ‘is a question-answer that
needs no answer at all’, because ‘”written” versus “oral” are notions that have been as
heavily invested as the notions of “true” and “false” have always been’ (Trinh
1989:126). Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese filmmaker and feminist theorist, says that
the attention paid to ‘difference’ and ‘distinction’ rather traps the marginalised and the
Other, and the situation becomes similar to what was described above about Lyotard;
the otherness of the Other becomes cemented, at the sacrifice of them whose marginalisation we set out to criticise and change. Orality and literacy coexist, and must be
seen as continuously changing. Neither oral nor literary traditions are static. In Laos,
where oral tales are as significant to the perceptions of a past as any historical object,
the theoretical problem of making a distinction between oral and literal, and between
scientific knowledge and fiction, is revealed in practice. Consequently, only by erasing the
distinction in meaning and value between oral and written tradition we can approach the Lao storytelling.
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CREATION AND LOCATION THROUGH STORIES
Without returning to traditional narrative histories claiming to tell what really happened,
I still support a ‘revival of narrative’, where the disciplines of history and archaeology
are given storytelling characters. I believe in narrativity as fundamental for understanding both how reality is constituted and how we gain knowledge about it, ontologically
and epistemologically. Or, with the words of William Cronon: ‘narrative is among our
most powerful ways of encountering the world, judging our actions within it, and learning to care about its many meanings’ (2001:431).
My point of departure when looking at different positions taken in the creation and
location of Lao history is that narrative is knowledge, and that knowledge is mediated
through the different tellings of this history – it is situated. In addition, I maintain that
the content of a story is as crucial for our understanding of a past as its form. Furthermore, I depart from the notion that the discipline of history and storytelling definitely
are scientific, but that moral is as important as science in knowledge production and in our
ambitions for understanding a past. This means that positions marked by difference
and power, which we automatically get/take on through these narratives, have to be
acknowledged. Only in this way can the knowledge, which is mediated through different history stories, be situated. This is also what leads stories to be truth-telling, reflecting
different realities. In such a situated perspective of where values and perceptions are as
important as facts, these realities are different, but nonetheless true.
Oral tradition is equally significant for our understanding of history, but inherent in
it is illusiveness and variability, which through the western gaze appears impermanent,
intangible, fragile and metaphorical, and consequently less scientific. I do not agree with
this, as it is in the present the stories and the pictures of the past are created and thus
any truthful and honest storytelling, whether it is oral or written, always becomes truthtelling. Metaphors are also part of and used in modern science. All stories reflect on
one hand the actual event, and on the other how that event is understood, by the way
through which it is mediated today. A story, which is written down cannot, merely owing to its
script be considered more scientific or true.
Where and what is my own story then, in all this? I have claimed it to be a story about
others’ stories, which in turn are characterised by and expressing their own times and
political visions. Each story is reflecting values of a particular situation. Each aims at
telling its own truth. Each story is relating to what others have told before, by disagreeing with, changing, developing, elaborating – in support or dispute, in endorsement or
contestment. Nevertheless, my story also reflects my own struggle with writing a history
of Vientiane and Laos. Am I searching for the origins of a people, of a land, of a state,
of a story about all these things, since, after all, it is ‘the origin of’ that most historians
and archaeologists are seeking? What is the importance embedded in the origin of a
country, or a people? When does its history start, and with what? Why is this origin so
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important to tell stories about? Is it all of a sudden just there or must there be a particular event to make the starting point? Do we need a gigantic gourd falling down on the
earth or a mighty king that establishes a united kingdom with a united people, believing
in a united religion? Do we perhaps need things, artefacts, archaeological objects and
scientific datings that can work as evidence for that particular starting point that we
through any means want to find? Well, I have come to realise that it is not worth
searching for an origin in the sense of the very beginning of a certain (linear) time scale,
the starting point of a line of development. When working in a context where culture is
saturated by a mix of Buddhism, animism and Hinduism, and where the perception of
time is circular, the search for such an origin becomes if not irrelevant, at least not as
important as it is in the western part of the modern world, where the perception of
time instead is linear. A conclusion to be drawn from this and my presentation of stories in this part is that a narrative can neither start nor end definitely; all narratives always start in the middle, and the so-called end is a temporary cut in a never ending
sequence of facts. We all have to choose when and where the narrative starts and when
and where it ends. Maybe the most important is to be aware that what we do when we
create a history is that we actively choose a temporary cut, which we can call the origins
of…
Heritage is largely constituted by narratives about the past, both its form and content.
Through the examination and analyses of these stories, the times when they were constructed can better be understood, as well as how these contemporary pictures and
imaginations of a past have developed. There is no homogenous ‘Vientianic heritage’.
Pictures and perceptions are manifold. Nevertheless, they all evolve around creation
and location. There are many different elements in authority: political, social, spiritual,
cosmological, historical, economical…There are pictures and perceptions from perspectives both within and from the outside, and these can appear dramatically differentiated, just as the pictures and perceptions within those perspectives are also differentiated. Through narrativity, we come to know and orient ourselves in the world, and the positions we
have within these narratives are marked by difference and power. It is in the contemporary time –
now – that we place ourselves in these positions, and it is exactly this point of intersection between the history stories and the contemporary perceptions about a past, which
is interesting in a heritage management perspective. Having said that, the next question
to ask in the investigation of heritage in Vientiane is: what are the pictures of Vientiane
and its past, what does the place look like, and how are/were these pictures created?
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I: K M B B
I E :< >
4. VIENTIANE
We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people
who love it and understand it are the people who own it – for a
little while.
– Willa Cather (1913)
Vientiane is a wonderful place. Still, I was slightly disappointed the first time I came
there. I had expected a busy, crowded city corresponding with my ideas (albeit very
naïve) of a typical Asian capital. What instead met me, when I first landed at Wattay
airport in Vientiane together with Anna Källén in 1995, was everything but a busy,
crowded place. We went a few kilometres into the city centre in the back of a car on a
bumpy dirt road. The driver kept the same speed as the surrounding motorbike and
tuk-tuk drivers; these were the most common vehicles in the street. Everything seemed
to move in a slow pace, and although there were lots of people standing along the road
waiting, or selling and buying things, I got the feeling of a provincial and somewhat
marginalised place. With its low buildings and dirt roads, my first impression of Vientiane was a small town rather than a Southeast Asian capital – a small town in a small
country. However, my immediate disappointment almost directly turned into appreciation. Coming from the Swedish countryside, I have always felt a bit alienated in large,
busy cities, and it was therefore more of a relief when I realised that Vientiane did not
at all match my illusions. With a total area of 236 800 km2 and a population of around
6,5 million, the population density of Laos is comparable to that of Sweden. Thus, in
this respect I very quickly felt somewhat at home.
Vientiane is a city, a prefecture, and a province. The immediate city area, demarcated by
the remains of the outer and most recent city wall, is made up by approximately one
hundred villages, dispersed over parts of three different districts: Meuang Chantabuli,
Meuang Saysettha and Meuang Sisattanak. Together with six other districts,8 they constitute Vientiane prefecture, which was separated from the surrounding Vientiane province in 1989. Vientiane province comprises twelve districts,9 and is one of 16 provinces
in the country. Vientiane province and prefecture are situated in the mid western part
83
Map of mainland Southeast Asia with places mentioned in the text.
Topographic map of
parts of Vientiane province
and prefecture. The sites
Thalat, Don Keo, Viengkham, Say
Fong and Vientiane are included in
the archaeological investigations and
excavations.
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of Laos, with the Mekong river as its southern and western border. Here, and along
almost the whole western Laos, the Mekong is also the border to Thailand.
In a wider perspective, Vientiane plain is in the northern part of the Khorat plateau,
which primarily embraces northeast Thailand, but also covers parts of central Laos. It is
named after one of the largest cities in the area, Nakhon Ratchasima, which in short is
Khorat, and is situated in the southwestern corner of the plateau. The Phetchabun
mountains mark the border of the plateau to central Thailand in the west, the Dangrek
mountains to Cambodia in the south and the Annamite mountains (called Truong Son
in Vietnam and Phou Luang in Laos) to eastern Laos and Vietnam in the east. The
plateau is tilted towards the southeast, and drained by the Mun and Chi rivers, which
are tributaries of the Mekong and run from west to east across the plateau, and by the
Mekong river itself. Large parts of the Khorat plateau are now clear-cut dry forest.
Towards the east and northeast, i.e. the Vientiane area, the flora is a mix of moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forest. Northeastern Thailand, which is part of the Khorat
plateau is called Isan, and was included in the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang from the mid
fourteenth century until the eighteenth century. Most people speak Isan, which is more
similar to Lao than to Thai, and their customs and traditions are also more similar to
the Lao. When it comes to climate, vegetation and topography, the area around Vientiane has also more similarities with the Isan than with the mountainous areas in the
north.
The northern and eastern part of Vientiane province is a mountainous area, but the
topography around the city is flat and the Mekong and its tributaries dominate the
landscape. Owing to the monsoon climate, the water level of the rivers varies significantly, with flooding during the rainy season (May-October) and steep riverbanks during the dry seasons. In the immediate surroundings of the city, most vegetation is secondary forest, such as bamboo, bananas and other fruit trees. Interspersed between the
exploited and built parts of the city, in the outskirts of and around the city are paddy
fields for cultivated rice. Over the last decade a great part of them have developed into
irrigated paddy field systems for multiple harvest rice.
Most people inhabiting the province and prefecture of Vientiane are Lao, according
to the officially defined ethnic groups (cf. page 59), but there are also numerous other
groups. The population density decreases while moving from the city centre towards
and past its outskirts. In the mountainous areas around the city there are scattered
villages, and the eastern part of the province (the former Saysomboun Special Zone) is
the least populated area in the whole country.
Laos, a predominantly agrarian country with a generally poor infrastructure, is often
described as remote, backward, peaceful and laidback, as is Vientiane. After experiencing a problematic history with colonisation, political fragmentation and wars, the twentieth century has indeed been a period of socio-political marginalisation for Vientiane
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(and for the entire country), even though it is geographically in the middle of mainland
Southeast Asia. However, we should bear in mind that the characterisation of Vientiane
as a marginal place is fairly new, and that this marginality, both in relation to Southeast
Asia and to the world, is not a fixed characteristic. ‘It depends to a considerable extent
on where you stand; in Vientiane’s case it also depends on when you were standing
there’ (Askew et al. 2007:4).
Ever since 1999, when Laos was promoted by ASEAN as the tourist country of the
year, this marginalisation has been used as an asset in promotions to attract tourists.
Today, Vientiane fascinates people with its natural beauty and unrivalled peace and
serenity (compare with my own illusions of an Asian capital, described in the first paragraph), which have become a marketing label for the city. Concurrently, and therefore
perhaps slightly ironically, modern urban developments have dramatically increased and
rapidly changed Vientiane in the last decade. Now there is a feeling of vibrant activity,
of entrepreneurship and infrastructural developments. The question whether Vientiane
(and the whole country of Laos) is ready to emerge from the shadow of its influential
neighbours is now raised (cf. Pholsena and Banomyong 2006). Martin Stuart-Fox has
written about his own experiences of Vientiane in a foreword to the only book in English so far published that is focusing on Vientiane (Stuart-Fox in Askew et al. 2007:xxxxi). He is an international scholar with long experience of Laos and Vientiane. I quote
him here, in his personal account of how the last decades have shaped what is now
contemporary Vientiane, which hopefully adds to the feeling for this place:
I first arrived in Vientiane in 1963 […] One became aware of the different layers of the
city imposed one upon the other, like immiscible liquids, touching but never really mixing – Lao, Chinese, French, American. There was a sort of laid-back, frontier feel to
Vientiane in those days […] In the early 1970s Vientiane was a city growing tired of
war. There were too many internally displaced refugees looking for work, too many
young and educated Lao questioning what was happening to their country […] Many
Lao felt their country had been used, and the city reflected their concerns. In 1980, I returned to Vientiane for the first time after the change of regime in December 1975, for
the fifth anniversary celebrations. The city had lost its spontaneity: it had a closed-down
feel about it. You could see it in people’s eyes, and sense it in their reluctance to talk.
[…] the economic life of the city was moribund. It was not that people weren’t busy,
but street sweepers swept because they had been told to and gardeners grew vegetables
to keep their families alive, while the downtown commercial area remained silent and
shuttered down. Five years later there was a glimmer of change, more colour, more
movement, but still the wariness in people’s eyes, still the poverty in their daily lives,
still the socialist conformity – except for the Party hierarchy, whose families had appropriated comfortable villas and official cars. Everyone else rode bicycles, still at a leisurely Lao pace. […] In the 1990s tourists began trickling in, stimulating private enterprise and services. Souvenir shops, new restaurants and the first private guesthouses
opened. Women made up; young girls wore jeans again. There were a lot more motorbikes on the streets, and more cars. Western aid agencies and non-governmental organizations were in evidence. The city was livelier, the people more relaxed. […] Markets
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A street in Vientiane 1909 (photo by Bassenne), reproduced from Bassenne 1994 [1912].
A street in Vientiane 1995.
A street in Vientiane 2006.
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flourished. There was still, of course, poverty; but the city was a happier place. Vientiane today still has something of the relaxed charm of a provincial capital, at least for the
jaded big-city tourists. But for those who have seen the city change over the last 40 or
more years, it has taken on a new air of activity, even modernity…
Even though my first meeting with Vientiane was as late as in 1995, I have also experienced much change. In fact, it was one of these changes, caused by modern urban
development, which threw me into my PhD research project: the destruction of the city
walls, as mentioned in the introduction. Marginalised or not, today, Vientiane was nevertheless one of the important principalities of the middle Mekong valley during the
eighteenth century. Two centuries before that, Vientiane was the capital of the Lan
Xang kingdom, once governing the whole area of the middle Mekong, and one of the
main political units of the entire mainland Southeast Asia.
AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
It was the French, who initially defined Vientiane as an archaeological site, a place important because of its past, and a place to be discovered. When the Mekong Exploration
Commission arrived in Vientiane in 1867, it was a small village, with a few traditional
Lao bamboo houses on poles and small gardens scattered here and there. Overgrown
ruins were the only remainders from the time when Vientiane was an important capital.
This scene was a result of the war with Siam only a few decades earlier. Vientiane was
totally destroyed in 1828. Its inhabitants were relocated to nearby regions that were
under Siamese control. Relocation, or to move people by force, was an expression of
power, a common punishment for defeated enemies. In this case, people were relocated
to the Isan area. The Mekong Exploration Commission, led by Doudart de Legrée,
disembarked at the riverbank in central Vientiane, after crossing the Mekong from
Nong Khai. Francis Garnier ([1885] 1996:262ff), who was part of the group of explorers, describes how they…
…hastened to enter the thick forest which hid the ruins of this unfortunate city. […]
The absolute silence which reigned in the enclosure of a city that formerly was so populous and so wealthy astonished us. […] No other edifices remained standing but the pagodas. However, the fragile splendors of these, abandoned by their priests and constructed in the same materials as the palace, forty rainy seasons have tarnished. The
ever vigorous tropical vegetation, which fortunately softened the appearance of these
barbarous devastations and covered them with greenery and flowers, gave these ruined
sanctuaries a deceptive appearance of decay. Tall grasses grew everywhere on the sacred
porches, climbing plants already clasped the columns and vigorous trees made their way
across the roofs.
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Vat Ho Phra Keo in ruins in 1909 (photo by Péri), reproduced from Bassenne 1994 [1912].
Vat Ho Phra Keo in 2006, after several restorations.
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Even if these explorers were not archaeologists, the act of discovery defined the place as an
archaeological site. The ruined pagodas and the palace became monuments, the sacred
porches and columns became pieces of art. Climbing plants and vigorous trees added
an air of romance and charm to the decayed material remains.
As already discussed in part I, the first archaeologists’ main interests and aims were
the conservation and collection of ancient monuments and old manuscripts. Henri
Parmentier was nominated as the Director of the Archaeological Services of EFEO in
1904. The fact that he was an architect illustrates the close relationship between the
disciplines of art, archaeology and architecture. Parmentier was primarily working in
Angkor, but he also spent time in Vientiane, documenting the ruined monuments. His
book L’Art du Laos (1954) is based on surveys conducted in 1911 and 1927, and includes plans, photos and drawings of ancient monuments in Vientiane and elsewhere in
the country. In addition, a few other surveys were done in and around Vientiane during
the colonial period and the decades that followed. Georges Maspero’s survey of Say
Fong in 1902 is one example, which I will return to and describe in chapter 8. Another
example is the mission to Viengkham. During this survey, a bai sema with inscriptions
from the ancient temple site Vat Kao was collected, also to be described in chapter 8. A
bai sema is a standing stone, or a sacred border marker. These stones appear in a variety
of shapes and designs; they can be flat, round or octagonal, with depictions of the Buddha or other Buddhist elements, with inscriptions in Sanskrit, Pali or Mon, or without
any depictions or inscriptions at all. These stones are also characteristic for the Dvaravati culture or period, which I return to in chapter 6. Yet another researcher, who followed similar traditions of collecting and documenting remains from an art historical
perspective, was Pierre Marie Gagneux. He began his surveys in the province of Vientiane in the 1960s (Gagneux 1967, 1972, 1985-86). Later, Madeleine Giteau continued to
document and classify the material remains of Laos’ past. She published the results in
Art et Archéologie du Laos (2001). She also revised the second edition of Henri Parmentier’s book (Parmentier and Giteau 1988). Apart from collecting objects that were interesting from a culture-historical point of view, some of the more valuable monuments
were also restored and/or reconstructed by colonialists. One example is the royal palace
temple, Vat Ho Phra Keo, which in 1936 was ‘rescued’ and rebuilt. These explorations
and missions were all based on the idea of heritage as something stable, permanent and collectable. The act of collecting also implies that the objects are extractable from and still
valuable without their original physical context.
When Lao archaeologists began to define Vientiane as an archaeological site in the
late twentieth century, focus was on the city walls, in addition to the ancient temples.
Following extensive infrastructural developments and road constructions in the city in
the late 1990s, when large parts of the remaining city wall were destroyed, conservation
and information projects were initiated. Now, when driving on the outer ring road
around Vientiane on top of, or alongside the wall, one can stop and read about the
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walls in Lao, French and English on signs next to the road. In Ban Nong Hai, where
this ring road meets Tha Deua road, approximately three kilometres of the outer city
wall is visible above ground. Here, the Ministry of Information and Culture’s office for
Vientiane prefecture planned for and started to build a small museum, combined with a
shelter to protect parts of the fragile wall remains. They have also plans to build a modern reconstruction of an ancient ‘city gate’ here (Soutanh pers com).
The contemporary archaeological description of Vientiane province is ambiguous,
mainly because there are still very few extensive archaeological excavations completed
in the area. However, we have an idea that people, in one way or another, have always
occupied the place that we now call Vientiane. Hunter-gatherers gathered in rockshelters in the mountainous areas, rising from the flat landscape on both sides of the
Mekong, at 50 kilometres distance from the city of Vientiane. Neolithic stone adzes
were produced and used (cf. Sayavongkhamdy and Bellwood 2000, White and Bouasisengpaseuth 2002), rice started to grow as a result of agricultural innovations, people
buried their dead together with or inside beautiful jars, metal and textile in different
compositions and forms were being produced and used (cf. Källén 2004a). Except for
one archaeological investigation of the pottery kilns in Ban Vat Nak in the late 1980s
(Hein et al. 1989), the immediate city centre of Vientiane has not been subject to excavations until quite recently (Kobeki 2004).
Vientiane is not often defined as an archaeological site by its inhabitants. The
awareness of the existence of ancient remains varies, even in the villages along the city
wall and in villages with ancient temple remains. During an interview in Ban Nong Hai,
we spoke to Mae To Sowan, who grew up in the same place where she lives now and
where her garden unfolds on both sides of the outer city wall. She told us that this was
a great playground when she was a child. The wall was higher, and larger parts of it
were visible. At the time, the wall was part of her everyday life. Now, she is often sad
when she looks in the other direction towards the big road, which now dominates her
surroundings. At the village chief office in Ban Phonkeng, the staff was kept busy safeguarding the northeastern corner of the outer wall, which runs through the village, and
which was threatened by the construction of a new school. We went to visit some residents in the wall’s immediate neighbourhood and sat down in the open space between
the wall and the house to which we were invited. I soon realised that we were sitting on
a kind of patio of bricks arranged on the ground. I also realised that these bricks were
taken from the city wall nearby, and reused in this form. The inhabitants of this house
were not the only ones doing this, but in most of the houses along the wall, ancient
bricks appeared as patios, as house foundations or building material and as new walls
separating houses and gardens from each other. Another informative illustration of
how things that define Vientiane as an archaeological site are used in different ways is
life in and around the temple Vat Si Meuang in central Vientiane. Outside the temple
are the remains of an ancient stupa, which, according to its form and fabric, originates
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The best preserved parts of the city walls of Vientiane, Ban Nong Hai.
Illustrations of the outer city wall at the Lao National Museum (cross-section and front view).
Museum and shelter for the outer city wall under construction, Ban Nong Hai.
Finds, which according to form and
fabric are connected to the kiln site in
Ban Vat Nak, excavated at a house construction site in the neighbouring village.
The statue of Nang Si, in front of the
ancient stupa that is made of laterite, is
to be found on the temple grounds of
Vat Si Meuang.
A patio made of bricks that are taken from the adjacent city wall, Ban Phonkeng.
PLACE
from a period around a thousand years ago, when the construction of religious monuments was under Khmer influence. This structure is now subject to worship and offerings. Instead of the more common Buddha statue, a stele is the focus of attention at the
main altar inside the temple. A stele is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is
wide, raised for funerary or commemorative purposes. Usually it is decorated with the
names and titles of the deceased or living. The inscriptions are carved in relief or
painted onto the slab. Stelae were also used as territorial markers, or to commemorate
military victories. The stele in Vat Si Meuang, which stylistically is also of Khmer origin,
represents the foundation pillar of the city (lak meuang) and is connected to a legend
about the young pregnant woman Nang Si, who sacrificed her life by descending into
the pit before the lak meuang was placed on top of her and killed her. Through this
sacrificial ceremony, the lak meuang came to host the guardian spirit of Vientiane. Now,
there is a daily stream of visitors to the temple. They come to worship and request help
from Nang Si, and once every year, the temple Vat Si Meuang is at the heart of celebrations honouring the foundation of Vientiane.10
It is in the present we construct the past, and it is in the present we load the material
remains from past times with a valuable ideological content and assign them different
values. Therefore, Vientiane can only be important as an archaeological site through its
present. My own definition of Vientiane as an archaeological site began with the initial
surveys I carried out during the first fieldwork seasons after my PhD project started in
2001, and it turned out to involve both the past and the present.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEYS 2001-2003
Two archaeological investigations in Laos had preceded what later on, in 2001, became
the beginning of my PhD project. My first meeting with Laos was in 1995, when Anna
Källén and I excavated at the site Lao Pako northeast of Vientiane (cf. Källén and Karlström 1999, Karlström 2000a, Källén 2004a). The project was funded by an MFS (Minor Field Study) grant from Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation
Agency, and we cooperated with archaeologists from the Department of Museums and
Archaeology at the Ministry of Information and Culture in Vientiane.
This cooperation continued in 2000, when Anna Källén and I came back to Laos for
an archaeological survey of an area surrounding the Lao Pako site, which followed prior
excavations. We wanted to develop and test archaeological survey methods that suited
the particular contexts we were working in – Anna continued to work at the Lao Pako
site, and I turned instead to the cultural heritage management of Vientiane province.
The survey method we had planned to use, based on systematic field walking in transects to cover the whole area, had to be abandoned because dense and to a large extent
impenetrable forest covered large parts of the research area. Instead, together with
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Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth from the Ministry of Information and Culture, we
started to spend time in the villages around Lao Pako and work together with its residents. This turned out to be highly influential in shaping both our research projects
later on. Through the contacts we established with the local community, and through
informal talks and formal interviews, we identified archaeological sites. More than
twenty archaeological sites, unknown to the authorities until then, were identified during the survey. Once identified, we did systematic field walking and took soil samples
from some of the sites for analysis to trace phosphate contents, which could indicate
settlements or other activity areas (Bouasisengpaseuth et al. 2000).
In connection to the Lao Pako survey, I started to investigate threats and potentials
to the cultural heritage in the Lao Pako area and in the city of Vientiane. The growing
infrastructural changes and developments Vientiane had experienced during the 1990s
were massive. With a relatively weak heritage protection legislation, and limited knowledge and documentation of the cultural landscape, I thought that the need for such an
investigation was crucial. In a brief survey, I made a short review of the archaeological
remains collected and stored in the temples and museums in Vientiane. Other sources
of information, such as old maps and aerial photos, were also investigated and together
these observations formed the basis for a brief mapping of the most important archaeological remains and valuable cultural heritage. The most obvious threats to the
existing cultural heritage in Vientiane were construction works, plundering and commercialisation of antique objects, natural processes, human influence on landscape
development, and tourism. Of course these threats, except perhaps for natural processes, have a double nature and could be seen as potentials too (Karlström 2000b).
The first archaeological survey of Vientiane, specifically for my own PhD project, was
done from December 2001 to February 2002. An overall aim of this survey was to get
an idea of the range and extension of prehistoric and historic remains in Vientiane – to
define this place within an archaeological framework – with focus on the archaeological
perspective on urbanisation, from pre-urban settlements through the earliest urban
phase and on to today. Other aims were to investigate how the urban development
continues today, to what extent the cultural heritage of Vientiane is included when
planning for the future, and also to investigate different perceptions of history and
cultural heritage. This was to better understand what kind of remains that had to be
considered and preserved for the future, in a continuously expanding and developing
city. I hoped at that time to be able to suggest detailed guidelines for future heritage
management and preservation in Vientiane, to support and strengthen the existing (but
weak) heritage protection legislation.
The research area focused on Vientiane city. Towards the end of the survey, Viengkham and Say Fong were also included, because these two areas turned out to have
been important for the development of urban Vientiane. When writing Viengkham and
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Say Fong respectively I refer to an area, including different modern villages and belonging to different modern districts. Viengkham and Say Fong are more general terms,
while Ban Viengkham, Ban Say Fong Neua and Ban Say Fong Tay are the specific villages, and Meuang Viengkham and Meuang Hadsayfong are the specific districts. Viengkham is located about 70 kilometres north of Vientiane city, in the province of
Vientiane. Say Fong is 25 kilometres southeast of the immediate city and located in the
prefecture of Vientiane. During the survey, 48 villages were covered in Vientiane, Viengkham and Say Fong. We used the same method as the one developed during the
Lao Pako survey. Kiln sites, temple sites, city walls, stone monuments and other stray
finds were registered and documented during the survey. Together they formed a chronology and an area of distribution, the archaeological framework (Karlström and Bouasisengpaseuth 2003). Another important result was that the initial question of what kind
of remains or other features had to be preserved for the future changed, and instead the question
why they had to be preserved grew stronger.
The survey continued in January to March 2003. Focus was now on a few of the already
surveyed villages.11 Even though my initial question that concerned what kind of remains should be preserved had turned into the question why they had to be preserved, I
still wanted to understand certain periods in the urban history of Vientiane to
strengthen the archaeological framework for the project. The first period I wanted to
look at was the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, because there is an ongoing debate
about whether Vientiane was part of the Khmer empire or not, during this period. The
preceding period has more or less been a blank sheet in the history books of Laos, and
caught my interest, even though that period seemed to be a more difficult task to come
to grips with within the time frames of my survey. Next important period in Vientiane’s
urban history is the sixteenth century, when Vientiane became the capital of Lan Xang.
The final period that involved great changes for urban Vientiane was when the city’s
importance decreased in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As historians already
have covered these last two phases quite thoroughly, I decided to focus on the first for
my archaeological framework. The survey method was similar to the one we developed
for the Lao Pako survey in 2000, including field walking and phosphate mapping conducted together with the village residents. More detailed information about the aims,
methods and results from the two surveys are found in the report Vientiane Archaeological
Surveys 2001-2003 (Karlström and Bouasisengpaseuth 2003).
Working together with the residents of the villages we surveyed substantially
changed the shape of the project. Not only did the question of what to preserve change
into why. To be able to understand the urbanisation processes and to structure the
archaeological framework I initially focused on the content (things, places and particular
events) of history. Now, the focus turned to the definitions of history and heritage. Instead of studying the developments of states to better understand urbanisation proc-
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esses, I first had to challenge the basic concepts of state and state development, since
these are concepts that were apparently not used within the specific context in which I
was working (except by international scholars). Instead of investigating different culture
groups and areas, and how they interacted in that urbanisation process, I had to ask
myself whether it is at all possible to talk about culture areas in general and a Lao culture area in particular. If yes, how would such a cultural area then be defined? Similarly,
relations to and perceptions of place, geographically as well as emotionally, varied significantly depending on to whom we spoke.
Despite this changed focus, I followed my initial aim of presenting an archaeological
framework, but an alternative archaeological framework, valid for this particular project. Such a framework can only be created if its own framework is changed, and therefore I have devoted next chapter to an analysis of some basic concepts and definitions.
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5. CONTESTED DEFINITIONS
Debates concerning spatiality, the concepts of place, space and landscape and their
relations to each other have grown in archaeology and neighbouring disciplines over
the past forty years (cf. Tuan 1977, Tilley 1994, Feld and Basso 1996, Olwig and Hastrup 1997, Ashmore and Knapp 1999, Crang and Thrift 2000, Bender and Winer 2001,
Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003). When working in Vientiane, I have been inspired by
the general starting point that place is neither a fixed nor a permanent frame of reference inside which events would occur, but instead a result of interactions (Latour
1987:228). It is an active rather than a passive entity. I have been thinking, reading and
writing about Vientiane as a socially constructed place, a product of the imagination of
different groups and individuals, their desires and expectations, reflecting various attachments and meanings. These attachments and meanings may be different and contrasting for different groups or individuals, both at any specific time and through time.
Therefore, definitions on different aspects of place vary.
Traditional Southeast Asian archaeology is based on western definitions of state and
civilisation. However, when working in a context where other ways of understanding
concentration of political power and increasing population are valid, I would argue that
the best way to describe these developments is to apply the definitions used in that
particular context. It was difficult to talk about and think in terms of state formation and
developments of civilisation when the object study, Vientiane and its people, rather operate
in terms of mandala and meuang. Connected to this is the definition of urbanism and the
dichotomised relations between centre and periphery, monumentality and the ordinary
and between tangible and intangible, which I find problematic. Additional difficulties
appeared when I tried to identify the study object itself. I had to find, at least to myself,
a valid definition of Laos in a historical perspective, as well of its people, whom I was
to include in my project. The fundamental concepts for a western definition, such as
the nation (modern and historic), ethnicity, linguistics, identity and culture, had to be
analysed and adapted to the Lao culture area, which is the focus of my study. Another
problem that occurred was the definition of place in relation to geographical maps, which I
also bring up as one of the contested definitions.
Even though terms and concepts in traditional Southeast Asian archaeology depart
from how others than groups or individuals living in Laos define place, I nevertheless
represent the outside and the Other in this situation. For me it is impossible, and not
even desirable, to describe and define Vientiane from the inside, which is why I instead
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aim at incorporating and merging different perspectives in my own interpretation of
what Vientiane is and was as a place. First, however, I will examine the contested definitions identified above.
URBANISM
The term urban becomes meaningful only when studied in relation to and contrasted
with surrounding and periheral contexts, the hinterland. It is exemplified by multiple
variables and is, needless to say, context specific. Urbanism is a modern concept. It
developed from and was discussed under the term civilisation in the early twentieth century. Early works from colonial times on the history of Indochina (e.g. Mouhot 1864,
Garnier 1885) and later, more general books on the history of Southeast Asia (e.g.
Cœdès 1962, Groslier 1966) discuss urban centres from an evolutionist perspective, as
the glorious crown of civilisation. Kingdoms, states and early cities were studied in their
most characteristic period of history, the one in which its civilisation reached its highest
point, according to the definition of ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the nineteenth century. A reaction to this can be seen in the following decades. Paul Wheatley, for example, notes in
his book on urban origins based on his experience of working in China (1971), that
archaeological excavations have been confined almost exclusively to the environs of
monumental complexes at the expense of the territory that supported them. This was
occasionally emphasised among scholars specialised in the history of Southeast Asia,
concurrently with an increasing interest in the city as a ceremonial centre, as a symbol.
It was suggested that the city could be regarded as a symbol for transcendental order
counteracting chaotic forces, external and infernal, and a symbol for an ideal human
spirit of community (Tuan 1977:150,173).
In contemporary Southeast Asian archaeology, however, the traditional way of perceiving urbanism as the study of civilisations is still prevailing. There is a focus on the
physical and the general, on what happened inside the urban centres, and how the kings
and the elites organised their lives and surroundings. In cities, however, the majority of
urban dwellers are not elites; they are members of ordinary households (Smith 2003:1f).
Even if that would be the case, most literature and research about this topic focus on
the elite. They treat the emergence and development of states in sociocultural evolutionist explanations as the result of economic and social complexity, long-distance
exchange, agriculture and maritime trade, access to productive rice lands, control of
strategic resources, expansion of population, specialised activities and centralisation of
wealth and power (e.g. Trigger 2003, Guillon 1999, Higham 2001, 2002, Glover and
Bellwood 2004, Stark 2006, O’Reilly 2007). Even though some scholars include the
social and symbolic roles of urban centres and acknowledge them as not only political
and administrative foci, but also ideological and religious, which played an integral role
in the way Southeast Asian societies were ordered and defined, the inside is the centre
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of attention. Although the existing ideas and definitions of urbanism are numerous and
complex, and some also recognise the Southeast Asian urban centre as a modern and
global phenomenon in a postcolonial perspective (e.g. Askew and Logan 1994, Logan
2002, Bishop et al. 2003), attention is still focused on the physical characteristics of
urbanism. The neglection of peripheral areas, of the intangible, and of what happened
with the ordinary people in areas ouside the urban one (the greater physical part of the
society) results in a valuation of the urban as more important than the hinterland, the
centre more important than the periphery. Therefore, I here want to emphasise that
neither centre nor periphery can be defined without relating the one to the other and
that they are equally important for our understanding of the past (Rowlands 1987:1-11,
Champion 1989). It might not always be so easy, either, to distinguish a sharp border
between what is inside and what is outside the urban, and moving between inside and
outside is in fact something very common.
Let me illustrate this with the example of Vientiane. As I wrote earlier, Vientiane has
always (in modern times) been regarded as a marginal place. We relate the modern city
of Vientiane to the concept urban centre, and in that perspective, Vientiane is peripheral compared to other modern Southeast Asian cities. Compared with larger, richer
and more famous archaeological sites in the capital cities of surrounding countries,
Vientiane stands out as the most peripheral one. But if we look at it in a historical perspective, Vientiane is at the centre. This view is also confirmed if we look at Vientiane
in a contemporary Lao perspective. As the largest modern city of Laos, founded on the
ruins of the ancient royal capital, Vientiane attracts many people to move from the
countryside and settle down to increase their everyday life standards. The structure of
the modern dwellings is reminiscent of countryside villages, but here the houses and
villages are located tight together, forming an urban landscape, which for an outsider
seems homogenous. Within central Vientiane, demarcated by the outer city wall, there
are around 100 villages, each of them with a population of approximately between 500
and 2 000 people. These villages each have small centres, all with their own village
administration, which operates from the village chief office where between two and six
officers work. As we can see, there are many different layers of centres here and the
centre-periphery discussion is consequently highly relative, and cannot start out from
anything other than its specific context. The specific context here also requires that we
understand the concepts of mandala and meuang.
MANDALA AND MEUANG
The term mandala is occasionally used in literature describing early state formation in
what now constitutes Laos (cf. Wolters 1982:6-17, Stuart-Fox 1997:7-19, 1998:13-22,
Evans 2002:6f, Askew et al. 2007:16-72). It is a term of Hindu origin, which is also used
in other religious contexts, such as Buddhism. Mandala is a general term for any illustra101
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tions that models an idea of the cosmos, metaphysically or symbolically. It represents a
microcosm of the universe, including the human body, the mind and the surrounding
world, in which one lives. It should also be mentioned that this metaphor is used not
only in Hinduism and Buddhism, but also in many other religions. The representations
look different within different religious practices. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, a
sand mandala is occasionally created on the temple floor. It takes days to finish and
several monks do the work. They ‘paint’ an intricate geometric pattern with coloured
sand, in a traditionally fixed design, which represent the objects of worship and contemplation of the Buddhist cosmology. After completion, the sand is brushed together
and ‘blown’ away, to spread the blessings of the mandala and to emphasise impermanence (Karlström 2005), which is a central teaching of Buddhism (Robinson and Johnson 1997:34-42). In general, and for common Buddhist people, mandalas are used as an
aid in meditation (ibid:124ff).
Mandalas are also considered to be sacred. As such, the mandala concept is used to
model the structure within and between societies. A society, which is structured in
accordance with a mandala, is focused on sacred centres as material and immaterial
statements of the worldly power of the king, rather than territorial units. One example
of this is the That Luang in Vientiane. According to Lao, Thai and Cambodian traditions, the Indian emperor Ashoka played a significant role in the spread of Buddhism
around 1 700 years ago, and his name is linked to the construction of many important
religious monuments (Engelmann 1996:11, Glover 1998, Robinson and Johnson
1997:62ff). As one of the earliest propagators of Buddhism, he left India to spread the
teachings of Buddha in the surrounding countries, and one of the missions he sent out
is said to have laid the foundations to what now is That Luang in Vientiane (cf. Phouvong 1954), the national monument of the Lao nation. That Luang is said to have been
erected by Ashoka’s mission as a commemorative edifice, sheltering one of the 300 000
relics of Buddha, which were supposed to be spread along with Buddha’s teachings.
The monument has been rebuilt several times since then. One of the main rebuildings
was when king Sethathirat moved the Lan Xang capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the 1560s. Canals were constructed, on which the king was transported from
place to place. These were laid in axes, emanating from this central point. The official
name of the central monument was ‘summit of the world’, which reflects how important it was for the king to follow Buddhist and Hindu sacred orientations and models of
an ideal universe. The directional alignments formed a sacred centre, and the erection
of a stupa in this particular place was seen as a necessary and auspicious act by the king,
to give protection and glory to the kingdom (Askew 2007a:23). According to this metaphor, the mandalas were also called ‘circles of power’ or ‘galactic polities’ (Tambiah
1976, Wolters 1982). This means that the mandala was not a fixed territory, but rather
consisted of relatively fluctuating entities, where smaller surrounding states either were
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drawn directly into the realm of a certain mandala, became connected to an adjacent
mandala or returned to autonomy.
The constituent parts of the mandala were political entities in their own right, known as
meuang. Each meuang replicated the structure of the mandala of which it formed a tributary part (Stuart-Fox 2002:3). As mentioned already in chapter 1, this was more about
defining systems of relationships between people from village to city levels than a mere
structuring of territorial and political space. The ruler of the mandala was the king, and
for the meuang a lord or such-like was in the position of decision-making. The different
meuang were virtually autonomous and could collect their own taxes and enforce their
own justice. Frontier meuang could always change allegiance, and could expand by including other meuang. This happened in the fourteenth century when Lan Xang was
founded. Fa Ngum functioned as the catalyst, forcing several meuang into the powerful
mandala of Lan Xang. It must also be mentioned here that the meuang did not need to
share a common culture within itself.
Meuang is still used today in both Laos and Thailand as a term to define space. It is
also the basic concept when people (metaphorically) relate to their specific group of
origins or ancestry, and their place of origin. Marc Askew describes how the Lao historian Maha Sila Viravong analysed the meaning of meuang, as a Lao word used by people
living in Laos. First, it refers to any urban area, as for example Meuang Vientiane or
Meuang Champassak, and secondly it refers to a country, as for example Meuang Lao
or Meuang Thai. Maha Sila Viravong claims that the Lao term xiang (or viang or chiang) is
related to the term meuang as they are regarded as complementary pairs, and he further
mentions that the earliest meaning of xiang/viang/chiang was a walled or moated settlement. In his analysis, Maha Sila Viravong also traces the uses of Sanskrit and Pali prefixes and suffixes, such as nagara and pura, which are equivalent to ‘urban’, and in TaiLao languages turned into nakhon and buli. Another Pali-influenced word used in the
case of Vientiane is chantana, which means sandalwood, a word that in Lao turned into
chan. Others argue that chan is a short form of Chanta Burisri, which is also an ancient
name for Khun Bulom (cf. chapter 2), and means ‘city of the moon’. Furthermore, we
can trace the term sattanak to the Pali words satta and naga, in Lao also nak, which
means both the number seven and serpent, and has its explanation in the legend of the
seven-headed serpent who gave the city its name. However, this very concise account
of Maha Sila Viravong’s and other’s conclusions, more thoroughly accounted for and
further analysed elsewhere (cf. Askew 2007a:24f, 2007b:46,51), can give us an idea of
why Vientiane historically has been called by many different names, such as for example
Nakhon Viang Chan, Chantabuli and Chantabuli Si Sattanak.
In conclusion, we have seen that mandalas and meuang were interrelated with Hindu and
Buddhist concepts, and that they represent a structure deeply filled with, and thus reinforced by, these beliefs (Stuart-Fox 2002:3, cf. Archimbault 1973). This structure
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formed the basis not only for a physical but also for a whole symbolic and imaginary
landscape, which formed political and social order in the entire mainland Southeast
Asia, as early as 1 500-2 000 years ago. Mandala and meuang structures continue to permeate the idea of how the surrounding world is constituted in Laos today. Therefore,
the meaning and significance of these concepts must not only be taken into consideration, but also function as points of departure, when the pasts of Laos are discussed.
Thinking in terms of mandala and meuang also help to acknowledge the fluctuating borders of what is inside and what is outside the urban, and that the move between inside
and outside is not always noticeable. For that reason, what is inside and what is outside
cannot be anything else than equally valued.
LAO CULTURE AREA
There is an inherent problem in any description of a country’s history, arising when we
try to identify the object of study. This problem is valid also for Laos, since it is difficult
to find a clear definition of Laos in a historical perspective.
Is Lao history the history of those territories inhabited by ethnic Lao, or of the state of
Laos as it has existed at various times under various names? The Lao have spread far
beyond the geographical boundaries of present-day Laos: many more ethnic Lao live in
Thailand than in Laos. Moreover, the Lao state ceased to exist as a unitary entity in the
early eighteenth century. What was reconstructed by the French nearly two centuries
later and what exists today is but a fragment composed of territories belonging to former principalities inhabited by diverse peoples, many of whom are not ethnic Lao.
In this way, Martin Stuart-Fox introduces an article, in which he further suggests
that this problem should be approached by identifying continuities and discontinuities
in the history of Laos (2002:1-21). He argues that the discontinuities appear in the central political structures and that they are marked by changes in extent of political control. He further argues that the continuities are ethnic and based in culture and society,
with groups of common descent inhabiting geographic territories and sharing a political
culture, which is anchored in the socio-religious Lao worldview – the meuang and mandala. Stuart-Fox concludes that these discontinuities and continuities must be acknowledged when writing Lao history, but he never clearly states what he means with a distinct Lao culture and society. In this, which at a first glance seems like a territorial problem, there is another problem hiding, a problem of ethnolinguistic definitions. I would
argue that a worldview is not exclusively inherent in a language, and therefore it is problematic to use only an ethnolinguistic definition to a culture region. If we maintain the
definition of a Lao culture region (see note 3), we refer to today’s Laos and the areas
inhabited by Lao-speaking groups, which I find deeply problematic. Why could we not
include areas inhabited by Mon-Khmer-speaking groups or by Tibeto-Burman-speaking
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groups too? No, because these are minority groups in the present-day nation state of
Laos, where the dominating ethnic group is the Lao Loum.
[I]t nevertheless must be accepted that the Lao Loum, or lowland Lao – like corresponding lowland ethnolinguistic groups in other regions of mainland South-East Asia – were
the core population that ultimately shaped the dominant sociopolitical system and symbolic landscape that developed in the Middle Mekong Valley from the thirteenth century (Askew 2007a:19).
Accepting this means that the history of the ‘Lao culture region’ – the Lao history –
starts in the thirteenth century when a Lao mandala first appeared. It also means an
exclusion of almost 40% of the country’s population, which is the part of the population that is not Lao-speaking, and whose pasts in that way is denied. Instead of basing
the definition of a Lao culture region on the existence of a Lao mandala, which to the
most extent consisted of a population of Tai-Lao ethnolinguistic origin, established in
the middle Mekong valley in the thirteenth-fourteenth century, I would rather suggest a
wider inclusion of people thinking of themselves as being part of the Lao culture today.
We should also bear in mind that Lao-speaking people living in this area in the past
were definitely not calling themselves Lao Loum – this is a modern construction.
Another common way of approaching this problem of origin and authenticity is to
suggest that Laos’ history started somewhere else than in what today is Laos, as the
ethnic Lao are known to have inhabited the area of today’s southern China before the
thirteenth century. Some scholars have therefore been searching for the origins of the
term Lao. The consequence then is that the territory under study must be expanded to
include today’s China, the area where the Ai Lao (the origin Lao race, according to
Maha Sila Viravong (1964), also mentioned in chapter 2) first appeared, and to focus on
the origins of the term Lao (cf. Briggs 1949:63ff). This approach has been used for
nationalistic purposes, aiming primarily at placing the Lao as far back in time as possible (cf. Viravong 1964:9, Rattanavong 1995:266f). However, that is not a very satisfying
definition either, if we want to study what happened specifically in the area of Vientiane, before the thirteenth century.
The debate has oscillated between conceptions of the nation as political or as ethnical. Many scholars, before the ones mentioned above, have brought up these problems
of definition. They were raised already during the colonial period (cf. Le Boulanger
1931:9). George Condominas, a researcher who has been influential to Lao culture
studies, pronounces in his surveys, based on ethnographic studies of the Lao, that Laos
is a paradox. He says that it is a paradox both as a state and as an ethnic group
(1970:9f), but he does not clearly express his definition of a Lao culture. Condominas
also addresses the fact that there are more Lao people living in Thailand than in Laos.
This particular question, the Lao culture in relation to the Thai, has long been a subject
for debate. These debates often concern the ‘artificial’ border between Isan and Laos
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(cf. Le Bar et al. 1964:215, Keyes 1967, Grabowsky 1995), and the larger but more general issue about the relationship between Thailand and Laos, whether Lao people
should be included as a group under the Thai or not (cf. Evans 1999:5ff. This was
attempted when Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939 and was a way of stating
that all Thai people, i.e. the Tai-Lao-speaking people, should be embraced by the same
nation state). However, this debate is related to the more general issue about definitions
and origins of indigenous people.
Indigenous people is a term used to identify an ethnic or cultural group who inhabits a territory with which they have the earliest historical connection, or an historical
continuity. At no time has the territory, which today is designated as Laos, been ethnically or culturally homogenous. I do not believe that we can conclude the identification
of Laos in a historical perspective through identifying the country’s indigenous people.
It is difficult, and often dangerous, to try to identify indigenous people historically in
one way or another. It is a modern term, created by and primarily for those who are not
indigenous. Even though there are good reasons (allowing indigenous people to participate in decision-making, etc) behind such a labeling, and even though many groups
defined as indigenous have gained something from this postmodern politics, indigenisation is still very much about including and excluding individuals or communities. Adam
Kuper argues that the term indigenous still is the equivalent to native, primitive, tribal and
nomadic in the rhetoric of the indigenous people’s movement, even after the name
changed to indigenous (2003:389). He also argues that the assumption that ‘descendants
of the original inhabitants of a country should have privileged rights, perhaps even
exclusive rights, to its resources’ leads to the conclusion that ‘immigrants are simply
guests and should behave accordingly’ (ibid:390), and that this rhetoric is popular
among and easily abused by extreme right-wing parties in Europe. The concerns of this
indigenous people’s movement, encouraged by the UN, the World Bank and by international development agencies and NGOs, are not only about land and hunting rights
but also about culture and identity. The assumption that one has rights only if one has a
certain number of appropriate grandparents implies that a ‘drift to racism12 may be
inevitable where so-called cultural identity becomes the basis for rights, since any cultural test (knowledge of a language, for example) will exclude some who might lay claim
to an identity on grounds of descent’ (ibid:392). It means we are back at searching for
the origins, which I discussed in chapter 1, to justify the right to history, individual or
collective. Throughout history people have moved, and continue to move. Therefore,
the basis for the idea that people belong to the place where they were originally settled
becomes unrelated to reality, both past and present. In conclusion, I would argue that
these ‘indigenous groups’ or ‘ethnic minorities’, or people who did not share political
and economic power with dominant groups, are thus important for the understanding
of the cultural formations of a specific region.
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Let us turn our attention to Laos again. In the introduction to this part, Lao culture
area, it could be read between the lines of Stuart-Fox, Askew and the others that Laos
must be seen as a political fiction. I would argue, with Grant Evans, that Laos is neither
more, nor less, a political fiction than any other modern state (1999:16). Writing the
history of Laos, we must therefore view the question of what Lao culture and society
is/was, as a modern phenomenon. We must also acknowledge that cultural identity can
operate in several registers, and that local traditions are appropriated and weaved into a
national story. This means that a Lao culture area encompasses ‘Thailand, Laos, the
Shan,13 and the Tai Lue of Sipsong Panna,14 and also Cambodia, and Burma. […] this
culture area is part of an oikoumenê which includes Vietnam and other parts of peninsula
and insular Southeast Asia, and other Sinicized Tai groups’ (ibid:15f), from a general
geographic and culture historic perspective. From a cultural identity and ethnic perspective, it also encompasses Tai-Lao-speaking as well as non-Tai-Lao-speaking people who
regard themselves as Lao because they live in the modern nation state of Laos, or because they feel they possess a sense of Lao-ness.
MAPS AND IMAGINARY LANDSCAPES
One purpose with this part of the thesis is to describe and interpret some of the ways in
which people encounter places, perceive them in relation to the past, and invest them
with significance. As stated already in the beginning of the thesis, I think about Vientiane not as a place with a fixed and permanent frame of reference within which events
would occur, but rather as a result of interactions, a product of different groups’ and
individuals’ imaginations, desires and expectations, reflecting various attachments and
meanings. This means we have to take discontinuities and multiplicities of voice and
action into greater account when thinking of and studying place. This also means that
we have to think in these modes when studying relation to place in practice, and how
relation to place is expressed in various ways. The following example from my fieldwork clearly shows the need to not only rethink definitions of place but also the way
the experience of place is mirrored in reality, on a map.
When we reached Viengkham during the survey, we began with a visit to the Ministry of Information and Culture’s office for Vientiane province. There was a map on the wall, showing the
Viengkham and Thoulakhom districts with documented culture heritage sites marked. Most
significant were the ‘military camps’ of Viengkeo. As they were described to us, I immediately
recalled the archaeologically defined moated sites and the Dvaravati culture, which dominated
the territory west and southwest of the Vientiane plain in the early urban phase, and asked if we
could be taken there. As military camps, they had been used quite recently, i.e. a few hundred
years ago, but we were told that these sites had been of importance and used earlier too. However, we never found out when and why and by whom the camps had been used. Together with
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staff from the province office, we headed towards Ban Keun, and found the first site almost
immediately. I took some photos and registered its position with my GPS. Satisfied with the
promising start and full of expectations at the prospect of coming discoveries we finished just
before the sun set. The next day, we met with the village chiefs in Ban Phon Ka and Ban Phon
Ngam, north of the first site. They knew exactly what we were looking for. Thus, we set out into
the forest; the village chiefs, four men from the province office, Bounheuang Bouasisengpaseuth from the Ministry of Information and Culture, yet another group of old men from the
villages who were well-informed and experienced about the surroundings, and I, who absolutely
wanted to see these sites. I carried a camera, GPS, maps, notebooks, a drill and small plastic
bags for collecting soil for analysis and phosphate mapping – a hotchpotch of appearences,
thoughts and expectations. We had to walk quite far before we reached the first of the three
remaining moated sites. We walked around it along the moat, and at last found a suitable passage through. I documented the site before we continued to the second and finally passed a
small lake until we reached the last, site number three. At the lake, called ‘monkey head lake’,
animated discussions started. The question was whether this was the lake in which Fa Ngum
and his men found gold and silver, from which they produced arrows to shoot at Viengkham.
However, we found what we had been looking for, and had now put into a physical context that
of which previously, I had only a vague idea. We thanked the men from the villages and from
the province office, and went back to Vientiane.
Later that year, when I returned to Sweden, I brought among other things the geographical
positions for the moated sites in Viengkeo in my GPS. I sat down with my 1:5 000 map of parts
of Vientiane province and plotted the sites on it, transformed them into my reality framed by a
geographical true picture – the map. I hoped my survey results and the mapping of moated sites
would provide a first brief picture of the early settlement structures in this area, both temporal
and spatial. But my positions were marked in totally wrong places (I went back two years later
and registered the positions again with another GPS – with the same results). There was no
lake, no indication of any kind of altitude variation according to my map. Instead, the map revealed a lake a few kilometres to the north, and four moats with the same interrelative positions
as the ones I had marked in my survey, but at a greater distance from each other. This picture
was also more in accordance with the map on the province office wall, of which I now owned a
copy. So, what had I actually registered during the survey? And what was it I had searched for?
Had I looked for the ‘real’ moated sites, those I had heard about, walked around and physically
witnessed together with the villagers and colleagues from Vientiane? Or were the ‘real’ moated
sites located several kilometres to the north, in the area that showed a lake and some circular
shapes with a higher altitude on my ‘true’ map? Different realities, different truths – depending
on the observer and how she/he relates to the visual and the perceptional.
‘The map, central to the discourse of geography, is also one of the key elements in
figuring and staging [the] desire for adventure, for territorial claims and possessions’,
writes Panivong Norindr (1996:93) in his analysis of André Malraux’s La Voie Royale.15
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The function of maps was often connected to a discourse of power (cf. chapter 1).
Maps were used to demarcate imperial claims, and to mark who was in charge of decision-making. They also functioned as catalysts for dreams about the conquest of space,
a sort of geographic romance (ibid:107). In my survey, I used maps to plot archaeological sites, but a few times, I also asked informants to draw a map of the village, including
their sites of importance. Two different kinds of maps appeared. One was the geographic or rational map, which is a reproduction of the physical reality. This could be
characterised as a visual representation of space that becomes an instrument with objective, scientific and exact qualities, appreciated in western culture and academia (Caftanzoglou 2001:26). It is seen as the victory of contemporary western technology, because
such a map is a god-like view of the landscape and in that way the perception and experience of the world is controlled (Bender 1999:31). The other perspective departs from
experienced space. In this case, the map itself is not so important but is there to mediate the more intangible values in a sort of imaginary landscape. These kinds of maps
were drawn to me because I asked the informants to do so, but at least one of the map
makers told me he thought it was better to show me the things and places instead of
drawing them on a map, which he thought was a waste of time. I would argue that the
map making is still part of a discourse of power, as the geographic and rational map is
regarded more ‘true’. Nevertheless, with the map experiences from my fieldwork in
mind, I would also argue that the experienced and imagined landscape must be appreciated to the same extent as any exact copy of the physical reality we dwell within. Maps
are the channels through which we are used to express our relationship to the physical
world, to place and to landscape. Since place and landscape can never be taken for
granted, it is also impossible to take for granted the practice of relating to place and
landscape. There are no universal maps, delivering the ‘true’ picture of a landscape.
Instead, maps are superimposed in such a way that each map finds itself modified in the
following map, rather than finding its origin in the preceding one. Every map is a redistribution of impasses and breakthroughs, of thresholds and enclosures (Deleuze
1997:63f). Maps should not be understood only in relation to a space constructed by
trajectories. There are also maps that are concerned with what fills space. By involving
ourselves and using our own body as an instrument of approaching and addressing the
space, we can gain understanding in the present, rather than a revealed truth about the
landscape and the things, and their past.
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Mapmaking in Say Fong.
The geometric forms in a mandala represent
the universe, the earth and the human body
and mind. This cosmogram has the Buddhist
wheel in the centre and eight Buddhist saints
presiding over the points of the compass.
That Luang, the central point in the Lao mandala.
6. ALTERNATIVE ARCHAEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS
During my initial surveys in Vientiane, I experienced how all these contested definitions
merged into what I would say reflect various experiences and understandings of the
world, including my own. While I got involved more and more with people living in the
villages where we worked, it also became more and more obvious that I had to widen
my perceptions of state formations and urban developments and include other concepts of the definitions of Lao culture, Lao land and Lao people, and how they are
interrelated and valued (Karlström 2003).
How should then the story of Vientiane and its past be told? Well, first I find it difficult to write only one general archaeology of Vientiane, starting with the origins at the
beginning of a linear time scale and continuing by describing the developments, ending
at a point closer to our present time. There must be different stories present at the same time.
The stories that are presented in this chapter include different explanations and experiences. In the first part below, archaeological stories are mixed with legends and myths,
but they all aim at understanding the origin and development of Vientiane in their different ways respectively. My aim is, however, not specifically to understand the origin
and development of Vientiane as a city. It is rather to illustrate history’s complexity and
the multitude of stories, and to argue that all stories are important since they are equally
true. In the following parts, I have chosen a particular place during a particlar time and
depart from there. This approach may be seen as narrowing the scope, but I would
argue that to use this as a point of departure instead broadens the archaeological construction of the place. It is not the particular things that we found or the particular
places we investigated that are of decisive interest here. Rather, it is the fact that different actors create different cultural practices, and that one version is not objectively
more true or valuable than another; they all echo different realities and worlds. I suggest
here a variable, open-ended and contradictory approach, departing from two different
places in the province of Vientiane, in which we got involved during the fieldwork that
followed the survey: Ban Don Keo and Ban Thalat. With this, I attempt to present
alternative archaeological frameworks. But let us now start with the origins of Vientiane, as it is described in one of the most sacred of stories in Laos – the Phra Lak Phra
Lam.
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ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENTS OF A CITY
Once upon a time, the king of heaven came down to earth, together with his wife. They decided
to stay there and called the place Meuang Inthapatha Maha Nakhon. Shortly after, they got a
son, who became king. After some years, he left the throne, and his second son was then chosen to be the new king. His older brother, Thataradtha, became very disappointed and left
Meuang Inthapatha Maha Nakhon. Thataradtha went north and settled down at a place along
the Mekong, where he began to build his home. A seven-headed naga (a dragonlike and
snakeshaped mythological animal living in the rivers and waters of Southeast Asia, and often
seen as an architectural element, especially in Buddhist temples) appeared and suggested that
he move to the other side of the Mekong instead. There he would be happier, the naga promised, and would have a better chance to stay for a long and prosperous reign. Therefore, Thataradtha moved to the opposite side and built Chantabuli Si Sattanak, the city of the sevenheaded naga.
Thataradtha got twin sons, Phra Lak and Phra Lam. One of the brothers was an incarnation
of a Bodhisattva, who was sent to Thataradtha to help him defeat his younger brother’s son.
This man, Phra Lak and Phra Lam’s cousin, had taken their older sister to Meuang Inthapatha
Maha Nakhon where he married her. The two brothers went to take their sister home, and after
seven years, they finally came back to Chantabuli Si Sattanak. Many people, primarily women,
had followed the brothers and their sister back from Meuang Inthapatha Maha Nakhon, and as
soon as they reached Chantabuli Si Sattanak, they fell in love with the beautiful place and its
handsome inhabitants. They all wanted to stay, but as that was impossible, they got one area
each to settle down in, together with the men with whom they had fallen in love. This is how the
different provinces and district of Laos got their names, composed by a combination of the
women’s and men’s names respectively, for exaple Meuang Attapu from Nang (Miss) Adta and
Thao (Mr) Pu Lu, and Meuang Salavan from Nang Kham Lod Sa and Thao Van Veun. For
young couples who wanted to meet and live without restraints, an area, called Paradise,
Meuang Savan Nakhon, was chosen. This is equivalent to today’s Meuang Savan Nakhet (Savannakhet), a province in the central south of the country.
When I began the initial survey of Vientiane in 2001, together with Bounheuang
Bouasisengpaseuth from the Ministry of Information and Culture, our informants
commenced by telling different stories about Vientiane instead of merely showing us
old pots, bricks and objects, which I would have expected. Often the stories were about
the founding of Vientiane, and just as often, they were related to the Phra Lak Phra Lam
story. This story has its roots in the Indian epic Ramayana, which was transformed into
a Buddhist Jataka tale. Jataka refers to a kind of story that Buddha told his disciples,
about his former existences. Each story is a description of the different lives of the
Bodhisattva prior to his enlightenment, when he became Buddha. Sometimes, the stories are also mixed with pre-Buddhist fables, and sometimes they bring up contemporary events and problems that the Buddha experienced while he was telling them. In
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one of the Jataka tales, it is described how Devadatta, one of the great disciples of Buddha (as well as his cousin), gradually become jealous of and reluctant to Buddha.
Devadatta struggles to replace Buddha as the head of the Buddhist community, but
fails. In the Phra Lak Phra Lam story, the cousin is the equivalent to Devadatta, while
one of the twin brothers, Phra Lam, is equivalent to Buddha. In addition to describing
this struggle, the story delivers a few morals concerning how to obtain merits in life. It
also explains how Vientiane came to be the main city in this area, and how the remaining provinces in Laos got their names. At the temple Vat Ou Mong in Vientiane, the
interior walls were completely covered by beautiful murals illustrating the Phra Lak Phra
Lam story, painted in 1938. When the temle was demolished, contemporaneously with
my initial survey, I passed by, and picked up bits and pieces of the frescoes and its
inherent story and meaning. Since then, as described in the introduction, the story and
the destruction of the temple accompanied my continuing work in different ways.
However, the naga seemed to represent an important part of the story. Not least, it
seemed important to the founding of Vientiane, since the city was named after the naga.
As we continued our survey, people continued to tell us stories about the naga. At the
temple in Ban Vat Nak, there is a mound adjacent to the main building of the temple
complex. It is a hardly recognisable stupa standing in disrepair, enveloped by a huge
naga moulded in concrete. This naga sculpture is modern, but the ruined stupa is ‘very
old’, according to the monks at the Vat Nak temple. Here we found another explanation to why this place became the city of the seven-headed naga, Chantabuli Si Sattanak,
in a story told by one of the monks.
A long time ago, there was a man who was fishing in the Mekong. Among the fishes he caught,
there was a small and tiny naga. As he recognised its shape and nature he threw it back into
the river, and the next day he went fishing again, as every day. Then, all of a sudden, mother
naga showed her face above the water surface, spoke to the old man and thanked him so much
for letting her baby naga live. Before she disappeared into the water again, she said to the old
man that if he at any time would need any help, he should only let the monks beat the drum at
the temple and then the seven-headed King of nagas would send someone to come to his
rescue. Since then the naga was the protector of Chantabuli Si Sattanak.
Then one day, Thai invaders tried to conquer Chantabuli Si Sattanak. They seized one of
the largest gold treasures that were kept in the city. When the Thai king heard about the naga,
who was supposed to always and at any time rescue the city and its inhabitants, he became so
afraid and angry so he decided to once and for all get rid of the naga. There were three holes in
the ground, which were directly connected to the Mekong, and through which the naga could
reach Chantabuli Si Sattanak. The Thai king knew about these holes. Therefore, he ordered the
Siamese monks who stayed in Chantabuli Si Sattanak to cover the holes where the naga was
able to enter the city from the Mekong by building a stupa on top of each hole. And so the three
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Murals at Vat Ou Mong, illustrating the Phra Lak Phra Lam (photo by Alan Potkin, during the demolition in 2000).
Details of the Vat Ou Mong murals (photo by Alan Potkin).
The ancient stupa at Vat Nak, surrounded by a naga.
PLACE
stupas of Nong Bone, That Dam and Vat Nak were erected, and Chantabuli Si Sattanak was no
more rescued by its protector, the seven-headed naga.
The city of the seven-headed naga, Chantabuli Si Sattanak, changed its name to Viang Chan, but there is no information available on when this happened. The name used
today, Vientiane, is a modern French construction, because of inabilities to pronounce
the real name Viang Chan. We notice here that the narratives above are timeless accounts. Once upon a time and a long time ago are the opening sentences. The wish to put
the name changes into a chronological time frame thus reflects my archaeological background. Let us now continue in line with that wish for a while, and turn to archaeology
and its explanations about how the first states and cities developed around Vientiane.
The archaeological map of mainland Southeast Asia rarely embraces the present
province of Vientiane. The explanation is simple: very few archaeological investigations
have been carried out here. Thus, exploring the origins of Vientiane from an archaeological point of departure means we have to widen our perspective and look at what
happened in the surrounding world, of which Vientiane was a part. The following archaeological account therefore focuses on the moated sites and the Dvaravati culture,
which dominated the territory west and southwest of the Vientiane plain from about
1500 years ago.
The Chao Phraya river flows into the Gulf of Siam where Bangkok is situated today. Along the
Chao Phraya valley to the north, numerous moated sites have been investigated archaeologically over the last decades. Excavated settlements, cemeteries and centres for manufacture
indicate a continuous occupation in this area throughout the Iron Age, followed by and developed into the Dvaravati state.
Dvaravati sites in the Chao Phraya river valley appear to represent regional centres surrounded by agricultural communities, both in a system of inter-dependence. These sites were
often of an irregular plan, surrounded by roughly circular moats. A main purpose behind the
moat constructions is most likely a need for defence, but also of water control (Higham
2002:263, Indrawooth 1999). The Dvaravati culture got its name when two silver coins were
found beneath a sanctuary within the moated site Nakhon Pathom (Higham 2002:255, 257).
Nakhon Pathom is the largest Dvaravati site so far investigated. It is situated northwest of
Bangkok, and was probably the capital of the Dvaravati state at some point. The coins were
inscribed with the Sanskrit text Sridvaravatisvarapunya, which means ‘meritorious deeds of the
King of Dvaravati’ (Boeles 1964, Diffloth 1981). The coins are dated to the seventh century.
Until quite recently these and other historical references dated the emergence of the Dvaravati
state to the mid seventh century (e.g. Brown 1996, Guillon 1999), but evidence from and interpretations of epigraphic sources and archaeological excavations suggest an earlier origin (e.g.
Dhida 1999). A study of radiocarbon dates and stratigraphies from earlier excavations indicates
that the Dvaravati culture could have existed already in the fourth century (Barram 2003). However, a state or a kingdom in the Chao Phraya valley existed at this time, the kings of which
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knew Sanskrit, but where the indigenous language was Mon, and where the main religion was
Buddhism combined with the worship of Vishnu (Higham 2002:255). Even though Mon was
probably the official language, the Dvaravati population also included speakers of Tai, Khmer
and Chinese (Dhida 1999). In addition to the religious importance of the Dvaravati sites, they
were also significant trading centres.
Concurrently with the establishment of the Dvaravati state, small independent states were
formed in the valleys around the Mun and Chi rivers, in today’s northeastern Thailand. The
investigated sites in this area are clearly influenced by both Chenla and Champa cultures, but
primarily by the Dvaravati culture. They show correspondence architecturally both with the brick
temple shrines of Chenla and with the Dvaravati Buddhist monuments, and linguistically both
with Khmer and Mon languages (Brown 1996:20). Two sites stand out in this area: Meuang Fa
Daet and Meuang Sema. Both sites are strategically situated in areas favourable for rice cultivation, and controlling the river traffic both upstream and downstream (Higham 2002:264, Indrawooth et al. 1991). One of the main characteristics of these sites is their density of religious
architectural structures, and of bai sema, standing stones, which are sacred boundary markers.
Some of the stones are carved in decorative patterns or with Buddhist motives, and others have
inscriptions. These bai sema are found in hundreds in the area around Meuang Sema and
Meuang Fa Daet. Some scholars mean that this area was not part of the Dvaravati state, but
rather a culture or civilisation of its own, which they simply call Mon (e.g. Guillon 1999, Penth
2000), and to which Vientiane could be connected.
In connection to recent road exploitations in Vientiane, more than a hundred bai
sema were unearthed (Kobeki pers com). They were found along and around one of the
main roads in central Vientiane, close to the area that hosted the ancient royal palace
(where the president’s palace is today) and the main part of the ancient temples. Most
probably, bai sema have been continuously discovered throughout the whole province of
Vientiane. The fact that one can find this kind of stones all over the region, in temples
and in public as well as in private gardens or arbitrarily scattered in the landscape, indicates that they have been in circulation, moved, used and reused for religious purposes
throughout history. Scientists, mainly connected to EFEO, began to pay attention to
the stones in the beginning of the twentieth century. The stones with inscriptions were
of primary interest and therefore collected. As only the inscriptions and motifs attracted
researchers, the stones were most often taken out of their context, which was not even
documented. A more systematic documentation was done only a couple of decades
ago. The stones and other remains from the Dvaravati period, such as Buddha statues
and other images, were thoroughly studied by Pierre Marie Gagneux in the 1960s.
Pierre Marie Gagneux was a soldier in the French army. That was how he first came
to Laos, where he later on spent most of his life. He was an historian and from the
1960s, he worked as a teacher at Dong Dok (the National University) in Vientiane. In
the decades that followed, until he died in 1996, he investigated and wrote about Lao
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Map of mainland Southeast Asia with sites mentioned in the text.
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history. In Vientiane province, he documented numerous Buddha images and bai sema
(Gagneux 1972, 1985-1986). Of these remains, he was particularly interested in those of
more odd character, which had been difficult to identify when they were collected during the colonial period. After collection, they were stored in the That Luang museum in
Vientiane, and had since then remained unstudied. Gagneux ‘was the first to suggest
their significance to historical understanding of the Vientiane Plain during the first
millennium’ (Lorrillard 2006a) by suggesting that they represented a Mon culture that
developed from Meuang Fa Daet and Meuang Sema, distinct from the then already
defined Dvaravati culture (1972, 1985-86). Gagneux’s work became the foundation for
what Michel Lorrillard, the present Director of the EFEO centre in Vientiane, continued when initiating a survey of the Mon and Dvaravati remains.
As for the archaeological narrative form described in chapter 1, the primary motive
here is also to search for and explain origin. The archaeological explanation to the origins of Vientiane is that cultures, culture areas and societies change, and these in turn
are very much defined through their common traditions, material culture and language.
For example, bai sema are characteristic for the eastern Dvaravati cultures. Therefore,
where stones are, the Dvaravati culture has consequently dominated. This is an illustration of how searching for archaeological explanations to the rise of early states automatically includes confrontations with undisputed (and also often imprecise) definitions
of cultures and states. Here, Mon is a language, but is it a culture, or a civilisation (as
proposed by for example Guillon with his The Mon: A Civilization of Southeast Asia
(1999))? Looking at Laos today with its mix of more than one hundred different ethnic
minorities sharing the same land, defined as the nation state of Laos, clearly illustrates
this kind of problematic questions, and has already been discussed as one of the ‘contested definitions’.
A way to avoid this problem has been to accept the common opinion that the history of Laos and particularly Vientiane started in the thirteenth century when a population of Tai-Lao ethnolinguistic origin began to dominate the region and establish the
first Lao mandala (also discussed in ‘contested definitions’). The history and origins of
Laos and Vientiane then becomes a concern for historians rather than for archaeologists, and becomes the history of the Lao nation. Therefore, let us now look at the explanations to the development of the area when it first got its Tai-Lao identity, provided by
archaeologists and historians.
The first Tai kingdoms emerged in the middle of the thirteenth century: the Lanna kingdom, with
its capital Chiang Mai, and the Sukhothai kingdom, with its capital Sukhothai. By the late thirteenth century, the presence of Tai-Lao-speaking people dominated the upper and middle
Mekong valley, by this time an area with well established urban centres and ritual sites (Askew
2007a:30). Urban centres grew along the Mekong, and often one site included both sides of the
river. More and more complex societies were developed: social organisation, military capacity,
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political competition and population movement increased, and strategic sites controlling trade
resources and along trading routes were occupied by the ruling elite (Higham 2002:297).
Further south was the Khmer empire, with its centre in Angkor, slowly confronted with political and territorial destabilisation. In 1351, the kingdom of Ayutthaya was established strategically on an island in the Chao Phraya river north of today’s Bangkok, which was then a former
province of Angkor. Meuang Sua, the region of today’s Luang Prabang, was by then a meuang
included in the Sukhothai kingdom. The weakened Khmer empire, in combination with Auytthaya’s growing power and its military competition with Sukhothai and Lanna in the north, provided space for the formation of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (Evans 2002:9).
Fa Ngum, with strong relations to the royal court of Angkor and the Khmer empire, conquered numerous Lao meuang together with his army on their way north, and in 1353, they
reached Meuang Sua. Fa Ngum’s father in law, who was the king of Meuang Sua, died and left
Fa Ngum to rule. He declared his new kingdom and named it Lan Xang Hom Khao. Literally,
Lan Xang Hom Khao means the land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol, and symbolises both military power and royal kinship (Ngaosrivathana and Ngaosrivathana 1993).16 From
here, Fa Ngum continued to conquer different meuang in the Khorat plateau, also further to the
north, and to the east. The construction of the Lan Xang kingdom as a strong and influental
mandala had begun. The kingdoms of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Angkor were too focused on
their own struggles to take notice of the new and expanding Lan Xang kingdom (Evans
2002:10). Fa Ngum reached as far north and west as to the kingdom of Lanna. Now his kingdom had grown and covered most of what is Laos today, and included the northeastern part of
Thailand. It was built up by a system of main cities, supporting cities and outpost cities, a system that was both hierarchical and at the same time decentralised. Wolters means that this was
essentially what constituted a traditional Southeast Asian mandala model at this time (1982:25).
There was a blend of people with different origin in the Khorat plateau at this time, and there
was also a blend of religions or cultures. Theravada Buddhism was mixed with Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism. These were fused with the worshipping of ancestral spirits, traditionally
regarded as essential for the continuing power and prosperity of the kingdom. Fa Ngum stated
his strong position as a successor of the dynastic founder Khun Bulom by continuing these
rituals (cf. Ngaosrivathana 1996:73-80, Phothisane 1997:190f, Stuart-Fox 1998:45). Different
religious influences were merged into this particular composition. However, Buddhism added
legitimation for the king by establishing a sangha (the community of monks and nuns) under
royal patronage.
There were recurring disputes about the succession to the throne during the centuries that
followed Fa Ngums death in 1374. Sons or close relatives to the king ruled different meuang,
which constituted the Lan Xang kingdom. Sometimes the meuang rulers proclaimed independence, attempts that had to be defeated by the king and the capital meuang. In that way, this
period can be characterised as generally unstable. Ultimately, it led to the breaking up of the
Lan Xang kingdom into three smaller kingdoms, centred on Luang Prabang, Vientiane and
Champassak respectively, at the turn of the eighteenth century.
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How was the situation in Vientiane during this phase of urban developments? Well,
Vientiane was an important meuang already in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,
even though Luang Prabang was the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom. The dynamics
during this period, and other events vital for the urban development of Vientiane were
the main foci for my initial survey. Different periods in that development attracted my
interest, especially the ones preceding the thirteenth century, since the phases from the
thirteenth century and onwards seemed to be a period in Laos’ history that was already
carefully explored. At the heart of these inquiries lay the city walls of Vientiane. Let us
therefore now turn towards these once again, and recall the city’s history through them
as it appeared to me after our first survey, as another example of how to explain the
origins and developments of a city.
There seems to be an ambiguity in the different descriptions of Vientiane during the end of the
first millennium until the thirteenth century when the foundations for Lan Xang began to take
form. The uncertainty mainly concerns whether Vientiane was part of the Dvaravati, Mon or the
Khmer states or empires, or if it is at all possible to speak about a Mon state. Mon might as well
be labelled as a civilisation or culture or simply a language. The same question could be posed
about Dvaravati. Was it one state (mandala) or a conglomerate of several smaller political entities (meuang)? However, there are quite a few finds within the city of Vientiane that relate to
Dvaravati and Mon; bai sema in Ban Saphangmo, Ban Done Koy and Ban Somsanouk and the
stone Buddha head in Ban Thong Toum. There are two depicted sema stones in the Vat Ho
Phra Keo museum in Vientiane from Ban Saphangmo. During our survey, we saw additional
sema stones in many private gardens in that village. We also documented a baray (pond or
water tank) in Ban Saphangmo, which corresponds to the rectangular city wall that is said to be
the oldest of the city walls of Vientiane. Ban Saphangmo is located just outside this wall, at its
southeastern corner. When we surveyed the villages in that area, we could follow the remains of
this rectangular earthen wall in several places, such as in Ban Nong Sang Tho and Ban Sibounheuang. It is also clearly distinguishable on the aerial photo from 1954. Canals and barays
and the That Luang following a symmetrical structure related to this rectangular wall direct the
thoughts and interpretations to some kind of Khmer influence, thinking of the very structured
and symmetric layout of the early Chenla and Khmer cities further south on mainland Southeast
Asia. However, considering where the nucleuses of these strong political centres were, Vientiane was geographically quite peripheral. Therefore, it is most likely that the area of today’s
Vientiane, whether it was a meuang or not, was home to a mix of influences from the neighbouring areas and larger meuang and mandala during the second half of the first millennium until the
Lan Xang mandala was established.
Keeping to the walls, the next is the inner city wall. It demarcates what constituted the city
during the sixteenth century. By the early sixteenth century, it appears that Vientiane was both
more populous and prosperous than Luang Prabang. The king at the time, Phothisarat, spent
much of his time in Vientiane, and at periods, he carried out his ruling duties from there. There
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was a building boom and the result (the city wall, temples and the royal palace) mirrors the
growing importance of Vientiane. Therefore, when Phothisarat’s son Sethathirat entered the
throne, the foundations for Vientiane as the administrative centre were already there. This,
together with the fact that the kingdom of Pegu threatened from the northwest, finally resulted in
moving the capital of Lan Xang from Luang Prabang to Vientiane during Sethathirat’s reign in
the 1550s. King Sethathirat declared Vientiane as the symbolic centre of his kingdom and established his power and kingship by ordering more temples and monuments. Most of the remains found in Vientiane today are from this period, of which the majority is situated within the
inner city wall. However, not very much of the wall itself remains visible above ground today,
just some scattered bricks. In the 1990s, a road was laid out and constructed almost entirely
along the extent of the original wall, which resulted in a destruction of most part of it. The wall
has an extension in the south, which was probably added at a later stage. We can still see the
remains from a moat, Nongchan, which surrounded the brick walls of the inner city. This history
of the wall is also verified by the OSL datings of bricks collected at different places where parts
of the wall still are to be found. The oldest date we got indicates that the bricks could be 570
years old, and the most recent date of the bricks is 300 years old. Four of six dates point at an
age of 450 years old, which corresponds well to the establishment of Vientiane as the capital.
The outer wall surrounds the modern city of Vientiane. It embraces approximately 35-40
2
km , and roughly a hundred villages. Of the fourteen kilometres that was the wall’s total length,
there are today only a few still visible, mainly in the southeastern and northeastern corners. In
Ban Nong Hai, a shelter and a small building (in which a museum is planned) were built some
years ago to protect the wall remains and inform about its history. Bricks from this wall were
also taken for OSL analyses. They indicate that this wall was built around 300-400 years ago,
which also corresponds well to historical documentation. In the early eighteenth century the Lan
Xang kingdom was divided into three, centred to Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champassak
respectively. Most probably, the construction of Vientiane’s outer city wall coincided with this
change. Towards the end of that century, the situation in Vientiane was destabilised, and the
power in all three kingdoms of Laos was reduced. This destabilisation resulted in a final defeat
of Vientiane in the 1820s, by Siam. This completely destructed place was what met the Mekong
Exploration Commission in 1867, when they disembarked at the riverbank in former Vientiane.
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Map of Vientiane city with villages and sites mentioned in
the text. Remains of the rectangular city wall can be seen
in a few places (top), and
some bricks under a tree in
central Vientiane, pointed at
by Viengkeo Souksavathdy,
are what remains in situ the
inner city wall (above).
Aerial photo of Vientiane from 1954. The oldest, rectangular city wall, as well as
the inner city wall with its extension and the most recent, outer city wall, are all
distinguishable on the photo, but here highlighted. Notice that the inner city wall
continues on the other side of the Mekong.
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
HOW TO GET WATER
The place we now depart from is Ban Don Keo in Meuang Viengkham. Once again, we
start with a story – the Lao epic or heroic narrative of Thao Hung Thao Cheuang. Even
though the physical setting for this story is another than Ban Don Keo and Vientiane
province, there are obvious connections with Vientiane and with various phases in its
developments of and relations between different meuang, which we shall soon see.
Thao Hung was a son of Khun Chomtham, ruler of Meuang Suantan. Meuang Suantan is
equivalent to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, which was the first capital in the Lanna kingdom,
even though it was only for a very short period of three decades before Chiang Mai became the
capital in 1296. Khun Chomtham died when Thao Hung was a young man. His mother, together
with the people of Meuang Suantan, crowned Thao Cheuang, Thao Hung’s older brother, to
become the ruler of the kingdom with Thao Hung as his viceroy. Thao Hung trained his white
elephant, which he received when he was a boy, in the arts of warfare and sometimes he rode it
to faraway places.
In Meuang Pakan, which is now the province of Xieng Khouang in northeastern Laos, the
ruler was Thao Kua. He had a nephew, Einka, who was a Vietnamese prince. He wanted to
marry a beautiful girl, and when he heard about Nang Oua, daughter of Khunjum, king of
Meuang Ngoenyang, now Chiang Saen in northeastern Thailand (also one of the meuang in the
Lanna kingdom), he decided to ask her father for her hand. But the king said no, with the argument that ’he who marries my daughter must be of the same race’. Einka informed his uncle
Thao Kua and together they threatened Khunjum by saying that they were going to let their
armies attack Meuang Ngoenyang. Khunjum, hearing of his enemies’ threat, prepared to defend
his kingdom and called for Thao Hung to come and help. Thao Hung’s troops attacked Einka’s
soldiers, who were hiding in the surroundings. The soldiers fled and split into small groups. In
the course of the fighting, Thao Kua, the ruler of Pakan, was killed on the battlefield, and Einka
was captured and kept as a prisoner.
Thao Hung’s army returned home in the fifth month, but set out soon again to defeat the
land of Meuang Pakan. Thao Kua's wife was now defending the city. She rode an elephant
leading an army to fight against Thao Hung until one day she was killed in a battle. After Thao
Hung seized Muang Pakan, he appointed his noblemen and ministers to administer fourteen
sections of the region and to oversee the tributary collection. He also asked his mother, Nang
Chomsom, to rule the bordering city of Meuang Pakan. They were soon attacked again by
Hunbang, one of the chief commanders in Einka’s army. Now Thao Hung sent his mother and
all his children back to Meuang Suantan, while he himself continued to fight until he was killed
on the battleground.
After his death, Thao Hung’s spirit became commander-in-chief of a ghost army. He led
these troops to attack the Thaen kingdom ruled by the king of heaven. He conquered and
passed different cities of the Thaen and they all came to pay homage to him. In this way, he
became a famous warrior in the kingdom of heaven and in the spiritual world. Meanwhile, Thao
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Hung’s elder brother, Thao Cheuang, led the troops from Meuang Ngoenyang to attack Meuang
Pakan again. Finally, its defenders were killed and the troops from Ngoenyang occupied this
area too. The final victory, for both brothers, was greatly celebrated, and the gigantic stone jars
we see today in the Xieng Khouang province are the wine jars of the great kings Thao Hung
and Thao Cheuang.
There are various versions of this story, probably written and rewritten over many
centuries, copied and added to as they were handed down over generations. It has an
‘air of mystery’ because the many manuscripts found scattered in different places all
over Southeast Asia were just fragments. No complete story had ever been found until
1941, when Maha Sila Viravong found a complete manuscript in the Thai National
Library in Bangkok. It consisted of 300 bundels of palm leaf inscriptions, which were
translated by Maha Sila Viravong from ancient Lao script into modern Lao, and later
published. That version is now regarded as the most complete representation of Thao
Hung Thao Cheuang, and as such, it occurs throughout the whole Mekong sub region,
in Laos and its neighbouring countries. Together with Thao Hung Thao Cheuang, we
move in space and time: to the southwest towards Vientiane, and hundreds of years
into the future, to February 2004.
Next to the road from Ban Phonhong to Ban Thalat, just after entering Viengkham district, there
is a great golden stupa and a temple site on the plain surrounded by paddy fields. The stupa,
That Masa, was built by ‘latecomers’ (masa in Lao) from the north. Until about four hundred and
fifty years ago, the capital of Lan Xang kingdom was Luang Prabang. King Phothisarat reigned
the Lan Xang kingdom then, when it was at the height of its power, and incorporated the kingdom of Lanna by placing his son, Sethathirat (who also married the Chiang Mai princess), on its
throne. Although the capital was Luang Prabang, king Phothisarat lived most of the time in
Vientiane. The reasons for this were to distance himself from the new rising power of Burma
and to be in a better position in the ongoing rivalry against Ayutthaya. When king Phothisarat
died his son Sethathirat took over the throne and finally moved the capital from Luang Prabang
to Vientiane. The construction of temples and the installation of Buddha images stated the
sacred position of a place. Thus, in connection with the relocation of the capital, the emerald
Buddha (Phra Keo) from Chiang Mai was brought to Vientiane and the golden stupa That Luang
was built. Many people were involved in this construction project, which became part of their
merit-making (in Budhism, and particularly Theravada Buddhism, merit accumulates as a result
of good deeds, acts or thoughts and is carried over to later in life or to a person's next birth. This
concept will be further explained in chapter 7). Partaking in the creation of such a sacred building attracted hundreds and thousands of people, travelling from not only the area closest to
Vientiane, but also from other parts of the kingdom. A group of people from Xieng Khouang
province did not arrive in time to participate in the sacred act of constructing That Luang. When
they reached the place, which today is Ban Don Keo, they heard that the building of That Luang
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was already completed. Therefore, they stopped where they were and built another golden
stupa – the That Masa.
There was another reason to why they choose this place in Ban Don Keo: a big rocket
landed here hundreds of years ago. Thao Hung and Thao Cheuang sent the rocket from the
Plain of Jars. As everything at the Plain of Jars was huge, the rocket was also of gigantic proportions. A rocket was found in the ground when a new well was to be dug at the temple of Ban
Don Keo. It was unearthed, lifted from the pit and installed at the temple as a thing to worship.
The information above is based on informal interviews with people coming to the
temple for worshipping and with staff from the village administrative office as well as
from the Vientiane province office, who were apparently affected by the discovery (see
also Karlström and Keosopha 2004b). With this story in mind, let us now turn to my
own field-notes describing what happened in early February 2004 when my colleagues
and I found ourselves involved in the excavation of a huge tree trunk at the temple site
in Ban Don Keo:
The 5th of February 2004, officials from the Ministry of Information and Culture’s office for Vientiane province were called to the temple site in Ban Don Keo. Our excavation team, working in
Viengkham at the time, was also summoned. While digging for a new well in the temple area, a
huge hollow tree trunk was found. It measured more than two metres in length and at least one
metre in diameter, and it had been found approximately three metres below ground. The villagers were worried, because they were reminded of the traditional Lao epic about Thao Hung and
Thao Cheuang, who sent off a rocket from Xieng Khouang that landed here, and which they had
now found. That was the reason for asking the authorities to come and have a look and decide
how to proceed. As the trunk was surrounded by clayish soil without any adjacent cultural layers, it was decided that there was no need for an archaeological excavation. The trunk was
pulled up by a caterpillar lent from the neighbouring village. Of course, this event attracted many
people. A sense of reverence seized the air, mixed feelings of happiness, fear, thrill, alarm, joy
and sorrow…
During the weeks that followed, people came travelling from all over the province to see the
marvellous rocket, finding their way through a large sign, saying: Welcome to see the great
rocket! At this time of the year, village festivals, Boun Ban, are usually arranged. The timing was
excellent, and the village decided to arrange the Boun Ban in honour of the installation of the
rocket. For a couple of days, and during the Boun Ban the huge tree trunk was standing in an
upright position shielded by a party tent on the temple ground. Shrouded in pieces of cloth, and
surrounded by candles, flowers, incense sticks and small Buddha statues it was the target to
which people pushed their way through the crowd to reach, to make offerings and to pay their
respect.
This event was of greatest concern for the staff of the Vientiane province office. They
wanted to report it properly to the Ministry of Information and Culture in Vientiane, and therefore
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searched for scientific data for which to connect and secure the importance of this event. We
were allowed to scratch the trunk, and carefully cut a piece, while some ladies glanced at us
suspiciously, telling us that we would soon begin to feel anxious and dream bad dreams at
night. The wood sample was later analysed and
14
C-dated to be around three hundred years
old. In the sandy soil of Ban Don Keo, this was most probably the only way to build and
strengthen a well, by stabilising its walls with a hollow tree trunk. The fact that the new well that
was being constructed was located on exactly the same spot also supports this interpretation.
Another probable interpretation of the find is that the tree was an ancient temple drum, which,
after being worn out, was buried close to the temple.
These are two different versions of the experiences in connection to this event, in
which a trace from the past resurfaced and came to be a part of our different ideas and
perceptions of the past in Ban Don Keo. The first story uses a medley of mythological
illustrations to explain the event. The location is connected to the legend about the
latecomers from the north. ‘Latecomers’ as a concept is also something used today to
describe people from mountainous areas, i.e. the Lao Soung, in an unfavourable light. It
represents controversial ideas in Laos today, about minority groups and their rights, and
discussions about what it means to be Lao. The reason to identify the wooden object as
a rocket is also connected to mythological explanations: fertility rites in particular. The
rocket represents a phallus, which is supposed to reach the clouds, fertilise them and
bring about rain. Boun Bang Fai (the Rocket Festival) has been celebrated for hundreds
or even thousands of years, and symbolises the fight against drought, and a request for
rain. It is one of the most significant activities taking place before the season of rice
cultivation in Laos today. Of course, this is surrounded by many legends. Here, as another of the Jataka tales:
Lord Buddha was born as Phaya Khankhaak (the toad king) in one of his former lives that preceded his enlightenment to become Buddha. By being overwhelmingly kind and obedient in
merit-making, he won the respect of all humans. Phaya Thaen, the king of heaven, heard about
this highly respected human king, and it made him very envious. In order to destroy Phaya
Khankhaak’s reputation, Phaya Thaen stopped the rain to the earth for years. Only the strong
survived. A fight began between the surviving humans and the king of heaven and his deities.
Through clever plans, Phaya Khankhaak finally won and met an agreement with the king of
heaven. In this treaty, it was decided that rockets ought to be prepared as a communication
between the people of the earth and the god of heaven. Every year, before rainy season, the
rockets must be sent to the sky to remind Phaya Thaen to pour down rain over the rice fields.
Boun Bang Fai is an old tradition, but is extremely important and still conducted during the month preceding the rainy season. Apart from continuing to be a fertility rite,
giving confidence in cultivation planning and reducing worries (since it can be seen as
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Gigantic stone jars in Xieng Khouang province.
The sign ’Welcome to see the great rocket’ invites bypassers to Don Keo.
In February 2004, this tree trunk was excavated
at the temple site in Don Keo.
After it was excavated, the tree trunk became an
object to worship.
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an act of merit-making), people today regard the Boun Bang Fai as something that
promotes good relations among villagers and maintains national heritage traditions. An
obvious way to explain and acknowledge these social relations and activities carried out
today is therefore to connect the excavated tree trunk with these legends.
The explanations for the excavated tree trunk are manifold. The introductory story can
be read as a direct account of what happened along the Mekong in prehistoric and early
historic time, in Xieng Khouang and Chiang Rai provinces. From this story, we can also
see that there were differences between the people living in these two areas. Prince
Einka represents a connection to the people inhabiting the land that today is Vietnam,
and he was not allowed to marry a girl from Chiang Rai because they were not ‘of the
same race’. The people living in Chiang Rai were most likely of Mon-Khmer origin as
Thao Cheuang is referred to, among Lao people, as their ‘great Khmer king’ (Bounyavong 1998:41). Using Khmer here does obviously not mean that the ‘Khmer empire’ is
involved. The Khmer empire (synonymous with the Angkorian empire among the
general) is what we usually think of when we hear the word Khmer. This often results
in misunderstandings and misinterpretations. If we instead use ‘Mon-Khmer’, which is
a broad and more open concept, including people speaking any Mon-Khmer language17
and inhabiting a vast area of mainland Southeast Asia, it is less complicated to navigate
in the discussions about who inhabited which area when. What is clear, if we consider
the results from the survey of Vientiane and the historical sources, as well as the written
and oral traditions, is that different groups of people, speaking languages belonging to
different Mon-Khmer subgroups, inhabited the area around Vientiane 1 500 years ago.
This has continued until today, as we still find that a great number of the inhabitants of
the province of Vientiane speak Mon-Khmer languages. Around a thousand years ago,
people speaking Tai languages (including Lao)18 and acknowledging themselves as sharing a Tai-Lao culture intermingled with the Mon-Khmer speakers. Later, the Tai-Lao
population grew and today the majority of the inhabitants in the entire country as well
as in Vientiane are Tai-Lao. I find it very difficult and even problematic to be more
detailed than this at this particular point, even though I do not intend to ignore the
political, economical and social consequences of the distinctions between these different groups in contemporary Lao society. It is impossible to ‘objectively’ discuss or
describe who inhabited this area and when. However, what becomes even more interesting is to study how people today relate to these discussions and how different arguments are used, for which purposes and by whom.
If we turn back to the story of Thao Hung Thao Cheuang, it can also be read as fiction, an epic narrative. An epic narrative is a timeless account, which reflects various
aspects of life such as beliefs, traditions and rituals, and is performed by and through
mythological features. The existence of the stone jars and the relations between different groups of people are explained, or rather related to through this story. It also ex-
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plains the tree trunk found in Ban Don Keo as well as the existence of That Masa.
These are all components that together constitute much of the traditions, which make
the foundation for contemporary Lao culture.
My own explanation, that the excavated wooden thing was the remains of an ancient
well construction, is based on the fact that they started to dig because a well was
planned there. Certain places are suitable for certain purposes. Similarly, the drum alternative is possible because we found a kind of suspension device attached to the tree
trunk. There are also drums in other temples that are comparable in size and form to
this one. Both alternatives are also probable in relation to the datings. What the curious
visitors, the villagers and the monks did not ask for was ‘scientific’ evidence for
strengthening their explanations. This was only important for the staff from the local
authorities and for me, as the professional archaeologist.
BORDER MARKERS
Now we move on a few days and a bit further in a northeastern direction, to Ban Thalat
in Meuang Keo Oudom. On a Sunday, the 8th of February in 2004, a small polished
stone and four bai sema, of which one had a beautifully designed relief, were found at
the Vat Pho Saeng Alun temple in Ban Thalat. Chan Mountha, who lives in the village,
had had a vision earlier the same week. In the vision, someone told him that he had to
search for something important and valuable in a particular place near the temple. He
was indeed receptive to this kind of information, because, as his wife later told us, often
during van sin (Buddhist sabbaths, or holidays, which occur every other eighth or seventh day, depending on the lunisolar calendar) a light spread from his family’s house to
the village temple. This means that Chan Mountha had the ability to receive visions and
sometimes act as a spiritual medium. However, this vision preceded the findings of the
stones. Monks and village administrators decided to excavate, after having been told the
exact location by Chan Mountha. They dug a circular pit, approximately one metre in
diameter. When they had reached a depth of 1.20 metres, all the stones were unearthed.
The stones were removed from the pit and placed in the temple.
That was where we saw them when we arrived to the site two days later. The Vientiane province office called us, the Viengkham excavation team, to Ban Thalat, just as we
had been called to Ban Don Keo. After a meeting with the village chief and the villagers
involved in the excavation of the stones, it was decided that we should continue to
excavate the site. The objective of this minor operation was to assist the village in managing the site and the stones, and to put a scientific framework to the already excavated
pit. An additional aim was to look for further archaeological remains that could possibly
be found in connection to the stones and to interpret their context. The excavation was
carried out using standard methods for archaeological excavations with basic equipment. In addition to the Viengkham excavation team, several volunteers from the vil131
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lage also participated. The excavation could not have been carried out without the great
interest and enthusiasm of the villagers, not least that of the village chief, the staff at the
village chief office in Ban Thalat and the monks and novices in Vat Pho Saeng Alun
(see also Karlström and Keosopha 2004a).
The location of the temple site is on the top of a small hill, in central Ban Thalat,
which is one of the main villages in Meuang Keo Oudom, and north of Meuang Viengkham. In the past, there was a temple on that hill. However, no archaeological evidence or historical sources indicate its duration. During the 1960s, when the Cold War
affected this area more directly, the hill was used as a military camp. The steep hill was
flattened, but to what extent is difficult to say. Soil and sand were transported to the
hill; the slopes were built up and levelled so that additional houses could be constructed. This happened in 1966. In connection to these constructions, a stone Buddha
sculpture was found together with a bai sema with inscriptions. Pierre Marie Gagneux
documented these and brought them to the Vat Ho Phra Keo museum in Vientiane.
This discovery marked the beginning of discussions among sholars about the presence
of Mon people in this area during the second half of the first millenium. However,
when the military camp was abandoned, the village decided to re-establish the hill as a
temple site and build a new temple. During this time and later, in the early 1990s, the
hill was flattened repeatedly, as the temple expanded and new buildings were added.
During one period, one of the old buildings from the military camp was used as a
school for novices to the temple. Owing to the military camp being located here, the
hill with immediate surroundings conceals unexploded ordnance (UXO). One day such
an ordnance was unearthed and exploded. It killed two novices, and since then the
school is closed. This was told us by one of the residents of Ban Thalat, who went to
this school as a boy and lost one of his arms in the explosion. Today, the road that
leads to the temple approaches the hill from the south, which also is the direction of
the temple entrance. In front of the temple there is a flat ground covered with concrete,
extending 35 metres to the south. The excavation pit is located just outside this concrete ground.
We decided to open a testpit, two by two metres, around the already existing pit. As
part of the preparations, the usual ceremony was performed to secure the relations
between the place, its spirits and the people involved in the excavation. In the homogenous sandy soil, no obvious cultural layer could be distinguished. Consequently, no
identifiable artefacts were found until the bottom of the excavated pit reached a depth
of almost two metres. The sun had set, and we were working in the light of a few fluorescent lamps, which were connected to car batteries. Children had come home from
school and most people had finished the day’s work. The open space in front of the
temple, which surrounded the pit, was crowded. We wanted to reach the bedrock, to
finish the second day of excavation, and go on with what we primarily were there for –
the excavation in Ban Viengkham. At that point, our first find appeared. What some
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voices from the crowd first suggested as the bottom ribbed part of a bombshell, was in
the end not at all a dangerous remain from the war. When the object was unearthed and
cleaned, we saw that it was a fossilised tooth from an elephant or something similar.
The air in front of the temple was now filled with excitement and anxiety, and as soon
as the object had been cleaned, it was taken inside the temple. Almost immediately, a
ceremony began. The temple was now filled with people, it was dark outside and only a
few candles lit up the event that followed. The temple’s abbot held the object between
his hands, lifted it and shook it until he started to shake himself and finally reached a
state of trance; all this was done at the same time as he was spelling out chants. The
monk and all the people in the crowded temple were obviously strongly affected by the
event after the ceremony was finished. The object was now placed on a piece of cloth
on a table, reachable for anybody to worship and pay respect to. This also put an end to
our excavation. We were not allowed to continue any longer.
Only three days later, we were called back by the authorities, to finish our excavation. Five more objects were found in the otherwise homogenous sandy soil before we
reached the bedrock at a depth of almost three metres: a piece of fossilised bone, pieces
of slag and a round polished stone. All stones and objects were now collected in the
temple. The small ones safely kept in display cases, and the bai sema arranged in the
same position they had been found. In connection to the excavations, five more bai
sema were unearthed, and put in front of the temple. One of the stones was decorated
with a stupa design, carved in the stone; the other four had no depictions at all.
Bai sema are common as sacred border markers for temples and temple areas in the
Chao Phraya valley and on the Khorat plateau, including the Vientiane area. As mentioned earlier, we think of them as produced and used by Mon-speaking people, which
traditionally are linked to the Dvaravati culture in central Thailand, or rather to a group
of people or culture that inhabited the area northeast of Dvaravati with Meuang Fa
Daet and Meuang Sema as central places. Most likely, the group of stones found here
are buried there secondarily, because the original position of such stones are, as mentioned above, in the corners of and around temples. Here, the stones were placed in a
rectangle and the small polished one in the middle of the formation. According to the
position of the stones when they were found, they could not possibly be in their original position. What also strengthen the hypothesis about a secondary burial is that the
soil that surrounded the stones seemed to be of more recent character, lacking any
other kind of cultural layer and stratigraphies. The soil was soft and sandy and had
probably been brought here from the riverbank. After finishing the excavation, we
drew sections to see if we could distinguish differences in the soil, indicating where new
soil was put on top of old soil. According to the sections, one such place could be
distinguished, the layer that consists of same kind of soil in a brighter tint. That could
represent the second time the hill was flattened. This means that all soil, almost three
metres down to the bedrock, was added in recent times, i.e. during the twentieth cen-
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The position of the four sema stones, excavated
according to Chan Mountha’s vision, were reconstructed and exhibited in Vat Pho Saeng Alun.
One of the four bai sema with a
beautiful designed relief.
The ’Welcome to see the ancient object’-sign directs visitors to Vat Pho Saeng Alun.
The elephant tooth, unearthed during the
excavation at the crowded temple site (above).
All sema stones on the temple hill in Thalat were collected,
painted with gold colour and placed around the temple,
fastened in concrete.
While visiting Vat Pho Saeng Alun, people usually pass the
pit where the stones and the other objects were excavated in
February 2004. Visitors make offerings in the actual pit, and
pay respect at the monument that surrounds it.
Chan Mountha’s house that was built in connection to the
events at Vat Pho Saeng Alun.
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tury. It also means that the bedrock was visible here during the first period when the
hill was a temple site, before the 1960s. All stones, found at Vat Pho Saeng Alun so far,
have been replaced after they were put in their original position. Nonetheless, they
indicate, according to their form and design, that this site has been used as a temple site
since around 1 500 years ago.
After the excavations were finished, the village erected a monument at the site in
memory of the days in February when Chan Mountha had his visions and when the
precious objects were unearthed. The excavation site attracted an enormous amount of
people, and together with the rocket in Ban Don Keo, the ancient objects in Ban Thalat
became the destination for leisure trips for people from all around the province.
During the days of excavation, Chan Mountha became regarded as a local hero.
Journalists from the national newspaper and from the Lao television company interviewed him. To strengthen his status as a spiritual medium and legitimise his magic
abilities he told the journalists about the occasion, when I had tried to take a photo of
him together with the bai sema in the temple. It resulted in a totally black picture. However, Chan Mountha decided after this experience that he would stay in the temple, as a
monk. Therefore, he built himself a little house on the temple grounds, which was
painted with depictions of Buddha tales. For the first few weeks, it was connected to
the excavation monument with strings, used as mediators of spiritual power.
In conclusion, what did archaeology do to these places? And what did these events do
to archaeology? Did these places become important because of their past or because of
the present? Well, the essence of the results from this first survey is that the cultural
heritage of Vientiane is far from unambiguous, and that the pictures of Vientiane and
its pasts are manifold. Linear descriptions of the development of urban centres, monuments, and tangible archaeological remains cannot be considered meaningful and valuable for archaeological research if they are not seen in the context of and equally valued
as open-ended stories based on oral traditions, peripheral areas, ordinary and intangible
archaeological remains. What constitutes our cultural landscape must be defined in a
broader perspective than allowed by traditional archaeology. Our western gaze becomes
meaningful and useful in this context only when we are aware of our own point of
departure, and see it as one among others, all equally important and necessary to include in archaeological research. The fact that oral tradition, local knowledge and intangible features, all in a circular time perspective, to a great extent are what constitute
heritage in Vientiane means that the things left, i.e. the remains and the stories about
the past, unavoidably have to change over time. This changeable and non-linear approach fundamentally challenges the archaeological discipline in general and heritage
management in particular.
Vientiane city now appeared as quite a difficult area to continue working in, as my
survey now primarily was based on oral information obtained from villagers in that
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specific area of investigation. My search for suitable places to undertake a few test pit
excavations was now dependent on contact with the villagers who were able to tell
stories and guide me to the right sites for further investigation. Two sites, other than
Vientiane, were obviously important for the urban development in this area, namely
Viengkham and Say Fong. Let us therefore now narrow our scope even further, to
Viengkham and Say Fong, and within these contexts examine the bases for the archaeological discipline – the things themselves.
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I: K M B B B
[email protected]
7. MATERIAL CULTURE, IMMATERIAL CULTURE
We cannot know who we are, or become what we are, except by
looking in a material mirror, which is the historical world created by those who lived before us. This world confronts us as
material culture and continues to evolve through us.
– Daniel Miller (2005:8)
On the bank of the Nam Ngum river is the village Ban Nabong. The river meets the
Mekong east of Vientiane city. On its way there, from the Nam Ngum reservoir, it
passes Ban Nabong, about 40 kilometres as the crow flies to the northeast of Vientiane.
In the late 1990s, an extensive irrigation project was implemented in this area. This
caused large canal construction works to lead water from the Nam Ngum river to the
vast areas with paddy fields surrounding the villages close to the river. The canal constructors reached Ban Nabong in January 2000. Along with them, people living in the
village followed close behind. Some were involved in the actual construction work;
others curiously watched and followed the developments, day by day. One day, when
the riverbank was cut to make a terrace and prepare the canal construction, a large jar
was found there by one of the villagers. Unfortunately, it was broken and of poor quality. Inside this jar was another, smaller and of better quality, complete and very beautiful. The jars were unearthed and the small one was carefully cleaned, because the man
who found it wanted to bring it to Vientiane and sell it at the market. And so he did.
After returning to his house, he could not sleep at night. The phii haunted him at nighttime (phii is a common Lao word for spirits, and it includes all kinds of spirits, good and
bad, inhabiting the nature, the house, the body or the universe in general). For this
reason, he decided to go once more to the market and buy back the jar. After returning
home, now with the jar in his bag, he reburied it where he a few days before had found
it. From then on, he could sleep without any worries.
This particular story was told to us, not by the man who found the jar himself, but
by our informants from Ban Nabong, during our first survey in 2000. Stories akin to
this one appeared later on in the Vientiane survey. The plot was the same, but other
kinds of objects and other kinds of immaterial phenomena were involved. There was a
story about a polished stone, for example, found and placed on a house altar in the
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garden, and which after some time resulted in a first prize in a lottery. Another story
was about a small Buddha statue, found in a paddy field near an ancient temple site.
The authorities took it away and this caused illnesses and misery in the village. These
stories often turned up as answers when we asked whether the villagers knew if there
were any old things in the village or things connected to their history or the history of
the village, and if they could take us to these places. The story above acts as a starting
point for discussing varying understandings of the materiality in relation to the past.
As a science of telling stories about the past, archaeology aims at revealing ideas and
acts through things. Things, or material culture, are what we have at hand. Even though
we have become more and more interested in cosmologies, spiritual life, rituals and the
more intangible part of the past, and been able to study it through the fields of cognitive and other kinds of archaeologies, we still do most of these interpretations through
the material remains. Therefore, archaeology has the study of material culture as its
fundamental point of departure. Before we take a closer look at the things in Viengkham and Say Fong in next chapter, I begin with an introduction to the study of
material culture, its different trends and developments within and in relation to archaeology, and how it is related to Buddhism and animism.
MATERIAL CULTURE STUDIES
Much of the early research in anthropology and archaeology during the nineteenth
century evolved around the collecting, classifying and studying of objects, and bringing
them out of the narrative tradition of common people. The aim was to rescue the soon
to disappear ‘primitive’ art and culture – if the primitive cultures were to die, at least
their remains could be saved. The result is largely what we can see today in our grand
and famous museum collections, which for the most part are located outside the areas
from where the things originate. After several shifts in the approaches to material culture, i.e. functionalist, structuralist, symbolic etc, the anthropological and archaeological
conceptualisations of material culture were consolidated again in the 1980s (Tilley et al.
2006:1ff), and largely developed within Marxist studies. Today, broader fields of material culture studies go beyond both disciplines. Material culture is a condition for both
anthropology and archaeology, hence material culture studies is the actual point of
intersection between them. As such, with its roots in a wide range of disciplines, the
field of material culture studies is without doubt multifaceted. Similarly multifaceted are
the approaches to the things themselves. People do not only look at, think about, ask
for and admire these things; they touch them, taste and smell them in a constant interaction between the senses. Things are not only something that we carry around, use,
repair, reshape, discover, throw away and keep; they are also texts, icons, messages and
symbols. The life with things, as well as the things’ life, is also fruitful to study. It is a
true challenge to mediate the things’ various meanings and enormous ambiguity, and to
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avoid thinking of materiality/immateriality and object/subject as dichotomies. This
might be the explanation to why the field of material culture studies is so multifaceted.
Even though different approaches overlap and intermingle with each other, within
material culture studies in archaeology and anthropology we can single out a few main
research areas relevant for this thesis.
One approach to material culture concerns objectification, which is about what things
are and what they do. A strict theory of objectification leaves very little space to a concept of the immaterial (Miller 2005:21), and is therefore not so relevant for this study.
In its wider sense, however, it is about how people constitute themselves through
things, or, to speak with Chris Tilley, ‘the manner in which objects or material forms
are embedded in the life worlds of individuals, groups, institutions or, more broadly,
culture and society’ (2006:60). It is a concept used when trying to understand the relationships not only within the traditional subject-object divide, but also the relationships
between people and things. A presupposition here, with which I agree, is that the opposition between subject and object must be renegotiated – they are not necessarily opposed or incompatible entities. Even though some distinction between subject and
object persists, they are still inseparable from each other, just as people and things. This
is because ‘the meanings we give to things are intimately bound up in how we give
meaning to our lives’ (Preucel and Meskell 2004:14), and structures in society can be
seen as reproduced in the same way as people order their things.
Other writers have sought to understand the role of objects in social life. This approach within material culture studies is about relations between things and people as
well as about temporality where the idea that things have biographies is a point of departure. Things pass through a series of transformations – they are produced, used, exchanged, reused, consumed, and everything in between. A special focus on consumption, introduced by Mary Douglas in the 1970s (Douglas and Isherwood 1979), has
developed within the field of material culture studies, where consumption is regarded as
a social process (cf. Miller 1987, 1995), and sometimes that destruction (as a way of
comsumption) is necessary for the appreciation of certain heritage expressions (Holtorf
2005:144ff). The social life of things is a phrase often used in these contexts. This notion,
that things can be said to have social lives or life histories, has developed in different
directions mainly from the book with the same name, edited by Arjun Appadurai
(1986), and as a reaction against the idea that things remain unchangeable and static. In
this book, Igor Kopytoff suggests that when writing a biography of a thing, we could
ask the same questions as we ask about people (1986:66). Many life-history studies have
been carried out since then, but only a decade ago, these biographies began to include
the life of the thing as an archaeological artefact, i.e. the phases that also embrace discovery, recovery, analysis, interpretation, archiving, and exhibiting, as these ‘are processes in the lives of things, too’ (Holtorf 2005:80, cf. Henare 2005). Such an approach,
which appreciates the thing as a product of its entire time of existence and not fixed to
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an exact date and place of origin, is pivotal for this study. Connected to this approach is
also a special focus on the agency of objects, of which Bruno Latour (1999) and Alfred
Gell (1998) are the two most recent influential scholars. Basically, the philosophical
meaning of agency is the capacity of an agent (in this context, the agent can be a thing)
to act in the world. Whether or not things are significant in relation to what they mean
in the world, or what they do, this perspective accentuates that things definitely make a
difference (cf. Hoskins 2006, Miller 2005, Ahern 2001).
A phenomenological approach to material culture is primarily used in the study of landscape, architecture and monumentality. Christopher Tilley’s book about the phenomenology of landscape (1994) can be seen as the main source of inspiration to this interest. It relates to both archaeology and anthropology, and has strong connections to the
concept of embodiment, to the relationship between material forms, the body and the
senses. By involving ourselves and using our own body as an instrument of approaching and addressing the thing, we can gain understanding in the present, which in turn
functions as a metaphor for those of the past. ‘It is a basis for hypothesis and argument,
rather than a revealed truth about the landscape (and the things, my comment) and its
past’ (Thomas 2006:55). Julian Thomas continues, referring to Heidegger’s quality of
‘mineness’, that we can ‘hypothesize how different a person’s experience might be, but
only from [our] own located embodiment’ (ibid). As such an embodied practice of
being in place, we can better understand materiality through the approach of embodiment, or, speaking with Preucel and Meskell ‘specifically addressing the locus of the
body as a material grounding for subjective experience’ (2004:15).
Post-structuralist theory was introduced to the study of material culture in the 1980s.
Early on, Ian Hodder suggested in line with this that material culture could be seen as
analogous to, or read as text (1986). Within archaeology and material culture studies,
this theory has since changed, developed and been subjected to critique. This textual
approach is still central. However, it is central not only for post-structuralism, but also
structuralism and semiotics. In general, it means that language (or text) is used as a
model when analysing material culture. However, the text must not be seen as static. In
the same way as the meaning of a text changes, depending on who reads it, ‘things also
become detached from their context of production and enter into dialogue with other
texts through the dynamic act of interpretation’ (Olsen 2006:90). While the early textual
approach, represented in Hodder’s Reading the Past (1986), focused on origin and argued
that an object out of context could not be read, more recent textual approaches suggest
that things must be re-read by new people in new contexts. This approach is less significant for this study, but a consequence of this textual approach is that if things only
exist when they are spoken of or written about the ‘history of most people, preserved in
unwritten artifacts, escapes into oblivion’ (Glassie 1999:44). This has also been used as
a critique, because the focus on words results in that we miss entire realms of wordless
experience. And this is, on the other hand, more important for this study, as is the
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reading and re-reading of material culture through metaphors, as suggested by Chris
Tilley (1999),
Yet another way of approaching material culture is through memory, tradition and
belonging, and how the collection and presentation of the material culture is significant
in the creation of identities. This approach has its foundation in the idea that all people
have, through their culture, certain rights, from an individual level to one embracing a
larger group (i.e. a village, a nation, or ‘the whole humanity’19). It considers contemporary politics, and how and why material culture is represented, collected, preserved,
displayed, owned, and visited. This, material culture as heritage, is, as I interpret it, the
essence of the approach of Henry Glassie (1999:41).
It is an odd trem, material culture, for culture is immaterial. Culture is pattern in mind,
inward, invisible, and shifting. Material things – red wheelbarrows, for instance – stand
solidly out there in the world. […] Material culture is culture made material; it is the inner wit at work in the world. Beginning necessarily with things, but not ending with
them, the study of material culture uses objects to approach human thought and action.
Exactly this, the unity in things of mind and matter, is the embodiment of personal
and collective identities, which not only is valid for this particular approach to material
culture studies. It can be relevant for all other approaches to material culture that I have
mentioned above, and vice versa: the objectification approach might intermingle with
the phenomenological as well as the textual, which sometimes also overlap the approach that things have life histories or see material culture as heritage.
Chosing one or the other or a mix of these approaches as a point of departure when
studying material culture, will it be in archaeology or in anthropology, often results in
the suggestion of new theories of materiality. However, by thinking through things,
rather than about, the authors of the book Thinking Through Things instead offer a
method for generating a plurality of theories and concepts (Henare et al. 2007). Throughout my project in Vientiane, the methods and the development of methods (for coming
closer to and better understanding the past in the present) have been in focus. Therefore, I am intrigued by the argument put forward in Thinking Through Things: that things
cannot be separated from the meanings that are attached to them. If we do this, instead
of one or the other of the approaches to things or material culture20 mentioned above,
it might be easier to recognise the systems wherein things get their significance, including our own. Therefore, I wish to present and describe the things and the circumstances under which the things and places we surveyed and excavated appeared, but
first a few words about my own points of departure when it comes to definitions of the
concepts.
Material is an ambiguous concept. In its simplest meaning, it refers to things, to the
tangible, existing and concrete. It is real and worldly, in opposition to the imaginary. It
is the physical and fleshy, in opposition to the spiritual. However, as soon as we widen
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our scope and start thinking about materiality, there is room for all that which would
not have been included in the simple definition of a physical thing. I identify materiality
with the way matter or the material is contextualised and conceptualised in culture.
Materiality is not a measurable property inherent in the material, but rather the social
understanding and effect of these qualities and cultural engagement with the matter.
Likewise, immaterial relates to that, which does not have a material, measurable substance, or existence. Yet the immaterial may manifest itself in a cultural context materially. Immateriality is then understood as the way the immaterial is conceptualised in
culture, or expressed through material forms. Precisely because the immaterial does not
exist, for me the main aim of material culture studies is to explore how immateriality is
understood in a local context, and/or materialised, dematerialised or contested.
IMMATERIAL MATERIALITY
As already pointed out in the previous parts, it seems that most people think of Laos’
history as something that began in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. This is also the
point in time when Theravada Buddhism entered the scene and a Buddhist world
started to be generally accepted and adopted by people in this area. Today, Buddhism
officially constitutes the primary religion in Laos. According to official statistics, the
part of the population who consider themselves Buddhists varies between 60 and
95%.21 This statistically vague picture illustrates, I think, more than anything else the
heterogeneous nature of Buddhism in general.
There is a distinction between canonical (or doctrinal) and popular Buddhism,
which is of certain importance here. For the term ‘popular’ I use Donald Swearer’s
definition, in which ‘popular does not mean less serious, less rigorous, or distant from
the idea; rather, it is intended to mean Theravada Buddhism as commonly perceived,
understood, and expressed by the average, traditional […] Laotian’ (1995:6). Canonical
Buddhism is more or less a theoretical construct, and could best be described as that
extreme, religious practice that only, but not always, occurs within the temple and is
performed by the sangha (the Buddhist community or clergy, i.e. monks and nuns). In
canonical Buddhism, materiality is a matter of no concern, whereas in popular Buddhism, materiality becomes extremely significant as people gain merit and tangible
benefits through constantly performing ‘material’ acts that are part of public worship
and ritual. These material acts exist mainly because animism, the belief in spirits, is a
significant part of popular Buddhism. In addition to animism, there is also a belief in
gods of Hindu origin. Therefore, the prevalent religious reality in Laos today is better
represented by these complex and individual mixes of Buddhist, animist and Hindu
beliefs and practices in popular Buddhism, rather than by canonical Buddhism with its
high ideals and otherworldly goals, which is often how Buddhism is understood and
characterised in western academia (Swearer 1995:5ff). I will later describe popular Bud146
THINGS
dhism and how it is practiced in Laos by focusing on certain representations, how they
become empowered and on the act of merit-making. First, however, we look at animism and its relation to Buddhism.
animism
Animism means that spirits animate various kinds of objects. In Laos, the belief in
spirits, or phii, is the most obvious and common expression of animism. Phii are ubiquitous and diverse, and include ‘a wide variety of supernatural agents ranging from those
who are a permanently existing category of supernaturals to those who are transformations of dead human beings’ (Tambiah 1970:263). During my different fieldwork seasons, I tried hard to understand the significance of phii, but realised it was a somewhat
sensitive issue, as my informants often were reluctant to answer my questions about
this (cf. Källén 2004b:105-114). However, after persistently asking about the spirits, I
understood that phii can exist in many different ways. For example, there are the bad,
dangerous and wild spirits residing in nature (such as ‘forest phii’ and ‘phii of the rice
field’), and a number of malevolent spirits that causes illnesses. One can seek protection
and cure against these through the performance of different rites and offerings, or by
wearing certain protective objects, such as amulets or tattoos. Other spirits are protective, such as the khwan. It is believed that the human being has thirty-two khwan. Together, they comprise a unity, which is thought to be a kind of spirit essence (Tambiah
1970:223). However, if one or more of these spirits leave the body, this can also cause
illness. To maintain the balance of or to restore the individual spiritual essence, which
the khwan represent, particular rites are performed: the sukhwan rites, or more commonly known as baci. In addition to the malevolent and protective spirits, there are also
the ancestral and guardian spirits. Maintaining good relations to these often implies
certain rituals and acts at different levels (community, household and individual). One
example is the daily food offerings at the spirit house, which is a miniature house standing in private gardens or temple compounds or elsewhere, and which hosts a beneficent
spirit of the household or of the temple, depending on where it is placed. My understanding of phii is that they are very much present in the everyday life of most people
living in Laos.
Animism and Buddhism are seemingly contradictory. In western academia, this contradiction and basic inconsistency between animism and Buddhism is often recognised
as a categorical opposition. Often, the canonical Buddhism is regarded as the essence
and reality of Buddhism, and is therefore studied. I can agree with that to a certain
extent, because I also use the ideas of canonical Buddhism as the baseline in my study.
For example, I have already mentioned that materiality is a matter of no concern in
canonical Buddhism. But, I am content with that short statement and do not go further
by studying the underlying doctrines for that approach to materiality, since this approach bears little resemblance to the actual practice of Buddhism in Laos. However,
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we still need to be aware of it. Instead of recognising animism and Buddhism as two
opposing religions, I prefer to acknowledge them as necessarily intertwined in a complex way where one is impossible to distinguish from the other. Reading Stanley J.
Tambiah’s Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970), this complexity and
interdependence becomes even more obvious. Tambiah describes the religious practices and beliefs of the people living in a village in northeast Thailand, and shows how
the ritual system is based on the seemingly opposing ideas of Buddhism and animism.
Tambiah argues that this opposition ‘operates within a total field that expresses other
relations, complementarity and a hierarchical ordering’ between Buddhism and animism
(ibid:41, my emphasis). The village he studies is located just south of Vientiane, not
more than thirty kilometres as the crow flies from the Lao border. Even though I have
by no means done such a thorough and well founded study as Stanley Tambiah did in
the 1960s and 70s, I can see how his descriptions correspond to the religious practices
and beliefs among people in Vientiane, and which are therefore direct applicable to my
fieldwork experiences.
popular Buddhism
Let us now briefly move to Viengkham, and further explore the complexity of approaches to materiality in contemporary popular Buddhism in Laos. After the excavations in Viengkham, to which I will return in the next chapter, the intention was to
include one of the excavated bai sema in an exhibition at the Lao National Museum in
Vientiane. However, it seemed impossible to bring the stone to Vientiane, to be part of
the permanent exhibition about ancient Viengkham. The villagers did not dare to let
anything leave the ancient temple site. After attending numerous meetings in the village,
we were finally allowed to borrow the stone, and include it temporarily in the exhibition. Later on, I discussed the incident with monk Sayadeth Khampee from Vat Ong
Teu in Vientiane together with Mr Kanda Keosopha, a former monk and at the time of
the interview employed as an archaeologist at the Lao National Museum. Let us catch a
glimpse of what was said in our discussion about materiality on that occasion.
AK:
SK:
AK:
SK:
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[…] the villagers did not allow us to take the stone to Vientiane.
Yes, because people believe that there are spirits in there and they worship the spirit, the secret things … it has not very much to do with Buddhism, it is animism. Because the Lao people have believed in animism
for a long time, before the Buddhist came in.
But if this group of people in the village, who did not allow us to take
the stone without making a ceremony first, if they were Buddhist monks
all of them, what do you think would have happened?
Buddhist monks are not afraid of the spirits, but they do agree to the
people, to the tradition. Before we do something with the sacred things,
THINGS
AK:
SK:
KK:
SK:
we have to ask the villagers.[…] We care, we care about the material if it
is very old or if it is an image of the Buddha for example. Yes, we care
for it.
So, a Buddha image is more important than a stone?
Yes.
If in the doctrines of the Buddha something is said to be important, then
you have to care for it. If you exactly follow the Buddha, there is no
problem to take away anything. What you want you can take, because the
material was not important for Buddha. The material is in your mind …
in Buddhism spirituality is the most important.
[…]
Materiality for me is the statue of the Buddha. It is a very important
symbol when I pray or conduct a ceremony. Because the statue is the
representation of the Buddha … but the most important is spirituality.
Evident in this discussion is the distinction between villager and monk, between
popular and canonical Buddhism, and also that together they are inseparable. Societal
Buddhism is based on the existence of them both and cannot function without one or
the other. In addition, as monk Khampee points out, materiality may be a matter of
concern, if it is considered a symbol or a representation. A similar discussion with a
group22 from the village Ban Viengkham took place at the old temple site a week after
the stone was moved to Vientiane. They all agreed that the spiritual values are much
more important than the material, but that they need objects and material things for the
power (which from the beginning comes from the Buddha himself and has been transmitted since then) to ‘pour through’ and maintain the spiritual values in society. Spirituality is most important, but in practice, materiality is compulsory as spirits empower
objects and give them agency. This agency illustrates materiality and spirituality’s dialogic relation – they are two sides of the same coin.
Most people who consider themselves pious Buddhists today in Laos are surrounded
by different kinds of things and material objects, or representations, important and
necessary in their everyday-life religious practices. Images in different forms and shapes
are one example.
The first Buddha image was produced 400 years after the death of Buddha, but legends say that depictions had already been fashioned during his lifetime. There is, for
example, one Jataka tale that tells of King Pasenadi of Kosala, who made a sandalwood
image so that the inhabitants of Sravasti would have something to worship when the
Buddha was out of town (Strong, 2002: 39ff). When a Buddhist is offering flowers, or
lighting a candle before the Buddha image, it is not an act of worship because the Buddhist is not praying to anyone. The image serves as a medium for concentration, aiming
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for inspiration to find the right way. It is used not as an idol, but as an object of representation. This applies not only to the Buddha image, but also to many sorts of objects,
places or actions that bring to mind the person of the Buddha. These representations
are often referred to as ‘reminders’. It is not the physical form and fabric of these reminders that are of importance, but rather that the Buddha’s attainment is symbolised
by them, and as such, they act as a ‘field of merit’ (Tambiah 1970:45).
The most common (and for the majority most important) image of the Buddha used
today for religious practices is the Buddha statue, of which we often find numerous
examples in temples. Other kinds of images are printed pictures and paintings. Often
the images have a story or a certain representation, which imbues them with significance and personality, and which is the basis for its religious value. In that way, the
religious value is another than the archaeological or art historical value, which has more
to do with form and fabric.
The amulet is another kind of image, very common and popular in Laos (and
throughout the whole Southeast Asia). Apart from the fact that amulet collecting has
become a fine art, these are the most common items of Buddhist belief that people use
in their everyday life. Possessing an amulet aims primarily at being protected from evil
spirits, to bring good luck and to give the wearer a sense of wellbeing (Bunnag
1984:168). Most efficient and valuable are amulets that have been made or consecrated
by special saintly monks, or are depicted with famous monks or famous Buddha statues, or made of the remains from a sacred object (scraps of plaster or bronze from
famous images or stupas).
In addition to Buddha images, reminders also include relics of the Buddha’s body.
The remains after his cremation, primarily bone and teeth fragments, were divided and
distributed by his disciples over the whole of South Asia, and further on to Southeast
and East Asia together with the teachings of the Buddha. One of India’s great emperors, King Ashoka who ruled three hundred years after Buddha’s death, was closely
involved in this transmission of Buddhism. As the relics were spread, they were enshrined in stupas. Even though the relics themselves are the most sacred and important
reminders for a Buddhist, since they are a direct connection to and offer as close a
relation as possible to the actual person Buddha, stupas have also become a strong
symbol for the Buddha. A stupa functions as an instrument through which the significance of Buddha’s life reaches people in the present (Byrne 1993).
True for all these reminders are that they are attributed with power, or are power (cf.
Holbraad 2007:189-225). This clearly illustrates the merging of Buddhism and animism,
as these obviously Buddhist objects (Buddha images, stupas and amulets) become animated with spiritual power through different kinds of animistic and magical sacralisation rituals. By empowering objects, they become storage places for the spiritual values.
And it is the spiritual value that has to be maintained, and therefore, at some stage, the
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THINGS
material container needs to be destroyed so that the spirit can continue to animate
another object or material container. Referring back to the discussion I had with the
villagers of Ban Viengkham concerning the stone, this is similar to what they describe
as the ‘pouring through’.
Returning to the amulets, we can see that this is exactly one of their functions too:
to store and be a container for the power from the Buddha, giving protection and good
luck. Even though, in case of some of the amulets, the material from which they are
made is reused from an ancient stupa or temple building, it is not because of material
authenticity. Material authenticity is ascribed objects that are true and in their original
state. This concept of authenticity privilege mainly unchanged conditions and presupposes a linear time perception, where appreciation and value grow the closer we come
to the original state. Material authenticity is also one of the foundations and appreciated
in heritage management practice. However, authenticity in popular Buddhism is more
about to what extent the object is empowered. It is not dependent on age or the material’s originality. Exploring religious practices and beliefs and the production and use of
images in Thailand, Denis Byrne writes that it is more relevant to talk about authenticity
established via performance in a Southeast Asian Buddhist context than about material
authenticity (1993). In this way, new images are constantly produced and recreated and
must establish their own identities, which give them authenticity if they contain spiritual
values that have been poured through from another object. It is exactly this act of making new containers that is central in merit-making.
There is a reciprocal relationship between the sangha and the laity. Laypersons provide
monks and nuns with material donations and necessities and receive in return not only
Buddha’s teaching words (dhamma), but also merit. Merit is what accumulates as a result
of good actions and thoughts that a Buddhist undertakes in life and the only thing a
person can take with her/him when s/he dies. Making merit during a person’s lifetime
can contribute to a better life after rebirth and ultimately to liberation.
There are different ways in which merit can be gained. Doctrinally speaking, a layperson must follow the overall principles of ethical behaviour directed by the Buddha,
and also pray and actively conduct meditation. However, in reality, focus is on good
actions in general, which is the first step towards increased merit. Giving is the most
common in a layperson’s everyday life. In practice, it means daily food offerings to the
sangha and also, more occasionally, donation of clothes and other supplies. Monks primarily gain merit through meditation and by strictly following the precepts of the
dhamma, which for a monk or a nun are many more than for a layperson. By financing
or financially contributing to ceremonies and the building of stupas and temples, a
person or a group of people can gain an even higher amount of merit. The more costly
the act is, the better are the chances for increased merit, and to completely finance the
construction of a new temple is often seen as the most meritorious act. Accordingly, it
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is sometimes better to build a new than repairing an old, which also applies to what was
said earlier about the puoring through. When, for example, a new temple is built, the
old must be destroyed so that the spiritual values can pour through and be maintained
within the new temple. This is also connected to the notion of impermanence, to which
I will come back in chapter 10.
The picture becomes even more complex when adding political ideology to religion.
Laos is a Buddhist nation and at the same time a communist state. Since the 1950s,
when the communist resistance movement was organised, religion (formally and more
outspoken) started to merge with politics. After 1975, when Lao People’s Revolutionary
Party seized power and present-day Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was
established, it was taught in political seminars that Buddhism and Marxism were
founded on similar grounds, namely that all men are equal, and that Buddhism and
Marxism followed the same fundamental aim, which is to seek well-being through the
elimination of suffering (Stuart-Fox 1996). Monks were now forbidden to preach and
were kept away from their traditional participation in village activities. Instead, they
were re-educated and forced to act as teachers of the socialist program. A direct result
of this was that the number of monks declined, many temples stood empty and common people were afraid of participating in public religious ceremonies.
However, since the 1980s, there has been a resurgence of Buddhism in official political ideology, and it is now a fact that religion has returned to the political scene.
Vatthana Pholsena and Ruth Banomyong write that Lao political leaders linked themselves to religious and spiritual renewal ‘in order to better control its popular manifestations, but also and above all to profit by this source of legitimacy’ (2006:160). Religious
practices are not only allowed but also decreed, which is made possible because the
sangha remains under the control of the government. This particular alliance between
the state and the religion characterises Lao national culture, and is today conceived and
paraded by the regime as ‘a mixture of socialist discourse, Buddhist rituals, and the
demonstrations of “multi-ethnic” culture’ (ibid:161).
To conclude, popular Buddhism with its roots in canonical Buddhism is together with
animism the means through which materiality is understood in the specific context in
which I have been working. Moving between canonical Buddhism, where materiality is
a matter of no concern, through animism that holds the idea that things are essential,
materiality is indeed important in popular Buddhism. Nonetheless, it differs from the
way archaeologists and historians approach material culture, i.e. that things can reveal
something about the past and are important just because they are old.
Materiality is important, but from a contemporary perspective. Images, relics, stupas
and other things have agency, they are material and at the same time possess immaterial
values. Materiality is also crucial for the act of merit-making. However, it should be
noted here that although most people in Laos consider themselves pious Buddhists,
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they have enthusiastically adopted capitalist materiality. Primarily, this holds for those
living in and around the main cities, a group that includes approximately half the population of the country (Sisouphanthong and Taillard 2000:36). Despite this and despite
the fact that popular Buddhism is influenced by communism, things are primarily important as containers for spiritual values, which are equivalent to stability and continuity
in life and society. As such, spiritual values are also the connection to the past.
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8. VIENGKHAM AND SAY FONG
Before moving to Viengkham and Say Fong we stay for a while in Vientiane. I want us
to see the results of the second part of the survey in 2003, before we focus on the material and immaterial culture of Viengkham and Say Fong specifically. In this survey, I
adopted a method to explore different concepts used when talking about and thinking
of things, heritage and history in general, and therefore I present this first as a foundation for further discussions about material and immaterial culture.
It was partly the story about the jar, told in the introduction to previous chapter, and
all the other similar stories I heard later that inspired me to develop a method based on
photo interviewing and photo elicitation. Here, I aimed at understanding how things
are thought of and valued, how their qualities and characteristics are appreciated, and
how they relate to the past, to age and to time. By showing photos of things, organised
into different groups, and asking questions about them, the aim was to identify individual concepts used when describing and comparing these things. The next step was to
identify how these characteristics were valued in relation to each other. Same persons
were then asked to rank different objects that could be described with the same characteristics as identified in the first step. As a final step in this photo elicitation, the interviewee was asked to take photos on her or his own with a single use camera. The interviewees were asked to document things or places in their surrounding that they considered important in relation to the past.
Not unexpectedly, the things on the photos were described and compared according
to their age, size, physical and visual (aesthetic) quality, and function. Other related
concepts were concerned with ritual and religion as well as with authenticity, tradition
and nationalism. Characterisations involving identity, monumentality, education and
skills were also made, although not very often. When the interviewees later ranked these
concepts, it turned out concerning age and size that new and large were values more
appreciated than old and small. Authentic and traditional materials, instead of modern
ones, were preferred in relation to visual quality. In contrast, modern materials were
considered to represent better physical quality, and therefore good for use, which in
turn was valued more than qualities that made the thing pleasant to look at. One of the
interviewees in Ban Say Fong Neua explained that even if his wooden house, built on
poles in a ‘traditional Lao style’, was beautiful, he wished (by all means!) he could afford
a concrete house instead. Concrete, he said, was such a strong and durable material so
that he would not need to rebuild his house during his lifetime. On the other hand,
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there was more likely that the few tourists that passed this area would choose to buy the
textiles his wife was weaving if she sat working on the ground beneath the floor of the
traditional Lao house standing on poles. Still, he most of all wanted a concrete house.
This would neither affect his economy as the textiles could be sold in Vientiane instead,
nor his identity as living in a concrete house on the ground would not make him less
authentically Lao – he wanted modernity on his own terms. When discussing use and
function, religious and ritual purposes were argued for above all. In addition, quality
and function were in general appreciated more than age and size.
When the photos taken by the interviewees were developed, it turned out that places
were more frequent than things as a motif. Places, which primarily had connections to
ancestors or to events in the past that could be heard of in local legends and myths.
Ancient objects seemed to be important in relation to the past, almost only if they had
to do with people’s ritual life. The things were appreciated foremost as containers for
the spiritual values that were enveloped by the things’ form and fabric. Because of this,
things are of course of greatest importance in the present-day situation, where people
use them as links to the immaterial and spiritual. The past is imminent in the present,
and ancient objects are no static historical matter, but have different kinds of values and
agency. We will explore this in the present chapter, following on an introduction to the
two sites: Viengkham and Say Fong.
During the survey in Vientiane, another story reached our ears more and more often. It
took some time for me to realise that the story was not about Vientiane and its city
walls, but another town further up north: Viengkham, or Phai Naam city. Here is a
short rendering of what Mr Keo Pila in Ban Nong Sang Tho told us:
Once upon a time, a man called Thao Xieng-Mung governed Vientiane. He had a son, Phragna
Pao, who ruled the region to the north, which was called Meuang Viengkham. Its main city was
Phai Naam, surrounded by an earthen rampart strengthened by thick and thorny (naam in Lao)
bamboo (phai in Lao) bushes.
King Fa Ngum’s ambition to create the kingdom of Lan Xang meant that he had to conquer
vast areas, Vientiane and Meuang Viengkham included. 20 000 men and 500 elephants gathered under Thao Xieng-Mung to protect Vientiane. Phragna Pao joined them, but when his
father died in the battle, he retreated with his men to Viengkham. Fa Ngum sent his strongest
men to capture Phai Naam, but they failed, as the high earthen rampart and natural barrier of
thick bamboo was impossible to break through. Fa Ngum’s army used a clever ruse: they shot
gold and silver arrows into the bamboo thicket, and then retreated to their camps across the
river to wait. As the people of Phai Naam discovered the treasure buried in their wall, they cut
away the vegetation to access it, thereby weakening their main defense. Fa Ngum’s army
seized the opportunity and with it, Phai Naam. Since then the city was no longer called Phai
Naam. It got its new name: Viengkham, which means the city (vieng in Lao) of gold (kham in
Lao).
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Still surveying the villages of Vientiane, my thoughts traversed the outer city walls of
Vientiane and landed somewhere in a, for me, imagined landscape one or two hours
travel north from the city. During our interviews, Viengkham was frequently mentioned
as Vientiane’s ‘twin city’ and as significant as Vientiane in historic times.
In some ways, Viengkham is an even more wonderful place than Vientiane. It is located in the northernmost part of the Khorat plateau and with the same kind of topography and climate as Vientiane. Viengkham is distant enough from the city to allow the
feeling of being in the countryside. Ban Viengkham is a small village with approximately
500 inhabitants in Meuang Viengkham, which is a district in the province of Vientiane.
The village is situated on the west bank, and at a sharp bend, of the Nam Ngum river.
It is the larger area of Meuang Viengkham that is related to in the narratives about
historical Vientiane/Viengkham.
To reach Viengkham you either take the eastern road north, which is also the old
road to Luang Prabang, or the western, the new Luang Prabang road from Vientiane. If
you choose the old road, you have to cross the Nam Ngum river at two places. You
also follow and move close enough the Phu Khao Khouay mountains to realise their
grandeur, and pass Ban Keun, which is one of the major villages in Vientiane province,
a principal market place. Driving along the river makes you realise how important this
artery is, because gardens and fields and lush growth occur much more frequently than
in, from a river perspective, remote villages. The western route passes by Vientiane
province’s administrative centre, Phonhong. It is not a particularly large village, but
rather a widespread area consisting of several small villages, which function as a centre
mainly because roads cross here. One road continues north to Luang Prabang and the
other continues east to Viengkham and Ban Thalat, which is just close to the shores of
the Nam Ngum reservoir.23
Off the main road, just before reaching the ferryboat over Nam Ngum, there is a
small dirt road towards the south, following the river. After almost an hour, we finally
reach Ban Viengkham. This is also the end of the road, and a raft taking no cars is the
only continuation across the river to Ban Keun. During the rainy season, the destination is hardly accessible from the north, because the road is in a very bad condition. In
Ban Viengkham, most residents are farmers. During the last decade, the basic conditions for farming have improved, owing to newly constructed irrigation systems. The
old part of the village is located around the ancient temple site, Vat Kao, while the new
part is along the road where also the modern temple, inhabited by a monk and a few
novices, is located. On the opposite side of the river at Vat Kao is the village Ban Viengkeo, which frequently was mentioned together with Viengkham as an important
historical place.
After a first, and very brief, archaeological survey in and around Viengkham I could
identify a clear correspondence with the already mentioned Dvaravati and Mon sites,
which started to appear in central and eastern Thailand one thousand five hundred
157
Vat Vieng Phra Keo is one of the ’military camps’ in
Ban Viengkeo.
Don Kang with Nong Seun, surrounding it.
This bai sema with stupa relief is
one of the stones that surround Vat
Phra Bang at the ancient temple
site Vat Kao in Ban Viengkham.
Map of Viengkham with sites mentioned in the text.
THINGS
years ago. We observed numerous bai sema, the sacred border markers that are so characteristic to these sites, in many villages along the way to, and not least within, Viengkham. Furthermore, I associated the small island Don Kang southwest of the village
with the moated sites in central Thailand: a form that is typical for the early Dvaravati
sites. The ancient wall that surrounded and protected Viengkham hundreds of years ago
was well known among the villages’ inhabitants. Some parts of it were easy to follow,
others had totally disappeared, and sometimes we could follow its direction by just
following traces of a moat. We were also shown the remains of a wooden structure,
once the bridge between Viengkham and Viengkeo. Where the bridge had reached
Viengkeo is now the main temple in the village. This is an ancient temple site, but also
talked about as the main ‘military camp’. Our informants told us there were four others
near by. They had all been used as camps for the soldiers that accompanied king
Sethathirat on his way when he moved the Lan Xang capital from Luang Prabang to
Vientiane in 1556. The king himself resided in the ancient temple in Viengkeo. Having
seen these ‘military camps’ plotted on a map at the Ministry of Information and Culture’s office for Vientiane province, I found their form and extension comparable to
the island southwest of Viengkham. This corner of Vientiane province was obviously a
promising focus for my final fieldwork season.
Not far to the south of Vientiane is an area of lush growth where fertile soil and a generous water supply ensure abundant harvests. The area is called Say Fong, a place that I
came across early on in my search for sites important in the urban development in and
around Vientiane. In Vientiane, it is famous for its rich soil and as the area where the
best vegetables and tobacco grow. The modern district of Meuang Hadsayfong
stretches along the Mekong about forty kilometres in an east-west direction, with its
administrative centre Ban Tha Deua. This village is also an important port and it was
here that the first bridge across the lower Mekong (the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge)
opened in 1994.
Along the shores of the Mekong, at the very southernmost knob-like piece of land
in this district the villages Ban Say Fong Neua and Ban Say Fong Tay are located with
500-1000 inhabitants each. They are situated some 20 kilometres south of the city centre of Vientiane, and constitute the central area of what was the ancient Meuang Nyai
Say Fong (nyai means great or large). In all of the few existing Lao history books that I
encountered, Say Fong was mentioned as the northermost limit and city of the Khmer
empire when this kingdom was on the zenith of its greatness a thousand years ago.
Similar versions were referred to among the scholars connected to both the Department of Museums and Archaeology at the Ministry of Information and Culture and the
Lao National Museum. I soon realised the reason to this conventional view. In the
temple museum Vat Ho Phra Keo, the proof was standing in a corner – a stone stele
with inscriptions proclaiming that this was the place where a hospital was built, by
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Jayavarman VII, one of the Khmer kings of Angkor in Cambodia. The French scholar
Georges Maspero brought the stele to the museum in 1902. Maspero then claimed that
he had ‘discovered the ruined Khmer city of Say Fong’. He writes in his BEFEO (Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient) article Say Fong – Une Ville Morte:
C’est en parcourant ces forêts qu’un jour, en mars 1902, je fus amené à retrouver les
traces d’une ville morte dont le souvenir même a presque disparu. […] C’est au fond de
la grande boucle formée par ce lacet du fleuve, sur la rive gauche, en face de MuangKuk, que dort dans la forêt cette ville qui dut autrefois couvrir ces rives d’animation et
de mouvement. Maintenant quelques pauvres cases laotiennes, cachées sous les arbres,
très hauts et très touffus en cet endroit, n’y forment plus qu’un hameau tranquille et silencieux que les gens du pays appellent Say-Fong. Les ruines, à peine visibles au ras du
sol, sont délaissées depuis des siècles.24
The stele he found in Say Fong was evidence enough to suggest that the Khmer empire must have controlled the whole Mekong valley, and that Say Fong was the northernmost outpost of this strong and powerful empire (Maspero 1903:1-17, Finot
1903:18-33). Most scholars have since agreed with this statement. For example, Martin
Stuart-Fox argues that Say Fong was a Khmer garrison town during the reign of
Jayavarman VII, and that the Khmer empire controlled the region north of Vientiane
(1998:32). However, this theory has been questioned in recent years. Michel Lorrillard
suggests instead that the stone might have been moved during the fifteenth or sixteenth
century, when Say Fong was a large trading centre together with Viang Khuk on the
opposite side of the Mekong. His hypothesis is that the stele came to Say Fong from a
site a hundred kilometres further south: Ban Phan Na i Sakon Nakorn province, Thailand (Lorrillard 2001). Lorrillard argues that Mon people inhabited this area during the
last centuries of the first millennium, but also that ‘Vientiane is without doubt one of
these places which was inhabited from early times by several types of population’
(2006a, 2006b:397f). Souneth Phothisane holds a somewhat more nationalistic approach when interpreting the history of Say Fong. He argues that a local style and tradition, or rather a local culture, developed in this particular area at an early stage, simultaneously with the growing Khmer empire around Angkor, and that it included influences
from both Khmer and Mon/Dvaravati cultures. He labels this indigenous tradition as
‘the Say Fong culture’ and the material culture within this tradition is of ‘Say Fong
style’. Thus, what later on became the Lao culture has its roots in this early ‘Say Fong
culture’ (Phothisane 2000).
In Vientiane there are however some things that need to be mentioned in connection to this. As described earlier, one of the city walls is rectangular and built up by soil.
According to legends in the villages around these remains, this is the oldest and the first
city wall of Vientiane, constructed in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. Stylistically, it
might also be connected to Khmer influences, as the Khmer urban layouts are generally
160
Map of Say Fong with sites mentioned in the text.
Some of the remains of Say Fong’s numerous temples.
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
very symmetrical and geometrically structured. There is also a system of canals leading
from the city wall to That Luang, which is located outside the wall, on its eastern side.
In the 1930s, a rectangular terrace was discovered close to That Luang, and interpreted
as a baray (pond or water tank), which is generally one of the elements always present in
a Khmer urban plan. During the same occasion, an ancient stupa was found inside the
monument at That Luang. Later interpretations claim that this might be evidence for an
early Khmer occupation of Vientiane (Phimmasone 1954:96). However, even if there is
stylistically a clear correspondence to Khmer culture in Vientiane, it is not evidence for
that Vientiane was included in the Khmer empire.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS 2003-2004
When I returned to Laos for the final fieldwork period in late 2003, my objectives were
to strengthen the archaeological framework and to dig deeper into the contested histories of Viengkham and Say Fong. This led me to consider excavation. The most suitable
method to use for a small-scale project like this turned out to be a test pit excavation,
because the aims were kept very basic.
For my archaeological analysis, the aim was to find out what kind of remains were
represented at the sites, how old they were, and to what kind of contexts they belonged.
In Viengkham, I was particularly interested in the centuries that preceeded the thirteenth century. My aim was to explore whether there could be connections to the
Dvaravati and Mon cultures. I also wanted to better understand the distribution and
composition of cultural material in the areas that had been identified during the survey:
the moated site Don Kang that represented an early urban settlement, the bai sema that
represented connections to Dvaravati and Mon, the city walls and ancient temple site in
Ban Viengkham that represented a later urban phase, and Ban Viengkeo and the military camps on the opposite side of the Nam Ngum river. In Say Fong, my main concern was to explore the relation to the Khmer empire. I also aimed at getting a more
complete understanding of the sixteenth century and Say Fong’s significance in relation
to Vientiane, which at that time became the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom. The
method of excavation was worked out to suit these kinds of questions, and consisted of
trenches 1x1 or 1x2 metres, and sometimes extended even further. For more specific
details on excavation methods and results, see the report Viengkham and Say Fong archaeological excavations 2003-2004 (Karlström et al. 2005).
I wanted to continue to work closely with those who lived near these places, because I was now primarily interested in how the past is perceived today, and not only
about the past in itself (or the different pasts), the archaeological framework. I decided
where to excavate together with the villagers, so that my archaeological story could
share space with other stories about the places and their pasts in my interpretations
about the present. The interviews continued, both informal and formal, more struc162
THINGS
tured. They were conducted at the particular excavation sites, during excavation, and in
the villages surrounding the sites. The objectives were to collect stories about the pasts
of these places, to explore the significance of material culture and immaterial culture,
and to better undersatand different perceptions about heritage and preservation, which
resulted in the following paragraphs, and part IV of the thesis. Results from the excavations were also displayed at the Lao National Museum in Vientiane in the exhibitions
Viengkham – the bamboo city and Say Fong – city of 300 temples, which opened in June 2004.
military camps and moated sites
Moated sites start to appear on the Khorat plateau during the Iron Age, as indicated by
archaeological investigations and excavations conducted over the last decades (e.g.
Boisselier 1968, Bronson 1976, 1979, Indrawooth 1999, 2004:125-142, Moore 1988).
This is the most common form among sites identified as the earliest cities in this area,
and a result of centralised authority and ranked social structures (Higham 2002:224).
The common archaeological explanation behind moat constructions is most likely a
need for defence, but also of water control. These settlements most often also include
cemeteries and centres for manufacture, and indicate a continuous occupation from
Iron Age to the development of states. After our first survey, Don Kang, the island
near Viengkham, Viengkham itself with its surrounding wall and moats, and the ‘military camps’ on the opposite side of the river, seemed all to coincide with the settlement
pattern of the early moated sites.
One of six trenches excavated in Viengkham (VK3) was decided to be on one of the
‘military camps’, in Ban Meun Man. As it seemed impossible to excavate at the main
‘military camp’, the one at the temple site in Ban Viengkeo, we instead choose the second largest (of a total of five). These two sites had also been identified in the survey
with higher concentrations of phosphates (used as an indicator of a variety of human
activities) than the other three. However, at the moated site in Ban Meun Man we excavated a small 1x1 m testpit. There was a rather thin cultural layer about 50-60 cm below
ground, from which no charcoal of good enough quality to use for carbon dating could
be extracted. The excavated material primarily consisted of potsherds. Their material
composition, form and design correspond stylistically to the sixteenth century pottery
that is found in Vientiane (cf. Hein et al. 1989), but we also found small amounts of
earthenware pottery, predating the sixteenth century stoneware. All five ‘military camps’
are between 150 and 200 metres in diameter. Their size and location did not exactly
correspond to what was shown on the map I had previously seen. A possible archaeological interpretation, so far, of these sites is that they were used as settlements only
during the sixteenth century, and thus not contemporary with the moated sites that
later on developed into urban centres. They seem too small and are located too close to
each other. However, the temple site at Viengkeo might as well have had some connection to what is more likely to have been the earliest settlement; Viengkham, on the
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other side of the river. It is possible that a settlement’s ritual space was located outside
the site itself. At the Iron Age site Lao Pako, for example, there are stories about cemeteries located further downstream or on the opposite side of the river (cf. Källén
2004a:72f, 223-229), so that the dead person’s travel to the afterlife began with the boat
ride from the village to the cemetery. The remains of the ancient bridge between Viengkham and Viengkeo could also point at this connection. During the survey, and later
on during the excavation campaign, it was made very clear that the temple site in Viengkeo was such a sacred place (resulting in that we were not allowed to dig there) and
associated with lots of spiritual power and history. At that particular site, we heard
many different stories about the past. This is how two men from the village told their
story, when we first surveyed the site in March 2003:
The emerald Buddha statue was sculptured in India five hundred years after the death of Buddha. When it was created, seven relics of the Buddha were placed in it. After hundreds of years
of moving around, first to Sri Lanka, then to Angkor and subsequently to Ayutthaya, it was finally
installed in Chiang Rai. To hide it from enemies – because it was so precious and valuable – it
was covered by plaster and leaf gold and stored in a stupa. More than five hundred years ago,
the stupa was struck by lightning, the plaster partly fell off and the emerald revealed. The king of
Chiang Mai heard about this precious object and sent a procession of elephants to bring the
Buddha statue to Chiang Mai. When the procession arrived in Lampang they could not continue, because the elephants became suddenly very worried and ran towards the city. So, the
image had to be left in Lampang. However, after some fifty years, a special stupa was built in
Chiang Mai, and the Phra Keo could finally be moved.
At that time, king Phothisarat was the ruler of Lan Xang kingdom. He had a son, Sethathirat.
At a very young age, he became the king of Chiang Mai. After another ten years, king
Phothisarat died. Sethathirat became the new king of Lan Xang and moved to Luang Prabang,
and naturally, he brought the emerald Buddha there. When later on he decided to move the
capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the emerald Buddha was also supposed to move. On
the way from Luang Prabang, king Sethathirat and his armies had to stay and rest at a particular place. They stayed for a long time and because of the Phra Keo, this village has been called
Viengkeo since then, and the temple Vat Vieng Phra Keo. The army consisted of many men
and they had to spread out over the surroundings to protect the king and his closest men, using
the moated sites as camps. When Vat Ho Phra Keo, which was supposed to store the emerald
Buddha, finally was built in Vientiane, they left Ban Viengkeo and continued. In Vientiane, the
Phra Keo remained for more than 200 years, but now you can see it in Bangkok.
Referring back to chapter 5 and my confusion about the moated sites’ location, I
could not come to any conclusions about that. I was, and am still, puzzled about their
spatial and temporal relations. However, when leaving Ban Viengkeo I at least got to
know something about the sixteenth century in the kingdom of Lan Xang, to fasten to
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THINGS
the brittle thread of events constituting the fabric of settlement developments I aimed
at weaving during this project.
The second trench (VK6) we excavated was located on Don Kang, the island
southwest of Viengkham. If the five ’military camps’ on the other side of the river were
too small to be interpreted as moated sites and early urban-like settlements, this could
more likely be interpreted as such a site. The island measures approximately 1400 by
700 metres and on a first visit we collected surface finds, mainly potsherds, along parts
of its shores. In addition to these traces of more physical character, there were many
stories about the place that were told to us while we were speaking about the past with
people in the surrounding villages. When we came back to Vientiane and the Lao National Museum after our first stay in Viengkham, the museum director called us to his
office. He asked us if we were pleased so far, with what we had found. This is what I
wrote in my notebook after the meeting:
Our report aroused something within him, and we soon realised why. He was born in this area,
the ancient Meuang Viengkham, in the neighbouring village to Ban Viengkham. In between
these two villages, two to three kilometres to the west, is an island, which he was eager to tell
us about. This island is called Don Kang, and it is surrounded by Nong Seun, a tributary to the
Nam Ngum river. The museum director grabbed a small piece of paper from his desk, and drew
us a map. The king of Phii had inhabited the island for as long as anybody could remember.
However, this, the mightiest of all phii, was not alone on Don Kang; the whole island was filled
with other sorts of phii. Stories say that Don Kang was the place where kings had been living
since time immemorial; all the kings and rulers who preceded Fa Ngum resided at Don Kang.
The island also played an important role when Fa Ngum conquered Viengkham, because
Phragna Phao and his men used it as a kind of ‘military camp’.
Owing to the intense presence of phii, no one dared to go ashore on the island, not even to
go fishing in its surrounding waters, which was called Nong Nyai (the big (nyai) water/lake
(nong)) at the time. In the 1950s, Prince Phetsarath25 went to Nong Nyai, and defied the risk of
disrupting the phii by setting out in a boat, from which he caught a fish. This he was able to do
because of his royal saksit power (which is the same as supernatural powers, ascribed to certain people). After this occasion, neither the surrounding water nor the island were dangerous to
visit. Nong Nyai was renamed to Nong Seun (the Lao word seun can be translated to invitation),
and from then on, people have been fishing there. The place is still regarded as sacred as Vat
Kao in Ban Viengkham.
There are also other stories about this place. One is about underground passages between
the island, the temple and the river. These are there for the naga, who then can move independently between these places. Another story is about rockets. During Boun Bang Fai celebrations a long time ago, rockets were fired from the temple area in Ban Viengkham. The first
rocket landed on Don Kang. The second also landed there, but was sent back like a boomerang
by angry phii and killed a little girl from the village.
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After a brief survey across the island, we could discern three mounds. They were a
few hundred metres long and between three and ten metres wide, running in parallel in
north-south direction. After discussions with the village chiefs in Ban Viengkham and
the neighbouring village, the excavation permission was signed and we were allowed to
open a 1x1 metre testpit just on top of one of these mounds. Owing to the presence of
phii at the island, we had to begin the excavation (as always, but particularly here) with a
ceremony to show our respect for the phii and that we were aware of their presence. At
the end of the first day, we had reached a depth of 120 cm. Not a single potsherd was
found, and no traces whatsoever of earlier cultural layers. It was reported, from the
house where we borrowed the boat to go to the island, that bone and a jar had been
found in the fields close by, earlier the same day. We interpreted this as a serious try to
get us to think of other things and to put an end to the excavation on the island.
Therefore, we agreed to switch focus and close our excavation trench. The jar, in which
fragments of burnt bone were placed, seemed to be of quite recent date. It had probably been buried around two or three hundred years ago, according to similarities with
jars found in Vientiane (cf. Hein et al. 1989).
temples and stones
The four remaining trenches were excavated in Ban Viengkham. When we first came
there, it did not take long until we were directed towards Vat Kao, the ancient and since
long abandoned temple site in the outskirts of the village. I soon realised this was the
most sacred place, which people from the villages around would not even dream of
visiting alone. Off the main village road, we turned towards the Nam Ngum river and
passed through lush fruit gardens. Where this beautiful setting turned into bamboo
thickets and seemingly impenetrable bushes, two mounds appeared in front of us, surrounded by standing stones, bai sema. On top of the largest mound, there was a small tin
roof on poles covering some weather-beaten Buddha statues, burnt out candles and
incense sticks, and some plates of rice. This place, with its visible remains from past
times and evident markers of sanctity, came to be as important to me as to the villagers,
although from different perspectives and for different reasons.
Stories, which constantly accompanied our survey and excavation at the site, revealed tangible as well as intangible values and appreciations of this place. One thing,
which played an important part concerning both these aspects, was the Phra Bang, the
Golden Buddha. Mr Pau, who helped us in our investigation of the site, introduced us
to his mother, who had lived in the village all her life. We had all our meals in Pau’s
house, and his mother sometimes came and kept us company. Her vivid memory and
lively descriptions of former times in the village kept us absorbed long after our meals
were finished. She also told us her version of the story of the Phra Bang:
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THINGS
Hundreds of years ago, before the Lan Xang kingdom was founded, a people called kha inhabited this village. They believed strongly in the power of spirits and their dead ancestors. When
king Fa Ngum had conquered Phai Naam city, he soon decided to send a Buddhist mission
there, to stop the spirit cults from being practiced by its inhabitants. When the mission arrived
from Cambodia, where Fa Ngum’s father-in-law was king, they brought a golden Buddha statue.
This statue, the Phra Bang, was supposed to be installed in the kingdom of Lan Xang to inspire
its people to become pious buddhists.
The mission arrived in Viengkham, but when they were to continue to the capital Xieng Dong
Xieng Thong, they had to leave the Phra Bang in Viengkham, because the statue was impossible to move further. First, the two strongest men tried to move it, but without success. Then four
strong men tried together, but it was still impossible to move it. Eight men collected their whole
strength for a try, but the Phra Bang was too heavy. When 16 men did not succeed, they gave
up fighting against the divine forces. Instead, it was decided that a temple, Vat Phra Bang, was
to be built to host the Buddha statue. After 150 years in Viengkham, the Phra Bang was finally
taken to Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, which was still the capital of Lan Xang. Then the city
changed its name to Luang Prabang, meaning the Golden Phra Bang. It is because of the
remains of this temple here in Viengkham we know that this is the old Vat Phra Bang, and that
is why we are afraid…
There she stopped and after a few moments, she changed her mind and said instead,
‘no, that is why we respect this place’. After finishing that meal, Pau’s mother went
together with us to the ancient temple site, and she continued to tell us another story of
the place:
In a neighbouring village many, many years ago, there was a monk, who was originally from
Thailand. He gathered a group of eleven people, went to this place and planned to find gold. As
an old and important temple, we all know that there must be lots of gold buried in its ruins. So,
when the monk came there, he first prayed for a long time and then one of his helpers threw an
onion in different places on the ground. Where the onion started to turn around on its own was
the right spot for finding what they searched for. Close to the ruined temple, they dug a two
metre deep hole, but soon they heard strange sounds, deep and muffled, almost like elephants
screaming far away. Suddenly, the police came and took them all to prison. That time we were
lucky, at least if we compare with what happened before that. A group of people came here to
take one of the stones from Vat Phra Bang to Vientiane. It was a very beautiful stone filled with
inscriptions (it can nowadays be admired at the Vat Ho Phra Keo museum in Vientiane). After it
was removed from here a few people in the village became very, very ill, and one even died.
This place is really important, and that is why we come here to continuously honour Buddha and
offer to the spirits of our dead ancestors…
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Some days before this event, the village chief and some of his staff welcomed us to
Ban Viengkham. It was decided that we were allowed to excavate at Vat Kao, the ancient temple site with its two mounds. The well-known Vat Phra Bang turned out to be
the smaller of the two mounds. The other mound, the remains of Vat Poa, lay only
about ten metres away. The little shrine with Buddha statues was placed at the western
end of Vat Poa. In ancient times, there was one temple for men and another for
women. This was the men’s temple (poa means husband in Lao). Soon, the village chief
and his group also showed the ancient women’s temple to us. A heap of bricks and a
small, rectangular mound at Ban Viengkham’s modern temple site constituted the remains of this temple, Vat Mia (mia means wife).
A Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) measurement project for historic sites in Vientiane province was implemented in February 2004, owing to cooperation between the
physics departments at the National University of Laos, the Prince of Songkla University in Thailand and Uppsala University in Sweden. Detailed information about methods and outcomes are found in the report Ground penetrating radar measurement for historic
sites in Vientiane, Lao PDR (Phommasone 2004). One of the chosen sites included Vat
Phra Bang and Vat Poa in Viengkham. Even though the temple structures were already
clearly distinguished above ground, it was useful to do the GPR measurements on the
site. The ground level at the time when Vat Poa was built could be seen almost one
metre below the present ground. At Vat Phra Bang, it was set between a half and one
metre, indicating that Vat Poa was built before Vat Phra Bang. Entrances were indicated on the eastern side of both temples by the GPR measurements. Outside the entrance to and on the northern side of Vat Poa, there was some sort of paving, which
during excavation appeared to be a brick floor. In the middle of both structures,
anomalies indicated collapses, which might be traces from plunderers. At Vat Phra
Bang, this could also be where the inscribed stone Pau’s mother had told us about was
taken from.
One of the trenches was located a few metres north of Vat Phra Bang (VK1). Another two cut through its southern wall (VK2 and VK4). Beneath a layer of topsoil,
varying in thickness between 10 and 20 cm a cultural layer appeared containing scattered cultural material primarily from the collapsed temple walls, such as pieces of
bricks and roof tiles together with nails. In VK2 and VK4, this layer with scattered
cultural material was around 50 cm, whereas in VK1 it was slightly thinner, probably
owing to the fact that the trench was located a few metres outside the temple wall. At
50-60 cm depth was a dense cultural layer with charcoal, bricks, roof tiles, nails, potsherds, and a few other artefacts, such as metallurgy materials and a quartz pendant. In
VK2 and VK4, we uncovered the southern temple wall, as well as two bai sema. One of
the bai sema was hexagonal with a lotus pattern at the base; the other was a flat stone
with a peaked top. Neither bai sema had any inscriptions. Both stones were placed just
outside the temple wall, and their bases were in level with the stratigraphically identified
168
The ancient temple site Vat Kao in Ban Viengkham with its shrine on top of the remains of Vat Poa.
Trench VK4 and VK5
(behind) under excavation.
The bai sema in VK4 was
later on included in the
exhibition.
Residents from the village Ban Viengkham participating in sorting the
"
%&
The northeastern corner of Vat
Poa, which once was surrounded
**+<
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
dense cultural layer. While VK1 was a 1x1 m large pit, VK2 and VK4 were extended to
cover 1x2 m and 1x1,5 m. At the northeastern corner of Vat Poa, we opened the fourth
trench (VK5), which was extended to the east and north. In total, it covered an area of
1,6 m2. The dense cultural layer was thicker to some extent than around Vat Phra Bang,
but consisted of the same kind of material culture.
In addition to stratigraphical studies, we tested two different dating methods: OSL
(Optically Stimulated Luminescence) on bricks from the temple structures and 14C on
charcoal, sampled from the dense cultural layers around the two structures. Vat Poa
appeared to have been built during the thirteenth century, as indicated by both dating
methods, which also confirms the ideas about an already existing temple at the site
when Fa Ngum’s mission visited the place in the fourteenth century. In contrast, Vat
Phra Bang seems not to have been built to host the Buddha statue on that same occasion. Results from the OSL dating indicate that it was built in the early sixteenth century, whereas the 14C dating point at an even later origin, i.e. seventeenth to eighteenth
century. If we interpret the archaeological material together with historical sources, it
seems that Vat Phra Bang could have been built when the Buddha statue was finally
moved from Viengkham to the capital of Lan Xang. This also agrees with the inscriptions on a stone, which was taken from Viengkham (the exact place of origin has not
been documented) to Vientiane during the early twentieth century. The bai sema that we
documented at the site, however, seem to have been reused. Probably, they originate
from the area, but were placed in the corners of and alongside the temple walls, at the
time of construction. There are obvious similarities between these stones and those in
northeastern Thailand that are identified as one of the characteristics for the Mon culture.
An exhibition, I thought, would be an ideal way of finishing the excavation campaign. Together with staff from the Lao National Museum, it was decided that finds
from the excavation should be displayed, and that photos for the most part could replace the larger structures that were unearthed during the excavation. In addition, if
possible, it would be desirable to have one of the bai sema included in the exhibition. We
were still working at the site when this was decided, and I suggested that one of the
excavated bai sema from Vat Phra Bang should be chosen for display. It was the flat
stone from VK4. My idea to choose this one, and to reconstruct its context in the exhibition by putting a painted wall behind it to illustrate the temple foundation in natural
size, was to show the importance of context when exhibiting objects. I thought of the
inscribed stones that lay in the corners of the Vat Ho Phra Keo museum in Vientiane,
and especially of the one taken there from Viengkham and the Vat Phra Bang sometime in the beginning of the twentieth century. These stones were collected and valued
for their inscriptions only; they were now displayed in the temple museum, at best
together with signs telling the inscription in Lao, but most often just as they were.
There were no hints of where they were found, when or by whom. As objects of art, I
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THINGS
guess, this is acceptable, but as remains telling something about the past, this way of
collecting and displaying without context is of less use. What it partly reflects, I think, is
a lack of alternatives to the tradition of collecting and documenting monuments, which
dominated in what was then Indochina at the time when most of these inscribed and
delicately depicted stones were collected. However, after several meetings with the
village chief administration in Ban Viengkham and staff from the Ministry of Information and Culture’s office for Vientiane province, it was suggested that the museum
could temporarily borrow the stone. The main reason for the strong resistance to let
the stone go into the exhibition in Vientiane (or from another perspective, to leave the
village) was a great worry among the villagers about what would happen if the stone
was taken away (cf. the story that Pau’s mother told us earlier). Six months after the
opening of the exhibition, the stone was put on the back of a truck and carefully delivered back to the old and sacred temple site in Ban Viengkham. Finally there, it got its
own shrine. Now, there are discussions at the village administration office and the
Ministry of Information and Culture’s district office about the possibilities to build a
new temple at the site, where monks can live.
the city of 300 temples
Guided by Mr Souk and a few other men from Ban Say Fong Neua, we briefly surveyed the
whole area in a couple of days. Structures from the ancient city covered an area of approximately five present-day villages. Ban Say Fong Neua is at its centre, and parts of Ban Thakhek,
Ban Say Fong Tay, Ban Khoksay and Ban Sithantay are included. Before we headed off for our
survey, the men started by drawing us a map of the place, which included an extensive system
of canals, water wells and temple ruins, all of them oriented along four parallel lines in east-west
direction. North of this was a baray, and even further north, a moated site, which is surrounded
by Nong Khamsen. We started to walk, following the lines, and registered all the ruined temples,
wells and other structures that we passed. After the first day, I had documented more than 30
ruined temples. When walking around in this remarkably structured system of archaeological
features, my thoughts were directed towards the south and prepared to confirm the ‘Khmer city
theory’. After all, the characteristic of a Khmer city is that it is built and indeed structured according to a very symmetrical ideal image of the utmost world order.
The total amount of temples was said to have been 300. Of those, 220 were located in Say
Fong and 80 on the opposite side of the Mekong, in an area included in the large city of ancient
Meuang Nyai Say Fong, but which now is the town of Ban Viengkhuk in Thailand. We heard
several stories about ‘the city of 300 temples’ during our survey, and I must admit I was somewhat thrilled about realising the extension of this site. However, in the stories nothing mentioned
the Khmer. When the storytellers talked about ‘that time’ or ‘a long time ago’, I soon realised
they were talking about the sixteenth century! Even though the general structure indicated
Khmer influence, when looking more into detail at the stupas and other temple buildings and
structures and their form and fabric, they did not indicate any obvious influences from this great
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southern empire. Could it be that in the scientist’s aspirations for finding limits, beginnings and
ends, the stone had too quickly and thoughtlessly been entirely taken out of its context, and
over the last century caused a complete misinterpretation? This became strong reasons for
continuing an investigation of Say Fong.
These were my thoughts after our first survey of Say Fong in early 2003. The text is
taken from my field notes written at that same occasion. There were obviously ambiguities in my understandings of the place and its history. As part of my increased interest
in present views about the past rather than the past itself, this ambiguity turned into an
advantage. Excavations later that year did not only help us to find cultural material to
use for our archaeological interpretations, but they also functioned as a channel through
which understandings of the present were gained. Nevertheless, let us begin by looking
at Say Fong in a wider, historical perspective.
Several decades before Vientiane became the new capital in the mid sixteenth century, a large area along the Mekong was home for a group of Lao urban centres, as part
of the Lan Xang kingdom. Viang Khuk (the same as present-day Ban Viengkhuk on the
other side of the Mekong, in Thailand, opposite to Ban Say Fong Neua on the Lao side
of the river) and Tha Bo seem to have been among the most important of these. For
example, the Dutch trader Wuijsthoff, who visited Laos in 1641-1642, mentioned Viang
Khuk as a large trading centre and key port, hosting merchants and traders from vast
areas around (Lejosne 1986:128). Regarded as Vientiane’s port (Askew 2007a:38), Viang
Khuk kept its function of transshipping goods from the Lao territory to the Khorat
plateau and further on to Bangkok as late as in the 1860s (Lejosne 1986:128). Another
important site was Sri Chiang Mai, which is just opposite Vientiane, on the other side of
the Mekong. On aerial photos, the inner city wall of Vientiane continues on the other
side and includes this area, which today is Ban Sri Chiang Mai today. Michel Lorrillard
suggests, based on inscriptions and dates on bai sema found at temples here, that the
sites began to grow as urban centres in the early sixteenth century (2003:190ff). A noticeable population growth in this area took place in the fourteenth century, owing to
orders from Fa Ngum during his reign for people to move and settle on the Vientiane
plains and on the western side of the Mekong (Viravong 1964:34). The great Lao population movement into the Khorat plateau continued when Fa Ngum’s son Sam Saen
Thai became king of the Lan Xang kingdom. Therefore, by the sixteenth century, the
population density was quite high, which also confirms the idea of Viang Khuk, Tha
Bo, Say Fong and Sri Chiang Mai as strong urban and trading centres at that time.
Opposite Viang Khuk lies Say Fong. Even though Say Fong was not among the
main meuang of the Lan Xang kingdom it seems to have been of great importance to the
kingdom. As the Lan Xang kingdom also included the territory on the opposite side of
the Mekong, Meuang Nyai Say Fong also included Viang Khuk. There is a historical
chronicle from the sixteenth century about Say Fong, written in Pali and ancient Lao
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THINGS
language. Similar to most chronicles connected to a particular place, it tells the story of
its origins. In this particular chronicle (Tamnan Meuang Say Fong), the foundation of
Meuang Nyai Say Fong is accounted for. The legend not only explicitly tells us about
the founder of the city, who was a pious Buddhist, and about how parts of northeastern
Thailand were conquered by this meuang. It also confirms, thus more implicitly, the
contemporary situation in the surrounding area. Vientiane was now the capital. There
were extensive trade relations throughout the region, dynastic links with the important
kingdom of Ayutthaya, and power manifestations through the building of religious
structures. Today, most Lao people regard this period, the period when king Sethathirat
moved the Lan Xang capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, as a ‘golden age’ in Lao
history (Askew 2007a:42). According to local legends, Viang Khuk, on the other side of
the Mekong, hosted around 80 temples. Owing to the style of the remains of these
temples, they are dated to the sixteenth century. In Say Fong, there are around 30 ruined temples visible today. When people spoke about the ancient Say Fong, they often
mentioned it as ‘the city of 300 temples’. First, I thought I had misunderstood, as we
just had finished our survey, which included 30 temples. However, local legends explained that Meuang Nyai Say Fong was famous for its numerous temples. As many as
220 temples had been built and used here, whereas the remaining 80 were located on
the opposite side of the Mekong, in Viang Khuk. There is no clear evidence for how
long Say Fong maintained its importance, but the place is mentioned as a major settlement that played an important role in one of the wars with the Siamese in the early
eighteenth century (Viravong 1964:85).
Today, many of the thirty ancient temple sites are used as places of ritual where people
make offerings as part of their daily religious practices. Often, a new concrete floor is
cast on top of or beside the old brick structure, on which sometimes the original Buddha and sometimes a modern Buddha is placed. Vat Paley Lai is such a place, the largest modern temple area in Ban Say Fong Neua today. The first two trenches (SF1 and
SF2) were opened at this site. In relation to the lines along which the temples and canals are located, this is next to the third one, from the south. Here, some modern Buddha statues were erected in the 1990s, overlooking the remains of ancient temple structures covered since long ago with soil and now constituting the mound on which the
new statues partly stand. After the same procedure of GPR measurements as in Viengkham, we decided to open the first trench, SF1, in front of the Buddha statues
aiming at uncovering the ancient temple structures. While the excavated temple structures in Viengkham revealed the foundations of two sim or hovai (meeting or prayer
rooms or ‘ordination halls’), the structure at Vat Paley Lai first seemed to be a stupa
because we found rounded ‘corner bricks’, and also trapezium shaped bricks. When we
later on found roof tiles, it was suggested that this structure could have been a sim or
hovai, but then with one of the sides rounded. In the 1x2.5 m large trench, we could
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distinguish an outer and an inner brick wall, the later added to the first after it had
collapsed. A thin cultural layer with scattered charcoal appeared at the same level as the
base of the structure. Both OSL and 14C datings indicate that this construction was
built around 1 400 years ago. SF2 was also excavated at the same temple area, but approximately a hundred metres east of SF1. This structure was obviously a sim/hovai,
according to its rectangular shape. At SF2, we could not find enough charcoal to make
a 14C dating, but through the OSL method, the bricks seemed to originate from the mid
sixteenth century.
Two other temple sites that are used for religious practices today are Vat Pa Mi and
Vat Pa Meta. On these sites, we opened two more trenches. Vat Pa Mi is located very
close to the riverbank, along the first line of temples and canals at the western border
of the village. The Buddha statue in this temple is old. According to local informants, it
is from ‘the Fa Ngum period’. This way of relating to age should perhaps be further
developed here, because it appeared very often as an answer to the question of how old
things were. ‘Fa Ngum period’ (or before or after it) seemed to be an equally common
way to relate to age as ‘a hundred years ago’ (or less or more than) and ‘before/after
Phatet Lao’. When analysing the use of these expressions it seems as if ‘Fa Ngum period’ represents a period of a few hundred years after the foundation of the first Lao
nation, the Lan Xang kingdom, which then also includes the sixteenth century. ‘Before
Fa Ngum’ then represents everything from time immemorial up until the foundation of
Lan Xang kingdom. The colonisation and Laos as part of Indochina is represented by
the ‘hundred years ago’, whereas the ‘Phatet Lao’ means the Lao revolution in 1975.
For this study, it is of particular interest to note the relation to the distant past through
Fa Ngum and the foundation of Lan Xang kingdom. However, Vat Pa Mi is regarded
as one of the most sacred places in the village, even though the temple is very modest
in size and material quality. We were not allowed to excavate close to the temple, but
opened SF3 fifty metres further southwest of the temple, close to the riverbank. We
heard there were many ancient bricks and large amounts of potsherds and other kinds
of pottery found in the riverbank and further down along the beach, which in some
places was very narrow. Residents from the villages brought us plastic bags full of artefacts that they had collected there. Most of the findings, such as pieces of oil lamps,
pipes and jars, seemed to be from the sixteenth century, but some potsherds were
older. At this particular place, the topography changes after each rainy season, and
every year, more artefacts were collected. The continuous land change was most probably the explanation to why we did not find anything else than sandy soil, sediment from
the river, without any cultural layers or finds. Looking at the steep riverbank from
down the river and a bit further to the west, we could trace the remains of another
brick structure, probably located along the same line as Vat Pa Mi before the river
‘swallowed’ it. SF4 was located not in direct connection to a temple, but instead along
174
A group of modern Buddha statues are built on top of the ancient temple structures, from which
they overview the entire temple area of Vat Paley Lai.
Excavating SF5.
Pottery and other artefacts,
dating back to the sixteenth
century, are easily collected
from the river bank while it
erodes.
Excavating SF1, in front of the
modern Buddha statues.
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
the second line of temple remains, approximately a hundred metres east of Vat Pa
Meta. Here, we found nothing in our trench, apart from a few stoneware potsherds.
We chose to open the last Say Fong trench (SF5) in the neighbouring village, Say
Fong Tay. Between the first and the second lines, and just north of the temple Vat
Dokboua is a field in which the land owner had found a huge amount of potsherds and
complete jars. Adjacent to it was also one of the ancient water wells that we earlier
registerede. Here, a thin cultural layer appeared at a depth of 60-70 cm. Apart from
scattered stoneware potsherds and a hearth, we found nothing.
We could find no indications at all pointing to Say Fong as a Khmer city. A few bai
sema without depictions or inscriptions were documented during the initial survey, but
not as many as we found north of Vientiane. However, their appearance together with
the early dates of the stupa at Vat Paley Lai indicate that a meuang somehow existed here
at the same time as the Dvaravati meuang spread from southwest. Maybe the moated
site, surrounded by Nong Khamsen, just north of the ‘temple and canal lines’ of Say
Fong could have been the initial occupation area during this phase.
When numerous large and important meuang appeared along the Mekong further
south during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was primarily in places that were
developed as urban centres hundreds of years earlier. Older Khmer sites were changed
into Lao: the regular and structured form of urban settlements with stone buildings
became irregular where the layout of walls and streets was adapted to topography and
natural waterways and where temples were built in bricks and decorated with plaster
ornaments (Woodward 1997:75). However, as Khmer structures and other finds obviously are missing at Say Fong, except from the hospital stele, such a development never
reached this far north. Most likely, there was an interruption, or at least a decline, in the
occupation of the site between its two obvious periods of more dense occupation and
building activity, i.e. the seventh to eighth centuries and from the sixteenth century and
onwards, when Say Fong was the city of 300 temples.
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9. UNDERSTANDING MATERIALITIES
Now, if we recall the introductory paragraph of chapter 7, was it a story about the jar,
about its form and fabric and age? Or was it about the man who found it, or maybe
about the spirits that haunted him at night? Perhaps we could read it as a story about
the market, and the antiquities sold and bought there? Or why not as a story about the
canal construction project, and about what happens in a place like Laos where massive
infrastructural developments are in full swing? Well, the answer is dependent on which
approach we are inclined to follow in our interpretations. Moreover, there are several
other answers to the question of what the story was actually about. However, what I am
interested in here has more to do with the relation between the jar and the spirit that
haunted the man at night, or more generally the relation between material and immaterial culture. Things seem to be more or less material. This is true for those (including
myself) who were involved in the investigations in Viengkham and Say Fong, both in
the excavation situation and the everyday life in general. When and why are things more
or less material, and is it dependent on the immaterial? What do these material and
immaterial features mean in relation to the past, if they mean anything at all. In relation
to the past, things definitely mean a lot to archaeologists. However, regarding the jar in
the story, we could ask whether the jar and the spirit mean anything in relation to the
past for the man who dug up the jar. This, I think, is best understood by exploring the
processes of materialisation and dematerialisation.
ABSENCE AND PRESENCE, SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL
Through archaeology, we wish to make the absent present. As archaeologists, we want
histories to be unravelled. We have a past we want to learn more about. This was one
of the driving forces that motivated me to excavate in Viengkham and Say Fong. I
wished to be able to answer the questions of how Viengkham’s history based on oral
and local traditions corresponded to what was actually to be found under the surface,
and of how the temples in Say Fong were related to the Khmer empire. As an art of
telling stories about the past, archaeology aims at revealing ideas and acts through
things. Material culture, ancient or recent, is what we have, and the materialisation
through the archaeological act is what makes the absent present (Buchli and Lucas
2001:171ff). Presencing of absence means the archaeologist construct social relation177
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ships through creative materialisation, and by bringing absence into being material there
becomes a focus on physicality, which might work against mentality or spirituality.
Bringing absence into being material in this way, or to speak with Judith Butler, ‘make
things matter’, can thus be criticised for excluding immaterial culture (1993:31f). As
archaeologists, we want to tell the history, but we also want to be inclusive and open.
We sharpen the analytical tradition of history if scientific evidence is added (i.e. that
things are excavated), but we also want to make room for stories about the past told by
and representing other categories (i.e. listening to local histories). It would have been
easy to suggest that by adding these immaterial small stories to the grand narrative, we
are ‘safe’. Nevertheless, we still have our archaeological meta-narrative. Ian Hodder
suggests that both ‘grand narratives of the long term and small narratives of lived moments […] are needed in an archaeology which accepts diversity, uncertainty and relationality in human behaviour’, but that they ‘may not be commensurable’ (1999:147).
With this, I agree, because adding in this way means that different notions of materiality
would be measurable by a common standard and universally shared, which I do not believe is
possible, or not even desirable.
Take for example the temple structure I excavated in Viengkham. From my archaeological perspective, it consists of bricks that are of a certain age, established
through various dating methods, which fixes the temple construction to a particular
point in time that relates to the event of the Phra Bang and the foundation of the first
Lao nation – the structure is the physical presence of bricks. From Pau’s mother’s perspective, the structure is the presence of phii, where presence has more to do with intimacy and meaning. I aim at filling in a missing piece of knowledge about Viengkham’s
history (absence) with my interpretations of excavated archaeological material (physically present) and give meaning to the place, whereas for Pau’s mother the absent thing
(phii) is the meaning of the structure and the structure is crucial for phii. Without structure, there would be no phii, but on the other hand, a structure without phii has no
meaning. There is apparently not a shared understanding of what the structure is. It is
not that things (the temple structure in this example) have different referents, which is
an epistemological question. It is rather that things are different, which is an ontological
claim (cf. Henare et al. 2007:18). It is important not to see this as a dichotomy; to the
contrary, this should be used to enlighten the concepts rather than to reduce them to some
sort of ‘universal explanation’ or for that matter ‘particular explanation’. Exactly this is a
concrete example of the need to acknowledge that there are different worlds rather than
different worldviews, which is included in Henare, Holbraad and Wastell’s attempt towards
an ‘ontological breakthrough’ (ibid:12ff).
This is also relevant when we now recall what preceded and happened during the excavations of the moated sites, or military camps, in Viengkham. Analysing these occasions
might also add to the understanding of presence/absence and materiality. In western
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Spirits and bricks, absence and presence at the ancient temple site in Ban Viengkham.
academia, Marcel Mauss established already in the 1920s that things could have a spiritual dimension. In his classic work The Gift (1923–24/1954), he argues that things,
when given as gifts, are active and compel reciprocity because the power that resides in
the thing is the spirit of the giver. If a person does not accept or return, both the giver
and receiver lose honour and wealth, and the spiritual source of authority, which adds
moral weight to the act of giving and receiving. This aspect of the relationship between
the material and the immaterial or spiritual can be illustrated by the excavation experience in Ban Meun Man.
One corner of this particular military camp is used as a phii pa sa, a cemetery, by the
landowner, who is a farmer with strong historical ties to this place and now living in the
neighbouring village Ban Keun. As a representative in the district administration, he
possesses some sort of societal authority. By choosing this site for us to excavate involved, I would argue, exactly the kind of reciprocity that is described above. Whatever
we would find in the ground that could help us telling something about the past would
also add spiritual power to the landowner and the surrounding society, since unearthing
the material object means releasing the immaterial spirits that are embedded in the
object. It also means that archaeological excavations at sacred places like this one re-
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quire preparations in form of offering ceremonies, which in turn is a way for the landowner and other participants to make merit.
The explanation to why we were not allowed to excavate at the temple site in Viengkeo is also close to this. The positive effects that the Ban Meun Man excavation
had, would in Viengkeo instead be negative. The temple site, already overloaded with
spiritual power within the temple itself and all the sacred objects it hosted, was at risk to
lose its power if we would find additional objects that had to be removed from the
sacred place.
In a similar way to the investigations in Viengkeo and Ban Meun Man, the incomplete test pit excavation at Don Kang can be seen in relation to the principle of reciprocity, but somewhere in between Viengkeo and Ban Meun Man. The island is regarded
sacred. No one lives there, except from some cows and water buffalos. The only houses
are a few huts used when looking after the animals. The sacredness and the presence of
spirits are physically absent. And, I guess, the reasons for not allowing us to excavate
were not physically evident enough. Spirituality is difficult to manifest physically, or
even to explain, to a group of archaeologists searching for material evidence of past
events. Therefore, we were allowed to excavate. However, for the village chief administration and among the village residents, I believe, there was a great hesitation in agreeing to our excavation permission. The worries became too much and luckily the jar with
the bones saved the situation.
What I saw as physically present at Don Kang (the potsherds on the ground and the
mounds rising in the middle of the island) were meaningful to me as remains from the
past. As such, they were conceptually absent in the mind of the village chief. Instead,
they were conceptually present in his mind and regarded meaningful because of the
presence of phii. As such, they were physically absent for me, as I am not prepared to
recognise phii. However, it seems that what we had in common was the notion that
things are meaning, and that the seemingly incommensurable conceptualisations of the
things (sherds and mounds) can exist alongside (but not measurable by a common standard).
Recognising different worlds instead of worldviews allows us to move between these,
rather than squeezing a certain concept into a frame of reference or standard, which is
not relevant to that particular concept. In practice, this means I can never conceptualise
phii within my, or any, archaeological frames of reference.
THINGS AS MEANING
Let us look at one of the other stories again, the story about the Phra Bang that Pau’s
mother told us. Apart from inspiring the inhabitants of the newly founded Lan Xang
kingdom in the fourteenth century to turn to Buddhism, the golden Buddha statue was
also equivalent to the king’s own legitimacy. Often, both royal power and kinship were
given by the king’s possession of a certain valuable Buddha statue, and demonstrated
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THINGS
through the installation of it in a temple built for it and situated close to the royal palace.
Already then, when king Fa Ngum took the Phra Bang to Lan Xang, the statue had
its own history and was surrounded by myths. It was made in Sri Lanka almost two
thousand years ago. Its way to the Lan Xang kingdom was long and winding, but just
before it reached its destination, it had been kept within the Khmer empire for about
five hundred years. The Phra Bang appears to have played an important role during the
sixteenth century, when the Lan Xang kingdom reached its peak. It finally reached the
capital in 1502, which then changed its name to Luang Prabang. Many temples were
built around the whole kingdom at that time, and especially in the cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Photisarath, who was the king of Lan Xang between 1520 and
1547, is known as the most devout Buddhist of the Lao kings, and he tried hard to
undermine animism and spirit cults. Many of the temples he ordered to be built were
placed on top of and replaced earlier spirit shrines, as a demonstration of power. When
Photisarath’s son, Sethathirath, succeeded him on the throne, he moved the capital to
Vientiane. However, it took another 150 years for the Phra Bang to be installed in Vientiane. In the late eighteenth century, when the Siamese army conquered Vientiane, it
disappeared to Thailand, together with the emerald Buddha. This is the same as the
Phra Keo, which gave name to Viengkeo. The story about the Phra Keo in previous
chapter is comparable with the one about the Phra Bang. Myths and stories surround
this Buddha statue as well. However, as it now is located in Bangkok, the statue and its
story is of less significance to people in Laos. Nevertheless, on a sign at the Lao National Museum in Vientiane this story about the destiny of the Phra Bang can be read:
King Nanthasen of Laos (who ruled 1781-1795) asked king Rama I of Rattanakosin to
return the Phra Bang to Laos. Because the spirits that watched over the Phra Bang and
the Phra Keo respectively did not go on very well together. And if they stayed together,
some jinx would happen. So, the Phra Bang was returned to Vientiane. The Siamese
took it once again during king Anouvong’s reign (1805-1828), and the statue was installed in Bangkok. In 1858, strange things started to happen in Bangkok. A comet was
seen in the sky, food shortages, draught and epidemics threatened the city. The comet
was considered an omen that had occurred because the Phra Bang was in Bangkok.
King Rama III returned the Buddha image to Luang Prabang, where it has remained
ever since.
Today, the Phra Bang is the most famous of the Buddha statues in Laos, a thing that
confers the right to rule Laos (even though the monarchy has been replaced by the
communist regime). It is also regarded as the protector of the country. Every year this
statue, which is cast in bronze and covered in gold leaf, is taken out from its temple
during Pi Mai Lao, the Lao New Year celebrations, and washed according to traditional
Buddhist purification rites. The myths surrounding the Buddha statue have continued,
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and there are many theories about what happened to the true original Phra Bang, of
which some think a copy is on display in Luang Prabang today.
My interpretation, from an archaeological perspective, is that the Phra Bang represents both royal power and legitimacy for ruling the nation state of Laos, and that it symbolises and represents the practice of religion. As such, the Phra Bang embodies the
point of intersection between the different components described above as comprising
popular Buddhism and culture in Laos today. In the same way that the Buddha statue
represents Buddha himself and symbolises the birth of the Lao nation, the old temple
ruin in Viengkham represents the statue (cf. Byrne 1993), and is also important as a
place that has been involved in the creation of the Lao nation. When I interviewed the
group of people involved in the excavations they preferred not to talk about representations, but rather that the Phra Bang is equivalent to royal power and the practice of Buddhism, and that it has a kind of personality endowed by its history. They also said that
the Phra Bang does not have very much to do with the meaning of the ancient temple
site in Viengkham today. For the religious practice at this place today, things are important, but they are of no relevance as historical documents, as remains from past times.
TIME AND ORIGIN
I think we need to remain here for a while, and briefly reflect on temporality and its
different frames of reference. In archaeology (indeed in any science) the common modern description of time as unilinear and progressive dominates. This, and the reasons
for why this is so, have of course been criticised and problematised within the archaeological discipline during the last decades (cf. Gosden 1994, Thomas 1996, Karlsson
2000, Lucas 2005). Concepts of time and its content are occasionally explored, and
alternative ways of conceiving time suggested. Time is central in another archaeological
story from Laos, namely the one about Lao Pako, which Anna Källén offers through
her And Through Flows the River (2004a), where the river is used as a metaphor for time:
with its turbulence, rapids and pools, whirlpools and course changes. Even if topological
time (cf. Serres and Latour 1995, in Källén 2004a:234) that is disordered and appears in
a complex and unexpected way is argued for, the linear time perception is still useful,
and necessary, for archaeology. Nevertheless, a deconstruction of the use of time in
archaeology forces us to see the conceptual baggage and the foundation on which the
whole scientific enterprise is built (ibid:234ff), which is necessary also in a study like
this, where we move between different worlds of temporality.
Time in a Buddhist world is cyclical. It is conceptualised through the wheel of life,
which is a complex symbolic representation of the continuous circle of birth, life and
death. Existence has no discernible point of origin in time, but is rather understood as
the continuation of a dynamic, ever changing process, consisting of repeating ages and
events that happen between birth and death, and finally the extinction (Robinson and
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Johnson 1997:20ff). Therefore, there are no accounts of creation in Buddhist texts.
Instead, the texts focus on the importance of understanding the constant re-creation
through one’s acts of intention.
A thing’s age is therefore not decisive for its character. While I, as an archaeologist,
documented, analysed, dated, interpreted and suggested that the bai sema that surrounded the temple foundations at Vat Kao in Viengkham were Dvaravati- or Mon
influenced, made in the region more than a thousand years ago, used and reused and
placed in their present but not original position, when the temples were built eight and
four hundred years ago respectively, the village chief and many with him did not consider the stones as being of a certain age or as remains of the past, but rather as timeless
containers of spiritual values, which could affect life in the village if they were removed.
The exact age is not of very much interest, which was clearly illustrated in the answers
that related to ‘Fa Ngum period’ and ‘a hundred years’. For the residents in Viengkham,
the stones were in ‘original’ position, as they were excavated, original for their present
meaning, where originality has more to do with meaning than age or a fix point on a
linear time scale. Likewise, the original position of the stones in Ban Thalat is in front
of the temple, where they are fixed to the ground in concrete as a result of the excavations there. It is the original position for their present meaning. This means we might
not able to make justice to Buddhist time perception within an archaeological frame of
reference.
AUTHENTICITY
When the origin of a thing is confirmed, authenticity is involved. My authentication
method is for example when I use carbon dating to verify the age of bricks with which
the temples in Viengkham and Say Fong are built, or when the form and fabric and
style of the different excavated artefacts were compared. This method presupposes an
emblematical authenticity, in opposition to fake and copies, because I will not be able
to reach my goal and say how old the temple is if it is not the original, true brick, I am
analysing. Yet, this kind of authenticity is not an essence of a thing, it is a human construct, assuming that the viewer believes that the object is true (cf. Holtorf 2001:286ff).
The object itself does not determine the authenticity; the viewer does (Tunbridge and
Ashworth 1996:10f). Even if we agree to this, and accordingly agree that the materiality
of a thing is not its essential property, the focus of the concept of authenticity, in modern scientific discourse, is still on form and fabric and the material.
Obviously, a different conceptualisation of authenticity is valid in connection with
the religious practice at the ancient temple site in Viengkham. Here, authenticity
through performance, instead of the material authenticity we achieve through for example the datings, is closer to reality. As discussed above, this kind of authenticity is
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about the extent tto which things are empowered, and include religious and spiritual
values. This is gained through performance in the religious practices at the site.
With the intention of not simplifying this authenticity that is established via performance, I want to illustrate its complexity by briefly portraying an episode from the
excavations in Say Fong. In the village Ban Say Fong Neua, the largest temple area is at
Vat Paley Lai. It has several shrines and numerous Buddha statues as well as other
images representing parts from Buddha’s life and teachings. Here, all these things (constantly rebuilt and expanded) are empowered on a daily basis through different religious
ceremonies, including offerings for making merit. The main activities at this temple
primarily focus on the things and different acts to create authenticity. At Vat Pa Mi,
close to the river in the western outskirts of the village, there is only one small temple
structure. A tiled concrete platform and a tin roof under which one single sitting Buddha statue resides constitute it. Owing to its nearness to the river, the temple area is
frequently flooded. When the sixteenth century temple was wiped out in the immense
flooding of 1966, the Buddha statue was rescued. Our excavations in Say Fong started
at Vat Paley Lai, and attracted much interest and enthusiasm among residents in the
village. However, when a trench was to be dug at Vat Pa Mi the enthusiasm changed to
hesitation and anxiety, and a ceremony had to be performed before the excavation
could start. This confused me, since Vat Pa Mi, in comparison to Vat Paley Lai, seemed
rather insignificant. After discussing this with some of the residents in the village I was
able to better understand it, and my interpretation concerned authenticity. Things and
images at Vat Paley Lai have to establish their own authenticity to become sacred and
potent, and that is done through the daily religious practices carried out by many people, who also gain merit as they perform their offerings. These are mainly new things
(buildings, images and statues) not older than a few decades. Created on top of ancient
temple structures, they represent a form of restoration, which is not as relevant for this
discussion about authenticity as it is for the discussion about heritage preservation that
is my focus in next part of the thesis. Therefore, I only mention it here. Anyhow, this
represents a religious authenticity, which is secured through performance. But at Vat Pa
Mi, the religious authenticity is already well established within the almost five hundred
years old Buddha statue. One could then argue that this kind of authenticity is more
similar to the material authenticity we appreciate as archaeologists, but apparently, it is
not authenticity because of form and fabric and age here. The Buddha statue survived
the flooding, which the temple did not, and it is authentic because of the power it
therefore possesses, not because it is old. Such power may increase and decrease and
for that reason, some Buddha statues need for example to be revitalized when their
power has declined and sometimes even is exhausted. Most important is, however, that
authenticity through performance has rather to do with the performer than with the
actual thing. Authenticity in the context of my fieldwork appeared to be more connected to self-realisation and being truthful to one self (cf. Xunwu 2004), and its sig-
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nificance seems therefore to be much closer to the philosophical definition of the concept. Here we are back at the introductory story about the jar, whose material authenticity in the end was subordinate to the man’s being in the world.
MATERIALITY AND IMMATERIALITY IN FLUX
In the discussions about things during interviews in Viengkham and Say Fong, it appeared that things could be more or less material and more or less immaterial. The
particular event these discussions started around was the excavation of the bai sema at
the ancient temple site in Viengkham, and its move into the exhibition in Vientiane. It
was explained to me that the stone became more material because it was chosen for the
exhibition. Going through the procedures of first being excavated, then transported
into Vientiane, included in an exhibition and visited by many people increased the
stone’s immaterial content. This in turn increased the material value of the stone, so
after six months when the stone was transported back to Viengkham, it got its own
shrine, or rather, the stone became the shrine, owing to its significant materiality and
immateriality.
This is similar to what happened in Ban Don Keo, and also in Ban Thalat when the
tree trunk or rocket, and the stones and other things were unearthed. People came
travelling from all over the province, to make merit as they prayed in front of the
things, offered flowers and donated money. These things were increasingly empowered
as more people came to pay them respect. Meanings were generated by the visitors
through a creative materialisation, but with other referents than the archaeological materialisation act. Nevertheless, in a way they meet, as I realised that this act of materialisation happened during any of our excavations. Through the archaeological excavation,
things were empowered. Not all things, but some. I suggest that this is also an illustration of authenticity through performance, as discussed above. But what notion of materiality underpins these acts of materialisation?
In Materiality, edited by Miller (2005), some of the authors explore the nuances, relativism and plural nature of materiality and immateriality. Rowlands discusses hierarchies
of materiality and self-realisation (2005:75-84) to explain how people and things are
more or less material. Even though he uses a materialist approach with which I do not
fully agree, I think his notion of ‘relative materiality’ could be useful to better understand processes of materialisation and dematerialisation in the particular situations
described above. It is not that there is a certain amount of values, either material or
immaterial, that cannot be present at the same time. In the example above, the immaterial and material values are instead interdependent; the relative materiality increased
with the immaterial value. Similar ideas of interdependence is presented by Matthew
Engelke when he illustrates that the more focus on immateriality, the more sophisticated becomes the material forms by which immateriality is expressed (2005:120f).
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Things derive their importance from an immaterial quality, but their materiality indeed
matters. This leads to the conclusion that things are beyond the dichotomy of material
and immaterial.
As materiality and immateriality can increase, they can also decrease. That happens
when things stop working for us. Matthew Engelke formulates the concept of ‘thingification’, for describing this process, when an object is transformed from being revered
to being redundant (2007:26f). He uses this concept in opposition to ‘objectification’,
which in its strict meaning is more focused on what things are and what they do, and
leaves no room for discussions about immateriality. Basically, what happens when a
thing stop function and thus lose its materiality and immateriality (or vice versa), is that
we have to deal with its thingness and consider it a mere thing in its most restricted
sense, meaning essentially a physical object. The huge corpses of two Buddha statues,
discarded and thrown into a storeroom underneath the group of newly produced ones
at Vat Paley Lai in Say Fong constitute such an example. Owing to the statues’ style and
design, they were most likely brought into being during the fourteenth century. The
mound where the storeroom and the new Buddha statues are situated were part of our
excavation project, and hosts the remains of different temple structures, of which the
oldest is dated to the eighth century. On top of the mound and in front of the new
Buddha statues, the heads of the old Buddha statues are placed. Surrounded by flowers
and incense sticks, they are respected through occasional offering rites. The bodies have
lost their material and immaterial authority, they are objects separated from immateriality. However, the heads have been restored with new power and have the function as
mediators to help the spirituality to pour through from the old bodies to the new ones.
Thus, the old bodies lie there in the dark and dirty storeroom, more or less without
meaning (while for me and others interested in history they could well have been taken
to a museum and exhibited, as these kind of ancient objects are quite rare in Laos), and
are at their best used as filling material for new constructions.
The reasons for this change from being revered to being redundant are manifold. A
decrease of materiality and immateriality might come more or less by itself as a result of
neglect, such as if the thing is no longer exposed to religious practice. Or, as exemplified above, as part of a deliberate act, which is included in religious beliefs and practices. This is also well illustrated by Denis Byrne as he explores how merit-making not
only results in the production of new temples in Thailand, but also in the production of
temple ruins (1993). And so, we come back to the question of decay and destruction as
necessary for religious practices and beliefs to be maintained, which I briefly touched
upon earlier, and which now will be the central issue of the last part of the thesis.
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The heads of the ancient Buddha statues, restored with new power.
The bodies in the storeroom represent the transformation from being revered to being redundant.
I: K M B O
A > K B M:@ >
10. PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE: A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS
O monks, all karmically constituted things are impermanent;
they are not fixed, not comforting, and are characterized by
constant change. …For all beings, all creatures, all living things,
life is limited by death; for them there is no termination of death
and rebirth.
– Translation from Anityatasutra (Strong 2002:91)
THE RISE AND DEVELOPMENT OF A HERITAGE DISCOURSE
Archaeology and heritage are both research fields, or rather discourses, arising from,
and thus perpetuating western scientific knowledge. These are discourses born out of
imperialist structures, in which particular ideologies and politics occupy positions of
authority. Hand in hand with the rise of the heritage discourse went an idea that the
past is defined in difference from the present (cf. Lowenthal’s now classical work The
past is a foreign country (1985)). Paradoxically enough, the past became more and more
affected by the present, and the present became more and more occupied with the past.
Our turn to the past is manifested in the material objectification and preservation of the
remains of history in the form of monuments, museums and sites that have come to
characterise a dominant Eurocentric definition of heritage (ibid).
If we turn back to the explorers and colonialists in the first chapter, the desire to
confirm their own identities and to emphasise difference and power might be equivalent to the strategy of securing a form of immortality, which is yet another reason for
the rise of a heritage discourse.26 ‘[T]he death of the ‘past’ is bound up in anxieties
regarding the death of the ‘self’ (Butler 2006:466), following that the turn to heritage
becomes a way of manipulating mortality by monumentalising oneself. As such, the rise
of a heritage discourse is also a way of handling modernity.
The idea of heritage as a form of cultural capital is also connected to this (cf. Anderson 1983). Any modern nation state had to include and imagine themselves as possessing a heritage in the form of cultural capital: an obvious tendency to commodify culture,
things and heritage. This cultural commodification was linked to the economical and
political commodification that characterised the industrial revolution, which could
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explain why our present concept of heritage first appeared during this period (Byrne
2008:159f). The tendencies of commodifying culture and regard it as a form of property
continued and turned into a commersialisation of culture, represented by the heritage
boom of the 1980s (Butler 2006:467ff) and the process of ‘heritageisation’ that began to
grow in connection to this (cf. Ronström 2007:25, 228). However, if we own it we can
also lose it. This awareness of the risks of loss is fundamental for what developed into
contemporary ideals of preservation.
A motivating force for and a strong focus within heritage discourse has been on
physical form and fabric: things and places have inherent value and meaning, and things
make up heritage, which in turn is the glue for culture. However, as we all know by
now, culture and heritage are merely concepts constructed to fit and envelop a whole
palette of thoughts and actions. They are processes rather than objects. So is significance,
a concept used when evaluating and deciding what is heritage and what is not. It is
often taken for granted that the significance of a heritage resides in its physical form or
fabric. However, significance is a dynamic and relative concept that is ascribed rather
than inherent, fluid and changeable rather than static (Byrne 2008:160f). Similarly, the
‘[a]ppreciation of heritage places is not something people are born with, it is something
acquired’ (ibid:166).
Vital to the rise of heritage, these foundational ideas were also prevalent when the heritage discourse continued to grow during the late twentieth century. In some respects,
contemporary heritage discourse is very different from how it was shaped when it first
appeared. In a sense, it has evolved as a reaction against its original presuppositions that
the past is defined in difference from the present and that focus must be on physical
form and fabric. Instead, contemporary concepts of heritage represent inverted notions
of heritage where decontextualisation and deconstruction lead to reconceptualisation
and reconstruction of the same heritage owing to a demand for multiculturalism (Butler
2006:469f). It is moving from the grand elite towards the vernacular and everyday, from
the remote towards the recent, and from the material towards the intangible (Lowenthal
1998:14). There is now a multitude of approaches to heritage, of which some focus on
memory and identity. The ideal, as urged by some scholars, would be a shift within
heritage studies from a historical to a ‘humanistic’ perspective (Rowlands 2006:444),
where the debate is turned towards moral-ethical issues of heritage as well-being and
cure, towards justice and human rights, and towards the indigenous and subaltern
voices.
For instance, UNESCO’s Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage,
adopted in 2003, was created to complement the already existing Convention concerning the
Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 (dealing primarily with tangible
heritage), to meet these new needs. Yet, the vital concepts and frames of reference that
were developed and validated within the heritage field, such as it was when it was estab-
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lished long ago, are inherent in and still part of the contemporary heritage discourse.
They include the idea of collective ownership: that heritage is universal and belongs to all
humankind. These frames of reference also embrace concepts such as safeguarding, protection and preservation, because a main reason for the nation states of the world to be concerned about world heritages is to prevent destruction and decay. Even though recent
debates in heritage discourse are interdisciplinary and include not only material remains,
but also intangible values and interest groups other than archaeologists and heritage
professionals, these concepts are taken-for-granted. It is well known that when protecting some things, others are destroyed (cf. Layton et al. 2001), and it is suggested that
destruction is necessary for the appreciation of certain heritage expressions (cf. Holtorf
2006). Still, the modernist ideal of essentialism, namely that some chosen things from
the past must be maintained unaltered, is the foundation of discussion on the archaeological heritage. Preservation is the core of heritage management and seen in contrast to
threatening destruction and decay – the Utopian ideal would be to preserve everything
(Darvill 1999:305). Such a formulation contains the implicit understanding that total
preservation is an impossibility, although worth striving for. What are then the motives
for such an unchallenged preservationist ideal?
PRESERVATION
Despite the great variety of motivations for preserving ancient remains, they nevertheless all derive from modernity, from the idea that history was not structured by destiny,
and that reality is not timeless. Physical remains became crucial to historical understanding in the modernist project, and this historicity reflected a self-image (Lowenthal
1985:389-396, Cleere 1989:1ff). The urge to preserve in our own time is based on these
motives, but has changed and shifted continuously. Motives for preservation in the
heritage management process today have been discussed and analysed over the years
(cf. Lipe 1984, Lowenthal 1985, Cleere 1989, Fowler 1992, Smith 1993, Carman 1996,
Darvill 1999). A few motives for preservation that concern identities, historical understanding, nostalgia and memory have been identified for this particular project. Of
course, different motives cannot be separated from one another in practice, but with an
analytical attempt to clarify them and to gain a greater insight into the theoretical and
conceptual bases for, and meanings of, preservation in today’s heritage discourse, it is
necessary. I have done this analysis elsewhere (Karlström 2005), and will now only
mention the main arguments. There are primarily two perceptions, I argue, which are
decisive for the preservationist ideal that dominates within present-day heritage discourse. The first is the presumption that a link with the past is necessary if we want to
know who we are, to have an identity, and that this link provides certainties in an uncertain world. The other is the presumption that we need physical remains from the
past to understanad history. If we lose these remains, we will not be able to understand
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the past and we might as well lose our identities. The fear for this loss is, as I see it, the main
reason for and motive behind the desire to preserve.
Heritage and links with the past are used to legitimise and promote group identities and
political alliances. Senses of belonging to a place or a tradition, that is national and/or
ethnic allegiances require symbolic links with the past (Lowenthal 1985:396). The need
for links with the past is fulfilled by the preservation of things, physical remains, whose
original form and fabric remind us of our idea of the past. This undisputed need for
and creation of links with the past is expressed on global as well as on local levels.
The global is for example represented by international organisations, preserving
heritage in order to rescue it from damage and potential destruction. On this level,
heritage is considered the property of all nations and all peoples of the world, and is
ascribed universal value that applies to the whole of mankind. The key to this global rhetoric
is the notion that preservation saves. It stops the disappearance of items, which otherwise
causes ‘a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world’
(UNESCO 1972a). Items are worth preserving, UNESCO states, because they constitute our heritage and are key sources of information about an important stage in the
development of the human species. In that sense, we can all claim them to be part of
our common world heritage (Aplin 2002:9). The knowledge of the existence of heritage,
any heritage, is sufficient to feel a link with the past (Lowenthal 1998:134ff). Therefore,
the need for preservation of something as part of this world heritage, the desire for
eternal existence, is now motive enough to claim preservation. This kind of (global
level) preservation implies the participation of everyone, applied to the entire international community. Crucial for such a project is a view of the world as a homogenous
entity – at least on one level, projecting the assumption of a common heritage.
This globalisation might provoke a strong localist reaction, reflected in a growing interest in local history, traditions, intangible heritage, and cultural identity among indigenous groups (Logan 2002:xvii). The past legitimises and gives a more glorious background to a present that does not have much to celebrate (Hobsbawm 1997:6). As
such, the past might be politically used for nationalistic purposes (Kohl and Fawcett
1995:9ff). Additionally, in the present-day politics of identity, links with the past become essential for groups of people (often those who are classified as marginalised, or
as minority groups or indigenous people) that promote the local and define themselves
by ethnicity or religion.
Interestingly, UNESCO’s latest proclamation that includes intangible cultural heritage exemplifies an attempt to embrace both the global and local levels (without, in my
opinion, fully succeeding). One of the explicit aims of that convention is to protect
intangible cultural heritage as a form of cultural expression, but in so doing it becomes
an integral aspect of the very process of globalisation that UNESCO views as a threat
to the complexity of the cultural inventory and the collective memory of people (Fog
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Olwig 2002:145). The question is then how a global organisation, which operates according to general guidelines, can recognise and appreciate the complexity and diversity
of the cultural expressions that it seeks to protect (ibid:145f). It is therefore relevant to
pose the question whether it is at all possible to preserve an intangible heritage, valued
because of qualities that are inherently difficult to value. It becomes a contradiction in
terms when such a distinctive character is valued by a system, which in itself implies
homogeneity.
The next presumption, decisive for the preservationist ideal, is the idea that physical
remains from the past are crucial for historical understanding. This notion is close to
that behind the origins of the preservation ethic, but it has continuously changed and
shifted. The archaeological database must be protected (Cleere 1989:9). Laws and regulations manifest the belief that information contained in archaeological sites and things
from the past can be lost, or damaged, or misused, and that this implies an irreplaceable
loss to the public. Consequently, the focus is on physical remains, their original form
and fabric, and their materiality. Today, this is partly a reaction against the increasing
evanescence of things and the speed with which we pass them by, in a society where
destructive change is rapid and has accelerated. The more the past is destroyed and left
behind, the stronger the need to preserve. There is a tendency to think that preserved
remains stay unaltered in museums or as cultural or natural reserves, forever ‘frozen’
and permanent, eternal sources of information about our past. Preservation is, however, an active process of materialisation, where materiality is anything except an empirical
reality (Buchli 2002:14f). It produces rather than preserves. This perspective is crucial
for better understanding the essential Buddhist notion of impermanence, which I will
come back to soon.
The wish that remains from past times must be protected is also connected to and a
result of nostalgia for the past and for authenticity. As modern life becomes increasingly abstract and impersonal, a common reaction is a growing nostalgia back to the
past (Chase and Shaw 1989), a longing for the past, often in idealised form. The past we
want to establish a link with and keep alive by preserving its remains, is, however, an
imagined past, largely expressed in societal traditions and held in social memory.
Memory also helps against the fear for loss. Our contemporary society is dominated
by an increased flow of information. The more we remember, the better. Simultaneously, with increasing information flow, the demands on remembering as much as
possible are also increasing. The more information we need to keep in our memory, the
more difficult it is to keep it there implicitly, ‘inside’ the mind. We must therefore collect things or objects that can help us remember and move our memories in an explicit
direction, ‘outside’ of the mind, to the outside world (Derwinger 2005, see also Yates
1966). Here, it is interesting to note the fact that while we in the western part of the
world force ourselves to remember as much as possible, others practice the art of for-
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getting. According to the art of forgetting, to best remember the essentials it is desirable
to have an implicit in-the-mind-memory. It has been argued, by Australian aborigines,
that people in the western part of the world do not know what to remember and what
to forget, and that their uncertainty as to how to relate to the past is a reason for preservation (Lowenthal 1998:29). Another example, from China, shows that permanence is
appreciated through words exalting others’ enduring thoughts, rather than through
things (ibid:20). Consequently, forgetting means that what is remembered is not recalled
through materiality, but in one’s mind, through emancipated physical remains.
I consider the fear to lose the links with the past, which results in a loss of identity, as
being the most important motive for contemporary heritage preservation. However,
these reasons for preservation reflect western perspectives and the idea that the need of
links with the past is universal. They merely reflect western scientific needs, based on
value systems and ideas about relative importance that are, I would argue, not at all
universal. Likewise, the desire to feel affiliated with the past and to imagine a continuity
or a sense of origin through the things that are preserved is not universal. Apparently,
other perspectives than the western might overturn the established heritage management enterprise, as all people in the world do not share the foundational ideas behind
these motives. Even with awareness about other perspectives and an inclusive approach
in current heritage debates (where local communities are involved and indigenous
groups teach heritage managers how to identify and manage heritage, and where we
emphasise small scale features instead of monumentality as the predominant reason for
preservation), it is still assumed that all people in the world need links with the past,
preferably through preserved physical remains. Moving to a reality where the Buddhist
notion of impermanence of matters dominates, forces us, however, to question these
presumptions. Let us therefore now take a brief look at this notion of impermanence
that permeates Buddhism, and the consequences of this perspective.
IMPERMANENCE
Together with unsatisfactoriness and absence of a Self, impermanence is central in dhamma (the
teachings of Buddha). These three characteristics, or marks, of existence can serve as
separate doctrines, but are also closely interdependent.
Unsatisfactoriness (duhkha) is at the core of the central conception of Buddhism.
The entire teaching of Buddha revolves from an understanding of the unsatisfactory
nature of all phenomenal existence and an understanding of the way out of this unsatisfactoriness (Strong 2002:32ff). This course, called the Four Noble Truths, covers definitions of unsatisfactoriness, how and why it arises, how to end it and finally the way to
achieve this objective – the path to purification and deliverance through right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. It
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is a framework for grasping the processes of experience in life, and the Four Noble
Truths are best understood as phenomenological categories in those processes (Robinson and Johnson 1997:34-42).
The doctrine that there is no Self in individuals, called absence of a Self (anatman),
means that there is no permanent ‘I’ or ‘mine’. There is seeing, feeling, experiencing
etc., but not an unchanging never-ending Self or Soul behind the scene. Body and soul
are two sides of the same matter. Between they who die and they who are born is continuity, but no identity. This could be applied not only to the life of people and things
but also to the life of thoughts.
Impermanence (anitya), or inconstancy, is an attribute of all conditioned phenomena.
It simply means that all beings and all things arise, live and pass away, in circular motion, until the final extinction is reached. This ultimate goal, nirvana, is attained when the
being or the thing is free from or has relinquished the unsatisfactory state. The term
nirvana can also be equated with enlightenment, and implies a freedom from desire, and
a destiny not to be reborn again (ibid, Strong 2002:90ff, 106, see also Bechert and
Gombrich 1984:7-89, 159-170).
The interrelation between unsatisfactoriness, absence of a Self and impermanence
could be summarised as follows: Happiness in life is dependent on unsatisfaction to the
extent that both happiness and life are impermanent. That is, things are unsatisfactory
because they are impermanent. They do not last forever, or even for a moment, but are
in a constant state of change. Consequently, neither feelings nor thoughts, neither
things nor life are completely under control and therefore cannot be regarded as one’s
identity, since identity denies the existence of a Self underlying the phenomenon of
experience.
If, as concluded above, in accordance with western official notions of heritage management the fulfilment of desire often is the motive for preserving or inventing heritage, it should not be possible to perceive of heritage in a strictly Buddhist context.
Inherent in the heritage idea is a desire for eternal existence, an insatiable search, a
craving for pleasures or challenges fuelling the life flame. In western societies this desire
is encouraged, whereas in a strictly Buddhist worldview such desire is one of the main
reasons for unsatisfactoriness. The ongoing thirst for possession and satisfaction of
desires, the search for pleasure without realising that no objects or ideas will satisfy the
senses or the mind, has to be eliminated. Otherwise, those governed by desire will
forever be bound to the wheel of existence and will never reach the goal of final extinction (Strong 2002:100ff). Consequently, from this perspective desire would be considered the primary motive for preserving heritage. The three characteristics of existence
therefore make heritage preservation impossible or even irrelevant if we are strict followers of the teachings of Buddha.
It would have been easy to suggest that when working in a context where the notion
of impermanence is valid for all things, there should be no point in bothering about the
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history of that specific context. However, the situation is not that easy, and we should
certainly bother, because the teachings of Buddha, the true dhamma, were themselves
subject to the laws of impermanence (Strong, 2002: 89). What Buddha taught was
therefore supposed to be changed and reinterpreted, or even lost and forgotten. So, the
fact that Buddha’s teachings themselves were impermanent saves us from leaving any
Buddhist contexts out of research in history or archaeology. What further saves us from
ignoring these areas is the fact that they are in most cases not purely Buddhist. I need to
stress, once again, the distinction between canonical and popular Buddhism. In popular
Buddhism, which dominates as religious practice in Laos, animism, Buddhism and
sometimes Hinduism accommodate each other since long ago. But it should also be
noted that this popular Buddhism is in no way homogenous.
Anyhow, I find it necessary to understand the canonical Buddhist perspective, just
like we already know the preservationist perspective. I consider current preservation
ideology and its desire to protect vulnerable material things as one extreme. Buddhist
ideology and its inherent notion of all matter as impermanent is another extreme. Consequently, there are two opposing Utopias, or rather two different worlds, dealing with
the same material things. My aim is not to suggest an extremist, non-preservationist
Buddhist alternative, but instead to emphasise the ambiguities of heritage and its management and to point at fundamental problems in recent scientific principles of heritage
management. The Buddhist extreme is thus used here as a tool, to demonstrate considerations omitted from today’s heritage management debates.
Now we have identified some of the motives behind the preservationist ideal, and
we understand the strictly Buddhist notion of impermanence that represents the nonpreservationist ideal. With these extremes in mind, we will now make a final move back
to Vientiane and explore what is in between, represented by popular Buddhist practices
and beliefs.
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11. PRESERVATION AS CHANGE
Preserve or change? What is really what? To preseve something
only because it is old is a fairly new idea, and the product of
such acts of preservation is always something entirely new.
There has always been change, the one thing in the world that
does not change. Therefore, the problem is preservation, and
not change. And after all – is there any more thorough change
than the act of preservation?27
– Owe Ronström (2007:292)
Even though the concept of heritage and the entire heritage discourse are modern
European constructions, they exist in Laos. The heritage, as I have defined it in Laos,
not only consists of stories, places and things, it does something to the stories, the places
and the things too. Heritage is mainly created because we, archaeologists and heritage
managers, think that preservationist ideals are universal. However, is it possible to impose preservationist ideals and frames of reference in contexts and worlds where nonpreservationist ideals might prevail?
In this chapter, I explore a few concepts, which are assumed dependent on and supporting preservationism. These are tools for preserving heritage from destructive influences, such as restoration and conservation. But their meaning differ, depending on the
context. Restoration must not necessarily presuppose preservation. In turn, preservation can be a destructive force, and destruction might be needed for the preservation of
certain values. By illustrating the complexity between the two extremes (preservation
and impermanence), and the complexity between the different worlds in which they
exist, I argue that we cannot continue to urge a universal frame of reference that recommends preservationism. This fundamentalist ideology of heritage preservation might
even be dangerous (cf. Holtorf 2006).
The different worlds I am talking about do not represent the dichotomies ‘Western
vs Eastern’, or ‘Christian vs Buddhist’, or ‘We vs the Other’ straight off.28 When exloring the heritage of Scotland (a Scotland that has a seemingly homogenous national
culture), Siân Jones has shown that local residents in some of the seaboard villages are
marginalised and ‘reclaim a space for themselves, just as Asian, African and Caribbean
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communities, for instance, are doing elsewhere’ (2005:110). There are obviously different worlds also in what seems a common (read: western) world. Thus, the purpose of
illustrating this complexity with my examples from Laos is not to show how a proper
‘Buddhist heritage management’ should be carried out. My purpose is rather to open up
for other frames of reference than the one imposing preservation within heritage discourse, and to call for new heritage discourses to be created.
RESTORATION AND CONSERVATION
In 1843, the French architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc presented a restoration plan
for Notre-Dame in Paris. They suggested a restoration of the cathedral to its original
medieval state. Included in the plan were also arguments and commentaries about restoration principles in general, which was something new for restoration plans. A key
principle concerned the style in which the cathedral was to be restored. A strict uniformity was advocated. This restoration programme came to represent the first and
most important text within the l’unité-de-style school, and Viollet-le-Duc its leading
propagator. With profound knowledge about historical style developments and with an
often pedantic accuracy, things and buildings were according to this school supposed to
be restored back to their actual (or intended) original state. So, Viollet-le-Duc came to
represent the restoration or reconstruction viewpoint.
A few years later, John Ruskin finished his book The Seven Lamps of Architecture
(1849), in which he developed restoration principles that were diametrically opposing
l’unité-de-style. Together with William Morris among others and the British Society for
the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, Ruskin defended a non-rationalistic view where
they claimed that architecture is part of history, and that history with its emotional
values must not be distorted. It was argued that in the end all monuments have to die,
but we should do everything we can to prevent it, everything but restoring it: ‘bind it
together with iron where it loosens, stay it with timber where it declines, do not care
about the unsightliness of the aid: better a crutch than a lost limb’ (Ruskin [1849]
1989:181). Ruskin thus stand for the strictly conservationist position.
This particular restoration-conservation debate, represented by Viollet-le-Duc and
Ruskin, is often brought up as the starting-point for the continuous debate, which is
still ongoing and which also embraces the life of the temples and Buddha images in
Vientiane that I will come back to soon. The field of restoration, reconstruction and
conservation has existed as long as works of art and architecture have been created.
Equally, debates concerning this field have existed for such a long time, because the
field has never been unified, it has always been changing. Techniques have developed
over the centuries, and are continuing to develop, and the meanings of the different
concepts have changed over time. Today, the term restoration refers to the act of returning something to its authentic or former state, but without adding new material (if
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additions are allowed they must be distinguishable from the original) and not necessarily aiming at unity in style. That is also how restoration is defined in the Venice Charter,29 which was approved in 1964. Whereas restoration aims at preserving and revealing historic and aesthetic values, based on respect for original materials, conservation is
today dominated by scientific methodology, knowledge and values. Central to the contemporary field of conservation is a belief in scientific inquiry as the basis for preservation and that there is a fundamental need to preserve the integrity of the physical object
(Clavir 2002:4). It claims to be more scientific than restoration.
Regardless if reconstruction, restoration or conservation is argued for, the different
approaches are all aiming at the same, namely to maintain authenticity and the feeling of
originality. Wanting everything to be as close to the original as possible, for as long as
possible, is a generally accepted starting point that prevails within heritage discourse
and the present preservation ethics in the west. Moreover, the final stage in the restoration and conservation processes is a complete thing or building. The consequence is often
an unacquainted denial of a thing’s life between construction and decay among contemporary heritage specialists. The practices, which occur in between, are explained as
religious in nature, or supernatural (Byrne 1995), or too subjective to be taken into
account in modern scientific heritage practices.
However, from a general Lao perspective it is what happens in between, concerning
maintenance and restoration that is meaningful. But then, the significance and meaning
of the term restoration is different from what was described above in connection to
modern scientific heritage preservation practices.
Before I turn to explore the meaning of restoration here, it is important to notice
that the western heritage discourse approach of course exists in the Lao context. At the
two World Heritage sites in Laos, Vat Phou and Luang Prabang, this is officially the
prevalent notion, and also among heritage managers working for the government in
ministries and museums. In my first survey of Vientiane, I spent some time with officials working for different ministries, companies and organisations that were involved
in urban planning, road construction, irrigation, mining etc. I interviewed, discussed
and distributed questionnaires, through which I explored the heritage management at
different levels. Most answers confirmed an awareness of existing international guidelines and legislations, and referred to the contents of national constitutions and laws
concerning EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), which cover investigations of
archaeological sites and cultural heritage. This awareness has significantly increased
during the last decade (cf. the city walls that were demolished and dumped into the
Mekong in 1998), and laws and regulations become increasingly efficient. Still, at this
level it is very much a question about priorities and money. Thus, in line with nationalistic ideologies about a glorious past propagated by the Lao government, only the
monumental and spectacular remains from past times are prioritised, such as the World
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Heritage sites and, in Vientiane, for example That Luang, Vat Ho Phra Keo and Vat
Sisaket.30
Let me also say a few words about completion, by moving back to Vat Ou Mong in
Vientiane. Construction workers had already started to build a new sim at the temple
compound when the demolition of the old sim was completed. As the walls grew
higher, inscriptions with donors’ names and the amounts of contribution were added,
and signs were put up on the temple yard telling the same. I cannot say exactly when
the construction work started, but it lasted over several years because when I passed
Vat Ou Mong in 2004 it was not yet completed. Even after the installation ceremony,
when a temple receives its formal authority, building activities often continue. Following the inherent meaning of the merit-making act, the completion of a temple is subordinate to
the process of its construction. A temple under construction offers (the villages of Ban Ou
Mong in this case) a chance to donate money or provide volunteer labour, which means
making merit. Adding, removing and elaborating over time are necessary parts of the
merit-making act. With this more or less institutionalised maintenance practice, one can
argue that the notion of completion is not relevant in this context. It is the (more or
less constant) act of restoration that is important, rather than the result of it, after its
completion.
What about the concept of restoration then? Often it is similar or equivalent to building a new monument, as an act of making merit. Restoration in this context means
something radically different from what is implicit in modern scientific principles of
conservation and preservation. It is rather a restoration of an idea of the prestige of the original,
than of the physical form of the original. Denis Byrne suggests that ‘renewal’ might be a
more applicable concept here (2007:167).
Let us explore this by looking at two different temple sites in Vientiane: Vat Phonesay and Vat Ou Mong. In Ban Phonesay, one of the hundred villages of Vientiane city,
there is a temple named Vat Phone Say Sethathirat. Commonly it is called just Vat
Phonesay. During one of our visits there, in connection to the survey in 2002, we met
Mr Kitnavong. He was not born in the village, but came there as a little child and had
lived there since, and knew perfectly well the story about the wife of king Sethathirat.
After the capital of Lan Xang was moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the
1550s, the king had this temple built as a gift to his wife. This was also part of the procedure of stating power and royal kinship, which was marked by the building expansion
in Vientiane during the sixteenth century. The main temple construction, the sim, differs
from most other in Vientiane. It is a low building, in ‘traditional Lao style’,31 and almost
the only temple in its original shape from the sixteenth century in Vientiane today, even
though it has been restored now and again over the centuries. Close to the sim stands a
stupa (that) in disrepair. With my untrained eyes and limited knowledge, I characterised
its condition as miserable. I soon understood that the heap of bricks and the Buddha
statues, some complete and others at different stages of decay, were not at all neglected
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The ancient stupa at Vat Phonesay is repeatedly restored, things are removed and added.
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
but rather looked after with greatest care. Small pieces of leaf gold are every so often
added to the deteriorated corpses of the Buddha statues in an act of merit-making.
Minor repairs as well as more extensive construction works are continuously carried out
to maintain the stupa and the statues, activities carried out by villagers and monks and
important for the everyday use of and religious practice at the temple. It is also, through
this repeated restoration process, that the prestige, or spiritual value, of the object is
maintained. Referring back to what I discussed in chapter 7 about ‘reminders’ acting as
‘fields of merit’, we see that the value of the objects here has nothing to do with their
form and fabric. It is what they represent and to what extent the object is loaded with
significance and power that is important. This is, as also discussed earlier, an example of
the different conception of authenticity, which is established here through performance.
In popular Buddhism, merit-making and other practices involving materiality are
superior to the notion of impermanence. Things are important and significant. Not as
remains from past times, but rather as part of the religious belief and practice. The
stupa and the Buddha statues at Vat Phonesay are not defined as historical documents,
worthy of preservation because of their ancient origin and material authenticity. Returning again to Vat Ou Mong, we see also here that the ancient sim that was demolished
was not regarded valuable because of its material qualities. Apart from this, the demolition of the old sim and the construction of a new one at Vat Ou Mong illustrate another
form of restoration practice, slightly different from the maintenance of the stupa and
Buddha statues at Vat Phonesay. A restoration practice that has to do with the ‘pouring
through’ of spiritual values, which I described in chapter 7. Whereas the Vat Phonesay
stupa and Buddha images are reminders and important as instruments through which
the significance of Buddha’s life reaches people in the present, the Vat Ou Mong sim is
a shell or a container, a storage place for spiritual values. And whereas the Vat Phonesay reminders need constant restoration through the adding of things to them (such as
the gold leafs) for the significance to be maintained, the destruction of the Vat Ou
Mong sim is necessary for the significance and the spiritual values first to be liberated
and then free to enter (or pour through to) the new shell, the new sim, which is a result
of the villagers’ wish to gain merit. Building a new sim is the most meritorous of acts the
villagers can ever carry out, and therefore the restoration of the Vat Ou Mong sim is
important primarily as a part in the merit-making act. Despite these differences, the
essential meaning of the restoration practice is here shared: restoration is present-oriented
and implies that things are added and constantly change.
So, in contrast to western heritage discourse where restoration means returning a
structure to its previous state and focusing on form and fabric and material authenticity,
restoration means, in general in Lao society, returning the structure’s prestige and spiritual
values, by turning it to something new as a result of adding or changing its physical form and
fabric. At Vat Ou Mong, the restoration means that the old buildning is replaced by a
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new building; the physical sim is turned to something new. By letting the spiritual values
exit the old and enter the new, the prestige of the sim is returned. Similarily, the restoration of the ancient stupa and the Buddha statues at Vat Phonesay is an example of a
process where the structures are constantly turned to something new as things are added,
but by doing so, they are returned to their previous prestige. Returning prestige and
spiritual values (not returning to original form and fabric) has to do with the act of
merit-making and is an essential part of the religious practice and belief.
DESTRUCTION AND DECAY
With the example of Vat Ou Mong above, I have already discussed how destruction
might be necessary for the appreciation and maintenance of spiritual values. At Vat Ou
Mong, destruction and decay were also necessary for the appreciation of heritage, because the temple was not identified as valuable heritage until it was demolished. I will
here continue to explore the concepts of destruction and decay and their relation to
preservation, and I argue that they are mutually dependent.
Although many of the problematic issues connected to the ideology of heritage preservationism have been discussed over the last century, destruction and decay are still
regarded as threats to and in opposition to preservation. Recently, critical voices against
the presumption that destruction and decay are threats to our cultural heritage have
been heard and primarily triggered by conflicting values, wars and global terrorism
(González-Ruibal 2008, Holtorf 2006, Dolff-Bonekämper 2008, Meskell 2002).32 In
addition to these, there are others who focus on Asia, and bring up examples that well
relativise destruction and preservation (cf. Byrne 1995, Wijesuriya 2001, Johnson 2001
and Lahiri 2001). I want to illustrate here that the situation in such a seemingly uncontroversial context as Laos also prove to be reason enough for questioning that destruction is only a threat to cultural heritage, and that this in turn challenge the entire perspective of preservationism and its fundamental position within the established heritage
discourse.
A destruction that preserves, destroys or creates heritage values? (photo by Alan Potkin, Vat Ou Mong)
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
According to the Buddhist notion of impermanence, decay is inevitable. Decay is a
constant reminder of death and therefore, in accordance with the ideas of rebirth, essential for any celebration of life. It is crucial for rebirth and finally enlightenment, the
ultimate goal. Consequently, preservation as the opposite of decay and destruction
becomes, in a strictly Buddhist perspective, a contradiction in terms.
Even so, the notion of rebirth, and consequently the idea of decay as essential for
rebirth, is valid also within popular Buddhism. In the case of Vat Ou Mong, the destruction of the sim was not a consequence of a strictly canonical Buddhist practice, but
rather a result of the kind of popular Buddhism that is practiced there by the majority.
The merging of Buddhism and animism is obvious if we look at the (Buddhist) sim as a
storage place for spiritual values and power. These spiritual values and power in turn
animate the sim through different kinds of (animist) sacralisation rituals and the destruction of the old sim is necessary for this power to pour through and animate the new
sim.33
When it comes to another religious structure, the stupa, the situation is slightly different. At Vat Phonesay, for example, the ancient stupa is the instrument through
which the significance of Buddha’s life reaches people in the present, and is thus not
only an impermanent container for spiritual values. Here, its decay is part of the restoration act, in which all stages in the circle of life are represented. Decay here represents
death, and thereby rebirth and the possibility of final extinction. Destruction of the
stupa at Vat Phonesay is not necessary, because its spiritual power needs not to pour
through. A similar example is that of the numerous decayed stupas in Say Fong. They
remain there in the landscape, scattered among rice fields along the ancient temple
lines, as symbols for Buddha’s presence and constantly reminding of life’s circular motion.
The other site I investigated, Viengkham, provides yet another idea of how destruction and decay might be related to preservation within popular Buddhism. In connection with the excavations in 2004, there were discussions about moving the village’s
temple back to Vat Kao, the place where the old temple site had been and where we at
that time excavated. In contrast to the demolition of the sim at Vat Ou Mong, the two
decayed structures at Vat Kao could be left just as they were if a new temple was to be
established there. Because, at that particular site, the two mounds (former Vat Poa and
Vat Phra Bang) had increasingly turned into animistic objects, from having been primarily Buddhist structures. Not only the mounds but also the entire site had become
imbued with animistic rather than Buddhist beliefs. Most of the stories about the site
evolved around animistic beliefs and practices and had to do with phii. They involved
otherworldly and supernatural explanations.34 Phii was the reason behind the strong
hesitation from the residents of the village to participate in the excavations initially.
And phii was also the explanation to why bad things happen to people who remove
objects from the site. This is because phii occupy these ruins, and are their guardian
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spirits. Decay had turned the ancient temple foundations into animated objects, and as
such, they could remain even though a new temple was to be constructed at the same
site. As empowered and magic objects, the ruins help to protect the prestige of the
village and its residents. They also have the function as reminders of life’s circular motion and as representations, symbolising Buddha’s attainment. To retain a decayed
structure, and just restoring or maintaining its spiritual values through merit-making
acts,35 has nothing to do with its form and fabric. It sustains good relations with ancestral and guardian spirits and gives protection against bad and evil spirits. Again, this
illustrates the complex mix of animism and Buddhism and the complex relations between destruction and construction, and between decay and preservation in this context.
Let me finish this by a comparison with the archaeologist and the practice of excavation. Well known to archaeologists is that the act of excavation is a kind of destruction, but also that this practice is acceptable and that it is worth the destruction to be
able to contribute to the grand project of archaeology (Lucas 2001, Holtorf 2006:103).
It was obvious during the Viengkham excavations that my initial aim to place the past
in the present through excavation was not at all that the excavation would be of benefit
for the residents of the village. They already knew more than I did about the past, without digging in the ground. However, what it actually did was to create heritage. The bai
sema that was excavated and exhibited is today a monument at the ancient temple site
Vat Kao in Ban Viengkham. The stone was returned to the village after six months in
the Lao National Museum, where it had been included in the exhibitions. Back in the
village it was placed near the mound (the foundations of the ruined temple Vat Phra
Bang, from which it was excavated), sheltered on a concrete platform. Since then it is
part of the villagers’ heritage. Or rather, the stone started its life as heritage that day in
early April 2004, when the residents of Ban Viengkham met at the village chief office to
discuss our request to take the stone to Vientiane. All the stories about the old temple
site and the strange things that had happened there, in the past as well as very recently,
the place itself with all its spirits and sacred things, and its history as a place where kings had
lived and important events had happened, were all components in what could be defined as heritage. In addition, the incident with the stone functioned as a catalyst: it
evoked the need to define the local heritage, the heritage of Ban Viengkham. The stone
itself was a quite mediocre bai sema, without beautiful depictions, lacking any important
inscription, not very big and a bit oblique. But as a representation for the newly defined
local heritage, it surely deserved its own monument. The excavation and the request to
remove the bai sema started something, and owing to the proposed loss, represented by
the move to the museum, the stone acquired a new meaning. It became the symbol for
Ban Viengkham’s own heritage.
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CONSUMPTION, LOOTING AND LOSS
Consumption is inherently destructive. It involves elimination, the using up of resources and the destruction of material culture itself. A common idea, both within
academia and among the general is that consumption is a threat to society and its spiritual and moral values, that it is a danger to both society and the environment. It is seen
in opposition to production, which is associated with creativity and considered the
manufacture of value. However, consumption must not only be about buying things or
equivalent to modern mass consumption and used as a critique against capitalism.
Other approaches have been argued for over the last two decades, within for example
material culture studies. These approaches challenge predominant dichotomies and try
to see beyond consumption and destruction as opposed to production and creativity.
Instead, they emphasise the relation between consumption and creativity, and consider
consumption as a way of developing relationships with things. Daniel Miller writes that
‘in my research it becomes clear that people who develop strong and multiple relationships with things are the same people who develop strong and multiple relationships
with people’ (2008:44f). Such approaches draw attention to the appreciation of consumption and should be applicable also within the heritage discourse. I would argue
that this is necessary if we want to continue working with applied heritage management
in Buddhist contexts, and elsewhere.
Buddhism encourages spending rather than saving, which is reflected in economic
systems examined by Melford E. Spiro in the 1960s. His case study was Burmese, but
Buddhist notions are more generally applicable. He introduces his paper in American
Anthropologist as follows:
The Buddhist world view, and especially its notions of rebirth and karma, provide a
cognitive orientation within which religious spending is a much sounder and much
more profitable investment than economic saving…(1966:1163).
By spending, and directing the surplus towards merit-making, the spender becomes
a consumer. Consequently, in this case, consuming heritage becomes the prerequisite
for maintaining its value.
Let us now pick up the thread of the phii as guardian spirits, and look at looting as a
way of consumption. In Laos, it is not uncommon that people who loot archaeological
sites, plunderers, suffer from accidents and misfortune. This is often explained as a
result of the plunderer interfering with the guardian spirits. Plundering and looting are
needless to say huge problems, but an issue that will not be discussed further here.
What I want to bring up is rather its double function in many contexts (Laos among
others); a fact that has almost never been raised in recent debates about looting and the
commercial use of artefacts. On one hand, the plundering of an object is illegal. Plundering damages the archaeological record and might result in personal troubles as de208
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scribed above. On the other hand, it is part of the local religious practice and belief, and
therefore necessary if we want the traditions and cultures that are based on these beliefs
and practices (i.e. the heritage according to western definitions) to be maintained.
In a Buddhist context, abandonment, decay and impoverishment are continuously
balanced against the process of maintenance and restoration. Suddenly a religious structure is considered worn out and in no use for merit-making. What remains then are the
sacred objects, objects animated with power through rituals impregnated by Buddhist as
well as animist ideas, but free for anyone to plunder.
A worn out stupa in Vientiane that has been subjected to looting. Illegal stealing or part of a religious practice?
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
Plunderers are often pious Buddhists, seeking sacred objects to use in their everyday
religious life. The plundering could be regarded as a release of the objects, which allows
them and their spiritual values to ‘pour forth’ into the greater world and be of further
use, because the object itself holds more value than the fact that it was buried under or
placed inside a religious structure. Plunderers would then rather be looked upon as
relievers than looters. This is also the case when it comes to the structures themselves,
which are considered looted as people remove parts from them. Such cases are the
stupas, which are believed to contain fragments of the relics from the historical Buddha’s cremation. These are relics that were distributed throughout Southeast Asia along
with Buddha’s teachings some hundred years after his death. Denis Byrne explains that
the ‘radiant power of a relic transmits itself to the physical fabric of the stupa encasing
it’. Therefore, he says, it is common when a stupa deteriorates that fragments of it are
‘taken away to be encased within new stupas, the empowered fabric of the old stupas
thus seeding new ones’ (2007:159).36 Similar occurrences also take place in other parts
of the world that are not necessarily Buddhist. An example of that is Julie Hollowell’s
experience of working in Alaska. She describes that:
On St Lawrence Island, digging for artefacts is part of every Islander’s heritage, an activity that can usually strengthen one’s connections with the past. Artefacts are regarded
as gifts left by the ancestors that, if they allow themselves to be found, are meant for
use in today’s world (2006:88).
Within archaeology and heritage discourse today, there is the prevalent view that
looting results in a loss of heritage. However, heritage can sometimes be created thanks
to loss. I have already mentioned the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan that were
deliberately destroyed in 2001, which caused strong reactions across the world (read:
western). This was defined as a crime against culture, an unacceptable destruction of
cultural heritage. To destroy such symbolically loaded structures, which before the
destruction were identified by international organisations as valuable cultural heritage, is
certainly a strong action demonstrating a wish for another social order. However, one
can also argue that UNESCO’s defence against destruction was an equally strong action
(Turtinen 2006:43ff). In fact, the destruction in itself was the main argument for appointing the site as a World Heritage and for inscribing it on UNESCO’s List of World
Heritage in Danger (UNESCO 1972b).37 Similarly, even thinking about losing the stone
at Vat Kao in Ban Viengkham evoked the idea, among the residents of the village, to
define it as their heritage. If heritage is about remembering the past and contributes to
people’s identities, then destruction and consumption of the archaeological record – the
loss of heritage – help us remember even better and might strengthen our identities
even more. With these examples, it should be obvious that we need a far more broadminded discussion about lost and/or gained heritage. Because, today heritage is being
created more rapidly than it is being lost.
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12. HERITAGE CREATED
Now, let me bring my final arguments together and put the finishing touches to this
thesis. My definition of cultural heritage in Vientiane is that it consists of stories, places
and things. Even though the stories might be about the past, and the places and things
are remnants and remains from past times, the present is always at the centre of my
story about Vientiane: a present in which also heritage is created.
It is in the present that we create pictures of the past. We do it through our stories,
through archaeology and history. The stories are of varying sorts and sometimes contradictory. They unmask the different circumstances in which they have been created,
as well as the different reasons for telling them. What exactly in the storytelling is important for the creation of heritage? I have interpreted this as the need of finding and
stating an identity, a sense of belonging. Furthermore, I think the reasons behind these
stories are to mark differences or similarities, to preserve traditions, or to be unique and
create something new. These varying reasons appear more clearly when we look at
Vientiane and the stories about the city’s history and heritage. The archaeological
framework for this thesis is how Vientiane became, and was/is defined as an urban
space. Based on a redefinition of some basic concepts, I have allowed the archaeological framework for this particular study be open-ended and fluid, composed by different
stories that were created at different places and at different times and that are represented both materially and immaterially. The approach to materiality in popular Buddhism is related to the general ideas that things are important primarily as containers for
spiritual values, that things are important from a contemporary perspective, and that it
is the spiritual values that carry the connection to the past. By understanding the different processes of materialisation and dematerialisation, and the notion of impermanence
within popular Buddhism, it is possible to deconstruct the fundamental preservationist
ideal that prevails within contemporary western heritage discourse. This preservationist
ideal is a result of the fear for losing the remains from past times, because if we lose the
remains we might not understand the past and we might as well lose our identities.
When exploring restoration, destruction and consumption in a popular Buddhist perspective, we understand that preservation and restoration may instead be active processes of materialisation, that destruction and consumption may be necessary for the
appreciation of certain heritage expressions, and that heritage is being constantly created.
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If we now recall the introductory story about the demolition of the sim at Vat Ou
Mong, we might ask ourselves which approach to heritage management would here be
the most appropriate. Is it possible to bridge the obvious gap between a sophisticated
preservationist sensibility where the Lao cultural patrimony should be conserved, and
the perceptions and priorities of the local community where the old sim is laid in ruins,
the villagers make merit and by doing so take part in and hand over the intangible and
ever changing heritage of a Buddhist community? If it is possible, how can we then
bridge this divide, to best meet as many demands as possible? Or is it desirable to even
try? Can the sim be included in the heritage management process at all?
These are all difficult questions with no simple or straight answers. I think general
alternative strategies for dealing with a heritage that is constantly changing are not easily
found. We might be better off trying to debate preservation ethics in a somewhat more
respectful way, where a situated, particular and non-essentialist approach is argued.
What is needed is imagination and sensitivity, to put heritage management into practice
in a constructive and intelligent way, so that the people involved recognise their rights
in justifying the same values, as they consider important and sacred. A baseline for this
approach must be to acknowledge the different worlds we have to deal with and accept
that our western frames of reference cannot and should not be used unswervingly for
other realities, other worlds. If we depart from the things themselves and treat things as
meanings, rather than immediately assuming that they signify, represent or stand for
something, it might be easier to recognise the systems wherein things get their significance, including our own (cf. Strathern 1990). Following this ‘meta’ perspective we will
then be able to acknowledge that there are different worlds, rather than worldviews.
There are different realities, rather than different appearances of reality. Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, following Latour (2002, in Henare et al. 2007:11), conclude this by
stating that:
For if cultures render different appearances of reality, it follows that one of them is
special and better than all the others, namely the one that best reflects reality. And since
science – the search for representations that reflect reality as transparently and faithfully
as possible – happens to be a modern Western project, that special culture is, well, ours.
So, in my attempt to place my story about the past and about the things together
with and in relation to (my interpretations of) others’, I have, on a more general level,
been interested in exploring and understanding the different worlds within which the
different stories, pasts and things are created and seen as the reality, rather than following the ‘fixity in the ideological construction of otherness’ (Bhabha 1983, in Norindr
1996:111). What some consider archaeological or heritage might not at all be conceived
or constructed in the same way by others. Similarly, what others consider sacred we
cannot always conceive in the same way. Therefore, it is not only plurality and multivocality that is important; it is rather to acknowledge different worlds. Because if we just
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add alternative stories, we still use the same frames of reference and value systems. We
also need to tell stories in alternative ways.
After acknowledging the existence of different worlds, it would have been easy just to
keep to our own and separate it from the other. In the case of Vat Ou Mong, a scenario
like that may have resulted in our thinking ‘let them destroy their cultural heritage’. But
if scholarship, political commitment and sensitivity are one and the same (which I hope
we all strive for) we have to engage in our different worlds and realities, and look at the
differences and similarities to better understand other frames of reference. Let me first
reflect on why the preservationist ideology within heritage management dominates and
mention something about the differences between the different worlds.
Even though there are several ways of approaching the ethics of heritage management in different parts of the world, the universalist position taken by the western
heritage discourse is dominating. UNESCO and ICOMOS represent this discourse.
The ‘world heritage’ concept initially challenged the national view of cultural heritage.
Now it ‘has accordingly been challenged in the name of local and indigenous interests,
and pressing questions have been raised about its meaning and ethical status’ (Omland
2006:242). Nevertheless, the concept rests on the fundamental idea that a heritage can
be held in common. Even though western heritage discourse aspires to pluralism, it is
not comfortable with the immaterial and spiritual. It is something that is seen irrational
and therefore regarded by the west as pre-modern (Byrne 1993), but still authentic. This
fragile, exotic Other runs the risk of disintegration when coming in contact with the
west. When UNESCO initiated the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Culture Heritage, to meet the local and indigenous interests, these ‘endangered authenticities’ (Clifford 1988:5) were expected to adjust themselves to and accept western heritage discourse. One of the main purposes of the convention is to safeguard the intangible
heritage. Safeguarding here means ‘measures aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage, including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and
non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage’ (UNESCO 2003a, my emphasis). Even if these endangered authenticities and
intangible heritage are taken into consideration and conservation strategies are formulated in consultation with indigenous groups, the fundamental aim and necessity of
preservation is, as I have already argued, still unquestioned. The problem here is our
privileged position in the western world to direct and decide the framework.38 We are
interested in alternative histories, but not in alternative heritages (cf. Omland 2006 and
Byrne 1991), and definitely not in alternative frameworks and different worlds. Because,
We want the Other to remain exotic, to confirm our own identities and stating difference and power, placing the western culture at the top of the civilisation process. Thus,
213
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
the intangible heritage as defined and preserved by UNESCO is irrelevant in other
contexts than the western.
To conclude and answer my own questions above, I would argue that as long as the
heritage management process only follows the framework of western heritage discourse
and UNESCO’s universalist ideology, the sim at Vat Ou Mong should not be included.
Within the heritage management framework advocating preservation, the sim in question is considered archaeological, a valuable piece of heritage. In the case of meritmaking the sim is not at all conceived or constructed in this way. The sim might well be
included in a heritage management process if another frame of reference is used, a
frame of reference found within the Lao context. Then it would most likely be included
owing to other reasons than the ones stated above, by UNESCO. It would also be
managed in a different way. In one respect, the sim is already included in a heritage
management process, but one that is directed by another heritage discourse where
destruction and decay not necessarily contradicts construction and preservation, and
where it is the prestige and the spiritual values that are restored rather than the physical
form and fabric.
I have come to better understand my own point of departure too, which is the western
heritage discourse, after acknowledging that there are different realities and different
worlds. I have explored the creation of heritage in Vientiane and by doing so, I have
learnt much about the creation of heritage in the western heritage discourse. I have
been forced to reconsider the bases for this discourse and realised that there are many
similarities between these different worlds too. Therefore, I will make some final points
about restoration, as such a similarity, and give some concluding remarks about preservation and heritage value.
Based on the discussion in chapter 11, I assume that if we aim at returning something to its previous physical state and material authenticity by not adding new materials, it makes us believe that we do not change it. We simply put things back into their
original state. But, by showing that restoration in Laos is present-oriented, that things
are added and do change, I hope to have illustrated that conservation and preservation
in western heritage discourse is basically about the same thing. It does not matter if we
return something to its previous state or if we turn something into a new state, returning and turning are both active processes resulting in change and that something new
and more valuable, material or immaterial, is created. Things are not preserved because they
are valuable; it is rather so that they become valuable because they are preserved. We want to preserve the past, but instead we create our own imagination of the past (Edson 2004:339).
We want to preserve to prevent loss, but instead we create something new. Heritage is
created, destroyed and recreated, and therefore it has been argued that the past is a
renewable resource (cf. Holtorf 2001). We must acknowledge the past and the things
that remain from the past as renewable resources, as something changeable. Otherwise,
214
HERITAGE
it means that we assume what people in the future will appreciate and that they will
value things in exactly the same way as we do today. And that, in turn, means a kind of
‘future-imperialism’, a colonisation of future perceptions.
Another similarity concerns the idea of heritage as product versus heritage as process. Within contemporary heritage discourse ‘heritage as product’ is distinguished from
‘heritage as process’. It is suggested that heritage is described, in western culture, in
terms of a cultural product or production, whereas in non-western cultures, heritage is
described in terms of process where tradition is lived and the past and present are
closely connected (cf. Clavir 2002). I find this description problematic as it simplifies
the situation by still presupposing that the frameworks of the western world are prevalent. I would argue instead that heritage is both product and process in both western and
non-western cultures. Because even though heritage is material and/or social action in a
western world (a cultural product or production), it is continuously created, destructed
and recreated on the basis of likewise continuously changing conditions and must thus
be described as a process. Similarly, if heritage is immaterial, intangible and lived within
non-western cultures, it is still a product of what has been agreed is defined as heritage.
To me, heritage is therefore always both product and process. It may be something
monumental or intangible, or even lost. It may be a conserved structure, where the
integrity of the physical object, its form and fabric is preserved: a heritage that is created
to maintain authenticity and the feeling for originality. It may be a decayed structure,
where new things are added and worn out parts are removed: a heritage that is created
to maintain an idea of the prestige of the original. It may be a structure that has been
deliberately destructed and lost: a heritage that is created to maintain spiritual values. It
may be a new structure: a heritage that is created to maintain the possibility for rebirth.
What is common is that heritage is created from our different needs.
When we moved the bai sema at Vat Kao in Ban Viengkham, the residents of the village obviously considered the stone as part of their heritage, as the act of moving it
threatened the presetige of the object. I also considered the stone as part of a heritage,
by identifying it as an object worth exhibiting. In addition, my definition of the place as
part of a heritage and the act of moving the stone made possible this particular story to
be told. So, in a way, the stone fulfilled our different needs to create a heritage. At present, while the concrete that stabilises the bai sema at Vat Kao deteriorates, the residents
of the village continue to come there to make merit, but now, without outspokenly
defining the place or the act as parts of their heritage.
215
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1
As part of a larger project that includes an interactive online archive of Lao traditional cultures and landscapes (of which one part concerns Lao temple murals). Potkin’s documentation of the Vat Ou Mong demolition can be viewed on Youtube,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmhqmYzFtXY
2
The period from the early fifteenth century and continuing into the early seventeenth century, during which European ships were travelling around the world to search for new trading
routes and partners to feed a burgeoning capitalism in Europe.
3
Culture regions refer to spaces, which have been shaped by the occupation and interaction of
people and their landscape over time rather than to areas demarcated by national borders. A
Lao culture region refers here to today’s Laos, and the areas in Thailand, Vietnam and
Cambodia, which are inhabited by Lao-speaking groups, with their particular social
structures, belief systems, and political and economic organisation (Askew 2007a:18).
4
Buddhism will be discussed further in part III, chapter 7, in relation to materiality. This
chapter can, however, be read separately because it adds to the general understanding of
Buddhism, important for the entire thesis. In part IV, chapters 10-12, Buddhism is discussed
in relation to preservation and culture heritage management.
5
The Buddhist Era is based on when Buddha died. If converting Common Era to Buddhist
Era, 543 years are added. However, as the Lao New Year starts in April, add 542 years for
our first three months Jan-March. There is an ongoing debate within the field of Buddhist archaeology (cf. Coningham 2001:65ff), which concerns the dates of the historical Buddha.
There are chronologies different to the commonly accepted one of 542/543 BCE, according
to archaeological identifications, and the date when Buddha died ‘varies wildly between dates
of 2420 and 290 BCE’ (Coningham 1998:122). However, this debate and the dates discussed
are not decisive for the arguments here.
6
In Lao called Neo Lao Hak Sat, and founded in 1956 as an official political party following
Pathet Lao, the communist resistance movement that was organised in 1951 and aimed at
fighting capitalism, western colonialism and imperialism. In the 1970s the name changed to
Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The party seized power in 1975, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established.
7
Early proponents of this view were for example Louis O. Mink, Hayden White and Franklin
R. Ankersmith (cf. Ankersmith 1983, Mink 1987, White 1973). Generally, the linguistic turn
refers to the study of the role language has for creating meaning and truth. That is, the material world has no inherent meaning in itself, but gets it through the language. Through language as a social activity, through stories, accounts and explanations we create relations, identities, perceptions and value systems. This discursive construction also means that language is
not a transparent medium reflecting and reproducing an already existing reality, but that it
rather creates the social reality, which we experience (Roberts 2001:8ff).
8
Meuang Sangthong, Meuang Nasaythong, Meuang Sikhottabong, Meuang Saythani, Meuang
Hadsayfong and Meuang Pakngum.
223
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
9
Meuang Feuang, Meuang Hinhup, Meuang Hom, Meuang Kasi, Meuang Keo Oudom,
Meuang Mad, Meuang Phonhong, Meuang Thoulakhom, Meuang Vangvieng, Meuang Viengkham, Meuang Saysomboun and Meuang Sanakham.
10 Late in 2007, a large amount of bai sema was unearthed during excavation in central Vientiane.
One set of stones from that deposit was given special attention. In media and elsewhere it
was stated that the new lak meuang of Vientiane had been found.
11 Ban Saphangmo, Ban Nong Sang Tho, Ban Nong Hai, Ban Xieng Nhune, Ban Say Fong
Neua and Ban Viengkham/Viengkeo.
12 Here we should also remember that notions of race and identity were used by the colonial
European powers to identify nations, which they then appropriated. My footnote.
13 The Shan is in the northern part of present Burma. My footnote.
14 An area, which is centred in Yunnan province, southern China, and stretches into the northern parts of Burma and Laos. My footnote.
15 La Voie Royale was written in 1924 and describes the adventure of two men travelling to
Indochina to rediscover the royal road of the ancient Khmer empire. It is to a large extent an
biographic story, based on Malraux’s own ‘Indochina adventure’, which he ended in prison
after being caught stealing artefacts and sculptures at the Khmer temple site Banteay Srei in
Cambodia.
16 Elephants were used in warfare, but also used for transportation and trade. Owning a large
number of elephants was also the same as having wealth and power. The umbrella has also a
symbolic meaning. In public occasions, a white sun umbrella always shaded the king.
17 The Mon-Khmer languages consist of almost 20 subgroups, of which Khmuic, Khmer and
Monic are examples. These subgroups in turn include up to 20 languages each. For example
does the Khmuic subgroup include Khmu language among others, the Khmer subgroup includes different versions, and the Monic subgroup includes Mon language. This means that
some 150 different Mon-Khmer languages are spoken today
(http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90158, visited 080306).
18 Similar proportions as with the Mon-Khmer languages.
19 Compare to ‘world heritage of mankind as a whole’ and ‘universal value’ that are
formulations in UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, which I will return to in chapter 10.
20 The authors have actively chosen to use the word thing instead of material culture, artefact or
object because they think it carries minimal theoretical baggage. By using this term they also
hope to ‘signal a shift in the term’s status – described […] as a transformation of ‘thing-asanalytic’ to ‘thing-as-heuristic’’ (Henare et al. 2007:5). However, this avoidance of the term
‘material culture’ (using ‘thing’ instead) is understood by Daniel Miller in his review of the
book as a separation between a more central social anthropology and material culture studies,
which some regard as a subset of anthropology while others see it the other way around (review posted on www.materialworldblog.com 2006-12-14, visited 081106). I agree with Miller
that this distinction is of limited interest and that using a specific term does not imply a
commitment to any particular approach.
21 The lowest percentage is according to National Statistics Center, Vientiane (Pholsena and
Banomyong 2006:161), and the highest according to the International Religious Freedom
Report, U.S. (2007).
224
NOTES
22 In the group was the village chief, the secretary of the village chief office and two residents
from the village, of who one was born there and the second had lived in the village almost
forty years.
23 The lake, Ang Nam Ngum in Lao, is the result of the dam that was built in the 1970s. The dam
is producing electricity of which most is being exported to Thailand. Even though the income from hydropower represents a significant part of the country’s entire economy, the
overall benefits are disputed. One of the main reasons is the resettlement of large groups of
people previously inhabiting villages that are now flooded. The means of livelihood have
changed for these residents; fishing is now the most important.
24 It is while visiting these forests that I, one day of March 1902, was to find the traces of a dead
city, the memory of which had almost vanished. […] It is in the depth of the great arch
formed by this curb of the river, on the left bank, facing Muang-Kuk, that this city, which in
the past must have filled these banks with animation and movement, now slumbers in the
forest. Today, a few poor Laotian huts, hidden under the trees, very high and dense in this
area, form a still and quiet hamlet called Say-Fong by the locals. The ruins, barely visible
down on the ground, have been left abandoned for centuries. (Translation, Tomas Angerth)
25 Prince Phetsarath was the nephew of the last Lao king, Sisavangvong, and was politically
involved in the country’s strive for independence. He became Prime Minister in 1942, and
declared the unification of the Lao kingdom in 1945. To uphold the declaration of independence during years of political disturbances the Lao Issara government was formed, with
Prince Phetsarath as the leading figure. After ten years in exile ha went back to Laos in 1957,
and became an important person in the Royal Lao Government (RLG), but died shortly after, in 1959 (Evans 2002:60-113). In conclusion he played a dominant role in Lao politics
during these years and took important steps to modernise the country. As the last oupahat
(deputy or second king) he was very popular among the general public.
26 Reviews of the rise of a heritage discourse; what constitutes cultural heritage, how it is defined, its history and background, have been accounted for thoroughly elsewhere (e.g. Skeates
2000), and more recently in for example The heritage reader (Fairclough et al. 2008). Therefore,
it is only the concerns relevant for this chapter that will be described and discussed here.
27 My translation from Swedish: ‘Bevara eller förändra? Vad är egentligen vad? Att bevara något
enbart för att det är gammalt är en tämligen ny idé, och resultatet av sådant bevarande blir
alltid något alldeles nytt. Och äldst av allt är förändringen, det enda I världen som inte
förändras. Därför är det också bevarandet och inte förändringen som är problemet. Och
egentligen – finns det någon mer genomgripande förändring än bevarande?’
28 There is a danger for essentialism when such dichotomies become too established and followed too strictly. Still, I make such distinctions (and I have done that throughout the whole
thesis), but my intention then is to bring to light the problems that occur when thinking in
and using dichotomies.
29 The Venice Charter is the short name for the International Charter for the Conservation and
Restoration of Monuments and Sites, which is an agreement providing an international
framework for preservation and restoration. As a result of that charter ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) was founded in 1965.
30 That Luang, Vat Ho Phra Keo and Vat Sisaket are historic temple sites in Vientiane that now
are museums, and among the main tourist attractions in the city today.
31 As formulated by my Lao colleagues.
225
PRESERVING IMPERMANENCE
32 For example the Bamiyan Buddha statues, the Berlin Wall and the Twin Towers have been
brought up as examples of how the destruction and loss of monuments and sites rather can
create new meanings and produce heritage. Furthermore, Lynn Meskell speaks about the Bamiyan
Buddhas as ‘negative heritage’, because for those who destroyed them, the Taliban, they represented a site of negative memory, and thus the act of destruction was a political statement
(2002:561).
33 The distinction between what is Buddhist and what is animist might be a bit simplified here
in this example, but it is just to show that they co-exist. In common and everyday religious
practice it is impossible to distinguish Buddhism from animism, they are intertwined and operate within a total field (cf. Tambiah 1970:41 and chapter 7).
34 As another example of this I can mention the ancient stupa at Sokpaluang in Vientiane.
When the Polytechnical school was to be built in the late 1970s, close to one of the city’s ancient temple sites, Vat Sopaluang, a stupa was standing in the middle of the construction site
and had, according to the constructors, to be removed. However, the caterpillar that was going to demolish the stupa broke down repeatedly when it approached the sacred structure,
until it was decided to just leave the stupa as it was. Other stories told about those working
on construction sites, who became ill or even died when the construction concerned places
inhabited by lots of phii.
35 Cf. the plates with food, flowers, candles and incense sticks offered at the mounds.
36 This also explains why it is believed that thousands of stupas in this part of the world now
contain such fragments.
37 A nomination was suggested already in 1981, but it was the incident in 2001 that finally
brought the nomination to the fore. The nomination of Bamiyan Valley for inscription on the
World Heritage List and the List of World Heritage in Danger was finally accepted in 2003
(UNESCO 2003b)
38 One can also wonder if the initiative to the List of Intangible Heritage is not a result of a
western bad conscious, since the majority of sites listed as World Heritage are located in the
western world whereas the majority of sites listed as Intangible Heritage are in the nonwestern world. This overrepresentation of monumental sites and architecture that constitutes
the World Heritage is much criticised. Therefore, I am tempted to suggest that the western
world somewhere is conscious of its guilt and that the list might have the function as a sort
of compensation.
226
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239
PUBLICATIONS FROM AFRICAN AND COMPARATIVE ARCHAEOLOGY
DEPARTMENT OF ARCHAEOLOGY AND ANCIENT HISTORY, UPPSALA UNIVERSITY
STUDIES IN AFRICAN ARCHAEOLOGY
Editor: Paul J. J. Sinclair
1
Sinclair, P. J. J., N. Nydolf & G. Wickman-Nydolf 1987. Excavations at the University Campus Site 2532 Dc 1, Southern Mozambique. Stockholm, and Maputo. 96 pp.
2
Sinclair, P. J. J., M. Törnblom, C. Bohm, B. Sigvallius & B. Hultén 1988. Analyses of Slag,
Iron, Ceramics and Animal Bones from Excavations in Mozambique. Stockholm, and Maputo.
54 pp.
3
Morais, J. M. F. 1988. The Early Farming Communities of Southern Mozambique. Stockholm,
and Maputo. 201 pp.
4
Duarte, R. T. 1993. Northern Mozambique in the Swahili World: an archaeological approach.
Stockholm, and Uppsala. 154 pp, 24 figs, 24 plates.
5
Matenga, E. 1993. Archaeological figurines from Zimbabwe. Uppsala, and Harare. 63 pp,
12 maps, 40 figs, 2 plates.
6
Pikirayi, I. 1993. The Archaeological Identity of the Mutapa State: towards an historical archaeology of
northern Zimbabwe. Uppsala. 199 pp, 74 figs, 39 maps, 39 plates.
7
Chami, F. 1994. The Tanzanian Coast in the First Millennium AD: an archaeology of the iron
working, farming communities (with microscopic analyses by A. Lindahl). Uppsala. 120 pp,
27 figs, 19 maps, 3 plates.
8
Chipunza, K. T. 1994. A Diachronic Analysis of the Architecture of the Hill Complex at Great
Zimbabwe. Uppsala. 94 pp, 17 figs. (Out of print)
9
Swan, L. 1994. Early Gold Mining on the Zimbabwean Plateau: changing patterns of gold production
in the first and second millennium AD. Uppsala. 181 pp, 52 figs, 6 plates. (Out of print).
10
Walker, N. J. 1995. Late Pleistocene and Holocene Hunter-gatherers of the Matopos: an archaeological
study of change and continuity in Zimbabwe. Uppsala. 284 pp, 135 figs, 123 tables, 24 plates.
11
Lindahl, A. & E. Matenga 1995. Present and Past: ceramics and homesteads: an ethnoarchaeological
project in the Buhera district, Zimbabwe. Uppsala. 116 pp, 79 figs.
12
Jama, A. D. 1996. The Origins and Development of Mogadishu AD 1000 to 1850: a study of urban
growth along the Benadir coast of southern Somalia. Uppsala. 135 pp, 15 figs, 5 plates.
13
Pwiti, G. 1996. Continuity and Change: an archaeological study of farming communities in northern
Zimbabwe AD 500–1700. Uppsala. 180 pp, 43 figs, 21 plates.
14
Pwiti, G. (ed.) 1997. Cave, Monuments and Texts: Zimbabwean archaeology today. Uppsala.
159 pp, 16 figs, 3 plates.
15
Radimilahy, C. 1998. Mahilaka: an archaeological investigation of an early town in northwestern
Madagascar. Uppsala. 293 pp, 165 figs, 38 plates.
16
Jonsson, J. 1998. Early Plant Economy in Zimbabwe. Uppsala. 141 pp, 30 figs, 11 plates.
17
Kinahan, J. 2000. Cattle for Beads: the archaeology of historical contact and trade on the Namib coast.
Uppsala, and Windhoek. 119 pp, 22 tables, 62 figs.
18
Manyanga, M., 2001. Choices and constraints: animal resource exploitation in south-eastern Zimbabwe c. AD 900–1500. Uppsala. 139 pp, 38 figs, 25 tables.
19
Ndoro, W., 2001. Your Monument our Shrine: the preservation of Great Zimbabwe. Uppsala.
130 pp, 3 figs, 15 plates, 9 tables.
241
STUDIES IN GLOBAL ARCHAEOLOGY
Editor: Paul J. J. Sinclair
1
Isendahl, C. 2002. Common knowledge: lowland Maya urban farming at Xuch. Uppsala. 242 pp,
28 figs, 48 maps, 6 plates, 78 tables 10 appendices.
ISSN 1651- 1255 ISBN 91-631-2306-1
2
Blundell, G. 2004. Nqabayo’s Nomansland. San Rock Art and the Somatic Past. Uppsala, and
Johannesburg. 204 pp, 75 figs, 3 appendices. Uppsala.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 91-973212-0-6.
3
Juma, A. 2004. Unguja Ukuu on Zanzibar: an archaeological study of early urbanism. Uppsala.
198 pp, 211 figures, 20 plates, 2 appendices.
ISSN 165-1255 ISBN 91-973212-1-4.
4
Macamo. S. 2005. Privileged Places in South Central Mozambique. The Archaeology of Manyikeni,
Niamara Songo and Degue-Mufa. Uppsala. 300 pp, 35 figs, 65 plates, 5 appendices.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 91-973212-2-2
5
Ekblom. A. 2004 Changing Landscapes. An Environmental History of Chibuene, Southern Mozambique. Uppsala. 195 pp, 48 figs, 16 tables, 14 plates.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 91-973212-3-0
6
Källén. A. 2004. And Through Flows the River: Archaeology and the pasts of Lao Pako. Uppsala.
336 pp, 106 figs, 4 appendices.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 91-973212-4-9
7
Somadeva, R. 2006. Urban Origins in Southern Sri Lanka. Uppsala. 318 pp, 25 diagrams, 95
figs, 18 maps, 130 plates, 192 tables.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 91-9732-5-7.
8
Madiquida, H. 2007. The Iron-Using Communities of the Cape Delgado Coast from 1000AD. (Fil
Lic. defended 2005). Uppsala, and Maputo.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 978-91-973212-6-6.
9
Lindholm, K.-J. 2006. Wells of Experience. A pastoral land-use history of Omaheke, Namibia.
Uppsala. 185 pp, 2 tables, 48 figures, 20 plates and 5 appendices.
ISSN 1651-1255, ISBN 91-973212-7-3
10
Sáenz, V. 2008. Symbolic and Material Boundaries: an archaeological genealogy of the Urhus of Lake
Poopó, Bolivia. Uppsala.
ISSN 1651-1255, ISBN 978-91-973212-8-0
11
Johansson de Chateau, L. Roman and Native: Colonialism and the archaeology of rural water management in the Mahgreb
ISSN 1651-1255, ISBN 978-91-506-2060-3
12
Swan, L. 2008. Minerals and managers: production contexts as evidence for social organization in
Zimbabwean prehistory. Uppsala.
ISSN 1651-1255 ISBN 978-91-976865-1-8
242
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