Digging for what remains of Kublai Khan's fleet.
Photo: Photo courtesy of the Bach Dang Battlefield Research Group
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sac-red river,
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea…
So wrote the opium-addicted 18th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge after a dream about the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. A grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai's realm stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, covering a fifth of the known world.
In 1279, he became the first non-Chinese emperor, establishing the Yuan Dynasty and ruling over China, present-day Mongolia, Korea and other Asian regions. But his ambition to occupy more lands led to one of his worst defeats when he sent his warships to invade Vietnam in 1288.
Now, 725 years later, Australian archaeologists are helping excavate the site where the mighty Kublai Khan's invasion fleet of 400 was destroyed by the Vietnamese. They had lured the Mongols up the Bach Dang River just as the tide was starting to ebb. The Vietnam army had driven hundreds of sharpened wooden stakes into the bed of the river that were invisible at high tide; when the tide turned and began to ebb, the entire fleet was holed and sunk, captured or burnt by fire arrows.
"The Bach Dang battlefield research project came about after Jun Kimura, one of my PhD students now at Murdoch University, was asked to go to Vietnam in 2008," says Dr Mark Staniforth, a senior researcher in archaeology at Monash University. "I had been looking for an opportunity to do some research there on the site where Kublai Khan's fleet was defeated and went with him initially to help record a couple of wooden ship's anchors found in the Red River. That gave me the chance to spend a few days in Bach Dang looking at the site and where we discovered the Vietnamese had been working since the 1950s. They were doing a good job but suffered a few problems — mainly not having much in the way of equipment or money."
Since that first visit four years ago, Dr Staniforth, Dr Kimura and other international marine archaeologists have been assisting the Vietnamese, offering their expertise as well as funding raised from Monash, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the National Geographic Society and other sources. He says his aim all along had been to help the Vietnamese start preserving their underwater cultural heritage because so little had been done.
"Their archaeologists do really good work on the land but underwater they have only used treasure hunters to dive on wrecks collecting and selling the most valuable items, mostly Chinese ceramics, leaving the rest to be held by local museums while in the process destroying the sites," he says.
"The government decided 11 years ago this was not a good idea and legislated to stop the plunder. But while they know what not to do with shipwrecks and other marine archaeological sites, they don't know what to do: they don't have the trained people or equipment so they've been struggling."
Dr Staniforth was a chief investigator on last April's excavation of the wreck of the Clarence, the earliest and best-preserved example of an Australian-built trading vessel yet located in Victoria. (See Cutting Edge theage.com.au/national/education/wreck-reveals-its-bounty-20120416-1x3az.html). It was one of Australia's largest underwater research projects, with a team of 60 scientists, students and volunteers involved in the month-long study of the Clarence's remains on the site in Port Phillip Bay where it disappeared more than 160 years ago.
He says at least 8000 ships have been wrecked around Australia and more than 700 in Victorian waters, but laughs when asked about the likely number in Vietnam. With a 3600-kilometre coastline, in a country next door to China whose ships have been sailing along that coast for more than 3000 years, he says the number of wrecks would be incalculable.
"Given the trade with Asian countries that China was involved with over the centuries, Vietnam had to be one of the big players. There is so much evidence early civilisations had to be connected by sea and not by land that the number of shipwrecks would be huge. But no one has gone looking: Vietnam was essentially closed to the outside world until 1992 and even after the war they closed their borders so no one had done much archaeological work until 20 years ago."
Having helped locate more of the wooden stakes that sank Kublai Khan's fleet, the international team of archaeologists working on the Bach Dang battle project will next month start offering training programs aimed increasing awareness at local and national levels about the extent of Vietnam's underwater and maritime cultural heritage.
"We're there to donate our time and our expertise to train people," Dr Staniforth says. "We've had up to 20 archaeologists involved at various times on the Bach Dang project, although three or four key players go each year. Next month we'll have six and we'll be running one-day and two-day courses at the end of our research for the Vietnamese. As well as an introduction to the basic principles of archaeology, we will also introduce the range of sites covered under the title 'nautical' or 'maritime' archaeology, not just shipwrecks and certainly not all underwater."
He says the courses will be run at the Institute of Archaeology building in Hanoi but that the institute has also invited three of the visiting archaeologists to investigate the latest shipwreck to be found: a 14th-century trading vessel located in Quang Ngai and discovered last month by local fishermen who had stolen various objects from the wreck to sell. The ship contains ceramic wares made in China during the 14th and 15th centuries, as well as coins from the 12th and 13th centuries.
"We'll have a look at the wreck and offer some recommendations; it's in shallow water just off shore but we don't know what the site is like or the water quality. Seeing the site will tell us a lot and we'll let the Vietnamese know what they are getting themselves into!" Dr Staniforth says. "Excavation projects in Australia cost tens of thousands of dollars — even at the cheap end of town — and to do that in Vietnam won't be a whole lot cheaper."
He says the main challenge confronting Vietnamese archaeologists is that with few dive shops, there is little or no equipment to hire and no money to buy it. Shipping the weight of equipment that would be required from Australia would cost more money than the Vietnamese or Australians could afford.
"The problems the Vietnamese face are tremendous, which is why we are taking it one step at a time and, until we get a lot more funding or support from somewhere, we'll run these training courses. Archaeology is taught at many universities in Vietnam and at the Institute of Archaeology, but not marine archaeology. After these introductory courses, the institute may be interested in teaching it at a higher level. But how that might be funded is still up for discussion."
Five miles meander-ing with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean
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