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Andrew Hardy, Mauro Cucarzi and Patrizia Zolese, (eds), Champa and the archaeology of My Son (Vietnam).

Andrew Hardy, Mauro Cucarzi and Patrizia Zolese, (eds), Champa and the archaeology of My Son (Vietnam). Singapore: NUS, 2009, xxxiv + 440 pp. ISBN 9789971694517. Price: USD 35.00 (paperback).

Although less celebrated than the ancient Hindu-Buddhist civilizations of Cambodia or Java, the rich material heritage of the Champa culture of central Vietnam first began to be recognized and studied in the late nineteenth century, during the course of French economic and political expansion in mainland Southeast Asia. It was only by accident however, that its most famous site became known to the outside world. Surrounded by a ring of hills and mountain peaks in the interior of Quang Nam province, the brick temples and sandstone sculptures of My Son were first viewed by soldiers and missionaries before being officially--and excitedly--reported to the French colonial authorities by the explorer Camille Paris, in a letter written from Tourane (modern Da Nang) on 23 June 1894 (Paris 1895). The subsequent investigations and conservation of the site are recorded in the introductory essays to this fascinating but complex volume. The first major survey and excavation of the temples by the Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient in 1903-1904 are recorded in the notes of Henri Parmentier and Charles Carpeaux, many of whose photographs are preserved at the Musee Guimet in Paris. Parmentier divided the site into groups (listed from A to H) and numbered the buildings consecutively within each group, beginning with the largest surviving structure, A1. The site later suffered considerable damage as a result of the conflicts in Indochina from 1940 onwards, including high-level bombing in 1969. The subsequent work of clearance and restoration was begun in the 1980s as part of a Polish-Vietnamese mission headed by the late Kazimierz Kwiatkowski--to whom the book is dedicated. In 1997, an Italian team was sent to My Son to assess the condition of the surviving buildings and to advise on future work. Much of the content of this book is drawn from the conservation project that immediately followed their report and the formal recognition of My Son as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

In order to contextualize the detailed work at My Son, the book has been divided into two sections: the first contains essays on the Champa culture in general, and the second covers the scientific analyses of the conservation project at My Son. One obvious criticism is that these two parts do not fit easily together, but as Andrew Hardy notes in his introduction: 'One might say that the book operates on the principle of a camera fitted with two lenses--a wide-angled and a zoom--used to take the photographs presented between the two sections' (p. 10). Among the essays presented in the first section is an overview and revision of the history of Champa by Michael Vickery (Chapter 1), which challenges early twentieth century interpretations of Champa as an integral kingdom or nation state; and an analysis of temple architecture in ancient Champa by Tran Ky Phuong (Chapter 6), which includes evidence for early timber and tile-roofed structures as the natural precursors of the later brick tower-temple tradition. These chapters are important for understanding the wider context of the later conservation reports, but one of the best essays is perhaps the least connected to My Son. Rie Nakamura examines the role of two complementary concepts, Awar and Ahier, for understanding the identity and world view of the modern Cham community in Ninh Thuan province, based in part on her PhD research there in the 1990s (Chapter 3). As Nakamura explains, the relationship of the modern Cham community to the ancient Champa culture remains both archaeologically and anthropologically complex.

The second section presents the detailed scientific reports of the My Son Conservation Project, a joint Italian-Vietnamese programme under the auspices of UNESCO and headed by the Lerici Foundation and Department of Structural Engineering of the Politecnico di Milano in co-operation with the Institute for Conservation of Monuments, Hanoi. The first essay by Patrizia Zolese (Chapter 7), presents the results of archaeological excavations at the site from 1997 to 2007, in particular around the five brick structures classified as group G. This is followed by specialist reports on the recording of structural and biological damage, construction techniques, materials, and conservation design. All are based on meticulous observation and laboratory analysis, with the aim of providing detailed information for the conservation of group G. Further chapters cover specific aspects of the restoration, the geology and geomorphology of the site, the results of thermoluminescence dating and geophysical prospection and the establishment of a Geographic Information System for effective mapping of the site and its surroundings.

Although expertly presented with abundant illustration, often in colour, the technical nature of these chapters inevitably makes them less accessible for the general reader. In addition, the concentration of analysis on group G also raises doubts as to the general applicability of the scientific findings, not only in respect to the wider Champa culture, but also in regard to the site of My Son as a whole. For example, one of the major findings of the research is the identification of a thin organic layer in the joints between the bricks, which was used to bind the bricks together without the use of mortar. Although suggested in the past, this is the first time that a binding substance has been scientifically isolated from the brick itself. However, it is clear from the report on materials (Chapter 10) that the brick samples analysed were predominantly taken either from the G group or from the remains of A1 (pp. 285-301). Patrizia Zolese has rightly argued in her chapter on archaeology (Chapter 7) that the G group as a whole can probably be dated to the third quarter of the twelfth century CE (p. 218), towards the end of the site's architectural development, while A1 (together with A13, B9, D4, E4, E5 and E7) probably dates to the eleventh century CE and not to the seventh century as stated in the report (p. 292). Moreover, many of the construction techniques described, including the structural use of laterite and the predominance of terracotta rather than stone ornamentation, appear to be unique to the G group.

However, in this respect at least the choice of group G as the focus of restoration and analysis was remarkably fortuitous, even if it was initially chosen for more practical reasons. The relative isolation of the group on the top of a low hill, the consistency of its architectural design and construction, and the presence of two large stone stelae of a single king--Harivarmadeva--describing and dating the foundation of the temple are a unique combination at My Son. Indeed, the great French art historian Philippe Stern (1942:105-7) considered it to be not only the best dated group of buildings at the site, but possibly the only temple group in the whole of the Champa culture where a secure historical connection could be made with the surviving inscriptions. As such, the meticulous analyses presented in this volume provide an essential key for our understanding of the history and structural development of temple architecture in Champa and the editors deserve great credit for bringing this information to a wider public readership.


Paris, Camille

1895 'Correspondance: Ruines tjames de Tay-Loc', Bulletin de Geographie Historique et Descriptive 10:234-6.

Stern, Philippe

1942 L'art du Champa (ancien Annam) et son evolution. Toulouse: Les Freres Douladoure.


Curator of Southeast Asian Art, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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Author:Southworth, William A.
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2012
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