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Keywords:

  • Takashima Island;
  • Japan;
  • Bạch Ðằng River;
  • Vietnam;
  • stake yards

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

From AD 1274 Chinese emperor Kublai Khan dispatched fleets of ships in a series of attempts to expand the empire's hegemony and extend his rule into East Asia (Japan) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Champa and Java). Archaeological remains associated with the fleets and battles have been found at Takashima Island, Japan and on the Bạch Ðằng River, Vietnam. This paper develops a thematic approach to these sites within a framework of naval battlefield archaeology. It compares the similarities and differences in environmental conditions and archaeological contexts of the two sites in Japan and Vietnam. It also outlines recent archaeological research conducted between 2008 and 2010 on the physical remains at the Bạch Ðằng River battlefield site.

In AD 1271 Kublai Khan, 5th emperor of the Mongol Empire (1260–1294), became the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China (Rossabi, 1998; Delgado, 2009). On several occasions from AD 1274 onwards, Kublai Khan dispatched armies aboard fleets of ships to invade other Asian nations in attempts to expand the empire's hegemony and extend his rule into East Asia (Japan) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Champa and Java) (Sen, 2006b: 427) (Fig. 1). As Tansen Sen has suggested this may have formed part of Kublai Khan's ‘desire to expand his military and political influence beyond coastal China’ (Sen, 2006a: 303). Two highly significant locations associated with these attempted Mongol invasions have been identified—off the coast of Takashima Island, Japan and near the Bạch Ðằng River, Vietnam. These are places where historically important naval battles are known to have taken place, in each case resulting in the defeat of the Yuan Dynasty's fleets. Archaeological remains associated with the fleets and battles have been found at both locations. At Takashima Island, Mongol fleets were sunk by large typhoons during the invasion of AD 1281 (Kimura, 2006; Sasaki, 2008, 2011; Delgado, 2009). On the Bạch Ðằng River in northern Vietnam, a river/estuary naval battle took place in AD 1288 (Lê et al., 2011). These two sites originate from similar historical backgrounds and part of the significance of these sites can be seen in terms of their symbolic role related to national identity in the two countries. The similarities and differences between them in terms of environmental conditions and archaeological contexts will be compared in the first part of this paper. The latter part of this paper will outline recent archaeological research into the physical remains from the loss of Kublai Khan's fleet at the Bạch Ðằng River in northern Vietnam.

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Figure 1. Location of two naval battle sites related to the loss of Kublai Khan's fleets in southern Japan and northern Vietnam. (Drawn by Jun Kimura)

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Naval battlefield archaeology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Battlefield archaeology provides valuable insights into the anthropology of warfare, which is one of the most organized, premeditated, regimented and patterned forms of human behaviour (Gilchrist, 2003; Vandkilde, 2003; Arkush and Stanish, 2005; Schofield, 2005). A battlefield can be defined as a place or area where a battle has been fought and battlefield archaeology examines the physical evidence that is preserved on a battlefield (such as weapons, fortifications, etc.). Over recent decades, terrestrial battlefields have been increasingly studied, building on pioneering works in Europe and the Americas (Snow, 1981; Fox and Scott, 1991; Fox, 1993; Carmen, 1997; Freeman and Pollard, 2001; Hill and Wileman, 2002; Schofield et al., 2002; Scott et al., 2009; Geier et al., 2010).

Naval battlefields are places where a naval battle has been fought usually between boats or ships and in many cases at sea but also on freshwater. Ships of war have existed and naval battles have occurred for millennia in all types of water environments throughout the world. Although naval battlefields are common in history, they have rarely been studied archaeologically because of site factors such as water depth, poor preservation conditions and the difficulties of locating underwater sites (Throckmorton et al., 1973; Papatheodorou et al., 2005; Conlin and Russell, 2010). One important case study in naval battlefield archaeology is the archaeological investigation of a highly significant naval battlefield off Charleston, USA involving the first-ever engagement between a submarine and a surface ship—H. L. Hunley and USS Housatonic (Conlin and Russell 2006; 2010). The study of naval battlefields in maritime archaeology can be a difficult subject to pursue because of the sometimes extremely large areas over which they have been fought. Other difficulties include the nature of ships as floating structures, which, unless they have sunk to the sea-bed, would not be physically present as archaeological remains. Furthermore, ongoing site formation processes resulting from physical, chemical and biological deterioration can often result in very little archaeological evidence remaining. The importance of the sites at Takashima and Bạch Ðằng can be seen in terms of their potential to be significant case studies in the field of naval battlefield archaeology.

John Broadwater from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presented a paper titled ‘Violent seascapes: Naval battle sites as cultural landscapes’ at the IKUWA3 conference in London in July 2008. Broadwater provides a working definition of a naval battlefield landscape as ‘a distinct geographical area within which a naval battle was fought, taking into account the natural and historical contexts of that battle’. More importantly, he identifies three types of naval battlefields that offer the greatest archaeological potential, namely: 1) An ocean site that is near land, especially if the nearby land has an association with the sea battle; 2) An inland site (lake, river, etc.) that is near land, especially if the nearby land is associated with the battle; 3) A naval battle that was influenced by natural elements (characteristically strong currents or winds, rocks, shallows, etc.).

Identified sites

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The environments of the two sites associated with the Mongol Empire invasions in Japan and Vietnam are distinctly different, but both demonstrate high potential for finding archaeological remains. What follows are brief historical backgrounds, explanations of archaeological remains, and descriptions of physical features of the sites.

Japan

Kublai Khan sent his fleets to Japan twice in AD 1274 and 1281. The archaeologically identified naval battlefield at Takashima is related to the second attempted invasion, recorded in dynasty chronicles, such as the Yuan Shi (History of Yuan) and Goryeosa (History of Goryeo). Takashima, one of the islands in the Bay of Imari in northern Kyushu (Fig. 2), was an assembly point for the second invasion. and the soldiers from the fleet landed on Takashima where a battle took place with the local clans. Several cultural monuments exist on the island including the grave of Kotaro Tsushima, a vassal of a lord of Tsushima Island, who fought in both invasions and died in battle during the second invasion. Nearby, there are six statues of bodhisattva (Buddhist monk, Jizo-Bosatsu) and stupas that are a place of prayer for the repose of the souls of the Yuan Dynasty troops who survived the storm and were subsequently executed by decapitation. While the ships were anchored offshore, a large typhoon hit the Yuan fleet sinking a large number of ships, while others were substantially damaged. Japanese researchers have conducted underwater surveys and excavations offshore from the southern coast of Takashima Island since the 1980s (Kimura, 2006; Sasaki, 2008, 2011; Delgado, 2009).

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Figure 2. Site of the Kublai Khan invasion of Japan in AD 1281, identified off the southern coast of Takashima. (Drawn by Jun Kimura, after ESRI Landsat-imagery viewer)

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Imari Bay is relatively large, stretching over 12,000 km2, and the underwater excavations have been limited to a small area close to the shore of Takashima. These excavations revealed remains associated with the Mongol Empire's ships including well-preserved anchors beneath the sea-bed that provide evidence about exactly where the fleet moored offshore, in what is now known as Kozaki Harbour, (Takashima-cho Board of Education, 1996). Among the extensive assemblage of artefacts were some that characterize the site as a battlefield, such as weapons including bundles of iron arrows, helmets, swords, and the remains of explosive ordnance made of ceramic that may have been used as an early form of grenade (Fig. 3) (Takashima-cho Board of Education, 2001, 2003). Other artefacts found clearly demonstrated the status of individuals, including celadon bowls with the inked Chinese characters ‘a centurion’ and a bronze seal of a commander inscribed with Phagspa characters of the Yuan language (Takashima-cho Board of Education, 2002, 2003, 2004). More than 500 ship timbers were found, but these proved difficult to identify as most were fragments smaller than 500 mm in length, but from the limited information available, details of fastening techniques have been studied (Sasaki, 2008; 2011).

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Figure 3. Ceramic objects, possible grenades from the Takashima underwater site. (Courtesy of Matsuura city)

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In 2005, a team of Ryukyu University and Tokai University began a joint archaeological project, supported by the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, to investigate Imari Bay using remote-sensing equipment. In 2011, a press release was released regarding the finding of a better-preserved hull that probably originated from the Yuan Dynasty fleet. While details of this site are not yet published in an English-language journal, the discovery was reported during the UNESCO Regional Meeting on the underwater cultural heritage in Koh Kong, Cambodia in May 2012 that was attended by the authors. The successful location of the buried hull, with a length of approximately 15 m, resulted from a combined method using a multi-beam sonar (SeaBat 7125) and a sub-bottom profiler (Strata Box) with the narrow-beam parametric sub-bottom profiler (SES 2000). Following the discovery, the site was registered as the first underwater National Designated Site, which also led to the establishment of the first consultative body at a national government level for underwater cultural heritage management in 2013. The site assessment is still ongoing and further investigation will definitely shed new light on various aspects of the invasion.

Vietnam

Vietnamese historical records, including Ðại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư and An Nam Chí Lược, as well as Chinese dynasty chronicles such as Yuan Shi, mention the AD 1288 naval battle at Bạch Ðằng River and later accounts of the battle include histories, poems and other sources (Yamamoto, 1950; Hà and Phạm, 1968; Hien, 2003). It represented the culmination of the third, and ultimately final, attempt by the Mongols to invade the Dai Viet (in AD 1257–58, 1283–1285, and 1287–1288). The Yuan invading forces initially defeated the Dai Viet armies on both land and at sea beginning in late 1287 (Vu, 2008: 170–185). The Mongol invaders under the command of Prince Toghan (son of Kublai Khan) successfully took the capital Thang Long (near today's Hanoi), but by early 1288 found that they were trapped in an empty city without supplies. Shipping was critical in terms of logistics and the carriage of food for the Yuan forces in the campaign of 1288, and supply ships attempted to reach the trapped Mongol army by way of Ha Long Bay. According to Ðại Việt Sử Ký, the Mongol supply fleet of 70 vessels (commanded by Truong Quang Ho) was attacked and burned by Dai Viet naval forces (commanded by Tran Khanh Du) based in the nearby port of Van Don (Yamamoto, 1950).

Subsequently the Mongols, comprising of 18,000 men and 400 vessels commanded by the Mongol general Omar Batur, abandoned the capital and retreated, but the Dai Viet had decided to fight a decisive naval battle with the invaders. The Vietnamese forces, under the command of Tran Hung Dao (AD 1228–1300), lay in wait for the now-retreating invasion fleet, knowing that they would have to return to China through the estuary at the mouth of the Bạch Ðằng River (Fig. 4). The majority of historical sources agree that the principal tactic used by the Dai Viet forces was to prevent the fleet from reaching the open sea, trapping them by using hundreds of secretly planted large wooden stakes sharpened to a point and driven into the river-bed at low tide (now referred to as ‘stake yards’). These stakes were probably covered by water at high tide and uncovered at low tide. This particular technique was reported to have also been used in the same general area on at least two previous occasions in AD 938, when Ngo Quyen defeated a Southern Han Dynasty fleet, and possibly in AD 981, when Le Hoan ordered stakes to be placed to block a Song Dynasty fleet.

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Figure 4. Site of the naval battle between the Yuan Dynasty and Dai Vet in AD 1288. (Drawn by Jun Kimura, after ESRI Landsat-imagery viewer)

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Tran Hung Dao and the Dai Viet were victorious, and many Mongol ships (perhaps numbering in the hundreds) were burned, lost or captured. The defeat at Bạch Ðằng had serious consequences for the Yuan Dynasty with the loss of many warships and transport vessels and tens of thousands of soldiers, as well as several Mongol generals, including Omar Batur, captured or killed. Although many accounts mention the battle, the real story is shrouded in myth and legend. One of the more persistent myths is that the wooden stakes were tipped with iron or steel, although this has yet to be archaeologically verified (Lê and Hà, 2005). In order to gain a better understanding of the battle, Vietnamese researchers, in the late 1950s, initiated an inter-disciplinary study, combining geology, geomorphology, epigraphy, oral history and archaeology (Lê et al., 2011). The general area of the battlefield has been identified by the discovery of many wooden stakes in the lower reaches of the Bạch Ðằng River and the Chanh River in the Yen Hung district of Quang Ninh province.

This paper will focus on the first four sessions of fieldwork (2008–2010) that were conducted by researchers from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University, the Maritime Archaeology Program at Flinders University and the Institute of Archaeology at the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences in Hanoi (IA), as well as research associates from Australia, Canada, Japan and the USA. Over this period the researchers conducted preliminary investigations of available historical sources, maps, charts and aerial photographs, as well as archaeological survey complemented by limited test excavations and stratigraphic coring in the Bạch Ðằng River region. The details of the archaeological findings will be presented in subsequent sections.

Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The physical environment of the naval battlefield at Takashima is located within the waters of an enclosed bay, rather than in the ocean, and is considered to be an example of Broadwater's proposed category One above. The Yuan Dynasty fleet intended to moor in a secure place within Imari Bay, to protect the ships from northern gales, although this proved not to be the case when the typhoon hit the bay from the south. When considering the misfortune of the fleet caused by the unexpected typhoon, it seems appropriate to assign it to category Three: the influence of natural elements on the naval battle. The main cause of the loss of the Mongol Empire's ships in the second invasion of Japan is regarded to have been this natural disaster; however, the historical accounts indicate that there were also attacks by the Japanese after the Mongol ships were heavily damaged by the typhoon. Hence the archaeological remains may have been influenced by the combined factors of the natural disaster and the use of offensive tactics by the Japanese troops.

The naval battle at the Bạch Ðằng River, on the other hand, is primarily an example of Broadwater's second category, although the actual battle probably took place not only in the river but also in the tidal estuary at the river mouth. The historical sources indicate that Dai Viet forces had the advantage of their knowledge of local topography and environmental conditions. Tran Hung Dao strategically selected the estuarine environment, partially consisting of shallow water and restricted space caused by the narrowness of the Bạch Ðằng River, for the decisive naval battle. This battle demonstrates a tactic that the Dai Viet employed to defeat the Yuan invaders, which was the use of wooden stakes driven into the river-bed to create stake yards to form traps. In addition, the Dai Viet appear to have used fire vessels as part of the tactic, and cleverly timed their use with the falling tide, which enabled the Dai Viet to drive many of the Yuan vessels against and on to the stake field. Many vessels were reported to have been burned and sunk as a result (Yamamoto, 1950). Thus it is also an example of the third category, considering the effects of the environmental conditions. We propose that Broadwater's third category could usefully be extended to include ‘a naval battle influenced by both natural and cultural elements’.

The environmental and hydrological conditions of the two sites are quite distinct and the taphonomic processes affecting site formation are clearly not identical. It can be seen, however, that natural elements had substantial impacts on the progress of both of these naval battles. The two cases demonstrate the deliberate use of the environmental conditions by the local forces in their fight against the invaders. They are examples of how human interactions with nature functioned as part of naval-battle tactics. This concept is significant in naval-battlefield archaeology, in particular in any reconstruction of a battlefield that considers site formation processes and site conditions, which are likely to involve both human and natural influences.

Symbolism of naval battlefields

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Archaeological research on naval battlefields can include an approach to the battle that considers its impact on contemporary society. Furthermore, it can also pursue influences on local communities in terms of how the battle event inspires the creation of historical vestiges and modern worship. Naval battles can be endowed with meaning by the societies involved in them and the battle itself can take on symbolic importance in constructions of national identity. This can be seen in the Mongol Empire's invasion of both Japan and Vietnam. In the former case, deification occurred with respect to the typhoon that brought destructive damage to the enemy fleet, and the victory is symbolized by the use of the term Kamikaze or ‘divine wind’ (Delgado, 2009).

The AD 1288 battle at Bạch Ðằng River is widely considered to be a milestone in Vietnam's history as an independent nation, and it has shaped the current culture and national identity of Vietnam. The process of the emergence of worship of the victory is specifically associated with the Vietnamese general, Tran Hung Dao, who commanded the Dai Viet forces (Pham, 2009). Tran Hung Dao is highly revered as one of the most able generals in the history of Vietnam and he features in certain modern religious practices in the country (Fig. 5). Since the battle, shrines and temples dedicated to the worship of Tran Hung Dao have been widely established in northern Vietnam and they are often related to specific stories, myths and legends associated with him. There are a number of such cultural monuments for the worship of General Tran Hung Dao in the areas of Yen Giang and Nam Hoa wards in Yen Hung district, which are associated with the Bạch Ðằng River naval battle. Some of these worship centres are large and well known, while others are small and less widely known. Many have stories or myths associated with them: the Vua Ba shrine, for example, relates to the story of the lady who informed Tran Hung Dao about the state of the tide in the river; the Trung Coc shrine relates to the story of the place where Tran Hung Dao's boat came ashore while he was going to inspect the battlefield; and the Trung Ban shrine relates to the story that Tran Hung Dao's hair chignon came undone and he had to stop at this place to do it back up.

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Figure 5. Representative example of a statue of General Tran Hung Dao for worship. (Photo by Lê Thi Lien)

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Many of the monuments represent modern cultural constructions of how the battle is viewed by the local residents, rather than direct evidence about the actual events of the battle. Even the oldest cultural monuments and shrines in the area were constructed many years after the Bạch Ðằng River battle, and the earliest record of human settlement in the battle area and its immediate vicinity only dates back to the 15th century, around AD 1495 (Yao 2011: 60–68). Therefore, the ‘truth’ of the oral traditions associated with the shrines or locations cannot be verified. Nevertheless, the location of these symbolic and religious buildings and monuments can be taken into consideration in the analysis of the naval battlefield. For example, some of these buildings and monuments are located on higher ground and therefore represent features in the present landscape that indicate where dry land existed in the estuary in past times (Sasaki and Kimura, 2010). Thus, the positions of some religious buildings and shrines can be used as a parameter in the reconstruction of the battlefield.

Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Bạch Ðằng River battlefields

The precise area and extent of the battlefields on the Bạch Ðằng River is still in debate. At the time of the 1288 invasion, the Bạch Ðằng River formed a lower part of the large Hong River (Red River) and was connected directly to the capital at Thang Long (Hanoi). Even today the Bạch Ðằng River is still relatively large and its estuary extends 5–6 km and is 2 km wide (Fig. 5). Among a number of questions regarding the battles are: how did Dai Viet troops create battle formations using stakes, and precisely where the battle took place. These questions have been carefully explored, bearing in mind that at least three major naval battles took place in the general area of the Bạch Ðằng River, as mentioned above (Taylor, 1983). Historical records indicate that the use of wooden stakes to trap ships had also been used in the same general area on two previous occasions (Ðại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, 1993: 220–221). In AD 938, for example, Ngo Quyen defeated the Southern Han army in the same river. According to Ðại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư and Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám Cương mục (Imperially ordered annotated text reflecting the complete history of Viet) the AD 938 battle took place in the Nam Trieu area. This is also supported by stories related to shrines in honour of Vietnamese General Ngo Quyen located at Nam Hai, Dang Hai commune, in the An Hai district of Hai Phong city (Phan and Diệp, 1970: 66). Another battle occurred in AD 981, when Le Hoan, the founder of the Early Le Dynasty (AD 980–1009), fought with the Chinese Song Dynasty's army and fleet, but the precise location of this battle is not known. With regard to the battle in 1288, the battlefield may have extended to the upper part of the Bạch Ðằng River where many tributaries, including the Da Bac, Gia Duoc, Thai and Gia Rivers, lead into it. There is little information available about whether stake yards still exist or not at these places as no archaeological survey has been done. The first researchers to focus on the AD 1288 battle attempted to understand the landscape at the time of the naval battle (Trần, 1963; Dao, 1969; Phan and Diệp, 1970). Their studies included investigating changes to the topography, tracing ancient waterways and the history of dike construction, and resulted in the opinion that the Chanh River, which is a branch of the Bạch Ðằng River today, probably did not exist as a separate ‘river’ in 1288. Instead it was probably only visible as a waterway or channel when the tide was low. The description ‘Bạch Ðằng river mouth’ in historical records seems to indicate the vast area that includes the present Chanh River that divides Ha Nam Island from the mainland of Yen Hung district, several other channels including the Rut and Kenh Rivers, as well as the Bạch Ðằng River itself. Around the time of the battle, the area of current Ha Nam Island appears to have been a littoral zone, which probably consisted of large areas of tidal mudflats and only a few small dry areas of higher ground or islands. It had several waterways in its lower reaches, which meandered between underwater stone or sand mounds. These waterways later became the Chanh, Kenh, Rut and other rivers, probably after the settlement of Ha Nam Island began in the 15th century, and traces of these ancient channels can be seen in aerial photographs, old maps and charts.

Research at Yen Giang and Dong Van Muoi

The earliest study of the Bạch Ðằng River battlefield followed the discovery of wooden stakes in the Yen Giang commune in Quang Yen town, during the development of the area along the east side of the Bạch Ðằng River and north side of the Chanh River (Fig. 6). Researchers from the Department of Conservation and Museums (now the Department of Cultural Heritage, Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism) started investigations and conducted excavations in the area in 1958. During initial excavations, six wooden stakes were found, and were believed to be stakes associated with the battle led by Tran Hung Dao. In 1969, an extensive survey was conducted in Yen Giang by the Department of History at Hanoi General University (now the University of Social Sciences and Humanities), in cooperation with government officials from the Cultural Sector of Yen Hung district and the Cultural Department of Quang Ninh province. During this fieldwork, an area 520 m2 was excavated and 32 stakes were unearthed in seven trenches. During the excavation, the stratigraphy was carefully recorded, which resulted in the identification of the ancient river-bed from around the time of the battle (Phan and Diệp, 1970). In 1976, a third excavation was conducted at the site of Yen Giang by the Museum of Vietnamese History, and the pattern of the sediments was re-confirmed. Wooden objects were also found which were considered to be parts of tools used to drive the stakes into the river-bed (Lưu, T. T. and Trịnh, 1977). Five stakes recovered during this excavation can be seen today at the Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi and more in other museums around the nation (Fig. 7). In 1984, during the construction of the dike in Yen Giang along the Chanh River, more stakes were unearthed but were preserved in situ for future on-site exhibition by the provincial authority. The total number of stakes discovered at Yen Giang is unknown as many stakes have been found by local residents and are not recorded. There are wooden stakes that have probably come from Yen Giang in other small museums and temples throughout Vietnam, where they are venerated as iconic objects from the historical battle. From all the above-mentioned discoveries, Yen Giang is considered to be one of the largest stake yards that formed a part of the battlefield (currently known as Bai coc Bạch Ðằng). The most recent excavation at the Yen Giang stake yard was carried out in 1987 (Tống et al., 1988).

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Figure 6. Landsat satellite image showing three stake yards. (Jun Kimura, after Landsat image)

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Figure 7. Wooden stakes, probably used during the AD 1288 battle, displayed in the National Museum of History in Hanoi. (Photo by Randall Sasaki, courtesy of Matsuura city)

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Since the late 1980s, the archaeological investigations have moved south, on to Ha Nam Island where several communes are currently located. The first extensive investigation was conducted by the IA, in cooperation with researchers from the Institute of Earth Sciences, Department of Conservation and Museum (current Department of Cultural Heritage, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism) and local government officials in 1987. The purpose of this survey was to understand the location of the ancient waterways and the bedrocks on Ha Nam Island. Researchers also surveyed and recorded existing cultural monuments and inscriptions, legends and oral traditions related to the battle, and gathered local knowledge about topographical features and environments including information about the tide around the area. Then in 1995, residents at Dong Van Muoi, near the village of Dong Coc, reported that they had discovered several stakes while digging a fishpond. Following this discovery, cultural officers from Yen Hung district conducted a test excavation. Subsequently the Department of Culture of Quang Ninh province decided to undertake further research and entrusted the IA to conduct a full excavation in 2005. This resulted in the identification of several wooden stakes at Dong Van Muoi (Lê and Hà, 2005).

Notably, the two stake yards at Yen Giang and Dong Van Muoi are separated by the Chang River and located more than 1 km from each other. The identification of the stake yard at Dong Van Muoi on Ha Nam Island raised the question as to whether both stake yards originated from the battle in AD 1288. The stratigraphy of the two stake yards appeared to show a similar pattern, but little information was available regarding the original river-bed in which stakes were driven at Yen Giang. The early excavations focused on the study of the techniques used to drive the stakes rather than archaeological understanding of the stratigraphy. The later excavations at Dong Van Muoi attempted to provide better insights into the sedimentation of the area relevant to the identification of the river-bed at the time of the battle. Distinctive layers were identified at Dong Van Muoi, including one characterized by a number of large oyster shells (Crassostrea rivularis). The features of the stakes discovered at Dong Van Muoi were different from those found at Yen Giang; larger stakes (some c.3 m long) were found at Yen Giang than at Dong Van Muoi where the broken stakes were only c.1 m long on average. Throughout both series of excavations, few artefacts were found. Apart from the wooden stakes, no specific remains that provide evidence about the massive naval battles have been found at either of the two stake yards.

Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

In 2008, a preliminary visit to the Bạch Ðằng River area was undertaken by members of the research team, some of whom had backgrounds involving archaeological research on the Yuan Dynasty invasion of Japan or in Southeast Asian maritime archaeology. From this visit an opportunity arose to establish a long-term collaborative project with the IA in Hanoi. The aim was to develop an ongoing, longterm programme of maritime archaeological research in Vietnam that was initially built on a verbal and later a written agreement with the IA, and specifically included thematic research on naval battlefield archaeology at the Bạch Ðằng River; both parties believed that the research at the Bạch Ðằng River site would bring new perspectives to reconstructions of the battle in AD 1288. One specific objective was the possible identification of some parts of one or more of the Mongol vessels that were sunk in, or adjacent to, the stake yard(s). Four preliminary fieldwork sessions have been conducted since 2009. These investigations include the identification of historical sources and maps that have been used in previous studies, and the collection of digital resources including aerial photographs as well as archaeological surveys complemented by excavations at Dong Ma Ngua (Fig. 8).

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Figure 8. Excavation at the Dong Ma Ngua site in 2010. (Photo by Lê Thi Lien)

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Dong Ma Ngua

In 2009, the research team conducted an extensive survey in Quang Yen town and on Ha Nam Island. This first phase of fieldwork was focused on establishing the exact location of stake yards using GPS units and a Total Station to develop an interactive GIS of the area. The targeted area of the recording work was in the north-west corner of Ha Nam Island. Compared to Yen Giang, where much construction is currently ongoing, the areas around the villages of Dong Coc, Hung Hoc, and Hai Yen still show less development. These areas are mostly used for rice paddy fields, fish farms, and a number of residents' houses. A 4-m-high levee bank, built originally in the 1950s, protects the area from flooding. There are a few channels in the area; some are artificial that are associated with recent construction, but others relate to vestiges of old waterways, such as the Kenh River.

During the investigation in 2009, inhabitants of Dong Ma Ngua at the south end of the village of Hung Hoc reported the discovery of a wooden stake in one of their fishponds (20 x 15 m). The existence of several stakes was confirmed by exposing their tips after draining the pond. A small trench (1 x 2 m) was opened to examine the condition of the stakes, digging down to a depth of approximately 3 m (Sasaki and Kimura, 2010). The excavation indicated that most of the stakes in the fish pond were not likely to have the original length remaining but their bottom parts would be well-preserved in situ in the sediment.

Based on the results of the preliminary investigation, further excavation was planned for the following year, which was formally commissioned by the Department of Culture of Quang Ninh province. Through the excavation in 2010, we ascertained the distribution of stakes within the stake yard and recorded their features in detail. The excavation revealed that the stakes were placed with a regular pattern, aligned in columns. While the upper ends of all the stakes are now missing, it is clear that they stick out of the river-bed diagonally in two rows, originally forming barricades by crossing stakes over each other or by the intensive massing of stakes (Fig. 8). Similar patterns of diagonally driven stakes can be seen in the other stake yards (Lê and Hà, 2005; Kimura, 2011), but the discovery at Dong Ma Ngua allowed us to definitively confirm the effective use of the stakes as obstacles in the naval battle. Furthermore, the excavation revealed that the stake yard of Dong Ma Ngua was originally located on the slope of a river or channel bank, based on the observation of an approximate difference of 1 m in elevation of the driven stakes in the same layer.

A total of 55 stakes were identified in the fishpond. Only the bottom parts of these stakes were preserved, ranging in length from c.0.3–1 m. Degradation by marine borers, in particular Teredo navalis, was apparent in the remaining parts, indicative of the cause of the loss of their upper parts. From their current condition, it is difficult to determine their original length, but their original diameters appear to fall into three approximate groups of 60, 120, and 200 mm. These estimates can be confirmed by looking at those stakes that still have their bark intact. On the bottom tip of some stakes there is a recess or notch, which could be for tying ropes for transportation of the stakes, or may have been used in driving the stakes into the river-bed. However, the precise methods used by the Vietnamese to transport and drive (or perhaps screw) these stakes into the river-bed is still open to question.

Wood samples were collected from ten stakes found during the excavations at Dong Ma Ngua in 2009 and 2010 and were sent to the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan and the Vietnam Forestry University for species analysis. The results of the analysis indicate that the stakes were made from a variety of tree species: three species in the Dipterocarpaceae family including, Dipterocarpus tonkinensis, Parashorea chinensis, and Shorea sp.; two species in the Fabaceae (leguminous) family including Lithocarpus ducampii and Peltophorum dasyrachis; Engelhardia roxburghiana in the Juglandaceae family; and an unidentified species in the Meliaceae family (or the Rutaceae family) (Kimura, 2011; Lê et al., 2011). It is interesting to identify the use of some relatively hard and dense species of wood such as Shorea sp., considering that some historical legends indicate the use of so-called ‘ironwoods’ for these stakes. The selection of certain types of wood formed a part of the Dai Viet naval tactics as it is assumed that stiff stakes were preferable to trap or impale the Mongol ships. Today dense hardwoods such as Shorea sp. are not found in the vicinity of the battlefield.

Samples from four wooden stakes were sent to the University of Waikato Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory. The radiocarbon dates were from approximately the period of the Mongol invasion (AD 1288) (Kimura, 2011; Lê et al., 2011). These dates clearly post-date the naval battles that took place in AD 938 and 988, as demonstrated in Table 1. The date of some of the ceramics discovered during the excavation also supports the results of the radiocarbon analysis. The oldest ceramic sherds dated to the period of the Tran Dynasty (AD 1225–1400), although the ceramics assemblage (a total of 107 pieces) represented a wide temporal range up to the 18th century (Lê et al., 2011). Of the Tran Dynasty ceramics, the whitish glazed and cracked brown glazed ceramic sherd of the 13th–14th centuries and a fragment of 13th century celadon were notable as they were found at the level of the river-bed into which the stakes were driven (Fig. 9).

figure

Figure 9. 13th-century celadon sherd found at the Dong Ma Ngua site. (Photo by Lê Thi Lien)

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Table 1. Radiocarbon dating result for the four wooden stakes
Sample codeLaboratory codeConventional radiocarbon age (yrs BP)Calibrated calendar age (confidence intervals)
09.DMN-02 woodWk- 25595671 ± 27

68.2% probability

 AD 1280 to 1390

95.4% probability

 AD 1270 to 1390

09.DMN-05 woodWk- 25596628 ± 27

68.2% probability

 AD 1295 to 1390

95.4% probability

 AD 1280 to 1400

09.DMN-06 woodWk- 25597577 ± 28

68.2% probability

 AD 1315 to 1410

95.4% probability

 AD 1300 to 1420

09.DMN-07 woodWk- 25598664 ± 31

68.2% probability

 AD 1280 to 1390

95.4% probability

 AD 1270 to 1400

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

The identification of the stake yard at Dong Ma Ngua enables us to offer better interpretations about the use of stakes at the time of the battle and provides a clue for the reconstruction of the battlefield by comparison with the other stake yards at Yen Giang and Dong Van Muoi. The location of the Dong Ma Ngua stake yard suggests that the stake yards are more widespread than previously thought; the stakes at Dong Ma Ngua comprise a southern-most stake yard, approximately 2 km away from the northern-most stake yard at Yen Giang. Thus, the area of the battlefield extends much further south, based on the position of the newly identified stake yard. It is considered that the stakes were most unlikely to be present across the majority of such a vast battlefield and therefore it is presumed that several, geographically distinct stake yards, each with a complex arrangement of stakes, were used to form effective blockages. We have presumed that the positions of the stake yards were sandwiched between natural hazards, such as sandbanks, rocks or swampy lands (Sasaki and Kimura, 2010; Lê et al., 2011). By these means, hypothetically the Vietnamese could probably have prevented the Yuan ships from travelling through the channels and into the open sea.

In addition, the site of Dong Ma Ngua is significant because this is the only stake yard where artefacts including wood fragments, ceramics and tiles have been found. No artefacts have been reported from the other two stake yards.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Maritime archaeological research on the Mongol Empire invasions has the potential to shed new light on naval battlefield archaeology. The attempted expansion of one of the world's largest empires in history is evidenced at the naval battlefield sites in Japan and Vietnam. Throughout the past few decades, researchers in these two countries have found remains associated with the historical invasion of Japan in 1281 and Vietnam in 1288. The sequence of events is located in Eurasian history in a broad sense, yet the archaeological evidence of the battles at the sites in Takashima and Bạch Ðằng River has never been addressed together. This article has presented a thematic approach to the two sites within a framework of naval battlefield archaeology. The significance of the two sites is clear, according to the criteria used to determine the archaeological potential of naval battle sites. It also emphasizes that both sites are representative of symbolism related to historical naval battles. The archaeological work at the Mongol Empire invasion sites is currently ongoing in these two countries. This article highlights the results of the recent fieldwork at the Bạch Ðằng River site between 2008 and 2010. So far, each physical element—the cultural monuments, stake yards, and the ancient topography at the Bạch Ðằng River site—has revealed the Vietnamese strategy used in defeating the Mongol Empire. Further archaeological research at the site will hopefully allow new evidence about the battle and battle strategies to be identified. From a broader perspective, it is expected that this research would form a representative case study of naval battlefield archaeology and as an exemplary maritime archaeological project in Vietnam.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References

Research has been supported and funded by the Institute for Nautical Archaeology, the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Flinders University, Murdoch University, Monash University, and the Management Board of Major Cultural sites, Quang Ninh province in Vietnam. The contribution of the following members to fieldwork is acknowledged: Claude Duthuit, Dr James P. Delgado, George Belcher, Dr Vu The Long, Dr Bui Thi Mai, Dr Michel Girard, Peter Ingrassia, Charlotte Minh Ha Pham, Nguyen Thi Mai Huong, Nguyen Duc Binh, Burton Britt Jane, David Ross, J. B. Pelletier, John Pollack, Dr Paddy O'Toole, Minh Tran, Veronica Morriss, and Doug Inglis. We would also like to thank Kieu Dinh Son and express our appreciation of the Vietnamese provincial and municipal officers who supported the fieldwork.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Naval battlefield archaeology
  4. Identified sites
  5. Takashima and Bạch Ðằng battlefields
  6. Symbolism of naval battlefields
  7. Previous studies of Bạch Ðằng battles
  8. Recent research at Dong Ma Ngua
  9. Discussion
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. References
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