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Canberra team unearths ancient burial boat

14 JANUARY 2005

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One of the oldest log canoes in Southeast Asia has been unearthed by Australian archaeologists at a burial site in Vietnam.

A team of archaeologists from The Australian National University and conservators from the National Museum of Australia discovered the boat at Dong Xa, fifty kilometres southeast of Hanoi.

The ancient boat was believed to have been used in the Red River Delta region about 100BC, and was used as a burial device.

Professor Peter Bellwood from The Australian National University said the boat was possibly the oldest remaining log canoe in Southeast Asia.

Project coordinator Dr Judith Cameron, a prehistoric textiles specialist from The Australian National University, said the boat contained an adult body covered by a shroud and surrounded by pottery, a lacquer bowl and copious quantities of prehistoric matting.

"These textiles will reveal a great deal about the material and structural composition of textiles and the role of cloth in burials by the Dongson people more than 2000 years ago," Dr Cameron said.

The excavation was part of an Australian Research Council project to study ancient textiles and improve conservation and laboratory techniques in Vietnam.

National Museum senior conservator Nicola Smith said textiles traditionally disintegrate rapidly and she was surprised the fabric and matting were so well-preserved. The bark lid and wood of the coffin were also in good condition.

Ms Smith said samples were being analysed in Canberra to test the degradation of the wood and textile fibres and examine their dye and weave. The wood will be impregnated with polyethylene glycol and conserved by the National Museum for future research and display in the local Hung Yen Museum.

The team, which included archaeologists from the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology and the Center for Southeast Asia Prehistory, also excavated the grave of a young child at Yen Bac.

For interviews and images of the boat and textiles please contact Martin Portus at the National Museum on 02 6208 5351, 0409 916 481 or m.portus@nma.gov.au or Tim Winkler at the ANU on 02 6125 5001 or 0416 249 231.