It has always been Nguyen Van Viet’s dream to recreate the faces, and lives, of ancient people. After years of study abroad and hard work, Viet and his colleagues finally have a place in the sun with the recent Dong Xa excavation, which revealed a tomb with 20 2,000-year-old skeletons from three different races. Le Huong reports.
Carefully laying a plastic mould over a skull fragment of a girl who lived 2,000 years ago, archaeologist Nguyen Van Viet is satisfied with the half-finished portrait of the primitive 17-year-old woman.
After years of research, the skeleton of the first person recovered from the 2,000 year-old Dong Son civilisation lays scattered on his dusty desk. The skull shows a long face, prominent cheek-bones, a flat nose, a short forehead, a large mouth and thick lips.
Viet considered decorating the young woman’s ears with rope earrings and fixing her hair in the style of ancient Dong Son women, as described in books.
"If her relatives were still alive, they would likely recognise her," he jokes, impressed at what his team has accomplished.
She is the first relic of the Dong Son civilisation whose face has been completely rebuilt – the very first face of the ancient people he has studied in his 30 years as an archaeologist.
In the beginning
Viet’s journey to this point began 35 years ago, as a history student at a Ha Noi university. He was interested in painting and sculpting, and he focused his love specifically on faces. He was obsessed with the structure and uniqueness of each face and made elaborate sketches of skulls.
"My teacher at the time, Ha Van Tan, one of the most famous contemporary historians in Viet Nam, advised me to study anthropology," Viet recalls.
"At that time, history students like me were fascinated with Russian scientist Mikhail Gerasimov’s book on identifying a human being’s face based purely on the structure of the skull."
Gerasimov introduced formulas that allowed anthropologists to calculate the thickness of the muscles on the face, by observing the joints where muscles were fused to the bone.
A dream to reconstruct the face of primitive man motivated Viet ever since.
Long time coming
"It wasn’t until a few months ago that I had enough knowledge and the right conditions to realise my dream," Viet says.
He had joined a number of courses on mould-making in Denmark, working with clay to reproduce and preserve skull fragments.
Finally, an excavation three years ago in Dong Xa in the northern province of Hung Yen, implemented by Australian archaeologists and scientists from the Southeast Asian Prehistory Research Centre, provided the ideal conditions for Viet and his colleagues to fulfil their dream.
"We excavated a tomb containing 20 ancient skeletons and a number of burial objects," Viet says. "What surprised us most was the fact that the bones indicated three different races."
The first skeleton studied, a 17-year-old girl, originated in southern Asia and had an egg-shaped skull and egg-shaped eye sockets. Typically, ancient people from these regions measured a mere 1.4m in height.
The second set of remains belong to an Indonesian native who likely had a dark complexion, curly hair and buckteeth.
The third set appears to be an offspring or relation of the above-mentioned people. The skull is similar to the southern Asian, but also has qualities of the ancient Indonesian. The skeleton indicated that the individual grew to 1.6m.
History linked to present
The remains of the primitive people unearthed at the site are assumed to be the ancestors of today’s residents of Hung Yen.
To understand the matter more clearly, the Southeast Asian Prehistory Research Centre conducted a rigorous study on the people of present Hung Yen and Thai Binh provinces, focusing on localities that surround the Dong Xa excavation site. Nearly 100 residents of various ages were invited to get their skulls scanned at nearby hospitals to assist in the research.
X-ray images of the skulls provided a correlation between muscle and bone, and were then processed to make corresponding portraits based on Gerasimov’s formulas.
The finished computerised portraits were then compared with the real faces of the volunteers. When Viet and his colleagues became familiar with the programme’s quirks and error ratios, they dove into work on the face of the primitive girl.
The 17-year-old girl was chosen for analysis first because of the quality and condition of her skull. Among the 20 discovered, hers was the most intact.
The skull was first saturated with a chemical solution, then covered with a layer of silicon to create a mould. The mould was then separated from the skull and used as a frame for the muscles constructed with clay. By putting together the bone and muscle structure, a complete face is formed.
When he’s finished studying the young girl’s skull, Viet intends to complete a collection of seven faces, including four southern Asians, an Indonesian and two faces of the mixed-blood offspring.
"There is a 20 per cent margin of error in my method," Viet admits. "The most controversial details are the width of the eyes and shape of the eyelids, neither of which are included in the formulas for muscle structure."
A new field
"Viet is a pioneer who is putting together vivid portraits of Asia’s ancient people," says Nguyen Lan Cuong from the Viet Nam Archaeology Institute. "However, in my opinion, he’s an amateur in the field."
Cuong adds that there are too many errors in the muscle calculations, and most professionals who study Viet’s methods find flaws.
Cuong studied the faces of ancient hominoids in Germany in the 1980s. He admits that he hasn’t done any serious studies in the field.
"These studies require a lot of time and proper research," Cuong says. "In a few years I intend to rebuild the faces of ancient people from the Hoa Binh civilisation, people who lived 10,000 years ago."
Cuong and other contemporary archaeologists like Nguyen Dinh Khoa, Vo Hung and Nguyen Quang Tuyen have focused their energy on determining the race, age, and sex of the excavated skulls, rather than reconstruct their faces.
In response to the criticism, Viet plans to organise a scientific debate on his work later this month, and will encourage sceptics to verify his findings with scientists in Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom.
Staying the course
Any archaeologist asked to judge Viet’s work acknowledges that his methods require a comprehensive stock of knowledge of archaeology, anthropology and not to mention, art.
According to Viet, the money needed to complete the reconstruction of a single face is as much as US$10,000.
The trouble, he says, is that most of the materials needed are imported from abroad.
"I put together these sample faces to persuade domestic and foreign sponsors and State-owned research institutes that these methods are sound, and should be applied to other relics," says Viet.
The skulls he is most interested in date back to the Da But civilisation, nearly 6,000 years ago; the Hoa Binh civilisation, 10,000 years ago, as well as additional remains found in Long An Province that date back some 4,000 years.
The archaeologist, whose speciality is actually the study of ancient rice and textiles, also has a dream to establish a wax museum to display life-like statues of famous people, both Vietnamese and foreign.
Viet now works as the director of the Southeast Asian Prehistory Research Centre. — VNS
Paul Kekai Manansala