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karlstromThe Archaeology of Vientiane: The Role of Ordinary People in Urban Development and Cultural Heritage

Anna Karlstrom
Department of Archaeology
Uppsala University
June 2002


In this research project the history of Vientiane, capital in Laos, from the 4th century on to today will be explored. As a first step I aim at establish an archaeological framework for the urban development, through surveys and excavations. The main aim is a following discussion on cultural heritage management, emphasizing the past of ordinary people and perceptions on cultural heritage today. This also puts the research in a contemporary context and will result in setting up guidelines for protecting archaeological and historical remains in Vientiane.

In an urban area that constantly changes and especially in Vientiane where there are extensive development projects carried out at the moment, the need for protection of the archaeological and historical remains is acute. Features of monumental character are in a way already protected as they are easily registered. To get a more comprehensive picture of the history, to develop archaeologically informed guidelines for management and protection of the cultural heritage, it is important to include the past of ordinary people as well.

Vientiane's history has not been investigated properly. There are indications that an urban centre started to develop here in the 4th century. Urban centres can be defined in many ways. The most usual is where trading, power, hierarchical systems and craft specialization are established. Traditionally the research on urbanization processes is very much focused on these centres, the archaeological and historical features of monumental character and the small elite, the 'extraordinary' people, in contrast to the everyday life of the 'ordinary' people, living in the periphery. An explanation to this is that there is of course easier to recognize these features, as they are more obvious and visible in the landscape. In Vientiane examples of these are traces from the old palace, the ancient city walls, old temples and remarkable artifacts. The great majority of people, who created the history and still is the major part of the urban development, are usually not that visible and are seen, in contrast to the extraordinary, as ordinary people. The same is for the urban area itself, which traditionally is seen as a centre, in contrast to the surrounding periphery. The values of these concepts are clear; centres and 'extraordinary' elite are considered more important and significant than the periphery and the 'ordinary' people.

Today the city of Vientiane consists of small villages, which functions as separate centres. Archaeological evidences so far in this research project indicate the same situation when the city first was established. Traces of small and spread settlements have been found and mapped. The archaeological framework, i e where in the research area earlier activities were undertaken and when, is partly established and will be more complete through further archaeological excavations in the city centre and the outskirts of the city. The results provide a picture of the development of the city from the 4th century and on to today, including parameters such as settlement patterns, occupation density and time sequences, land use and what kind of material culture the people living in this area utilized.

The past of ordinary people is most often invisible in the archaeological material and thereby neglected, and consists of for example rituals, symbols and significant places. This is the main focus of the research project and will be investigated primarily by survey and interviews with the villagers in Vientiane. Excavations in peripheral areas, i e areas where no archaeological traces are visible today, will provide information about the ordinary people in earlier times. As we today create our history, on which cultural identity is based, I find it necessary to include different peoples various perceptions of the urban landscape they live and act in and how they value their cultural heritage today, to understand and establish a comprehensive, archaeological picture of the history. I also want to include the past of ordinary people to get a broader perspective on urban development and to be able to conclude what to protect and how to preserve it.

To summarize I want to turn the opposites concepts; centre-periphery and extraordinary-ordinary, around, by illustrating the importance and necessity of including the less valued ones; periphery and ordinary, in the cultural heritage management process. The result will be to set up guidelines, taking different peoples various pasts and different peoples various perceptions of their history into account. These will form the basis when establishing regulations and laws concerning cultural heritage and the protection of archaeological remains and when planning the future for the urban area of Vientiane.