An Introduction to the AAHP Webinar Series: “Archaeology and Art History in Southeast Asia”

 In this introductory lecture, Dr Helene Njoto and Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan set the stage by giving an overview to the archaeology and art history in Southeast Asia, from ancient times to the recent past.


Tuesday, 6 July 2021 – The Temasek History Research Centre’s Head and Deputy Chief Executive of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Terence Chong, kicked off its webinar series on the archaeology and art history of Southeast Asia by introducing the speakers and series conveners Dr Helene Njoto (Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Jakarta) and Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan (SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts). The series comprises 12 webinar lectures by 17 speakers and will take place from July 2021 to January 2022.

Dr Helene Njoto and Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan
Dr Helene Njoto and Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan gave an overview to the archaeology and art history in Southeast Asia, from ancient times to the recent past. Dr Terence Chong delivered the Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Today’s introductory lecture focused on the three primary themes of the series – Southeast Asia, archaeology, and art history and material culture studies. Dr Tan set the stage by inviting participants to ponder the nature of Southeast Asia through the remarkable diversity of its landscapes, biological forms, peoples and cultures. Dr Njoto pointed out that the idea of “Southeast Asia” as a geographic region is a fairly recent innovation, and revealed the other ways the region has been imagined at different points in time, such as “Further India” or “Greater India”, “Indochina”, “the East Indies”, “Insulindia”, and more recently as a part of a single overarching region along South, East and Southeast Asia’s maritime channels known as  “Monsoon Asia”.

The speakers highlighted some of the major empires which will be subjects of focus in the upcoming lectures such as Dai Viet, Ayutthaya and Malacca. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Tan briefly outlined the archaeology of Southeast Asia, beginning with the arrival of modern humans into the region from around 70,000 years ago, to major climate changes starting from the end of the Holocene around 14,000 years ago leading to a rise in sea levels and population movements within, and into, Southeast Asia. 4,000 years ago these changes saw the emergence of agriculture and permanent settlements. Technological innovations such as ceramics production and metallurgy further accelerate the move from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles. By the first millennium CE, the presence of exotic and non-local items in archaeological sites across the region suggest networks of exchange over long distances.

Concentrations of power and resources in different locations eventually led to the development of early states during the first part of the first millennium CE, which can be seen today in the remnants at My Son in Vietnam and Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia which become precursors to the larger empires that rose from the end of the first millennium. Dr Tan then highlighted some of the major empires which will be subjects of focus in the upcoming lectures such as Dai Viet, Ayutthaya and Malacca.

In the second part of this lecture, Dr Njoto introduced notions of historiography and paradigm shifts, stressing the importance of archaeology and material culture studies in a region where textual sources are relatively scarce. She mentioned recent ground-breaking archaeological discoveries (e.g. ceramics, nautical technologies and beads) which allowed for major revisions about the Indianisation paradigm. She outlined key points about recent finds which brought evidence of early bilateral exchanges and local Southeast Asian agency in the first centuries BCE into what was previously considered a millennium-long historiographical gap between a prehistorical period and the acknowledged start of Indianisation in the first centuries of the Common Era. She spoke of the reasons behind the relatively late attention given to archaeology and material culture, such as the persistence of a colonial agenda until about the 1960s and the lack of accessibility of some historical areas up until the 1990s for political reasons. While introducing the speakers of the coming art history and material culture lectures, Dr Njoto highlighted other fields where local agencies created techniques and artistic forms that were singularly Southeast Asian, such as in architecture, ceramics, stone sculpture/reliefs, textiles and bronze art. Dr Njoto concluded this lecture by introducing key points about the Islamisation of Southeast Asia, a paradigm less often addressed but also subject to revisions. This allowed her to mention three other of the coming lectures on mosque architecture, Islamic material culture and museum collections and last on Malay manuscripts illuminations. 

Many questions were raised by the audience, some more specifically about sites or materials mentioned in the lecture, others about institutions providing teachings in archaeology in Southeast Asia and Singapore. Other questions pertained to more historiographical and chronological issues such as how to address the notion of origin and influence and whether some early Southeast Asian polities should be placed in the proto-historical period. Unfortunately, not all questions could be addressed due to a lack of time. 

The webinar was attended by 320 participants from Singapore and the region.

The webinar was well-attended with over 300 participants. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Watch the recording here.