Past researchers have traditionally viewed ancient Southeast Asia as having been influenced by a virtually unidirectional flow of culture and civilization. Prior to the mid-1960s, many researchers explained the development of large-scale, complex societies (e.g., kingdoms and states) in Southeast Asia by pointing to influence from the more “advanced” civilizations of ancient India and China, citing the transmission of advanced technology and political models by diffusion, migration, or simple military and cultural imposition. Traditional perspectives from the early twentieth century viewed Southeast Asian societies as derivatives of Indian and Chinese counterparts. Intensified archaeological research efforts in recent decades throughout much of the region, however, have increasingly shown these sorts of positions to be untenable, demonstrating a model of unidirectional influence to be overly simplistic. To be sure, communities all over Southeast Asia were in either direct or indirect contact with one another and counterparts in India and China. But the countries of “China”, “India”, and Vietnam of today did not exist at 2000 BP, and the wider region was home to a kaleidoscope of societies. Modes of interaction and resultant social changes were complex, multilateral, and multidirectional. Societies were engaged in significant forms of interaction that included extensive long-distance trade, the movement of peoples and ideas, and cycles of peaceful relations and warfare.
This situation of complex interactions is evident throughout much of Southeast Asia, and the area of modern-day northern Vietnam is no exception. In this paper, I examine the important cultural frontier that existed between emerging Sinitic and proto-Vietnamese civilizations during the closing centuries BC, focusing specifically on archaeological evidence from the Red River Delta. To reconstruct cultural developments for the area's pre-and proto-history, a combination of textual and archaeological sources are crucial for understanding amorphous cultural boundaries and changing patterns of sociopolitical and economic interactions. During the first centuries BC and AD, the Han Empire began annexing the Red River Delta, as related by historical accounts and other traditions. At the time, a number of important cultural changes were taking place in the adjacent areas of modernday southern China and northern Vietnam.