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4.4: Đông Sơn, SaHuỳnh, and Óc Eo Cultures (1000 BCE – 100 BCE)

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    Vietnam boasts a rich and diverse history that can be traced back to 20,000 BCE. The Hoabinhians were the earliest known culture to inhabit the delta areas of the country. Over the centuries, Vietnam has witnessed the rise and fall of various kingdoms, dynasties, and empires, each leaving its unique mark on the country's cultural, economic, and political landscape. The country has also been shaped by external forces such as colonization, wars, and globalization, which have further added to its complexity and richness. 

    The region known as Vietnam today dates back to 1000 BCE and was divided into three distinct cultural regions. These cultures, each unique in their own way, served to shape the region's history and heritage: Đông Sơn, Sa Huỳnh, and Óc Eo. Đông Sơn is located in the northern part of Vietnam, on the south bank of the Ma River near Thanh Hoa[1], Sa Huynh in the central area, and Óc Eo in the southern section. The Van Lang State was the first state formed in the seventh century BCE from the Đông Sơn area. 

    Southeast Asian archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of artifacts and proof that attests to the region's robust involvement in far-reaching maritime trade networks. Thanks to the copious water supply and rainfall, the initial societies in the vicinity were some of the earliest to engage in wet rice agriculture. The rearing of water buffalos and pigs was pervasive, and fishing was an essential industry due to the vast oceans and rivers surrounding the area. Long, hollowed-out tree canoes aided in transportation and fishing expeditions.

    The region always had to cope with different foreign aggressions until the latter part of the period, about 100 BCE, when the Han dynasty of China conquered the other Southeast Asian regions. The cultures across the region were incorporated into the general Chinese structure and society for the next 1,000 years. Only in a minimal area at the southern tip of the country did the Vietnamese cultures maintain some independence and their language and customs and set up the state of Funan. 

    Đông Sơn

    The Đông Sơn culture was in the northern part of the Ma River Valley and best known for its mortuary sites and bronze technology. Many historians believe the technique of casting bronze originated locally and then migrated to China.[2]Tools, weapons, drums, and jewelry were all made from bronze, adding to the reputation of the Đông Sơn as skillful bronze makers. The elegant bronze drums were used for war, burial rituals, and feasts. They were cast using the lost wax and piece-mold casting and embellished with local scenes, mostly animals from the delta region (4.4.1). Scenes demonstrated the prowess of warriors, workers processing rice, musicians playing, animals, or geometric designs, including a starburst pattern on the center of the tympanum. A common motif found on top of the drum is a bird-headed and bird-tailed longboat with ornamented human figures. Đông Sơn civilization buried drums with the dead, likely for celebratory purposes. Other bronze artifacts included vessels, daggers, swords, and axes with sockets. The Đông Sơn were complex societies capable of smelting seven tons of copper ore, as evidenced by the scale of these bronze finds.[3]

    Using the piece-mold technique, the caster created a clay model with decorated patterns pressed onto the surface. Multiple molds were constructed from the top and sides of a model. With the molds assembled around the casting core, molten bronze was poured between the core and outer molds. Once the bronze cooled and hardened, the molds and casting core were broken, and the bronze was extracted.[4] Drums ranged in size from three inches to six feet high. The small, elaborately incised drum (4.4.2) is only 10.2 cm tall. The sides are highly embellished with scenes surrounded by geometric patterns. Delta motifs were a common feature on the drum's lid, with four frogs perched on top, adding to its complexity of play. Archaeologists usually find most of the drums at private homes or burial sites. Đông Sơn drums are also found in other regions of the maritime trade routes, testifying to the value and quality of the drums. Historical documents indicate in 43 CE, the Đông Sơn homeland was invaded by the Han Dynasty and incorporated into China. 

    bronze drum
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Drum (Public Domain)
    bronze drum with frog decorations
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Miniature Drum with Four Frogs (Public Domain)
    Rain Drum

    Đông Sơn Rain Drum - use CC for English translation


    Sa Huỳnh

    The Sa Huỳnh trade network was extensive and included cultures from Southeast Asia, as well as those on both sides of the area. By the beginning of the Iron Age, coastal communities were trading with China and India. Archaeologists have found artifacts and jewelry made from materials that were not available locally, indicating a widespread trade network. In Sa Huỳnh, there were large numbers of iron artifacts, including swords, daggers, knives, and sickles for farming. In the Đông Sơn region, archaeologists discovered more bronze artifacts.

    One of the most exciting finds in Sa Huỳnh was the hundreds of burial sites where the people used inhumation burials in large jars (4.4.3). Surrounding the jars, archaeologists found bronze and iron implements, unusual ornaments, and pottery. The ornaments were made of glass, shells, or stone beads, indicating a vigorous trade industry as the materials were unnatural to the region. Adults were usually cremated and placed in the immense jars along with burial ornaments, and the jars were buried. Many offerings were found in the burial sites; some were ritualistically broken. The burial jars were usually conical with flat bottoms and a flared top to hold the lid. French researchers investigated over twenty Sa Huỳnh sites and identified over 1,000 jar burials.[5]  

    clay burial vessel with lid
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Burial jar (Public Domain)

    Pottery was a type of artifact found in most cultures, and based on findings in local sites and other places; many historians believe the Sa Huỳnh had pottery complexes to manufacture large numbers of pottery. Plain and patterned pottery have been found, and generally, archaeologists believe pottery was used for cooking, storage, and even ritual bowls. The Sa Huỳnh pottery was varied with multiple shapes, decorations, and surface treatments. The decoration was incised, impressed, or painted with a red slip. As seen in (4.4.4), patterns were incised with a vertical band around the rim, and the design was repeated on the base. As typical, a lot of empty or plain space was left. An Arca shell was a standard tool used to apply the incised pattern. The other vessel (4.4.5) has horizontal patterns with broad zig-zag lines meandering around the center. 

    clay vessel with decorations
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Pottery jar  (Public Domain)


    clay fruit tray with squiggle lines
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Pottery fruit bowl  (Public Domain)

    The Sa Huỳnh people made ornaments from multiple materials. However, an ancient ring-shaped amulet made of jade was called lingling-o (4.4.6). The earliest known lingling-o dates back to 500 BCE. An extensive set of trade routes was established by 2000 BCE, providing jade to many Southeastern Asian countries. One of the ordinary and unusual artifacts found were ornaments or jewelry featuring two-headed animals (4.4.7). Some researchers believe the ornaments were a tribute to the elusive and exceptionally rare saola, an animal resembling a deer. The ornaments were carved from jade, usually imported from Taiwan. Noted for creating ear ornaments, the Sa Huỳnh used multiple types of material, including agate, zircon, garnet, and sometimes gold. The materials were not native to the region, indicating their participation in the trade routes. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Three node lingling-o (jade) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
    Small clay dog with a handle
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Lingling-o (jade) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Óc Eo

    Archaeologists in Vietnam have recently uncovered evidence suggesting that the Mekong Delta was a hub of complex settlement activity from 600 BCE up until the middle of the 1st century CE. As a central point on the Southeast Asian Sea trade routes, Óc Eo enjoyed strong foreign influences, especially from India. Glass bead making, clay anvil shaping, and double-leaf stone mold casting for tin pendants have their origins in India. These techniques were borrowed and adopted by other cultures, which helped to establish the use of these tools in various parts of the world. The exchange and adoption of these methods have contributed to the evolution of art and craftsmanship in the Óc Eo culture.

    The land was characterized by its watery location, crisscrossed with canals and surrounded by oceans on two sides. Unfortunately, excavations have not yielded much information about the area, as it has been frequently washed by ocean water, typhoons, and floods over the centuries. Historians have only found a stone slab resembling an anvil, which is thought to have been used for spice processing. The excavation of the site (4.4.7) demonstrated the challenges of finding artifacts, as the stones were covered in moss, indicating wet, soggy conditions where few artifacts could have survived. Today, Óc Eo is recognized as the early culture of the historical kingdom of Funan.

    The excavation revealed three distinct types of structures, including wooden residences, brick and stone religious monuments, and buildings used for funerary jar burials or brick cremation.[6] The discovery of large receptacles, believed to have contained human remains, has been documented. These jars were embellished with gold foil and carnelian beads, and sealed with a lid fashioned from clay. It is noteworthy that said lid effectively closed off the mouth of the jug, leading to further inquiries as to the cultural, historical, and ritualistic significance of these findings.

    archeological site with brick walls and pottery
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The archeological site of Gò Cây Thị, Ba Thê Óc Eo (CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The statue artifact (4.4.9) discovered within the Óc Eo archaeological site is a representation of Viushu Vaishnava, a prominent deity within the Dharmic religions of Southern Asia. Its discovery offers valuable insights into the religious practices of the region's ancient cultures. This finding holds significant academic and historical implications for the field of archaeology and contributes to our understanding of the religious traditions that shaped the lives of the Óc Eo.

    stone statue of a man holding a weaponFigure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Stone statue of Visnu found at Óc Eo in An Giang Province, Vietnam (Public Domain)

    Throughout Asian history, the Silk Road - also referred to as the spice trade route - held a pivotal position. Óc Eo was a significant hub for international trade activities. The grinding stone tools discovered at Óc Eo, contain archaeobotanical remains of spices like turmeric, ginger, and nutmeg, confirming the usage of a diverse range of spices.[7] It is still customary today to grind curry paste using a grinding pedestal. Pottery played an essential role in the delta region as the abundance of clay provided the necessary resources to create vital items, such as cooking pots, storage containers, and funeral urns.

    Óc Eo pottery is known for its distinctive characteristics (4.4.10), and the artifacts provide valuable insights into the material culture and daily life. The pottery comes in various shapes and forms, including bowls, jars, plates, and other vessels. The shapes often reflect the utilitarian needs of society, such as storage and cooking. They were decorated with intricate patterns and motifs, designs including geometric patterns, stylized animals, and human figures. These decorations served aesthetic purposes and provided cultural and symbolic meanings. Different techniques to create their pottery, including wheel-throwing and hand-building methods and kilns used to fire the pottery indicate a certain level of technological advancement in their ceramic production. The Mekong Delta's local clay facilitated the development of a strong pottery tradition.

    It's important to note that the Óc Eo culture was part of Southeast Asia's larger trade and cultural exchange network during its time. The artifacts found at Óc Eo suggest connections with other ancient cultures, including those from India and China. The study of Óc Eo pottery contributes significantly to our understanding of the region's history and its interactions with neighboring civilizations. The archaeological site has yielded a wealth of artifacts, including pottery, tools, jewelry, and architectural remains, providing archaeologists and historians with valuable information about the socioeconomic and cultural aspects of the Óc Eo civilization.

    clay teapot with white paint and red lines
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Óc Eo Pottery (Public Domain)


    New findings support Oc Eo site

    New archaeological findings at the Oc Eo - Ba The and Nen Chua archaeological sites in the Mekong Delta provinces of An Giang and Kien Giang have set an important milestone in the research of the Oc Eo culture and provided reliable evidence and materials for the compilation of a dossier of the sites to seek recognition as a World Cultural Heritage site.



    [1] Olson, J. (2012). Dong Don Culture. The Oxford Companian to Archaeology. (2)(424).

    [2] Pieter Meyers, “Casting Technology in Cambodia and Related Southeast Asian Civilizations, Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past, eds. Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford (Chicago:  Art Media Resources, 2011), pp. 30–31. 

    [3] Olson, J. (2012). Dong Don Culture. The Oxford Companian to Archaeology. (2)(424).

    [4] Pieter Meyers, “Casting Technology in Cambodia and Related Southeast Asian Civilizations, Khmer Bronzes: New Interpretations of the Past, eds. Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford (Chicago:  Art Media Resources, 2011), pp. 30–31. 

    [5] Dung, N. K. (2017). The Sa Huynh Culture in Ancient Regional Trade Networks: A Comparative Study of Ornaments. In P. J. Piper, H. Matsumura, & D. Bulbeck (Eds.), New Perspectives in Southeast Asian and Pacific Prehistory (Vol. 45, pp. 311–332). ANU Press. 

    [6] Zakharov, A. (2020). Archaeological sites of the Mekong Delta and the Oc Eo Culture: a review. (46) (p. 209-230)

    [7] Wang, W., Nguyen, K., Zhao, C., & Hung, H. (2023). Earliest curry in Southeast Asia and the global spice trade 2000 years ago. Science Advances.