Pillow in the form of a tortoise

  • Stoneware with iron pigment under translucent (underfired) glaze, iron oxide wash on base
  • 9.8 x 12.1 x 16.7 cm
  • late 14th-15th century, Tran or Later Le dynasty
  • Origin: Red River Delta kilns, Hai Duong province, Vietnam
  • Excavation provenance: Bangkok, Thailand
  • Gift of Dean Frasché
  • F1985.37a-b


Pillow in the form of a tortoise, head turned upward, the feet shown in paddling motion. The carapace hexagonal plates are modelled, the divisions incised. The shell is surmounted by a narrow concave head-rest with lobed ends and a small hole in the center, on a base decorated with a carved scroll. This element, the head, tail, and legs were separately applied. The skin folds below the carapace are modelled. A hole was made in the unglazed flat base near the tail end. A brown iron oxide wash covers the base, the "chocolate base" common on Vietnamese ceramics. There is a repaired break at one end of the head-rest, which is seen on the underside.
Clay: dense, light gray stoneware.
Glaze: clear, bubbled, slightly crackled over white slip and iron painting. Some glaze separation, particularly on areas where appendages and superstructure were attached. No glaze on top of head-rest. A line of paint on a strip of slip shows indistinctly around its edge. Small glaze chip on edge of head-rest. Some glaze worn off on claws of three of the feet.
Decoration: paired iron-oxide brush strokes on each plate of carapace and other iron brown underglaze details, e.g., wrinkles on the animal's neck.
With wooden stand.

Curatorial Remarks

1. (J.H. Knapp, 1986) Dean Frasché notes that "there appears to be no other recorded example of a Vietnamese ceramic pillow." He also gives an explanation of the symbolism of the tortoise." The tortoise probably symbolizes Kim Quy, the mythical golden turtle, a supernatural creature from the sea who protects the Vietnamese people (Buttinger 1958, 70).

Although this pillow seems small, the proportions are similar to the small, and high, three-color Chinese pillows (12th–13th century) with child-shaped bases (Yang 1984, no. 111). In addition, Spink & Co., London, has had for sale a Chinese Ding type pillow of the 13th century, also of small size. It has some characteristics comparable to this Annamese piece. See photocopy in folder sheet.

There is a problem about the condition of the top of the head-rest. Was it originally glazed? I think it was, and the glaze subsequently removed in some manner. Head-rests on similar Chinese pillows are typically glazed. The Technical Laboratory detects a coating of organic nature over the bare paste, which also serves to cover the join of the repaired break. See Technical Laboratory examination report. The report identifies the unknown material as having "the properties of a hard and insoluble waxy coating."

Buttinger, Joseph. 1958. The Smaller Dragon; a political history of Vietnam. New York: Praeger.

Yang Yongde, ed. 1984. Chūgoku tōchin: Yō Eitoku shūzō (Chinese ceramic pillows from Yeung Wing Tak collection). Hong Kong: Yeung Wing Tak

2. (L.A. Cort, 1986) In a telephone conversation, Dean Frasché elaborated on the circumstances surrounding the finding of the pillow. His information on the source of the pillow comes from the Thai-Chinese gentleman from whom Frasché acquired the piece. The abandoned wat was demolished and the site excavated in the process of building an unloading dock. The name of the wat is not recorded.

3. (L.A. Cort, August 1989) The terminology is changed from "Annamese" to "Vietnamese."

4. (L.A. Cort, November 7, 1994) Dr. Wu Tung of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts suggests that, since the rest is rather small to be the head rest of a pillow, this object might have been made instead as a wrist rest for use in consultation with a doctor; the patient would place his or her wrist on the rest and be diagnosed by the doctor through analysis of the pulse. The symbolic association of the turtle with longevity would be a perfectly appropriate image for such a use.

5. (Allison Diem, 20 October 1998) On the basis of the chocolate base, this pillow can be dated no earlier than the fourteenth century.

6. (Louise Cort, 12 February 2002) To date, added "Tran Dynasty (1225–1400)."

7. (Louise Cort, 6 November 2003) Another Vietnamese ceramic pillow, in the shape of a butterfly with decoration in cobalt under the clear glaze, dated to the Le dynasty, 15th century, is in the collection of Dr. Jochen May, Heustadt, Germany. It is offered for sale at Christie's Paris, 19 November 2003, lot 342 (estimate $18,000–23,000). The notes mention that no other butterfly-shaped pilow seems to have been recorded and mentions the "one turtle-shaped" pillow, this one.

8. (Louise Cort, 13 August 2004) On 10 December 1998, Regina Krahl suggested that comparable forms should be sought in qingbai ware.

9. (Louise Cort, 18 February 2005) Re comment 6 concerning dating, John Stevenson states that the brown-washed base first appears in the late thirteenth century (Stevenson 1997, 35). To Date added Late before 13th.

10. (Louise Cort, 18 February 2005) Re comment 6 concerning dating, John Stevenson states that the brown-washed base first appears in the late thirteenth century (Stevenson 1997, 35). To Date added Late before 13th.

Stevenson, John. 1997. The Evolution of Vietnamese Ceramics. 22-45 in Vietnamese Ceramics, A Separate Tradition, edited by John Stevenson and John Guy. Chicago: Art Media Resources.

11. (Louise Cort, 2 July 2014) In 1992, Stephen Koob of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research examined this object at my request, to determine the nature of the pigment used for decoration under the glaze. Using X-ray fluorescence, he determined that the pigment was iron, and that there was no trace of cobalt.

12. (Louise Cort, 23 December 2014) Archaeologist Abe Yuriko dates this to the Tran dynasty, 15th century (or possibly as early as the end of the 14th century).

Changed Date from late 13th-14th century to End of 14th-15th century. Changed Period from Tran dynasty to Tran or Later Le dynasty.

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