Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia:
Collections in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

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  • Earthenware
  • 2.8 x 9.7 cm
  • 18th-mid 20th century, Nguyen Lords period, Tay Son or Nguyen dynasty
  • Origin: Central Vietnam
  • Provenance: Mekong River Delta, Southern Vietnam
  • Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, and Victor and Takako Hauge
  • S2004.133


Small dish with flat bottom and thick everted rim. Wheel thrown.

Curatorial Remarks

1. (Louise Cort, 12 June 2003) The Hauges acquired vessels of this type as "Oc Eo." They knew a Vietnamese military officer stationed in the Mekong delta area; he recovered pots from the swampy margins of rivers during the low-water season. Such pots were said to be "from Oc Eo."

2. (Louise Cort, 13 May 2005) The Hauges owned a copy of Malleret's 1960 publication on Oc Eo and employed it to confirm the pieces they acquired as "Oc Eo culture." It is important to note that Malleret acquired all his ceramic samples, except those that he excavated from Oc Eo, as surface finds located in the course of general surveys of other sites (Malleret 1960, 92).

Malleret summarized his vision of Oc Eo culture ceramics drawn from such surveys: "Ceramics held a considerable role in the material life of the ancient inhabitants of the Transbassac. Judging from the enormous mass of fragments that lie scattered under the sun in Oc Eo and occur in compact sheets at certain levels, one is inclined to think that the ceramic industry occupied an important place among their activities. In fact, it seems that one was in the presence of a city whose population had been dense and had deposited enormous accumulations of debris over several centuries. But pottery was not mixed solely into the domestic aspect, where it was manifest as stoves, as cooking pots, as diverse containers, as lamps, as rattles for infants. It had furnished containers and crucibles for metallurgists, net weights for fishermen, spindle-whorls for the preparation of thread from textile fibers, and perhaps also stamps for impressing patterns onto woven cloth.... It is possible that pottery served numerous additional offices in a commercial setting in a maritime location." He goes on to mention the probable roles of small-mouthed vessels for storage and transport of foodstuffs, including oils and salt; of straight-necked jars for holding liquids and creating an air-tight seal necessary for fermenting fish sauce (nuoc mam); of small, wide-mouthed vessels for domestic storage of materials in the kitchen, as well as for unguents, perfumes, medicines, cosmetics, and rouge (although they were easily portable and could have been commercial items). He proposes that ceramic containers, along with wooden ones, served to transport raw materials and finished products of the important industries of Oc Eo (including gold jewelry, glass and stone beads, bronze and tin metallurgy) (ibid., 92–93). He describes necks of large jars over forty centimeters in diameter, presumably used for storing rainwater (ibid., 94).

Malleret studied 291 whole objects and more than 2000 sherds (787 from systematic excavations). He found five types of earthenware body (ibid., 98–100, analysis in Appendix I, 353–357):

(I) unfired or very low fired, without sand (including crucibles and spindle-whorls);
(II) red clay containing considerable sand and mica, naturally occurring in the clay, which seemingly was used without adding additional temper, formed by hand or on the potter's wheel into fishnet weights, stoves, and lids for cooking pots. Even when the exterior is fired red or gray, the interior may retain the color of ochre earth. Some appear to have been slipped;
(III) red clay with added fine sand temper, possibly derived from ground laterite containing particles of limonite; worked by hand or on the wheel;
(IV) blackish clay containing little sand, blackened by firing in reduction, sometimes with burnished surface, worked by hand or on the wheel, found in the lowest levels beneath the brick monuments at Oc Eo;
(V) fine paste, sometimes hard but usually soft, of homogenous, well-processed texture, variously rose, salmon, gray, or yellowish in color, sometimes appearing to contain temper made from prefired and ground clay, used mainly for special products with a certain "artistic cachet."

In addition, (VI) much higher fired than the previous five types, like stoneware, showing a connection to glazed Khmer stoneware, suggesting a Khmer occupation level at Oc Eo.

Malleret, Louis. 1960. La civilisation matérielle d'Oc-Eo. L'Archéologie du Delta du Mékong, tome 2. Publications de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient, Vol. XLIII. Paris: l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient.

3. (Louise Cort, 23 May 2007) The Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, has a large number of wheel-thrown "saucers" or "saucer lamps" (typical diameter 9 cm.) that were recovered from the Dong Nai riverbed in the early 1990s. Some had a small spout for the wick, like S2005.180–182. The collection of materials recovered from the river at the same time also includes a pre-Angkorian (?) earthenware ewer with red-painted decoration; many Angkorian Khmer stoneware jars, both unglazed and glazed; and a large Maenam Noi (h. 60 cm) with thick rim and thick lugs—a type that appears to fall late in the Maenam Noi sequence. Granted that the riverbed might have held jumbled ceramics from quite different places and times, these associated finds suggest a date later than Oc Eo and a source in a different region.

4. (Louise Cort, 28 May 2007) The ceramics storeroom of the Dong Nai Museum in Bien Hoa contains ceramics recovered within the province, primarily from the Dong Nai River, especially in the vicinity of Bien Hoa. The collection includes just one saucer of this type (diam. 8 cm), fired to stoneware hardness (LS 301/G21: LS indicates recovered from river; G stands for earthenware [gom]).

5. (Louise Cort, 29 May 2007) The Binh Thuan Museum, in Phan Thiet, houses many small dishes of this type (diam. 8.5 cm) in a collection of wasters from the Phu Truong Phu Long kiln site, 15 kilometers north of Phan Thiet, which was the last of a number of kilns operated by ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) potters making cylindrical jars (S2004.195–212) and other unglazed stoneware vessels. Museum staff said they don't know how they were used in the past, but nowadays the Raglai (an Austronesian speaking ethnic group living in the interior of the province) use them as lamps. The dishes were fired at a wide temperature span ranging from "earthenware" to stoneware.

The kiln that produced the jars was discovered when a road was built. Two museum staff who had been involved in the excavation took us to see it. They said this was the last surviving kiln and that many more had once existed. The Phu Truong Phu Long kiln is located north from Phan Thiet along Route 1, across the Edi river and beyond Phu Long market town, along a narrow road (construction of which revealed the kiln) that turns right toward the coast at kilometer marker 1695. We met the farmer, a man who appeared to be in his thirties, on whose land the kiln is located. He said he had never seen the kiln, that it had been his father's kiln "a hundred years ago." The location is now a field, planted with seedlings. Sherds lie in the soil. The museum staff said the kiln firebox had been positioned to the south. They had found the museum objects in the adjacent waste heap. In the past, at the time the kiln operated, a river had flowed nearby (providing transportation of the pots). Clay must have come from all around under the fields. They speculated that the kiln had been operated by potters who farmed during the rainy season (May–October) and made pots during the rest of the year.

6. (Louise Cort, 31 May 2007) The Khanh Hoa Museum, Nha Trang, owns no examples of small saucers like this, despite the existence of a kiln at Lu Cam that made unglazed stoneware, including cylindrical jars, from the 18th century onward.

7. (Louise Cort, 6 August 2008) Our survey of museums in South and Central Vietnam in 2007 established that saucers of this type were made at kiln sites associated with urban centers in southern Central Vietnam. They range in hardness from "earthenware" to stoneware, suggesting that they were scattered throughout the kiln for firing.

To Period added Nguyen lords period, Tay Son dynasty or Nguyen dynasty. To Date added 18th–mid 20th century (1701–1945).

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