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

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Jar with the remains of two lugs and incised decoration

  • Unglazed stoneware
  • 25.8 x 22.8 cm
  • 19th-early 20th century, Nguyen dynasty
  • Origin: Central Vietnam
  • Provenance: Mekong River Delta, Southern Vietnam
  • Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, and Victor and Takako Hauge
  • S2004.212


Jar with rounded body, wide mouth, thick lip, and flat base. Pair of shallow horizontal incised lines on shoulder. Two applied lugs, broken. Wheel thrown. Unglazed. Heavy for its size, contains hardened lime.

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, 13 May 2005) See also FSC-S-100-129, a group of stone blades acquired by the Hauges in Saigon and most likely collected from the Oc Eo region, donated to the Study Collection in 2001.

4. (Louise Cort, 11 October 2005) According to archaeologist and Vietnam specialist Morimoto Asako, Fukuoka, cylindrical jars of this type (S2004.195–211) were formerly made for the commercial marketing of fish sauce (nuoc mam). Ms. Morimoto was taken to see the Duc Thanh school in Phan Thiet City (Number 39, Trung Nhi Street), which was built in 1907 and where Ho Chi Minh taught in 1910–1911 before leaving for France. Empty ceramic containers of this type had been used to build the walls of the school building. (Because they were hollow, they helped keep the building's interior cool.) Phan Thiet is still famous for production of nuoc mam. She was told that the ceramic containers had been made at a kiln located just outside the rear wall of the school campus until they were replaced by glass bottles made at a French-built factory. She could not locate the kiln but did not have time to look carefully; however, she did find empty bottles scattered on the ground nearby.

There are two subcategories of vessels in this group—one with rounded walls and one with straight—but it is fine to treat them together as one group. The clay appears more sandy or less sandy in relation to the firing temperature.

This vessel appears to bear a coating of iron wash.

5. (Louise Cort, 22 December 2005) In October Ms. Morimoto recalled that the French glass-bottle factory had been built in the 1920s. After consulting her notes, however, she wrote that the French company began operation in 1886.

6. (Louise Cort, 10 January 2006) Changed Origin from Probably Central or Northern Vietnam to Central Vietnam.

7. (Louise Cort, 14 July 2006) According to Dr. Lu Hung and Mrs. Nguyen Thi Hong Mai, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi, some vessels of this type are in the VME collection. Similar forms are known from the northern kilns in Phu Lang and the central kilns at Phuoc Tich, north of Hue. They felt that vessels of this type would be used in a household context, not as a commercial container.

8. (Louise Cort, 2 February 2007) Jars of this type, in various sizes, were in the collection of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi, when I visited storage on 24 February 2006. They were collected from various places in the Mekong delta. An ovoid jar (acc. no., most similar to S2004.208, had been used to hold lime paste. A medium-sized jar with three ears would have been used, according to Mrs. Nguyen Thi Hong Mai, to hold moi ca (salted fish).

The collection included a range of small jars. One ( had been collected from a village in Vinh Long province, in the Mekong delta, from a man aged 80, whose father-in-law had bought it in the village market when he was 25, for 2 dong, and had given it to his daughter at the time of her marriage. The family used it to store salt or nuoc mam or to keep money. They did not know where it had been made. This type of jar was said to be popular in Vinh Long for storing food, salt, or fish sauce.

Three jars (–89) had been used for holding lime paste (cai hu) and had been acquired from a village in Ben Tre province, in the Mekong delta. No. 87, acquired from a woman, had belonged to the woman's husband's grandmother; after the old woman's death the family had not used it. No. 88 had belonged to the mother of the female owner. At first the mother had used it to hold small utensils used for preparing betel quids. After the mother died, the women used it to hold food for fish. No. 88 was dug up when the owner was working on the garden beside his house in 2000. He found it when digging a big hole to hold water for watering plants. He had never used it and did not know how it might be used. The researcher who collected the jar speculated that it might have belonged to the Khmer.

From Title deleted "for nuoc mam." Jars like this, which may have been sold as commercial containers for something, clearly had many secondary re-uses.

9. (Louise Cort, 23 May 2007) At the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, Mrs. Tran Thi Thanh Dao mentioned that people brought to sell to the museum jars of this type that they found in Vung Tau, Dong Nai, and Binh Duong provinces. One person sold a jar to the museum (acc. no. 9471) that he described as Khmer, 17th–18th century, suggesting that he had found it in the Mekong Delta. Jars of this type are used in the Mekong Delta (especially An Giang province, with a large population of ethnic Khmer) for preparing salted river fish (mam in Vietnamese, mam bo hoc in Khmer; in contrast to salted ocean fish, nuoc mam). Sizes ranged up to 30–35 cm in height.

10. (Louise Cort, 26 May 2007) The Vung Tau Ba Ria Museum owns six hundred cylindrical jars of the slightly rounded type (S2004.208) recovered from a shipwreck off Hon Ba island, one kilometer offshore from Vung Tau. All measure consistently about 36 cm in height. The wreck had been located by fishermen and the museum recovered the contents. A report has been published.

The vice-director of museum, Pham Quang Minh, said he agreed with a 19th–20th century date for jars of this type, as one jar excavated from the shipwreck contained coins of the Minh Mang reign (1820–1841) of the Nguyen dynasty. He understood jars of this type were made in Khanh Hoa province north of Nha Trang. He said they served as containers for salted freshwater fish (mam) or salt. Other staff suggested use as containers for nuoc mam, beans, or rice.

Recovered along with these jars were many round-bottomed plain earthenware pots of two sizes (h. 11.5 cm, diam. of mouth 16 cm; h. 18 cm, diam. of mouth 22 cm). The jars had smooth walls, were rather heavy for their size (suggesting they were not finished with paddle and anvil) and showed horizontal scraping on the interior, suggesting instead that they were finished with a ring-shaped scraper such as used by Cham potters. (On 2 June we saw scrapers used to thin and finish wheel-thrown pots made by women potters in Hoa Vinh commune, Tuy Hoa district, Phu Yen province.)

The museum also owns some small jars of this type, both straight-walled and rounded-walled, collected from a temple dedicated to Mieu Ba in Ho Tram, Xuyen Moc district. Women worshippers offered containers of lime to the goddess. The majority were brick-red earthenware, of a shape similar to S2005.165 or 168, and a few were copper-green glazed pots with bail handles (broken off), similar to S2005.159–160.

11. (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 two shelves holding jars of this type with curved walls, in various sizes, and one self of straight-walled cylindrical jars in various sizes.

12. (Louise Cort, 29 May 2007) The director of the Binh Thuan Museum, in Phan Thiet, stated that this type of vessel was made from the fifteenth into the twentieth century by ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) potters at a site 15 kilometers outside Phan Thiet.

Ethnic Cham bought the vessels to use as bricks in the walls of their houses. He showed us his photographs of jars used this way in situ in the walls of the Po Klong Moh Nai, a ruined Cham temple in Bac Binh district. The temple was adjacent to tombs of Cham elite and was thought to date to the 17th century. The jars used for the walls were cylindrical, from 25 to 30 cm in height, with incised grooves on the wall below the rim. They were lined up in rows, mouth down, on a row of bricks, and the next row of bricks was laid on their bases. The finished wall was covered with plaster. In Phan Thiet vessels of this type are known as ghe, a local term meaning "brick." They were never used for nuoc mam.

Museum storage contains jars of this type and other vessel shapes collected from the kiln that made them, the Phu Truong Phu Long kiln. The wasters include many jars of this type of a uniform size (h. 13 cm, diam. 8 cm). They ranged in firing temperature from red earthenware to well-fired gray stoneware with some ash coating. The other products from the kiln included spittoons with bulbous bodies and trumpet necks (h. 15.5 cm); mortars of three sizes with grooves incised beneath the mouth rim (heights 16.5 cm, 11.0 cm, and 9.0 cm); wide-mouthed small jars with thick feet (h. 6.5, diam. 7.5 cm), said to he used for lime paste; molds for use in casting metal incense burners, said to be marketed to the Chams; lamps with tall stems (h. 22.5 cm); shallow pots said to be used for cooking rice, imitating the shape of brass pots with carinated shoulders and two handles; round-bottomed cooking pots (h. 11.0 cm, diam. mouth 12.5 cm), judging from scars on the surfaces made by scraping the excess clay from the interior and exterior; small cups with grooves incised beneath the mouth rim (h. 5.5 cm, diam. 9.0 cm); teapots with bail handles; and small clay dishes, average diameter 8.5 cm. (Regarding these last vessels, the 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 (see S2004.100, 131–144, 149–151, 173–192).

One cylindrical jar (h. 15.0 cm) was collected from a habitation site in Ham Thang, Ham Thuan Bac, full of lime (BBBT 1715/Gm 143).

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.

13. (Louise Cort, 30 May 2007) The Ninh Thuan Museum, Phan Rang, owns one cylindrical jar of this type, with five grooves incised below the mouth rim (h. 15 cm, diam. 10 cm). It was used as a lime pot. It is an unnumbered recent find, and nothing is recorded of where it was found.

In the Cham pottery-making village of Bau Truc (Palay Hamu Trok), outside Phan Rang, we noticed potters making earthenware versions of this vessel shape as "vases."

14. (Louise Cort, 31 May 2007) The Khanh Hoa Museum, Nha Trang, curators associate vessels of this shape with Cham culture. The same shape is made at the Cham pottery-making village of Bau Truc. The museum owns pots of this type. Some were recovered from the riverbed at Lu Cam, five kilometers upriver from Nha Trang, where pots dating to the 18th–20th century were found. Others were collected from homes in the present-day town of Lu Cam, where they were used for various purposes, including holding water.

The storage holds both straight-wall jars and curved-wall jars. One straight-walled jar of this type (not measured), from Lu Cam, bears a band of grooves below the mouth rim made with a four-tooth comb. It had no lugs. A jar with slightly curved walls (h. 21.5 cm, diam. 16.0 cm) bears three lugs of inverted V form applied over a band of straight combing; it was underfired and is purplish-red in color; the base is rough and not trimmed. A larger jar with more rounded walls (h. 26.5 cm, diam. 22.0 cm; acc. no. LS 5), bears a shoulder design executed with a four-tooth comb tool, consisting of two straight bands framing widely-spaced "swipes" about 2 cm long, positioned slightly on the diagonal. Over this band are positioned three lugs, in the form of narrow vertical coils, slightly flattened. The base bears a string-cutting mark. The clay body contains white grabules and is reddish-brown near the base and gray on the upper body, with a dusting of ochre wood ash.

The museum also holds kiln stacking tools from the kilns at Lu Cam. They were shaped on the potter's wheel using coarse clay bearing large white stones. They include large disks (diam. 24 cm, h. 3.5 cm; diam. 30 cm, h. 5.0 cm) bearing four round "shadows" that could be of the bases of cylindrical jars; low-walled saggers of about the same size; and pedestal stands (h. 8 cm, diam. 14.5 cm) with four large holes cut out, evenly spaced around the walls.

Notably, the upper surfaces of some of the tools were densely covered with scars of oval shells (something like mussel shells), suggesting that shells were employed in the firing. Most pots said to be made at Lu Cam were unglazed, but four small (diameters 11.0, 8.0, and 6.0 cm) lime paste pots with bail handles bore green wood-ash glaze or iron glaze over ornate incised decoration, and the base of one pot shows imprints of oval shells on the iron-glazed base. (See S2005.156–173.)

Pottery workshops operate at Lu Cam, thought to have originated in the 19th century. One potter showed us a cylindrical vessel of this type (h. 18.0 cm), with a grooved band around the neck incised with a three-tooth comb tool, and said they had been made here four or five generations ago. They had been uses for building houses, laid on their sides between rows of bricks without cement. They are known locally as ghe ong, "bricks." The potter said they were made only at Lu Cam and were sold to Phan Thiet. We also picked up fragments of such vessels from the mud along the river's edge. People from this village used to load their boats with pots and take them as far as Phan Rang to sell them.

The ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) potters in Lu Cam also made round, wide-mouthed pots with small flat bottoms (h. 19.0 cm, diam. 22.0 cm). The potter told us they were "made by hand" (i.e. not on the foot-turned potter's wheel used for the cylinders) and had been used for nuoc mam or wine. They recalled the round-bottomed pots we saw in Ba Ria Vung Tau, recovered from a shipwreck site along with cylindrical jars (see note above). Perhaps most of the coastal pottery sites supplied both "stoneware" and "earthenware."

15. (Louise Cort, 2 June 2007) The Phu Yen Museum, Tuy Hoa, owns perhaps two dozen cylindrical vessels, in various sizes, both with straight walls and with slightly curved walls. In addition to the sizes we saw further south, they have several examples of very slender jars. One (h. 23 cm, diam. 5–7 cm; acc. no. 1106) has three lugs and a string-cut base; all the jars of this size appear to be underfired. Museum staff identify these as containers for chopsticks. Jars with curved walls, with four lugs, and with flat, slightly concave bases (h. 38 cm, diam. of mouth 13–16 cm; acc. no. 1080, and other smaller ones) are identified as containers for water or salt.

At this museum, all unglazed stoneware was attributed to the Quang Duc kiln site in Tuy An district, 30 kilometers north of Tuy Hoa. During a visit to the kiln on 3 June, we were told by an elderly potter (age 83), that Cham potters had worked there 500 years ago; Chinese potters from Chaozhou, Guangdong province, were here in the 17th–18th century, for three generations only; ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) potters came three hundred years ago, in the 18th century, from Binh Dinh. Two workshops still operate. According to museum staff, the products used to be shipped by coastal boat south to Nha Trang and north to Binh Dinh province. The elderly potter also spoke of making flower pots to send by boat to Hue.

The kilns also made jars; they were fired in the front of the kiln, where they would become hard, while roof tiles and other products were fired at the back. Jars were made from a green clay, to which no sand was added, while tiles and other soft wares were made from black clay. Both men and women made jars, but in the case of very large ones, women shaped while men turned the wheel. The jars were fired in huge kilns four times the size of the ones presently in use, about 2 meters high at the tallest point within the chamber. The kilns had two fireboxes and two low chimneys about 50 cm tall. Those kilns were in use until the American war (when they were damaged or destroyed by bombing). The various sizes of jars were also understood as standard measures. People came from the mountains to buy then, and local Kinh people took jars into the mountains to trade.

The potter told us he used to use shells in the kiln firing, scattering them between unglazed vessels so they would not stick. Any kind of sea shell (from the beach 4–5 kilometers away) could be used. The shells "became water" and added color to the ceramics.

Meanwhile, south of Tuy Hoa, in Hoa Vinh commune, Tuy Dong district, ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) potters make earthenware. The potters are women. They have been here seven generations (roughly 140–150 years). The vessel forms include bowls and small jars. Round-bottom cooking pots are shaped on a turntable-like wheel, by a process of coiling onto a flat base, throwing, then scraping inside and outside with a ring-shaped bamboo tool. These pots resemble the pots recovered from a shipwreck site off Vung Tau, together with cylindrical stoneware jars with rounded walls (note above).

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