Bottle with incised decoration

  • Stoneware with fly-ash glaze
  • 10.7 x 13.1 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
  • S2004.213


Globular bottle with constricted neck and everted rim. Incised horizontal lines on top half of body. Wheel thrown. Areas of incrustation of unmelted wood ash or melted wood ash (natural glaze).

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, 16 May 2005) Malleret (1960, drawings pl. XXXV, type 43; text p. 160) published a jar of this type found at Oc Eo (3812) and a second of the same sort from An Thanh village, Ben Tre province, Cisbassac (3031). He noted that the Oc Eo pot "was exceptional within the pottery of Transbassac and seemed to belong to a later period than that of Oc Eo." The clay body appeared to have been fired close to stoneware temperature. "In the course of our investigations in the Delta, we encountered only one other jar of this type, on a site presumed to be pre-Angkorian, in An-thanh village. We also know two others in the Phnom Penh museum." (One, H. 299, came from Koh Ker; the other, H. 344, was unprovenienced.)

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.

4. (Louise Cort, 2 February 2007) A bottle of this type was in the collection of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology when I visited storage on 24 February 2006 (acc. no. It still had a wad of paper stuffed into the mouth for use as a stopper. It had been collected from a village in Hue province. The owner did not know who had made it, or when, but speculated that it might be about 100 years old. The owner had used it to store dry food, including black pepper and rice.

5. (Louise Cort, 23 May 2007) In the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, is a group of ceramics excavated in Cay Lay district, Tien Giang province, in the Mekong Delta. They include an unglazed jar (see S2005.141) as well as several types of wares acquired by the Hauges as "Oc Eo," based on Malleret's identification:  a round bottle with short neck and horizontal bands of alternating straight and wavy combing covering the upper half of the body (see S2004.213–223), a tall slender jar with rounded body and lugs applied over two incised bands just below the wide mouth (see S2004.208), a small wheel-thrown wide-mouth bowl with thick rolled rim (see S2004.153–156), and four small, paddle-shaped wide-mouth earthenware pots (see S2004.113–122).

The museum also houses several bottles of this type from the Nguyen Duc Tung collection of material from the Central Highlands. They are identified by the museum as "Khmer."  

6. (Louise Cort, 27 May 2007) On view in the Binh Duong Museum in Thu Dau Mot are pots dated to the 16th–18th centuries collected along—or within—the Dong Nai River inside this province. They include a small (h. around 10 cm) unglazed jar of this type.

7. (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 a number of round bottles of this type, in various sizes, many with neck broken off. They are far less numerous than the cylindrical jars with straight or curved walls (S2004.195 etc.) One example (h. 16 cm) was numbered LS200/S2000: LS indicates recovery from the river; S indicates stoneware (sanh).

8. (Louise Cort, 30 May 2007) The Ninh Thuan Museum, Phan Rang, owns two bottles of this type. Both are decorated with incised grooves only. The larger (BTNT 604/R26, h. 18 cm) has 7–8 grooves; the smaller (BTNT605/R27, h. 11.5 cm) has 6 grooves. Both are made of very sandy clay with many white inclusions and are very worn. Both were collected from a community of the Raglai (Austronesian) ethnic group in Bac Ai district, but how they were used is not known.

The museum also owns a small (h. 9.0 cm) jar of this type with 7 rows of grooves, incised so quickly that they seem to spiral together, bearing thin brown slip on the shoulder. It contains hardened lime paste. Nothing is recorded of where it was found.

9. (Louise Cort, 31 May 2007) The Khanh Hoa Museum, Nha Trang, has various undecorated round bottles recovered from the Lu Cam site, five kilometers up the river from Nha Trang, where pots dated to the 18th–20th century are recovered from the river bed and pottery kilns have operated since the nineteenth century. But I did not see any bottles of this type with finely incised decoration. (See S2005.142.) Two bottles with such decoration, made of fine clay containing no small stones, came from a site "BG" that was not identified (BG 16 not measured, wide-spread incised lines: BG 9, closely spaced incised lines: h. 12.0 cm, diam. 13.5 cm)

10. (Louise Cort, 2 June 2007) The Phu Yen Museum, Tuy Hoa, owns a variety of round bottles in various sizes. Most bore shoulder designs of two or three straight lines (depending on the size of the vessel—some were quite large), made with a comb-tool, framing sequences of "swipes" made with the same tool. One bottle (h. 18 cm, diam. mouth 6 cm, diam. base 10 cm; acc. no. 1062) bore a variant design of "swipes" incised vertically over the central incised horizontal line. (Similar decoration appears on S2005.142.)

Most of the bottles were glossy and brown, with no traces of wood ash deposits during firing, but one bottle (diam. base 9.5 cm; acc. no. 1066) had a shiny black surface scarred all over with ribbed shells (like scallop shells) and full of pinholes. Only the neck, reddish-brown in color, had no black deposit; it had been protected by another vessel placed over it. The base did not show a cutting-string scar; it was flat and appeared to have been supported for firing on three balls of clay placed evenly around the edge.

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).

11. (Louise Cort, 4 June 2007) Large round bottles of this type (not measured) were in the storeroom of the Binh Dinh Provincial Museum, Quy Ngon. The curator said that bottles like this were widely used in Binh Dinh.

12. (Louise Cort, 5 June 2007) The Quang Ngai Provincial Museum, Quang Ngai, has a valuable collection of stoneware vessel types acquired in 2002 in connection with the excavation of the My Cang kiln in Tinh Thien village, Son Tinh district, across the river to the north of Quang Ngai city. The kiln is said to have operated during the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection documents the repertory of such a kiln. Among the vessel shapes is a round bottle (h. 23.5 cm, diam. 23 cm, diam. mouth 7–11 cm, diam. base 15 cm) with short neck and everted rim, made of brown stoneware coated with a thin brownish (wood-ash?) glaze. Six single lines are incised around the shoulder. The shape is described as hu. A museum staff member said it had been used to hold nuoc mam.

It is clear that round bottles of this type were standard products of kilns making unglazed stoneware. Changed Origin from Probably Central Vietnam to Central Vietnam.

13. (Louise Cort, 7 June 2007) Three staff of the Hoi An City Museum, looking at photographs, commented that bottles of this type were still kept in the homes of people in Hoi An.

A dealer in Hoi An displayed a small round bottle of this type (h 15.5 cm, diam 14.0 cm), with fine horizontal combing completely covering the upper half. He said it had been recovered from the ocean and dated to the 18th century.

14. (Louise Cort, 8 June 2007) Le Trong Dao, a retired teacher living in Phuoc Tich, near the My Xuyen kiln site in Thua Thien Hue province (see S2005.134–135), showed us a round bottle of this type (h. 33.0 cm, diam. 35.0 cm, diam. mouth 10–13 cm, h. neck 4.5 cm, diam. base 23.0 cm) that he said had been made at Phuoc Tich three hundred years ago and had been in his (family's?) possession for a long time. The bottle had a smooth dark brown surface and no decoration. He identified the shape as a hu.

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