The unique jewellery of the Oc Eo people

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Ancient people made and used jewellery to beautify themselves, as well as express their wealth and social status. One such people, the Oc Eo, made remarkably sophisticated and artistic jewellery.

Oc Eo culture

The Oc Eo people lived from the 1st to the 7th century mainly in the depression west of the Hau river within the Vietnamese territories of An Giang, Kien Giang, Dong Thap, Can Tho, Long An and Bac Lieu, and in the southeastern part of Cambodia.

The name for these people originated from the site excavated with the first ancient antiques in Oc Eo field, Ba The (Vong The commune, Thoai Son district, An Giang) in the beginning of the 20th century. Excavated objects were thought to be from an Indian culture, which made French scholars such as G. Coedes, L.Malleret and H. Parmentier take notice of the area. On February 10th, 1944, archaeologist L.Malleret started to excavate the Oc Eo archaeological site and found marks of various architectural styles along with many domestic and international objects, evidence of a large trade center along the Mekong River Delta in the early centuries of the Christian Era. L.Malleret chose Oc Eo as the name for the people who inhabited this site.

Later archaeological researches revealed that about 3000 years ago, due to higher water levels, Oc Eo field used to be a seaport connecting with the Gulf of Thailand. During the reign of Phu Nam (1st – 7th century), it was a bustling harbor and gate between the East and West, with many precious objects, such as gemstones, and products originating from Europe, Middle East and Northeastern Asia being traded there.

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From 1975, Vietnamese archaeologists continued to find many vestiges of the Oc Eo people’s culture around the Mekong River Delta and found signs of tombs, architecture and salt manufacturing.

Archaeologists determined that the Oc Eo people were of Indonesian ethnicity. Their life was prosperous and their religion was influenced by ancient Indian cultures. They had many traditional careers such as making pottery products, refining bronze, iron and tin, and making silver, gold and glass. Their mastery of these skills is evident in the objects archaeologists have found, especially the jewellery.

Sophisticated ancient jewellery

One of the most remarkable achievements of the Oc Eo people was their art of making jewellery for aesthetic purposes. According to archaeologists, ancient people made and used jewellery to beautify themselves and express their wealth and social status. Therefore, they paid great attention to skillfully creating artistic jewellery.

With high skills in the arts and crafts such as making pottery products, refining bronze, iron and tin and making silver and gold, the Oc Eo people made excellent jewellery. They knew how to polish rock crystals to create beautiful necklaces. For example, a 41cm long chain of 33 purple rock crystal pieces was found in a 1st – 3th century archaeological relic from Go Hang, Long An province. The techniques of drilling and carving small and hard objects were used skillfully to create flat jewellery such as pendants, and rings made of agate and carnelian, carved with images of a lion and a sitting human. These were found in Oc Eo, An Giang and are dated to the 6th century.

However, the most remarkable achievement in the Oc Eo people’s art of making jewellery was the creation of beautiful, finely made gold jewellery. They could make gold necklaces that modern goldsmiths have been known to admire: gold chains of spheres with 8 peaks in 8 directions, consisting of 14 pieces and a beautiful glassy chain.

Archaeologists also discovered golden earrings with different shapes, spring bracelets, golden bells, and rings decorated with a golden Nandin oxen (1.9cm in diameter), a symbol of the Oc Eo people.

In the 7th – 8th century, Oc Eo people used a technique of pressing sheets of gold and flat decorations to create shapes and words on the sheets. A golden lotus flower (7.1cm in diameter) excavated in Go Xoai, Long An is an example of a typical pressed gold object. In addition, gold was also used to make objects to offer to the Gods, such as an image of a snake with many sheets of gold carved with Phan scripts, evidence of the Indian influence on Oc Eo culture. Among the most remarkable of these objects is a gold ring with Phan scripts, dated to the 7th – 8th century.

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The Oc Eo people also knew techniques for encrusting precious gems onto gold jewellery. At the Go Xoai archaeological site, archaeologists found three special pieces of Oc Eo jewellery, including a gold pendant encrusted with purple quartz (2.6cm high, 1.9cm wide and 0.2cm thick), a gold ring encrusted with blue gems (2.2cm in diameter) and a gold ring encrusted with rubies (1.8cm in diameter). These are considered to be typical examples of encrusted jewellery made by the Oc Eo people.

Along with jewellery, stone moulds for making such objects were also discovered at an Oc Eo site in An Giang. This show that the unique aspects of Oc Eo jewellery were designed locally, although this site was located on the famous trade path linking China and India in the East with Rome in the West.

It can be said that the Oc Eo people’s art of making jewellery was a wonderful achievement, reflecting the cultural and aesthetic level of ancient people of the Southern region. Their work not only features the value of history, culture and economy but also serves as a model for modern jewellery, especially in the nostalgic trend of modern Vietnamese jewellery designers.

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Further information:

+ References: The culture of Oc Eo – New discoveries (Le Xuan Diem, Dao Linh Con, Vo Si Khai, Science and Society publisher, 1995), The culture of Oc Eo, an ancient people in Southern Vietnam. Some features about the culture of Oc Eo were published on the Internet.

+ Photos are taken from Vietnam National Museum of History and Houston Art Museum (America).

From Internet