In the ancient period, roughly the second half of the 1st millennium BC, three cultures formed on the territory of today’s Vietnam, each founded on local traditions: the Đông Sơn culture in the north of the country, the Sa Huỳnh in the centre and the Đồng Nai in the south. On the basis of these cultures, the first state-like entities in the history of Vietnam arose.
The Đông Sơn culture is particularly noteworthy. It existed from the 6th century BC to the 1st or 2nd century AD in the valleys of the Red, Ma and Ca Rivers. In the view of some scholars, it was precisely in this area, from the 3rd millennium BC onwards, that the core of the future Vietnamese civilization took shape. The Đông Sơn culture produced artefacts in a great variety of materials: stone, bronze, iron, clay, glass, wood, ivory and more. The most numerous are the highly artistic cast bronze items that were characteristic of this culture: work tools, domestic utensils, weapons, adornments and musical instruments. They include the world-famous Đông Sơn bronze drums bearing depictions of ritual scenes and processions, figures of humans and animals, as well as geometrical patterns. The drums were used as musical instruments in rituals and to communicate signals. Đông Sơn drums were also symbols of power. Their surfaces were often decorated with subjects from everyday life or scenes of rituals connected with a cult of ancestor worship. In the centre of the upper disk there was a star with spreading rays. Ornamental designs featuring images of birds, animals, warriors in unusual headdresses and geometrical patterns were always applied in circles around it. Sometimes little figures of frogs intended to invoke rain were placed on the top surface. On the sides one can find depictions of warriors in boats that might have been used to transport the drums themselves. Towards the end of the era of the Đông Sơn culture, the decoration of the drums became more schematic and then gradually disappeared. The exhibition features the “Gold Star” drum, which with a height of 85 cm and a diameter of 124 cm is the largest that has yet been found on Vietnamese territory.
The Đông Sơn culture on the territory of present-day Northern Vietnam gave rise to the state of Văn Lang, believed to be the earliest entity of the kind. After its fall, in 257 BC, the state called Âu Lạc emerged in the region. Its capital was the fortress of Cổ-Loa, located 15 km from present-day Hanoi.
At the same time as the Đông Sơn culture, in the central part of Vietnam the Sa Huỳnh culture (6th/5th century BC – 2nd/3rd century AD) existed along the coast of the South China Sea. Its artefacts have been found across an area from the modern city of Huế in the north to the Đồng Nai valley in the south. The Sa Huỳnh culture is known primarily for its funerary monuments. Burials were made in large ceramic urns up to 130 cm in height, in which the dead were placed along with weapons and tools, made mainly of iron, adornments made of stone (carnelian, agate, jade, rock crystal) and glass. These articles were as a rule put in the vessel behind the body, while smaller items were sometimes placed next to the lid. The exhibition will include one of the burial vessels and several small urns.
From the very beginnings of the study of the Sa Huỳnh culture, researchers took a particular interest in its ceramics, which differed from the simple pottery of the Đông Sơn culture. Sa Huỳnh ceramics present a variety of shapes: round-bottomed and flat-bottomed vessels, jugs and bowls with stems. In the latter case, the stem and body of the piece were made separately and joined before firing. It is believed that the lamps were made in a similar fashion, with an upper and a lower part. Two main methods of decoration are known: engraving or impressing with objects (the edges of seashells, cords and even fingernails). Red or black painted decoration can sometimes be found.
The use of iron played a decisive role in the development of the Sa Huỳnh culture. Swords, spearheads, daggers, knives, sickles and tools for tilling the soil were chiefly made by forging. Initially the iron-working technology was bound up with local traditions. In the final stage of the development of the Sa Huỳnh culture there is a clearly detectable Chinese influence that expressed itself in the shape of the spearheads and knives with a distinctive handle. Bronze artefacts are quite rarely found in this region.
Sa Huỳnh jewellery is considered
a striking characteristic of the material culture: stone or glass earrings with
pointed decorative elements and a hook, and also pendant earrings with little
figures of animals. People wore bracelets, rings, earrings and bead necklaces
made of glass, earthenware, and stones, with agate and jade being particularly
In the south-eastern part of the
Mekong delta, the Đồng Nai culture emerged on the basis of late Neolithic
cultures and retained its archaic traditions for a long time. The main
occupations were farming, fishing and gathering. Crafts also developed. In the
area of Can Tho (now within Ho Chi Minh City) artefacts have been found that
belonged to a distinctive group of the population who engaged in trade.
Large craft workshops produced pottery, stone articles (including jewellery), metal tools and weapons, and also adornments made of wood, ivory, horn and tortoiseshell. Bronze articles were cast in a two-part mould. Only a few iron artefacts have been found.
In the late phase of the Đồng Nai culture, burial in funerary urns was introduced. Iron tools, miniature ceramic vessels, and jade, agate and glass jewellery were placed in the urns. The most significant find is considered to be a complex of earrings decorated with animal protomes (heads and upper bodies) that was found at the Giong Ca Vo archaeological site (also in Ho Chi Minh City).
The Đồng Nai culture was a local southern tradition, on the basis of which the Óc Eo archaeological culture of the 1st–6th centuries AD arose, whose sites span the south-western part of the Mekong delta. Along with traditional everyday artefacts, these sites yield well fired pottery, seals and coins. This culture was heavily influenced by China and India, as well as the mainland and islands of South-East Asia. Among the finds made at the sites are many Hindu and Buddhist sculptures in wood, stone and bronze. For example, on the Óc Eo territory stone statues of the Buddha up to three metres tall have been found. Among the important discoveries were 36 small items (rings, seals and intaglios) with Sanskrit inscriptions in the Brahmi script dating from the 1st–5th centuries AD.
Scholars from various countries have contributed to the study of Vietnam’s ancient history. Archaeological explorations in South-East Asia were begun by members of staff from the École française d'Extrême-Orient. In the middle and second half of the 20th century, despite the difficult political situation, when the Vietnamese were fighting for their national independence, excavations continued even during the times of American bombing.
In the 1950s the first generation of Vietnamese archaeological researchers appeared. Their pupils are continuing the painstaking study of the ancient culture of this astonishing country. A significant contribution to the investigation of Vietnamese antiquities has been by Soviet and Russian specialists, who continue working there to this day. In the past 30 years, a series of laws have been adopted in Vietnam on the protection of cultural heritage, the preservation of archaeological sites and the construction of new museums. At present 79 objects have the status of national treasures.
The State Hermitage Publishing House has prepared a scholarly illustrated catalogue for the exhibition with forewords by Mikhail Borisovich Piotrovsky, General Director of the State Hermitage, and Nguyễn Văn Cường, Director of the Vietnam National Museum of History.
The authors of the catalogue texts and curators of the exhibition are Natalia Alexandrovna Sutiagina, researcher in the State Hermitage’s Department of the East, and Yevgeny Alexandrovich Kii, senior researcher in the same department.