Terra Cotta : Two Fine Terra Cotta Dong Son Culture Jars from Northern Vietnam 400 BC to 100 BC #395 Sold

$ 900.00

Terra cotta Pottery Pot

395. These ceramic pots from the Dong Son period, the first complex and important period in VN history. It ended with the take-over and occupation of the country by the Han Chinese armies. This began the Han-Viet period, which lasted almost a millennium, from 1900 years ago to about 1000 years ago.

These two are fine examples of Dong Son ceramics, for the following reason:
- beautiful shape
- superb condition
- uniform reddish color
- elegant over-all decoration, very sharp in detail and well applied
- Large 6" x  7", Small 2" x 4".

The piece on the left has the vertical rim that was characteristic of the Dong Son period. The one on the right has a more angled rim, which was more characteristic of the later , Han-Viet period. However, the simple nature of the incised design on the exterior marks this as definitely from the Don Son culture.

The ceramic tradition in Vietnam began in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) Period. Although pieces from this period are often only fragments, they nevertheless tell us that ceramic pieces, some with varied geometric decoration, were produced as early as 10,000 BP (Before the Present) or 8,000 BC.

The first period that produced substantial numbers of pieces that have survived is the Dong Son period, which stretched from about 2500 BP to 1800 BP. There are often of small size, with minimal geometric decoration, often limited to the lower half of the piece. Although the vast majority was of simple form (like a kettle), some have tapered waists and flared bottoms.


Vietnam is a culturally diverse country that is the home to hundreds of local tribes. Over the last half century, anthropologists and the like have classified and reclassified these tribes into some 54 ethnic groups, each group possessing a distinct language and culture. The Kinh, who account for 87% of the country's population, live mainly in the Red River delta in the North, the coastal plains of the centre and the Mekong delta in the South. The remaining 13% of the population is made up of 53 minority groups, living mostly in the mountains stretching from the far north of the country to the Central Highlands in the south. Some of these groups (such as the Tay and the Thai have populations of over one million, although there are others such as the O Du and Ro mam that number only in the hundreds. Each group expresses its own cultural identity through a range of communal activities, festivals and ceremonies.

Linguistically, each of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam may be further classified into one of five language families:

 Austro - Asiatic (Viet Muong groups and Mon Khmer)
Austronesian (Malayo - Polynesian)
Thai - Kadai (Thai group and Kadai group)
Sino - Tibetan (Sinotic group and Tibetan - Burman)
Homong - Dao

All the ethnic groups in Vietnam share a common ethnographic history, originating from original groups living south of the Yangtze River. Segments of this early group dispersed southward and eastward to, what are now the islands now a part of Malaysia, Indonesia and Polynesia. Despite this migration, these groups have adopted their own characteristic cultures, different from any of the other Southeast Asian countries. Ethnic folklore is also varied: epics, tales and legends handed down as oral literature from generation to generation. The cultural traditions of the ethnic groups have enriched the overall common Vietnamese national heritage.


Approximately 87% of the national population belongs to the Kinh people (often called the Viets). The Viet/Kinh share with the modern-day Chinese an origin in the fertile lands along the Yangtze River. In Paleolithic times, perhaps 50,000 years ago, the ancestors of the modern-day Vietnamese moved southward, over the mountains, to the area along the Red River and the coastal regions near its delta. They soon established economic and political units in their new land. Prehistoric artifacts from both the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods document the evolution of separate cultures in Vietnam and China during that period, although they remained in contact with each other during that time. Two major waves of immigration's of people from southern China arrived during the 5th century BC and the 3rd century B.C. They were soon assimilated into the original population.

The historical period begins with the advent of the Bronze Age. The technology of bronze making allowed the development of a complex culture. According to historians, the Viets are descendants of the culture of the Hung Kings, who ruled the Red River Delta in the period 696 B.C. - 258 B.C. Over time, many of them migrated southward, seeking fertile land suitable for agriculture. Most settled in the river deltas and coastal regions. These successive migrations have spread the culture of the Viet\Kinh group throughout modern-day Viet.

The interaction of the Vietnamese and Chinese culture has been a constant thread through the history of Vietnam. Much of the Chinese influence comes not from the shared roots, but rather from periodic invasion and occupation. The longest of these was from around 100 to 950 AD. The Chinese also invaded (but remained only for a short time) during the Ming Dynasty around 1400. The most recent was in 1979, and was extremely short-lived.

During some periods of occupation, Chinese culture was imposed on the Vietnamese. In other periods, the Vietnamese selected certain elements of Chinese culture to adopt and then adapt. These elements included system of nation-wide exams to choose government officials and the Han writing system. The Vietnamese transformed that system into Nom script, which reflected their own pronunciation. This was later replaced by the present quoc ngu alphabet system, based largely on the Western alphabet.

The majority of Viet people practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (religions that were introduced into Vietnam during by trade and by periods of invasion. Buddhism remains the dominant religion; pagodas and temples play in important role as places of worship and culture.

Early Vietnamese Glazed Ceramics: Introduction to various periods, types and colors
White-glaze pottery: These pieces were fully enameled with white glaze. This kind of pottery required full mastery of glaze mixing, a careful preparation of the raw materials and an appropriate firing technique. Glazed pottery in Viet Nam dated from the period of Chinese domination (100AD to 950 AD), but the perfection of white glaze pottery was only attained from the 10th century on wards. Two types are known. The first one is an ivory-white glaze, which was meant for large-sized articles such as cylindrical jars and containers for cooked rice. The principal decoration for these pieces consisted of carved and embossed lotus petals (usually around the mouth) plus a glaze with a simple beauty. The second type had a whiter glaze, lotus petals were very meticulously carved and the shape of the ceramic object was emphasized by subtly dividing the surface into well-proportioned sections. This set of techniques was often used in the creation of small-sized pieces, such as teapots and box lids. Today, white glaze pottery is not as highly valued as some of the later types ceramics. However, in the 9th and the 10th centuries, it had been seen by both the potters and the ceramics collectors of the time as the epitome of the potter‰۪s art.

Celadon-glaze pottery: The term celadon is widely used but less widely understood. It refers not to a single color, but rather to a glazing genre in which the glaze is both designed and applied with an eye to creating an opaque surface, very different from the thinner, (and transparent or translucent) glazes of the period and those that preceded it. Most often, only one color is used on a given vessel, but occasionally another color is added as decoration. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese celadon glaze differ markedly in color. Although the basic color is green, it can vary widely with the addition of materials that modify the basic green toward colors that are bluer, whiter, and more gray, etc. Vietnamese celadon ware is found primarily in three colors: an ivory-white (very similar to the appearance of white jade), green or brownish-green. The applied and fired glaze was so thick that it was said to resemble jade (which also comes in a wide range of colors). The celadon articles were either devoid of ornamentation or else manufactured with subtle, sunken decorative patterns, often evolving in parallel with the designs on contemporaneous stone engravings. Its beauty lies in the interaction of free and refined decorative patterns (often in intaglio) and the glaze itself. The thickness of the glaze is varied to complement the depth of the incised/drawn lines (shallow or deep) in a way that achieves the desired effect- lines that are, in some places hidden, but then beautifully visible elsewhere. Celadon glaze pottery was mostly used as tableware: crockery, cups and teapot. Vietnamese celadon glaze pottery has two main colors: green and brownish green.

Brown-pattern (also called brown-and-white) glazed pottery is characterized by a surface that combines area of white glaze with sunken, brown sections. There are two types, distinguished by the glazing techniques that have been used to create the contrasting areas of brown and of white.

1. Pottery with brown patterns on a white background: The design on these objects had brown patterns on a white background, the brown areas having been left uncovered by the glaze. Objects of this type were produced in great quantities. In terms of design, they shared some common characteristics with celadon glaze pottery in form, especially in the ring of lotus petals in relief at the shoulders of the ceramic objects. However, apart from small-sized items such as cooked-rice containers or vases, these were predominantly large-size objects such as cylindrical jars and basins. The ornamentation was extremely diversified with patterns inspired by ordinary life: birds, flowers, elephants, tigers, etc. but the ceramic objects all had the same style which war original.

2. Pottery with white designs (primarily flowers) on a brown background: The raw materials and the form and shape of the products were the same as those described in the preceding section, but the patterns remained white on a brown background. The patterns were akin to those on stone carvings, with strings of chrysanthemums as the main design. This technique was felt to accentuate the design in a fine way, creating objects that were perceived as on perfect taste and noble beauty. They were manufactured in small quantities, since the technique required was more complex as compared with that required for pottery with brown patterns. The common articles decorated in this way included cylindrical jars and bowls.

Brown-glaze Pottery: By the end of Ly dynasty (13th century), potters knew how to create glazes with a brown color made from ferrous oxides. This glaze was used in the manufacture of pottery bowls, plates, cups and teapots. However, only in subsequent centuries was colored-glaze pottery mass-produced, specifically in kilns in the Chu Dau area, Hai Duong Province. Recent excavations show that this type of pottery had a fairly rich range of colors, ranging from dark brown (molasses brown) to a yellowish light brown. Inglaze and outglaze might have the same color. Alternatively, the brown inglaze could be coated with a white glaze or even decorated with blue lines or flowers.

Verdigris green and ochre-yellow glazes were also used for crockery, teapot, cups, lime containers, incense burners, lamp bases. Verdigris-glazed pottery closely resembles celadon glaze pottery. Although the glaze on an object would be of only one color, a pattern was created by means of a light and shade effect. .Sunken decorative patterns were created in one of two ways; either they were drawn on the paste before glazing or else they were printed by means of cup-like molds shaped like flowers, leaves or seashells. When the glaze was applied, it pooled in these sunken areas, yielding area where the glaze was thicker and therefore appeared as darker areas.

Blue-and-white Glaze Tradition The blue-and-white style has been the most popular type of ceramic glaze since it was developed in the middle of the fifteenth century (virtually simultaneously in China and in Vietnam).

Many pieces survive in good conditions from the distant because of a modification of firing technique required by the nature of the glazing technique. The first layer applied to the clay surface was the blue underglaze decoration. To protect this layer during the addition of the clear overglaze layer, the blue glaze had to be made to adhere firmly to the underlying ceramic. The craftsmen found that if the normal firing temperature was increased markedly during the firing of the underglaze, things worked well. The clay surface actually melted and joined to the overlying glaze, so that they were, essentially, 1 piece. The overglaze could then be applied safely. This meant that the glaze was extremely difficult to scratch, break or flake off. Pieces processed in this way can look virtually new after 500 years.

This piece is among the oldest ceramics that we have had. It is also very uncommon. It is most likely from the Phuong Nguyen culture, a Neolithic culture that existed in Phu Tho province, not far from modern-day Hanoi. Although the produced stone objects of startling beauty and elegance, their ceramics were very utilitarian. They had no glaze, so visual appeal had to be a function of shape and surface decoration. The rough clay, full of impurities, made it difficult to get a great surface decoration. This left the shape of the vessel itself for the artisan to use to created visual appeal, to create pleasure, and to differentiate him/herself from others. .


The origin of terra cotta ceramics go back over 10,000 years. In Viet Nam, it was first used by the Bac Son culture, in the early part of the Neolithic Era. Early terra cotta was made from earth mixed with sand, and it contained many impurities. It was fired at around 600 degrees C. This usually produced a light red, but on occasion gray surfaces were made. Pieces made in this period were small, in the main. Much of what we know about early (Neolithic to early Bronze Age) terra cotta comes from excavations at the Phuong Nguyen hamlet, in Lam Thao district , Phu Tho province. So important was this site that the period of time during which civilization flourished there is called the Phuong Nguyen period. Though many were undecorated, incised lines appear in a variety of patterns (triangles, fish-bone, twist, cord, terra cotta).Similar wares were also found at the Dong Dau sit, in Vinh Phuc province and Go Mun (slightly east of Phuong Nguyen).. These were also Neolithic cultures. from all three sites, virtually all the artifacts of ceramic material were shards. Complete objects were rare (numbering in the hundreds.) although the sophistication of the designs improved over the span of the three cultures (in the order listed), the basic technology was the same-created on a slowly turning potter‰۪s wheel, and then fired in a simple kiln.

In the last five centuries, B.C., two important cultures developed in VN. In the north, near Hanoi, the Dong Son culture arose. This is considered the forerunner of modern Vietnamese culture. At about the same time, the Sa Huynh culture flourished in the central part of what is now modern Viet Nam. The works of both represented an advance in technical mastery: better sand, more decoration, including designs all over the body of a piece: more-uniform thickness, better surfaces, etc.

The shape of terra cotta products has changed little since then. Most are thick-walled and not refined. Many have large ‰ÛÏbellies‰۝, which are well suited to their use as storage vessels. Some have distinct shoulders, necks or bases (or all three). A relatively few had handles. It is believed that the first instances of surface decoration were accidental-, from contact with basketry or other objects. Later on, similar imprints, but much more extensive and symmetrical, were seen. These are clearly intentional efforts at beautification (although there may be a functional element, in making for a better grip on the surface (especially if the piece were wet).

The next step in the evolution of terra cotta decoration was incising with a variety of hard objects. The designs, although simple, had often an understated, flowing elegance. Thereafter, the artisans produced engraving boards-wood with raised or sunken decoration. When pressed against the wet clay, the negative decoration was formed (e.g., raised designs on the wood gave sunken decoration on the clay. These were easier and faster to create, but almost always less elegant than incised designs. On occasion, the two techniques were combined.

One notable design element is decorative symmetrical bands, often multiple parallel bands of differing width and other characteristics (wavy shape, etc). The central band was the largest, with the others flanking it. Less commonly, lines were perpendicular to one another or concentric (the latter formed on a potter‰۪s wheel). A simple way of creating multiple bands quickly was to use a comb. To give a liveliness to the results of these simple tools, the most skilled of the artisans would vary the depth and width of the strokes and the density of multiple design elements. When done well, this replaced monotony with a simple syncopation.

The large number of terra cotta objects that these Bronze Age cultures used is felt to be a result of the relatively high cost making bronze objects. High cost equates to rarity. This was especially true of objects that had to be made by the lost-wax method. In this technique, each final object required its own wax original, which was destroyed in the process. This meant that to create, say, 6 cups, 6 wax original would have had to be made. On the other hand, molds could make dozens (or even more) of an object from only a single original. Once molds for bronze casting came into wider use, the cost of objects decreased.

Earthenware (brown)

The first few centuries of the common era saw the development of iron technology and the advent of earthenware. The combination of better clay's and higher firing temperatures led to the creation of earthenware (Iron terra cotta). Because the surface of the clay started to melt, the resulting material was smooth, adherent and as solid as iron. This material appeared, not surprisingly, in those areas that had ample supplies of finer clay. Because these wares were impervious to water and other liquids, they were excellent choices for uses as disparate as food storage and architectural decoration.

The three main shapes were
Egg-shaped bodies
Vertically oriented vessels with straight sides, used for bottles, etc.
Vessels with protruding and wide walls, used for basins.

In comparison to terra cotta, brown earthenware is decorated with simpler patterns, made using simpler techniques. Most of the decoration was concentrated at the shoulders of the pieces. Straight and wavy lines predominate, often created in parallel multiples by tools with a number of teeth.

These techniques flourished in the centuries immediately after the
expulsion of the Chinese occupiers around 950 A.D. The wares of the Ly and Tran (pronounced Chunn) dynasties are still highly prized for their flowing shapes and precise decoration. In the next centuries, new kilns got involved in producing these wares, and they developed various glazed earthenware types. Notable are blue, white, brown and eel-skin color glazes. Additional specialized effects were created by glazing only the top half of the piece, created crackled surfaces, glossy finished by salt firing the surfaces before being removed from the kiln. By the 15th century, earthenware experienced an explosion of varying cultural designs, including clouds, phoenix, and dragon patterns, as well as a number of well-differentiated floral
patterns. (Source: 54 Traditions gallery, MSR March 3, 2012)

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