Monday - 24/08/2020 23:27
Early discoveries of Sa Huynh culture

This Quang Ngai Province location became the starting point for many discoveries about Sa Huynh culture:
  • In 1909, on the Sa Huynh dune strip located to the east of Tan Diem salt-marsh, M. Vinet, a French tax officer working at the port for the Department of Commerce, discovered a jar cluster of about 200 pieces containing many burial items villagers had dug up for their jewelry agats and glass beads. That same year, M. Vinet announced the discovery of these Sa Huynh jars in the Journal of French School of the Far East (Bulletin de l’École française d'Extrême-Orient – B.E.F.E.O) (Vinet, 1909). The year 1909 is the starting point for the discovery and research on the Sa Huynh culture. 
  • In 1923, during the excavation of La Barre at Sa Huynh, excavators found  over 200 burial jars. H. Parmentier recorded and published these findings in the Journal of French School of the Far East (Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient – B.E.F.E.O) (H. Parmentier, 1924). 
  • In 1934, M. Colani carried out an excavation at a Sa Huynh site in Thanh Duc Village and announced findings at the Pacific Prehistoric Conference held in Manila (Philippines) in 1935 (M. Colani, 1935). By 1936, M. Colani coined the term The Sa Huynh Culture (Sahuynh Culture) when studying the prehistoric relics in Quang Binh, published in the article “Notes on Quang Binh’s Prehistoric” in the "Hue’s Old Friends” journal (Bulletin des Amisdu Vieux Hue)(Colani, M. (1936). The name The Sa Huynh Culture, or “Sahuynh Culture” by M. Colani refers to the culture of prehistoric residents who have a burial jars custom and used the name of the place, Sa Huynh (Quang Ngai) to name this culture (M. Colani, 1936).

Thus, the term The Sa Huynh Culture, also known as Classical Sa Huynh as identified by French scholars, contains Iron Age’s relics with general characteristics of archaeological culture.

The beginnings of Sa Huynh culture

Sa Huynh culture began around 500 B.C. and ended in the second century A.D. This culture shares a common geography in the Central Region, from Ha Tinh to Binh Thuan. However, at both ends there is mixing with Dong Son culture (to the north) and Southeast culture (to the South). The relics of the Bronze Age from approximately 3,000 years to 2,600 years ago developed directly or indirectly into the Sa Huynh culture and are known as the “Pre-Sa Huynh” or the early stage of the Sa Huynh culture. The cultural flows of Pre-Sa Huynh that developed directly into Sa Huynh are Long Thanh, Binh Chau I, Binh Chau II, Bau Tram (early layer), Bai Ong. Those that indirectly contributed to the formation of Sa Huynh are the culture of Xom Con, for example. The distribution area of the relics of Pre-Sa Huynh exists in the South Central Region. They are all interrelated despite the time differences, and together contribute to the formation of the peak of Sa Huynh culture in the Iron Age (Doan Ngoc Khoi, 2004).

The Sa Huynh culture distribution area stretches throughout Central Vietnam; in the North, it intersected with Dong Son culture in Bai Coi (Ha Tinh); in the South, with Southeast culture in Binh Thuan; the West stretches along the East Truong Son Valley to intersect with the Central Highlands culture; the East of the Sa Huynh culture reaches the system of islands in Vietnam's waters such as: Cu Lao Cham, Cu Lao Re, Phu Quy, Tho Chu, Con Dao, Phu Quoc…where Sa Huynh culture intersects with the culture of the Western Pacific Islands Region following the oceanic cultural flow.

The central area of The Sa Huynh culture is in Quang Ngai, Quang Nam and the North of Binh Dinh. Especially in Quang Ngai Province, Sa Huynh culture is distributed according to the three distinctive cultural-ecological regions and is confirmed by large-scale archaeological excavations, which are: 
  • Mountainous region – river valley of Tang Ho Nuoc Trong;
  • The coastal plains –Long Thanh, Binh Chau, Sa Huynh;
  • The island area of Cu Lao Re – Xom Oc, Suoi Chinh. 

At these central points, hundreds of jars, urns, graves of The Sa Huynh culture have been found as well as thousands of stone, bronze, iron, ceramic, glass, nephrite and agate jewelry.

Residence and Burial Relics

Features of archaeological relics of the Sa Huynh culture include items related to the residence and to burial. 

Scholars found residential cultural remnants of Sa Huynh inhabitants in the coastal plains, mountain valleys and near-shore islands. In the early period of the Bronze Age, a Pre-Sa Huynh site in Long Thanh (Quang Ngai) contained a cultural relic layer of over two meters thick. Binh Chau also has relic layer of over two meters thick. In the early period of the Iron Age, there is a thin layer of residence relics of the Sa Huynh culture. Only a few were discovered on the mainland, specifically in Go Ma Vuong, Tra Veo 3 (Quang Ngai), while thicker layers were found in the islands, specifically in Cu Lao Re, Cu Lao Cham, and others. Most of the residence sites are intertwined with the burial ground, which means the burial took place on the residence sites.

As far as burial remnants, burial jars are the fundamental burial custom of Sa Huynh culture, with egg-shaped, spherical, cylindrical jars, and lids making a large conical bowl decorated with meticulous patterns. Inhabitants of the area buried large jars in clusters, such as cage-shaped jars found in Hau Xa II, Go Dua. Explorers found large jar clusters in Phu Khuong, Thanh Duc (Quang Ngai). French excavators found 500 burial jars in the early part of the 20th century. In addition, in the Sa Huynh culture, there are various types of burial. The Sa Huynh culture relic sites (Tien Lanh, Thach Bich; Go Mo Voi (Quang Nam), Xom Oc, Go Que, Tra Veo 3 (Quang Ngai) also reveal  earthenware tombs, urns and pot tombs, besides the burial jars.

The Sa Huynh people—possibility of many races

In terms of the characteristics of the Sa Huynh culture owner: Anthropological documents of the Sa Huynh people are plentiful, with many human remains found in Sa Huynh culture sites. Remains of ancient people initially found in My Tuong (1979), Bau Hoe (1990) Ninh Thuan, Le Trung Kha and Hoang Tu Hung identified the group as a branch of the Indonesian race. 

Discoveries included:
  • 1990: explorers discovered a broken skull with a few teeth in Binh Ba (Khanh Hoa).
  • 1997: adult remains buried in graveyards and children remains buried in pots discovered in Xom Oc (Quang Ngai).
  • 1998: remains of ancient people found in jars in Binh Yen (Quang Nam).
  • 1999: more human remains buried in jars found in Hoa Diem.
  • 2000: Suoi Chinh (Quang Ngai), child remains buried in a pot found, though there has been no anthropological examination on this.
  • 2000: in Go Mo Voi (Quang Nam), a few traces of teeth discovered in jars . 
  • 2002: at the site Binh Chau II (Quang Ngai), human remains in the graveyard discovered.
  • 2005: Go Que (Quang Ngai), teeth cremated in jars of the Sa Huynh culture discovered
  • 2008: Duong Quang (Quang Ngai), cremated remains in jars of  Sa Huynh culture  found. 

After studying the human remains in several locations, Nguyen Lan Cuong stated that the human remains in the locations of Xom Oc, Binh Yen, Bau Hoe and Binh Ba were all Mongoloid residents with some features of the Australoid race. As for the ancient Hoa Diem, Nguyen Lan Cuong stated that they were part of the Indonesians from the Central Highlands migrating down to the Central Region from the post-Neolithic period; or moving upward from the South. According to Prof. Ha Van Tan, it is too early to identify the racial characteristics of the Sa Huynh people; according to him, there is a possibility that there were various races within Sa Huynh population.

Sa Huynh language

Research progress into the language of Sa Huynh culture residents has not been very promising. But most current opinions state that residents spoke the Southern Islands language (Malayo - Polynesiens). However, the Central Coastal plain is a convergence of cultures, races and languages. Therefore, the South Islands language system cannot develop in isolation as an oasis but developed in the context of cultural and racial communication, acquiring linguistic elements from other races. That the phenomenon of reception and acculturation of culture took place simultaneously with the reception and acculturation of linguistic elements is nearly an inevitable rule, which only differs in scale and pace. Archaeological documents show that in the Sa Huynh culture content, there are cultural elements of the Metal Age in the Southeast and Thailand. Conversely, the Sa Huynh culture elements are also present in the abovementioned places and in other areas of the Austro – Asiatic, whose residents used South Asia language system. In Sa Huynh distribution regions, there had been a merge of the linguistics of both ancient Southern Islands and Southern Asian. 

The Sa Huynh culture has a very close relationship with island residents, notably the Philippines. From jar burial tradition, four-pointed earrings, two-headed animals earrings, glassware, onyx jewels—all are present in the early Iron Age in the Philippines. Therefore, cultural communication was occurring at a high level. Southeast Asia islands, including residents of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc., are major places of residence of the South Islanders and they speak the South Island linguistic family. The spread of the inhabitants of South Islands brought along the culture and linguistics to many areas in Southeast Asia, including the South Central region of Vietnam, which was the area of ​​Sa Huynh residents. However, Sa Huynh residents did not speak a language purely originated from South Island, but a language that emerged from the intersection between South Islands and South Asia, which was the Nam Phuong linguistics family (Austric) (Ngo The Phong, 1995).

Characteristics of daily life of Sa Huynh residents

Daily life revolved around farming on the narrow plain in front of the mountains, and fishing and trading on the sea, usually relying on the estuaries. Sa Huynh residents also conquered the near-shore islands, where they immersed themselves in the oceanic surroundings to survive, creating a cultural appearance of Sa Huynh with subtle sea features.

The rice-growing agriculture of Sa Huynh culture was highly developed, with evidence including the rice husk marks found in Sa Huynh pottery in Dien Ban and imprinted rice flower pattern on Binh Chau ceramic pots. It is undeniable that rice is the main food crop of the residents of Sa Huynh. In addition, there are some other food crops in Sa Huynh’s agriculture such as potatoes, cassava, beans, and maize, which are adaptable for growing in alluvial soil along the river. In the early days, the means of agricultural cultivation were rudimentary stone hoe tools, but at the peak of the Sa Huynh culture with the advent of iron hoe tools and spades, sickles, knives and axes, agricultural development accelerated, leading to the formation of villages with a dense and prosperous population.

The sea plays a critical role in the life of Sa Huynh residents. It provides them with a food source (fish and marine species), and access to other places by boats. A favorable natural condition, a long coastline and several estuaries for convenient access to the sea, enabled trading activities between Sa Huynh people with the outside world. Marine trading also allowed the outside world to penetrate Sa Huynh society.

Trading leads to cultural communication, anthropological harmony and language. Hutterer, an American archaeologist, examined the role of trade in Southeast Asia and concluded that “...Trade plays a critical role in cultural evolution in Southeast Asia, being an indirect driving force for cultural change” (Hutterer, 1974). Evidence for the interaction at a large scale with others places near the Sa Huynh people are typical artifacts (penannular tri-projection earrings, two-headed animals earrings, etc.,) found in the cultural space of Dong Son, in Thailand, and in the islands of Southeast Asia.

Found inside Sa Huynh burial jars are jewelry artifacts made of onyx stone and other gemstones originating from Central Asia. Other items such as copper mirrors found in the midlands of Nghia Hanh (Quang Ngai), Binh Yen (Quang Nam), together with Ngu Thu copper coins found in Xom Oc (Quang Ngai) and Sa Huynh relics (Hoi An) have the origin of the cultural interaction between the Sa Huynh culture and Han culture via the maritime trade.

Sa Huynh residents have many handicrafts such as growing and spinning jute, stone crafting, iron-copper crafting, glassmaking, and pottery. The Sa Huynh used jute extensively in making clothes and fishing nets. Researchers found several spinning wheels in the residence sites and burial grounds, which partly reflected the popularity of this craft. In addition, Sa Huynh people excelled at their pottery-making skill. Ceramic products made by Sa Huynh people showed elaborate decoration, just like works of art. Also, explorers discovered many open pit mines in the plain − easy access to the raw materials that made iron crafting more popular for Sa Huynh people. These people used iron products not only within the local community but also traded it with other communities.

Many Filipino archaeologists have suggested that bronze products found in their area in the Early Iron culture originated from Sa Huynh and had a close relationship with Sa Huynh. The pre-Sa Huynh period witnessed a very developed bronze-making profession as archaeologists discovered a wide range of products such as pieces of molds, copper slag, copper cooking pot, bronze pouring ladle, and others. 

Sa Huynh people also made jewelry. Some of the most typical are: penannular tri-projection earrings, scarf-shaped earrings, two-headed animals earrings, and bamboo-shaped beads made of nephrite stone. Found in Binh Chau District are terracotta leeches-shaped earrings, which embody cultural exchange features with Pre-Dong Son culture in the North. In some Late-Sa Huynh relics are found onyx beads, which believed to have been imported from other places into Sa Huynh society. The Sa Huynh inhabiting Ly Son Island made jewelry (rings, necklaces, earrings) from natural materials like mollusk shells. This is the most convincing evidence for the strong adaptability and creativity of Sa Huynh people, living in harmony with the nature.

Sa Huynh people also knew how to make glass from abundant sands. Glass products varied from jewelry such as earrings and necklace, of many types. Among them, the most notable are penannular tri-projection earrings and two-headed animals earrings. These earrings are very popular among Southeast Asians, since archaeologists have found them in several places.

Milestones in research, study, and discussion

The period from the 20th century to the early 21st century witnessed an intensive research on the Sa Huynh culture, with the following milestones:
  • The year of 1909 marked the first discovery of the Sa Huynh culture by M. Vinet, unearthing the burial jars in the dune in the coastal area of Sa Huynh. 
  • Mrs. M.Colani (1934) researched the excavation of 55 burial jars in Thanh Duc, along with 187 jars in Phu Khuong and Phu Lu (Sa Huynh). 
  • In 1936, following the discovery of burial jar site in Co Giang and Cuong Ha  published on “Hue’s old friends” journal, Mrs. M. Colani, in her article titled “Notes on Quang Binh’s prehistoric” used the term “The Sa Huynh culture” for the first time. She wrote: "It can be drawn from the description above that culture of the neighboring Dong Hoishares some similarities with the Sa Huynh culture and Dong Son culture.”
  • From 1959 to 1961, following several studies into Kalanay pottery in the Philippines, W. G. Solheim II suggested the term “Sa Huynh-Kalanay Pottery Complex.” He then requested O. Janse and L.Malleret to further investigate the Sa Huynh culture in the attempt of providing evidence to support his hypothesis.
  • In 1939, O. Janse surveyed and excavated 30 burial jars in Sa Huynh. He made his return to Sa Huynh to continue his work in 1960. The results of his research was published in Asian Perspective Journal in 1961. Based on the examination of burial jars and pottery vessels of Sa Huynh people, O. Janse proposed the term “Sa Huynh Complex.” 
  • Another excavation taking place in 1957 in the sand dunes of Sa Huynh by L. Malleret unearthed several pottery pieces. Based on the research on ceramics in Finot museum, L. Malleret suggested that the relationship of the Sa Huynh culture in the Southeast Asia region was of a larger scale, mentioned in an article in 1961.
  • The writings of L. Malleret and O. Jansé about Sa Huynh published in the Asian Perspectives Journal, together with M.Colani and H.Parmentier’s published documents about the excavations in Sa Huynh, provided a great deal of insights to help W.G. Solheim, II who consolidated his hypothesis called “Sa Huynh-Kalanay Complex.” W.G. Solheim II made a great contribution by requesting research on Sa Huynh in the Southeast Asia context. Later, he claimed that the distribution sphere of the Sa Huynh-Kalanay pottery could be extended further in terms of space and time, and proposed a different name “Sa Huynh- Kalanay Tradition” to better capture the extent of the subject. 

The severe war period in Vietnam put a halt on the research on the Sa Huynh culture. From 1975 onwards, Vietnamese archaeologists restarted the excavation work in Quang Ngai, Quang Nam and other Central provinces. Results of this work has shed significant light on the Sa Huynh culture, which has broadened the current understanding of researchers on the subject [Ha Van Tan, 1999].

During the 20th century, since the first news about Sa Huynh burial jars published on Bulletin de École française d’Extrême-Orient, there has been over 100 relics of the Sa Huynh culture discovered. At the same time, the scientists’ awareness about Sa Huynh culture increased significantly and was presented  in many scientific reports, elaborate investigations and excavations.

Many magazines and monographs of domestic and foreign scholars have discussed Sa Huynh culture in terms of cultural characteristics, chronology, origin, owner, material and spiritual life, and the interaction of Sa Huynh culture in the region and throughout Southeast Asia.

Up to now, there have been other memorable milestones on the study of Sa Huynh culture, including:
  • The first seminar on the Sa Huynh culture was held in 1981 at the Vietnam History Museum. It was the first important seminar on the Sa Huynh culture ever organized.
  • In 1995, a seminar on the Sa Huynh culture was organized in Hoi An.
  • In 1999, the Institute of Archaeological and the Vietnam History Museum hosted a conference celebrating the 90th anniversary of the discovery and research of the Sa Huynh culture.
  • In 2009, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and the People's Committee of Quang Ngai Province in Quang Ngai co-hosted an international seminar to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery and research of the Sa Huynh culture.
  • In 2019, a scientific session on the Sa Huynh culture to commemorate the 110th anniversary of unearthing Sa Huynh culture was presented in the international conference hosted by Ly Son-Sa Huynh Geopark.

These seminars have provided more scientific insights on the Sa Huynh culture:
  • The Sa Huynh culture formed from many sources and is united in diversity. The Sa Huynh culture is an indigenous culture.
  • The late development phase of Sa Huynh culture provides a foundation to the transition into a new stage, forming small ancient states in  Central Vietnam that later formed Lam Ap State (Linyi) in AD 192. Excavations at several sites: Phu Tho Co Luy, Suoi Chinh (Quang Ngai); Tra Kieu, Cam Pho Hoi An; Go Cam (Quang Nam) provide evidence of the link between the late Sa Huynh culture and the early Champa culture.
  • Several key characteristics of the Sa Huynh culture have come into light, including: burial method in jars, pots, graves; collections of iron and bronze weapons and implements; and jewelry. The period of Sa Huynh culture and the pre-Sa Huynh culture extended at least from a few thousand years BC to AD. In addition, Sa Huynh culture is not isolated, but is widely connected with its neighbor. For instance, the area of in Ha Tinh province is considered an intersection between Sa Huynh culture and the Dong Son culture in the North. In addition, Sa Huynh culture also has a strong interaction with the Central Highlands, the mainland and islands of Southeast Asia, and Southeast cultures in the Metal Age in the form of ceramic jar burial tradition.

Author: Dr. Doan Ngoc Khoi

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