Story: Dr. Nguyen Thi Hau
Photos: Courtesy of the National

A treasure trove of prehistoric jewelry gives us a glimpse into the lives of people who lived around present-day Ho Chi Minh City 2,500 years ago

A Qing-shaped flat double animalheaded earring

The history of Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City is often said to date back 300 years to the era of the Nguyen Lords, who established their sovereignty in 1698. Archaeological discoveries, however, point to a history stretching back over 3,000 years. One key discovery was a treasure trove of jewelry buried in jar tombs in the Can Gio District, an estuary covered with mangrove forests to the southeast of the city, which forms a gateway to the sea and the Southeastern provinces.

Giong Phet and Giong Ca Vo are two fascinating burial grounds in which the dead were buried in a fetal position inside pottery jars. Various grave goods, including but not limited to ceramic utensils, copper and iron tools, and jewelry were found in more than 200 tombs. There were many gold jewelry pieces made of spiky beads shaped like bamboo-joints, ellipsoid (pumpkin-shaped) beads, and gold plates with small triangle cutouts, among others. These are the earliest gold artifacts ever discovered in a prehistoric archaeological site in Southeast Asia.

Agate, pearl, gemstone and glass beads were found in various shapes such as tubes, cylinders, diamonds, spheres, lozenges, and hexagons. Bracelets also came in diverse sizes and materials, including shell, gems, and multi-colored glass. Three-pronged round earrings, made of gemstones, glass, agate and even ceramics, had three short or long prongs and hooks arranged equidistantly and symmetrically.

The most unique earrings featured double animal heads fashioned from jade and glass. Two symmetrical animal heads face in opposite directions with an ear hook positioned in the center. Each head has two horns, a slender face, a protruding mouth, large eyes, and distinct eyelids. In the collection of nearly 30 pieces, the earrings are decorated with sharp square edges or smooth soft curves. Facial features like horns, eyes and mouths are well depicted with delicate and sophisticated carved details, making the animal heads come alive. The variety and unique features reveal that these double animal-headed earrings were hand-crafted, one at a time. These types of earrings were found in the tombs of both men and women, from middle-age through old age, along with other precious grave goods. It is likely that these tombs belonged to affluent or high-ranking members of the community at that time.

A double animal-headed earring

A large, flat double animal-headed earring, which resembles a Qing (an L-shaped flat stone chime), was also excavated from this site. So far, it is one-of-a-kind, found nowhere else but Can Gio.

Archeologists unearthed a relatively intact skull, wearing an earring on the left ear only. This suggests that in prehistoric times, earrings could be worn singly and did not necessarily come in pairs.

Many double animal-headed earrings have been found in sites from the Sa Huynh and Can Gio cultures of Vietnam, and in prehistoric sites in Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Yet the quantity of double animal-headed earrings discovered in Can Gio (more than 30 pieces) remains the largest. As far as what animal is depicted on the earrings, many archaeologists believe it is a buffalo, an animal used in sacred rituals by agrarian Southeast Asian cultures.

It is thought that double animal-headed earrings, three-pronged earrings, and the other aforementioned jewelry pieces were manufactured in Can Gio. Jewelry-making techniques from India influenced techniques in Can Gio. The glass jewelry pieces found here reveal that glass-making techniques were adopted in Can Gio before anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

Large numbers of unique artifacts, especially jewelry, were unearthed in archaeological sites in Can Gio. They reveal many aspects of life at that time, which involved trading by sea and exploiting the local mangrove forests. Around 2,500 years ago, the people living this way had their own culture and close ties with the rest of Southeast Asia and India.

While the Dong Son culture flourished in Vietnam’s North and the Sa Huynh culture prospered in the Centre, this ancient jewelry sheds light on the Dong Nai culture of Vietnam’s South. These three cultural centers bloomed in Vietnam during prehistoric times.