More than 2,000 years ago, a sophisticated and artistic civilization flourished in what is now Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
The Oc Eo Culture is an ancient civilization that arose and flourished during the first ten centuries after Christ in Vietnam’s southern delta. The Oc Eo Culture got its name thanks to the French archeologist Louis Malleret, who excavated the first site linked to this civilization in 1944 at Oc Eo in Vong The Commune, Thoai Son District, An Giang province. After 70 years of further discoveries and research, a clearer picture of this peculiar and impressive culture has emerged.
Archeological discoveries in Vietnam’s South from the Early Iron Age (2,000 to 2,500 years ago) reveal the native roots of the Oc Eo culture. While this culture had its own homegrown identity, its development was characterized by contact with other cultures, including those of Rome, Persia, China and especially India.
People of the Oc Eo Culture presided over the Mekong Delta. The civilization had an advanced economy, especially in terms of craftsmanship and commerce, resulting in major urban centers. Remnants of ceramic, glass blowing, jewelry-making and metal-working workshops have been found. Ceramics were present in most Oc Eo sites. Ceramic ovens (cà ràng) were familiar and useful for people living near the sea or rivers. Ceramic ovens have been found in residential sites and even dolmens from the eras preceding the Oc Eo civilization. They are key relics from this era. Popular Oc Eo jewelry was crafted from gold, tin alloy, gemstones, agate, quartz and glass in a wide range of colors and shapes.
Remnants of jewelry-making workshops have been found in many sites, including those of Oc Eo, Da Noi (An Giang), Nen Chua, Canh Den (Kien Giang), Vinh Hung (Bac Lieu), Luu Cu (Tra Vinh), Nhon Thanh (Can Tho), Go Thap (Dong Thap), Go Thanh (Tien Giang), Go Hang, Go Xoai and Go Dung (Long An), etc. All of these sites bore signs of jewelry-making, such as gold filaments, gold dust, gemstone fragments, quartz fragments, metal molds, metal melting pots and various tools for crafting jewelry.
The culture arose close to maritime commercial routes and dense river networks and interlacing canals. Oc Eo people were well-positioned to trade. They engaged vigorously in foreign trade at the peak of the civilization’s development.
The site of Oc Eo in An Giang was a well-known and important harbor town on the ancient Maritime Silk Road. Evidence of this includes a variety of relics bearing strong Indian, Persian, Roman and Chinese influences, with the two most convincing discoveries being two Roman Empire gold medals bearing the names and images of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138 – 161AD) and Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180AD). Other signs of international links include a Persian copper lamp, a bronze mirror from the Eastern Han Dynasty, a bronze Buddhist statue of the Northern Wei Dynasty and golden, glass and agate antiques inscribed with Malay, Latin, Brahmi/Sanskrit script or images or Roman or Hindu deities or sacred animals. Oc Eo inhabitants used a number of currencies for trade and exchange. The most popular currency was the Rising Sun – Srivatsa Temple money used throughout Southern Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, the most widely used currency in this region. On one side, these coins were embossed with an image of the sun rising from the sea. Each currency unit was assigned a number of sun rays. The other side was cast with an image of Srivatsa Temple in the center as a symbol of wealth, prosperity and good fortune. Many Srivatsa coins were cut into four or eight. This suggests that the ancient harbor of Oc Eo was an important commercial hub because merchants needed small units of currency for trading.
The people of Oc Eo adopted Buddhism and Hinduism. Both religions made strong marks on the culture’s graphic arts. Buddhist and Hindu religious statues were made of stone, wood, and sometimes copper. These statues have been found in sites all over South Vietnam. Hindu and Buddhist graphic arts reached their peak between the 4thand 7th centuries. The diversity of their forms and presentations reveal complex and overlapping sources of influence, with the major influence coming from India’s arts, mixed with local and realist trends. Beyond statues and tokens of Buddha and deities, there were also statues of sacred and legendary animals found in Hindu and Buddhist temples. The Oc Eo Culture produced many unique and large-scale wooden Buddha statues, including a set of wooden statues from the site at Go Thap. The tradition of making statues in South Vietnam was passed on to subsequent eras from the 8th century onwards, termed “post-Oc Eo eras”. Buddhist and Hindu arts sprung up in the Mekong Delta through the exchange of items along maritime routes, which in turn helped to enrich the native culture and bolstered the establishment of major religious, cultural, economic and political hubs in this region during the early centuries after Christ.
In the first centuries after Christ, people of the Oc Eo Civilization achieved economic, technical, religious and artistic success, which laid the foundation for the civilization of the Phnom Kingdom, one of the oldest civilizations in Southeast Asia. Despite regular interactions with Roman, Persian, Indian and Chinese cultures, the Oc Eo Civilization remained firmly rooted in its native culture and reached its own apex.