Wandering craftsmen behind jade working?

20 November 2007 (National Geographic News) – National Geographic’s story on the chemical tracing of jade artefacts from Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to note that while the jade came mainly from a single source, they were worked outside of Taiwan. And despite their wide dispersal to Philippines, Vietnam and to a large part of Southeast Asia they were worked into two distinct styles, implying some sort of specialised tradition.

Jade Earrings Reveal Ancient S.E. Asian Trade Route
by Carolyn Barry

Jade jewelry found near ancient burial sites across Southeast Asia has revealed one of the largest marine trading networks of prehistoric times, a new study says.

Mineral analysis shows that most of nearly 150 sampled artifacts dated as far back as 3000 B.C. can be traced back to a single site in Taiwan (see map), about 190 miles (120 kilometers) off the coast of mainland China.

This indicates that the small island supplied much of Southeast Asia with a unique variety of the semiprecious stone via a 1,800-mile (3,000-kilometer) trade route around the South China Sea.


The existence of such a vast trading network shows that these populations had developed sophisticated seafaring vessels and had extensive communication much earlier than previously believed.

“I think [ancient Southeast Asian cultures] were more advanced than we thought,” said study co-author Peter Bellmore, an archaeologist at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

“These are very widespread connections. We really had no idea that this jade from Taiwan was traveling so far.”

Traveling Craftsmen

The researchers studied 144 jade artifacts from 49 locations in modern-day Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Most of the objects had been found next to prehistoric skeletons buried in jars or on the sides of skulls, suggesting that they were earrings belonging to the wealthier members of society.

“They were clearly being worn,” Bellmore said.

Specifically, the team focused their study on two types of distinctive jade ornaments: three-pointed “lingling-o” earrings and two-headed animal pendants that were popular from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500.

Using high-powered scanning electron microscopes, the scientists measured the relative amounts of iron and magnesium and the presence of small specks of zinc chromite in the jade.

These chemical signatures showed that 116 artifacts found at 38 different locations originated from the Fengtian jade deposit in eastern Taiwan.

The results appear in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers are currently working to map the origins of the remaining 28 artifacts.

“Archaeologists have noticed the jade artifacts had similar styles and shapes” across different Asian regions since the 1940s, said lead study author Hsiao-Chun Hung, also at ANU.

“But we never thought it was from the same source until we tested it.”

So far only a single jade earring similar to those used for the study has been found in Taiwan.

But samples from Vietnam and Thailand include cast-off pieces and incomplete earrings found at what scientists believe are workshop sites.

In addition, jade is a very hard mineral, so crafters would need sophisticated carving skills and tools to shape such ornate items.

Only a few highly skilled craftsmen would have the expertise, Bellmore said.

Most likely, these craftsmen exported the jade as a raw material and then manufactured it into jewelry locally, Bellmore said.

“The jade comes from Taiwan, but a lot of artifacts are not made in Taiwan.”

Nuanced Understanding

The study is “an important contribution to a matter that deserves more attention: the navigational skills of early Southeast Asian societies,” said anthropologist Charles Higham of the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Experts often focus too much on the influence that Chinese and Indian populations had on the cultural advances of Southeast Asian societies, he said.

“Ancestors of the Southeast Asian people were able to cross into Australia over 40,000 years ago over open sea with no land visible, so why were they not also capable of sailing to India and back to trade?” he said.

“This paper illustrates that such movement was possible.”

Archaeologist Miriam Stark of the University of Hawaii at Manoa said she is cautiously optimistic about the research.

“This study provides an important springboard for studying chemical compositional sources within Southeast Asia,” she said.

“Chemical patterning provides some of the first empirical evidence for a South China Sea interactional network.”

Mapping the sources of jade artifacts, she said, is therefore “essential to develop a more nuanced understanding of political economies and social networks in the ancient Southeast Asian world.”

Related books:
Jewelry of Southeast Asia by A. Richter
Burnished Beauty. The Art of Stone in Early Southeast Asia by C. J. Frape
Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past: Selected Papers from the 10th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists by E. A. Bacus, I. Glover and V. C. Pigott (Eds)
Arts of Southeast Asia (World of Art) by F. Kerlogue
Man’s conquest of the Pacific: The prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania by P. Bellwood
Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago by P. Bellwood
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

3 thoughts on “Wandering craftsmen behind jade working?”

  1. i think, the possibility of early southeast asian peoples being more advanced and sophisticated than what is currently believed is more likely than having them trading these jade artifacts with early mainland peoples. i am not sure if it is reasonable enough to say that there have been trade among these peoples having found similar objects on different places in the region. should it be considered trade already? these people could have just picked up these objects along their migration routes together with their designs and manufacturing techniques and carried them along to their respective destinations where these artifacts have been found.

    there must have been other reasons why they moved to the far east islands as the philippines and further south to the oceania region and they eventually decided to settle there for more favorable living conditions.

  2. >> i am not sure if it is reasonable enough to say that there have been trade among these peoples having found similar objects on different places in the region. should it be considered trade already?

    I agree that the term trade might conjure up false images of commerce and economic systems, and I myself prefer to use the term cultural exchanges. however, I find the idea that the jade artefacts and the method used to manufacture them were picked up and transmitted the migration routes implausible.

    I’m not familiar with the exact data myself, but I imagine we’d have to explain how the wave (or waves) of migration passed through Fengtian (because the jade came from the same source) and then while the migrating peoples dispersed through Southeast Asia, maintained identical manufacturing processes in multiple locations in a span of 1,000 years. A process of cultural exchange, probably in the form of trade, would more likely explain the dispersal of a unique form of material culture fashioned from a unique source material.

    The more tantalising question this study brings up is, could such exchanges have existed over distances covering large bodies of water 5,000 years ago? The dispersal of the jade seems to indicate so, but we don’t have any archaeological evidence for, say, shipwrecks dating that far back.

  3. “cultural exchanges”, i could not agree more to that. i believe it is the more appropriate term for the similar designs and practices as much as craftsmanship is concerned and the same origin of material.

    indeed, what is a more pressing concern is the question of how these exchanges could have existed considering the large distances and not to mention the age of the period. these people must have had a more advanced culture and/or civilization for that.

    on the other hand, one could surmise that they could have traveled through seas having found similar objects in different regions. however, i think it is also possible to say that the seas then were not as vast and deep as they are today. that would account for the lack of archaeological finds of ship wrecks. it might not have been land masses or land bridges at all but shallow waters might also be a plausible means for large distances travel. also, i find it hard to imagine how these people could have managed to create sea-faring vessels large and able enough to travel such large distances at the time, 5,000 years ago. though it can indeed be possible. but if it is the case, then i would be asking in how large a group do these people travel? that can lead to a considerable sizing of the vessels they could have used.

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