Southeast Asia is one of the primary centers of archaeological study of glass in the world. The main reason for this is that not much else survives in the humid, wet, tropical conditions of Southeast Asia. Another large reason is that there are so many glass objects found in Southeast Asia – often thousands of objects at each site. Compared to areas like Scotland, where we often find one or two glass objects per site, Southeast Asia is practically made of glass.
Most of the glass objects in Southeast Asia are beads, specifically Indo-Pacific beads. Perhaps 75% of all glass objects in the region are beads, and that’s a rather conservative estimate. The second most common glass objects are bangles. I am not aware of many (if any) glass vessels.
Most research on glass in Southeast Asia focuses on Malaysia or Thailand. There is now some growing research in Indonesia and Cambodia, and a very small amount on glass objects in Vietnam, Laos, and the Philippines. I’m not aware of any research in Myanmar or Brunei, though it may have begun in the last few years.
The objects tend to range across roughly 1200 years. Since not much survives (particularly wood) in Southeast Asian archaeology due to humidity and poor preservation conditions, it is very difficult to find anything that will allow us to date any of the objects we’ve found. It doesn’t help much that the same glass objects have been in use in the region from roughly 400BC to present day. If the beads are archaeological, however, they tend to date between 200BC and 1200AD.
Southeast Asia has predominantly drawn beads, though wound, folded, and molded beads also appear in archaeology.
There are also Jatim beads, named that way because they come from Jawa Timur (East Java, in Indonesia). These are relatively unique beads, and I will discuss them in another post some day. One of these types, however, is the mosaic cane eye beads. These have slices of mosaic canes of glass placed onto glass cores in the pattern of eyes, then cooled. These beads have been found all over island Southeast Asia and some islands in the Pacific. They are incredibly similar to the technique used for mosaic beads in Roman, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and other European contexts, but there is no current evidence that these groups interacted with Indonesia at this time.
There are a number of chemical types in Southeast Asia, but the most common is mineral soda-alumina glass (m-Na-Al). This can be subdivided into a number of types, several of which are found in Southeast Asia. There are also mineral soda-lime glasses (m-Na-Ca), plant-ash soda-lime glasses (v-Na-Ca), potash glasses with higher lime content (which I write as m-K-Ca), potash glasses with higher aluminum content (which I write as m-K-Al), and potash glasses with high aluminum and high lime contents (which I write as m-K-Ca-Al).
One of the interesting points about Southeast Asian glass is that a number of sites that certainly made beads were also probably making the glass use to make those beads. This is interesting largely because we don’t see evidence for combined glass and bead making in places said to have heavy influence on Southeast Asia’s glass industries (e.g. South Asia). One takeaway is that Southeast Asian artisans developed their own take on the trade. Another is that Southeast Asian attitudes towards these artisans was probably significantly different from those in other nearby regions, since these artisans were engaging in both crafts.
However, Southeast Asia is an enormous region, and treating it as a single entity is relatively naive. Doing so for nearly every region I discuss on this blog is also naive, but I also haven’t studied those regions to the extent that I have Southeast Asia. I’m going to refrain from much further discussion about social structure in the region as a whole, then, since it is such a vast region with such varied cultural groups both historically and in the present day.
One point of interest I’ve mentioned before is the presence of Jatim beads in Korea. Jatim beads include bird and star beads, certain opaque yellow beads, mosaic cane eye beads, and certain combed beads. Outside of Java, they’re limited to parts of Korea, though one bead has been found at Berenike, Egypt. The distribution of these beads is interesting, because they are not found anywhere save for these three, very far removed locations. This suggests fairly direct trade relations between Javanese manufacturers and Egyptian and Korean consumers that would have bypassed other major super-powers (e.g. India and China) in order to trade with other groups that were further away. Alternatively, such trade may have existed with places in India and China, but not for specifically Jatim beads.
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