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Exploring vietnam's prehistoric past

Phuoc Kieu Bronze Casting Village - ©AncientCraft/Emma Jones

In January 2024 we took a trip away to Vietnam for a well-earned break after a busy year and even busier build up to Christmas. While the trip was a holiday that would help us unwind and disengage from work, it was impossible to stay away from archaeology entirely.

Vietnam has a rich history going back thousands of years with more recent research focusing on the Stone Age archaeology found in some of the thousands of caves hidden across the country. Vietnam has some of the largest caves in the world including the largest: Hang Sơn Đoòng and the third largest: Hang Én. During our trip we visited many caves including Hang Én and saw lots of evidence of prehistoric activity, mainly in the form of midden floors containing thousands upon thousands of large snail shells and bone fragments. Some of the caves in Britain are quite impressive, but are tiny in comparison to the size, number and grandeur of those in Vietnam.

The large quantity of stone tools on display in the national museum of history indicated there was already a large amount of material discovered despite research into the country’s prehistory being in its relative infancy. However, it wasn’t the stone tools that caught our eye as we entered the museum...

Before we left to start our trip, we had done some research into the traditional crafts of Vietnam. I always enjoy looking at how different cultures used materials to solve problems, it can raise interesting questions about the distant past elsewhere. As well as the ‘usual’ crafts one might expect listed such as textiles, pottery etc, one craft was highlighted that would completely undo the aim of a work breakaway: bronze casting. 

As we discovered, the place to see many of these crafts is in the villages around the historic town of Hội An in Quảng Nam Province (central Vietnam). The area has become very popular with tourists who travel to see a blend of wooden Chinese shop fronts and temples, and brightly coloured French colonial buildings. It is just outside the main town that the craft villages can be found. Our journey to the bronze casting village took us to an unassuming street that seemed far from the tourist hot spots. We spied several shops with shining statuettes and gongs hanging outside , clearly we were getting warm in our search. With the help of google translate, we were informed there would be casting early the following morning, and that we would be very welcome to watch. 

This left us with a good opportunity to visit the pottery village, which we had passed on our way. While this village was far more oriented towards tourists, it was an excellent opportunity to see the complete process of pot making from raw clay to the kiln. A visit to the pottery village museum told the story of how several families of experienced potters moved into the area to make use of the river clay a few generations ago. This immediately raised questions for us as to the reason for the move, what was the push or pull factor? Had they run out of clay? Were they seeking better opportunities away from competition?

We enjoyed watching several potters masterfully throw bowls and lids on wheels in a matter of moments. We had seen our friends Graham and Sarah Taylor of Potted History do the same many times and to us many of the stages of production looked very similar, though an experienced potter would no doubt recognise subtle differences. Unsurprisingly the throwing was catching the attention of visitors, but we were pleased to come across a man processing clay. A huge chunk of clay was being cut and sliced with a bow harp (which looks like a wire cheese cutter). By slicing into the rather stiff looking mound of clay, the thin slices were kneaded and worked into balls ready for the throwers. We had already seen the throwers making pots and lid after lid from a large mound of clay centred on the wheel (known as “throwing from the hump”). The pots and lids would then be allowed to dry in the sun for a few hours before they were back on the wheel again. This next stage was to trim the base of the pots from flat to rounded. As the pots had started to dry, they were a little tougher, and could withstand some light pressure to cut thin slithers from the base as it spun. This process also gave the outside of a pot a smooth, almost burnished surface. Even Em had a go while guided by one of the patient and friendly potters! After finishing the pots were stacked outside houses in large numbers to dry before firing.

There were some really excellent opportunities for colourful, crafty photographs of pots carefully stacked against colourful houses. The final stage was the firing. The kiln was constructed from clay, bricks and old tiles. It was fueled with wood which fed through an opening at the base while the smoke and gases escaped through a chimney at the back. This very ancient style of firing was no doubt used across much of the world, there were scenes from the day that would have not been out of place in the outskirts of Roman London. Yet the style and finish of the pots strongly reminded us of a much earlier site hailed as “Britain’s Pompeii”. At the late Bronze Age pile dwelling settlement of Must Farm, many pots were found by Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Like those still made in the craft village in Vietnam, they were round based, thin walled and finely finished. It has been suggested by archaeo-potters that if some of the Must Farm pots were not wheel thrown, some were wheel finished at the very least.

The following morning, we arrived at the bronze casting village just as the furnaces had been lit. I had hoped we would see similarly ancient techniques to those in the pottery village, and I wasn't disappointed... First, the three furnaces were charcoal fuelled and driven by fans as a minor modern concession to leather bellows. I was intrigued by the design of the furnaces which appeared to be sections of clay-lined oil drums stacked on top of each other. With the fans running, the furnaces were soon spewing smoke that soon burnt off in place of violently shivering flames.

We hadn’t seen a crucible, and yet there was plenty of copper and tin ingots next to each furnace. We soon realised that the lowest oil drum section was itself a crucible with side lugs in which bamboo could be fed to help lift and move it. As the furnaces picked up heat, we had time to look around the yard at the different activities taking place. Some were in preparation of the looming pour, others were for future projects. The cast that morning was for a large statue that would eventually reside in a temple. The sheer size of the piece meant it was easier to cast in four parts. Each part was hollow, but still must have weighed around 50 kg or more. The mould parts were hidden under a shell of clay and old tiles where they had been heated to drive out any moisture in the clay and allow the liquid bronze to travel further into the mould without cooling too quickly.

As the furnaces got hotter, more charcoal was needed, which soon arrived in large bags filled with thick chunks. These were too large to be added immediately, so were emptied in a pile and broken down into smaller chunks. While not as exciting as the furnaces, this task was important and would have fitted comfortably into any charcoal-using metalworking space across the world and importantly throughout time. The freshly broken down charcoal was added by shovel to the furnaces along with bundles of copper and eventually tin. The heat coming from the tops of the furnaces was incredibly intense at this point with sparks spraying into the air as fresh charcoal was added. We weren’t the only visitors at the yard, as well ourselves there was a group of monks watching the casters, we assumed they came from the temple who would receive the casting.

With fresh metal added, we had time to watch other activities around the yard. One of those activities taking place was mould making for small pot legs, but the object was far less important to me then the process. Again with Google translate and broken English (our Vietnamese at this point was limited to “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye”), we were told the man making the moulds was a master and he was clearly well-respected by his colleagues. Like the potters of the previous day, the mould was made from river clay and for me being able to watch this process was truly something special. The clay was processed, kneaded with organics and shaped into slabs ready to be turned into mould halves. I’ve made plenty of clay moulds before, and had to work out problems along the way, but watching the clay pot leg moulds being made by someone who had clearly made hundreds of moulds not tens, highlighted lots of subtle tricks and methods that would improve and quicken my efforts dramatically.

After watching a couple of moulds being made, the furnaces were ready. The moulds had been removed from their clay and tile oven, and the ground cooled with water so the moulds could be moved for casting. Before the metal could be cast, several things had to happen at the same time. The group of monks arranged themselves around a small shrine that had been set up near the moulds and began to chant.

The furnaces were taken apart section by section until just the base was left, as they were taken apart a huge quantity of charcoal and slag spilled out. This was raked away so that only the liquid metal was left in the lower section. Once raked, the crucibles were lifted using the bamboo poles through the side lugs by 4-5 of the casters and moved towards the moulds. Once in position, the crucibles were slowly tilted until the metal started to flow into the top of the mould to the sound of chanting.

As the metal reached the top of the sprue, the casters moved onto another mould. Another group of casters brought the next crucible in so there was only a minor gap in the metal flow. The whole action was over in moments, but like all casting there is a steady build up to a short, but intense and nerve-wracking climax.

Phuoc Kieu Bronze Casting Village - ©AncientCraft/Emma Jones

With the moulds filled, the chanting ended and the crucibles were emptied of any remaining metal. The casters could relax and wash their charcoal covered faces. I know that feeling well. The focussed expressions of the casters had now changed to relaxed relief. I tapped my chest over my heart to indicate nervousness and the casters laughed, nodding their needs and doing the same. I had shown some of them via YouTube videos that I cast bronze myself, but not anywhere near the same scale. Google translate helped in answering basic questions, but this shared moment of understanding between craftspeople broke language barriers. I would imagine if we were watching people work 3000 years ago in Britain, not just the language barrier would be broken for a moment, but also that of time. We would not be able to see the mould opening that day as it is left to cool down overnight. I am grateful we were able to watch some mould making and the pouring, my mind was racing while there was a frenzy of activity and noise in front of me. Lots of ideas and observations came from that morning. It was a highlight of the trip for me and did wonders for reinvigorating my desire to be back in the workshop.

Back in the National History Museum, we were greeted by a temporary exhibition on the Đông Sơn culture which dates to around 500 BC. The main feature of the exhibition was a stunningly large bronze ‘drum’. Many examples of these drums have been found in Vietnam and further afield, ranging in size from a few cms high to nearly 1m in height. The Đông Sơn culture is known for its bronze casting and the exhibition highlighted some of the incredible work achieved by the craftspeople who lived at that time. It was fascinating to see some similarities in the simple socketed tools to those from the European Bronze Age, but this only shows both regions managed to create an effective tool independently. There was a video in the gallery showing one of the bronze casting villages in Vietnam trying to create a replica of a smaller drum, next to the example they created during the film. It was only around 40cm high, but it was obvious from the film that even this relatively small version took a huge amount of time and skill to make a mould, cast and finish.

It was clear that the late Bronze Age culture of the Đông Sơn had left a long-lasting impact on modern Vietnam. From printed shop floor tiles to motorbike decals, we saw the drum artwork over and over. A completely unexpected find came while travelling on the road to Trang An near Ninh Bình. As we rounded the corner, we started to see thatched cones. I wasn’t prepared to believe they could be what I hoped so suggested they might be the kind of hay stacks built to feed water buffalo. However I was more wrong than I could’ve thought, and should have gone with what I hoped they were as we stumbled across a huge Bronze Age village under construction. We walked in to find many smaller huts being thatched with reeds and palm leaves by small teams of builders. The smaller huts were either side of an avenue leading to the largest roundhouse I had ever seen. The whole site was set to become an archaeological tourist park. Unfortunately we seemed to have arrived about 6 months too early!

Fortunately we were able to see some completed wooden and thatched houses in Hanoi at the Ethnographic Museum. If you have had the good fortune to visit the Weald and Downland museum near Chichester, you’ll see many historic buildings that have been moved to the museum brick by brick and rebuilt to preserve them. The Ethnographic Museum in Hanoi is much about the same. Some of the buildings that were in the extensive gardens of the museum were incredible feats of woodworking. Some of the wooden houses were on stilts to keep them above flood waters or dangerous animals in their original settings. Like the pottery village earlier, we were immediately struck with thoughts of sites like Must Farm or the crannogs of Scotland.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi - ©AncientCraft/Emma Jones.

*All images in this blog are thanks to Em: ©AncientCraft/Emma Jones.


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