Superb Necklace of Gold Beads
Pyu (present-day Burma)
length: 40cm (80cm circumference), weight: 38.4g
This necklace of very fine gold beads is from Pyu, in present-day Upper Burma. It comprises a series of graduated high-grade gold beads of assorted designs, including polyhedral, reeded, pierced and beaded, spherical and scrolled examples, with small tubular, faceted and beaded links to the back, all on a on silk thread.
Pyu beads show an extraordinarily high level of gold smithing technique. The gold used was typically alluvial. The beads themselves show a range of sophisticated and intricate designs in filigree, granulation work and casting. Shapes include those based on melons, gourds, cowrie shells, and the like. Some beads, including on this necklace, ingeniously appear to have cagework within a surrounding cage, not unlike a Chinese carved ivory puzzle ball.
Pyu was a group of city-states that existed from around 200BC to 1100AD in the area that is now present-day Upper Burma (Myanmar). The cities were trade focused and Chinese records from the 9th century evoke a sophisticated culture with sumptuous courts and richly adorned Buddhist monasteries (Richter, 2000, p. 43).
The city-states – there were five major walled cities in total plus some smaller towns – were located along an overland trade route between China and India. In these, the Pyu pioneered urban development in Southeast Asia and were masters in brickmaking, ironworking and water management (Guy, 2014, p. 68).
Pyu culture was heavily influenced by trade with India. Buddhism was imported along with other cultural and political ideas. Pyu civilisation largely ended in the 9th century when the city-states were destroyed by repeated invasions from the Kingdom of Nanzhao. Pyu settlements remained in Upper Burma for the next three centuries but gradually these were absorbed into the expanding Pagan Kingdom, and ultimately, the Pyu assumed Burman ethnicity.
The trading nature of the Pyu means that Pyu gold beads have been found as far afield as Thailand, Vietnam and China. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2017 exhibition, ‘Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties’, includes several beads that are related or identical to some in this necklace, which were excavated from Eastern Han tombs in Guangxi, China and which are ascribed to the first century BC to the second century AD, suggesting that these beads might be even older than usually believed. The Met argues that such beads might not have been made in Pyu but in the ancient city of Taxila in Central Asia, whilst noting that such beads are found at numerous ancient sites including in Burma. (See Sun, 2017, p. 197-97).
The beads are in excellent condition and the necklace is extremely wearable. There are traces of red soil, and also a reddish hue which has been developed by surface erosion from having come into contact with minerals in the soil. Importantly, the applied granulation work appears to be fixed by means of copper-gold alloy bonding only. There is no evidence of modern flux having been used, or with the applied granules being flooded with solder as will be the case with modern reproduction beads.
Bennett, A., The Ancient History of U Thong: City of Gold, DASTA/BIA, 2017.
Geoffrey-Schneiter, B., & M. Crick,
Bijoux D’Orients Lointains: Au Fil de L’Or au Fil de L’Eau, Foundation Baur, Musee des Artes D’Extreme-Orient/5 Continents, 2016.
Lost Kingdoms: Hindu Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.
The Jewelry of Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.
UK art market; private collection, London.
Inventory no.: 4497