4499

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Necklace of Rare Hollow Reeded Gold Beads

Pyu (present-day Burma)
5th-9th century

length of bead section: 18cm (36cm circumference), weight: 29g

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Provenance

UK art market; private collection, London.

This necklace of rare hollow, finely reeded gold beads with small granular beads is from Pyu, in present-day Upper Burma. The beads have been thread onto a silk cord. Each of the masterfully-crafted larger beads is of beaten gold folded into very fine pleats, using a technique that was later used in China in the Ming Dynasty to make elegant gold double-gourd earrings.

Few such Pyu beads with this reeded format have been illustrated. However, one example of a necklace of such beads is illustrated in Geoffrey-Schneiter & Crick (2016, p. 106).

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 and Vietnam.

The beads are in fine condition and the necklace is extremely wearable. Several beads show some crushing as might be expected from such early material that has been excavated. Sand and soil grains have been caught in the fins of the beads here and there. There is also a reddish hue which has been developed by surface erosion from having come into contact with minerals in the soil. Also, the applied granulation work on the smaller beads 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.

References

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.

Guy, J., Lost Kingdoms: Hindu Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.

Gyllensvard, B., Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1953.

Rawski, E.S. & J. Rawson (ed.), China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, 2005.

Richter, A., The Jewelry of Southeast Asia, Thames & Hudson, 2000.

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