Carrying liquor: production, trade, and uses of the ‘mercury jars’ in East and Southeast Asia (11 – 14thcenturies CE)
One of the most intriguing vessel forms found in ancient Southeast Asia are coarse and highly standardized stoneware containers called by archaeologists ‘mercury jars’, which are among the most common artefacts known from a number of sites, such as Kota Cina in Sumatra, Fort Canning in Singapore, Angkor in Cambodia, and Trowulan in Java. Commonly, ‘mercury jars’ have been linked with early presence of Chinese, and their finds have been accompanied by occasional finds of drinking and eating utensils, such as cups, bowls, and shallow dishes. Outside of Southeast Asia, ‘mercury jars’ were found at Penghu in the Pescadores Islands, and in archaeological sites in Japan. ‘Mercury jars’ were made in Fujian in China between the 11 – 14thcenturies, and used mostly, if not exclusively, for transport of alcohol.
Made of grey stoneware, the vessels have narrow but thick flat bases, bodies flare outward, to curve suddenly inward to a small mouth about one centimetre in diameter. Most of the vessels are unglazed though some display traces of glaze on the rim. The actual function of ‘mercury jars’ has been among the hotly debated topics among archaeologists and ceramic scholars, and four hypothesis about the use of these vessels have been advanced. Archaeologists have suggested that they were used to hold rose water or other perfume, flaming oil for use in combat, mercury or alcohol. Javanese textual and material evidence strongly supports the view that ‘mercury jars’ were used to transport Chinese rice beer (‘Chinese wine’). Intriguingly, this imported beverage was known in pre-Islamic Java by the term drāksa, a Sanskrit loanword denoting ‘grape wine’, another prestigious product, which was imported to Southeast Asia from Iran well before 1500 CE as an exotic luxury. Uniquely, Javanese evidence also gives us an interesting insight into the ‘second lives’ of mercury jars, which were used – along with another type of imported jars – to ferment locally-produced alcohol, especially sugar cane wine.
Jiri Jakl is a researcher at the Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. He holds MA in Southeast Asian Studies from Leiden University (specialization Old Javanese language and literature), and PhD from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, for his work on warfare in Java before 1500 CE. Jiri is interested in the social and religious history of Southeast Asia before 1700 CE, and in the reflections of material culture in classical Malay and Old Javanese literatures. Jiri has published a number of articles on the society and culture of pre-Islamic Java, and his book on alcohol and its multiple uses in the Indo-Malay World before 1500 CE, published by the Brill, is to appear soon.