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An Isaan Puzzle

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

This is a sword that is a striking illustration of the diverse nature of southeast Asia and is a living testament of how peoples and cultures moved acrossed borders historically. This particular piece was 'found' in modern day Isaan, specifically in Ubon Ratchathani province of Thailand. On the surface it may look like any other lotus bud pommel, cast hilt style sword from these regions but the devil, as always, is in the details. 

The blade is a solid and typical Laos style sword. A v-spine with excellent steel, good balance and taper, it is paired with a hilt that differs from common expectations of dha proportions. While most dha/daab exhibit fairly long handles to balance their blades, this particular sword is of a type with a short handle made to be paired with a shield. This supposition is further born out by the colouration of the scabbard. Original surviving scabbards are rare, but in this case invaluable. The green paint of this example is identical to surviving examples in the Bangkok museum which are positively attributed to 18th century military formations. The collection point, scabbard and general style gave grounds for further research into this sword and the ability to be sure of an attribution far beyond most swords from this region.

Stylistically the hilt can be classified in two ways and coincidentally the hilt is in fact cast in two parts. The forward ferrule and guard is of a style most often associated with the Loatian city of Vientiane, in its own right a power in the 18th century, while the pommel, also cast in one piece, is of a style more similar to Attapeu in southern Laos. 

The sword differs greatly from the classic so-called Vientiane pattern not only in the pommel used but also the grip. Typically swords of this type have a two part cast handle with an organic grip in the middle, often fine wire that is then lacquered. In this case that is texturally represented within the casting but the entire handle is bronze. 

The next question is of course how to date such a piece. In this case it may be easier than usual, the city where it was found has a history instrincily linked to Laos and the paticular city most often associated with this style. The city of Ubon Ratchathani  was founded by a Laotian prince who was fleeing Vientiane in the late 18th century. Of course Lao people were not entirely new to the area, Lan Xang had previously ruled over the area and prior to that it had for centuries been under Khmer influence. Isaan is fairly arid and had for centuries been a battle ground caught between rival influences. However from the end of the 18th century it was firmly under the control of Siam and the court of Taksin the great. This sword is of an age that likely corresponds to this period and while precise dating is impossible it is likely from the 18th century. The unusual style of pommel for this type and its correspondence to pommel styles found on swords from the Attapeu region and even northern Cambodia is a fascinating detail that may mean the sword in fact originated within Isaan itself and draws on broad variety of influences.

The colouration of the scabbard, dimensions and style make it quite likely that the owner was part of Siam's military structure in the 18th century. During this period Siam drew on vassal states and a wide variety of people groups for its campaigns. This is well illustrated in the battle of of Rạch Gầm-Xoài Mút where Siamese forces battled against the Tay Son forces of modern day Vietnam where the Siamese forces included troops from Laos and Cambodia. Even today Loatian swords of this period can be seen displayed in Saigon's history museum. 

This sword is a personal favourite as it evokes the period and history of a region that is not well known by outsiders to this day. It is fascinating to speculate about the original owner and user of this sword, what ethnic group did he belong to, why the unusual stylistic choices of this piece, was it part of a larger commission for swords of a type suitable for a military unit, was it the personal choice of the owner, we will sadly never have full answers to these questions but I prefer a mystery to pieces that fit an exact pattern.