Materials: Bronze, iron
Dating: Circa 950 – 1050 A.D.
Size: 20.3 cm overall, blade 11.5 cm
Origin: Khmer Empire, present-day Cambodia
From a French private collection.
Emma C. Bunker and Douglas Latchford: Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art. Art Media Resources, Chicago, 2004.
The Khmer empire was a Hindu/Buddhist empire that ruled much of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries. It is mostly known for Angkor Wat, which during its peak was the largest urban center in the world at that time.
Most Khmer material culture left to study today appears in the form of bronzes and stone statues. Khmer arms and armor is very rare. One of the most notable pieces is a dagger in the Boston Museum of Fine art, accession number 68.289 which is dated to 1040-1041 A.D.
In this article, I present you with an old and particularly fine Khmer dagger with an iron blade and a bronze hilt.
The blade follows a rather similar profile as the piece referenced above. The hilt is quite different, with the guard quillons turning forward towards the blade, and a longer, more narrow stem-like hilt. The center of the hilt is nicely carved with fish scales, and at both sides flares out in a crown of stylized flower petals. The pommel is a notched lozenge-shaped profile, with each cardinal projection being in the form of a highly stylized flame. It has a bud-shaped finial on top.
Khmer artwork generally doesn’t depict people with weapons, so it is hard to find any direct comparables in the art that can serve as a benchmark for dating. However, the distinct shape of the pommel is of an ornamental shape that is often seen on headbands or jewelry worn by deities. This design element went through a clear evolution over time, which makes it possible to pinpoint the date of the dagger with some accuracy.
It first starts to appear in the last decades of the 9th century, see for example a Shiva Head in the Brooklyn Museum, accession number 83.182.5. However, we don’t see it reach the full complexity that is seen on this dagger pommel until the early 10th century. See for example the feature in the headband of a Head of Vishnu in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession number 26.13, as well as two very similar Devatas, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco accession number B 68 S 19 and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S1987.909.
The design gets especially close to the dagger pommel on a devata in an anonymous private collection, published in Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art, page 130-131. Dated to the 9th to 10th century. Also see a Harihara Head, dated 944-968 in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, accession number S1987.900.
The stylistic period of our dagger seems to end around the second half of the 11th century, where the design starts to take one of two distinctly different forms. In one, the four projections break out of their lozenge form and become more like a cross. For this step in the evolution, see a female Deity, dated 3rd quarter of the 11th century in the Radcliffe Collection. Published in Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art, page 232-233.
A very rare example of a thousand-year-old Khmer dagger, one of less than a handful of examples I know to exist. It shows the very good workmanship in bronze that this culture was known for. A comparison with stylistic elements found on Khmer statues points out that it most likely dates from the 10th to early 11th century.