Toward the end of the 6th or early 7th century, Khmer potters instituted an important technique for mass production of ceramics when they began to use the wheel. A Khmer inscription dating to 674 compares the source of creation to the potter’s wheel.
Ceramics of this period were sometimes decorated with slip and paint, but this practice was abandoned after 800 when glazed stoneware first appeared.
The first glazed ceramics made in Southeast Asia beyond the orbit of Chinese control were associated with the Khmer rulers Indravarman and Yasovarman, who reigned from the 880s to 940. It is not known, however, how the method of firing stoneware or the technique of glazing first appeared in Cambodia.
Khmer ceramics were not exported beyond the Khmer cultural zone.
All references are to works named in the Bibliography at the end of this article.
Phnom Kulen is located about 40 km east of Angkor and mounds of wasters have been known to exist there since 1901. The site is famous in Cambodian history as the place where the Khmer king Jayavarman II, in 802, is recorded to have held a ceremony regarded as the founding of the Angkorian state [Miksic 2009:50-51].
The term ‘Kulen glaze’ has been applied to a wide range of thin glazes, varying in colour from creamy white to light green and was most certainly made from wood ash. Jacques Dumarçay tested the Kulen glaze from a roof tile and found that its ingredients included uranium oxide (Dumarçay 1973: 9-73). Roxanna Brown established that the main colouring agent of the green glaze was cupric oxide [Brown 1977: 44 footnote 15].
This glaze is commonly found on the wasters of Phnom Kulen, and refers to “all yellowish-to-greenish-glazed Khmer ceramics, whatever their provenance, as opposed to the ‘dark-glazed’ wares which also show a broad range of (often mottled) shades between brown, black, and olive” [Brown 1988:43]. Brown also tells us that the body of Khmer wares “are made of sandstone-based clay and so are normally coarse and grainy. They can be buff to whitish, or a dark grey mottled with reddish brown” [Ibid: 48]
In 2007, excavations were carried out at Phnom Kulen that revealed the kiln complex of Thnal Mrech. These kilns have been dated to the early 11th century, but the reports have yet to be published.Three types of firing supports were found during the excavation. The most common were sausage-like pieces of clay, possibly used to stabilize the ceramics. A second type was a semi-cylindrical support meant to be placed on the kiln floor. A third type consisted of small balls of clay used to separate the pots stacked on top of one another during the firing [Miksic 2009:54].
In addition to the green glazes so common on Kulen wasters, the Thnal Mrech sites were also home to light brown glazed wares, which indicated that brown glazed wares were produced in areas other than the Khmer kilns of northeast Thailand, such as Buriram.
The study of Khmer kilns is still in its infancy and no precise chronology can be established.
Bang Kong, Rolous
Located about 16 km southeast of Siem Reap, Roluos comprises three temples dating to the late 9th century. The site was probably a royal capital for most of the same century, before major construction began at Angkor.
Bang Kong is a kiln site about 4 km north of the Roluos temple area, where some green-glazed sherds were collected. These were of good quality clay, glaze and firing technique–among the first glazed wares to be discovered [Miksic 2009: 54]. They included tiles, bowls and stoneware vessels such as bottles, with most of the wares being small covered boxes that have cord-cut marks on the base, indicating the use of a potter’s wheel [ibid.: 51]. The presence of glazed wares has led to the questioning of how glazing was introduced into Khmer territory, as 8th-century sites contained only unglazed earthenware, sometimes with simple, red painted decoration [Brown 1988: 42].
Excavations in recent years at Bang Kong has led to 39 kilns being identified at Bang Kong, Radiocarbon dating has yielded a late 9th century date. This is the oldest kiln complex yet dated in the Angkor region, with products differing in style to the wares of Phnom Kulen [Miksic 2009: 54].
Green glazes reached a peak in the early 11th century, and thereafter became rarer.
Buriram and Surin Province, Northeast Thailand
The provinces of Buriram and Surin are located approximately 370 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and bordering Cambodia on the Khorat Plateau. There, evidence has been found of more than 200 kilns that produced both unglazed and glazed stonewares. These kilns were scattered over the southern part of both provinces, suggesting that they were not major centres of production like those located in Sukhothai or Sawankhalok in north central Thailand [Brown 1988: 44-45].
Although these sites are now in Thai territory, the ancient kilns produced Khmer-style pottery, which the French archaeologist Bernard P. Groslier called ‘provincial’, which some interpret as meaning “artistically inferior to those of the Angkor region” [Miksic 2009: 57]. They are located along the old Angkorian highways that led to Phimai, where a major Khmer temple is known, the foundations dating to the 11th century.
PRASAT BAN PHLUANG
Another location is at Prasat Ban Phluang, in Surin province, where an 11th-century Khmer temple stands and over 4,000 sherds have been found. Brown noted, “reassembled, the sherds represented 270 recognisable vessels and perhaps another 126 primarily earthenware shapes that could not be reconstructed. Since no internal evidence for dating was excavated, these wares could only be dated by their association with the prasat [temple] itself, which was perhaps actively used for a hundred years after its construction about the mid-11th century” [Brown 1988: 47].
BAN BARANAE, BAN SAWAI, AND PRAKON CHAI
The kilns of Buriram and Surin include the following: Ban Thanon Noi in Ban Kruat district, Ban Baranae, Ban Sawai, and Prakon Chai. These will be considered as a group here as there is currently not enough information on individual areas; the Thai-Cambodian border being an area of unrest, few excavations since the 1970s have been permitted. Miksic elaborates:
“The kilns in Buriram and Surin seem to have specialised in brown glazed ware, and were mainly active during the 11th and early 12th centuries, up to the construction of Angkor Wat. During this phase of Khmer civilisation, the area of northeast Thailand now known as the Khorat Plateau was the scene of important architectural developments such as the temple of Phimai which served as the model for Angkor Wat. The dynasty of Mahidharapura which built Angkor Wat came not from the Angkor region, but from the Khorat Plateau” [Miksic 2009:57].
BAN THANON NOI
Ban Thanon Noi, had three kilns, which were excavated before they were destroyed in February 1985. Several layers of cross-draft kilns; two parallel chambers, each 26 x 5 or 6 metres, with a communal chimney. They produced light green bowls and covers with fine white clay, some of which had brown glaze applied over the green glaze on the feet of the bowls in a second stage. This is the only place in Buriram where such a technique was practiced.
Covered boxes and bowls with ornate lids were also made here. Some of these had green-glazed exteriors, with brown-glazed interiors. Some white glazed ceramics were also produced. A second type of clay body, grey in colour, was used for brown-glazed bowls, boxes, oil lamps and jars…. This site has been considered by some Thai archaeologists as producing the best ceramics of the Buriram kilns, including bichromatic wares. Wasters show that both green and brown wares were fired simultaneously in the same kilns.
“Though the Buriram kilns are known for their brown glazed wares, they also produced green-glazed pottery. At Ban Baranae, for example, these included common bowls with thin green glazeand flat bases, jars with incised chevron patterns on the shoulders and olive green glaze and unusual items such as rectangular cowbells, inscribed with Khmer characters” [Miksic 2009:57].
Finally, at Prakon Chai district, roof finials and decorated roof tile ends like those produced near Angkor and near Phnom Kulen have been found, but although their form is very similar the examples are unglazed.
These Khmer kilns found in Northeast Thailand produced many wares similar to those of the Angkorian period. However, certain forms were rare or absent in the Cambodian kilns, such as animal figurines, consisting of owls, “birds, elephants, boars, fish, rabbits and anteaters” [Miksic 2009: 57].
Angkorian (Tanei, Thnal Mrech)
The term ‘Angkorian’ refers to ceramics that have been found in relation to temples of the Angkor period, approximately 9th to the 14th centuries, with the peak period of production from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The distribution of these wares is over a vast area, under the rule of the Angkorian Khmers, even though most of the finds are concentrated around the famous Angkor Wat.
Where they were produced, however, is a bit of mystery – not only have the temple sites been looted, there are few indications of production sites. A few of these have only recently been determined but not yet sufficiently studied.
According to the French archaeologist Bernard Philippe Groslier, who excavated these temple sites in the 1960s and 70s, these Angkorian wares are wheel-made, fired in a kiln and glazed, i.e. glazed stoneware. Their find locations, however, suggest that these wares were cult ceramics related to religious rituals, and their forms were therefore, most likely specialised and limited. On the other hand, the artefacts found at the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom, in the same area, seem to indicate a clear demarcation between ‘common’ and ‘high quality’ ceramics [Groslier 1981a: 15-16].
Because most of the finds come from either temples, burial sites or caches, wares of different periods and production sites have been mixed together and they cannot be dated with precision. Groslier [ibid.: 17] adds, “The situation is further complicated at Angkor by the importation throughout the centuries of Chinese pieces which were often imitated,” not to mention the fact that shapes, decoration and techniques of ceramic production may persist over time depending on the market.
Nonetheless, the chronology established by Groslier in his 1981 book Khmer Ceramics 9th-14th century can still be used for an overview.
It is also during the 11th century that zoomorphic shapes begin to appear and the clay becomes finer, with a grey body as can be seen in the lower body of the elephant-shaped jar below. Groslier [1981a: 24] states that a number of these elephant-shaped jars contain traces of lime in the interior, thus indicating that they were used to store lime for betel chewing.
It has to be noted that, according to Groslier [1981a: 28], other decorative techniques, such as mouldings, incisions and carved patterns, appear after 1100 on zoomorphic vessels. This may help to date the examples shown right.
As can be seen, gourd-shaped jars and bottles make an appearance from that time, with brown glazes becoming predominant. A similar specimen to the anthropomorphic gourd-shaped bottle below was found at the Srah Srang burial site, about 4 km southeast of the East Gate of Angkor Thom. These deposits date to the reign of Jayarvarman VI (1080-1107). The find spot may indicate that this form was used for funerary rituals [Groslier 1981a: 29].
According to Groslier [ibid.: 30], the year 1177 is a turning point in Khmer ceramics. After Angkor was sacked by the Cham forces (of what is now southern Vietnam), culture went on the decline, as the flaky, crackled, yellowish glaze seems to show.
Sources: Brown 1988; Groslier 1981; Miksic 2009
Bibliography and Recommended Reading:
Brown, Roxanna M. The Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification, 2nd edn. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Groslier, Bernard Philippe. “Introduction to the Ceramic Wares of Angkor” in Stock, Diana [below, link]
Miksic, John N., ed. Southeast Asian Ceramics: New Light on Old Pottery, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 2009.
Richards, Dick, South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Vietnamese, and Khmer from the Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Rooney, Dawn F. Ceramics of Seduction: Glazed Wares from Southeast Asia, Bangkok: River Books, 2013.
Rooney, Dawn F. Khmer Ceramics: Beauty and Meaning, Bangkok: River Books, 2010.
Shaw, John C., Introducing Thai Ceramics also Burmese and Khmer, Bangkok: Duangphorn Kemasingki, 1987.
Stock, Diana (ed.), Khmer Ceramics 9th-14th Century, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 1981. (link)