By Dawn F. Rooney, Scholar, Art Historian, Author (Southeast Asian Specialty)
n 1971, the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society-Singapore held a groundbreaking exhibition featuring Khmer, Annamese, Sukhothai, Sawankhalok, Sankampaeng, and Kalong wares. A catalogue, the Ceramic Art of Southeast Asia, accompanied the exhibition with an Introduction and Descriptive Notes written by William Willetts, the renowned art historian and then president of the society. As little was known about Southeast Asian ceramics, they raised speculation concerning identity, production, and age. Brown-glazed pots and jars, provisionally labelled ‘Khmer’, were the most mysterious. ‘Probably produced in Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia (802-1432)’, some said.
I lived in Bangkok at that time and a favourite weekend outing was scouring the stalls in the market for ancient ceramics. One day, quantities of brown- and green-glazed wares, never seen before, appeared. I thought they looked like those pieces identified as ‘Khmer’ in the catalogue. The vendors said they bought them from farmers living on the Khorat Plateau in Northeastern Thailand. Why, then, if produced in Cambodia, would Khmer ceramics turn up in Thailand? Does this not argue for the existence of Khmer kilns on Thai soil? And Willetts wrote, “the question as to whether any Khmer wares at all were produced in Thailand, and if so where, is an insistent one.”
I spotted a tall, lopsided, brown-glazed, pedestal jar underneath the bamboo shelf of a stall. A ubiquitous lizard was basking on its shoulder. The jar had obviously collapsed in firing; it was a discard (waster), an unwanted piece. To me, though, it conjured up visions of the Khmer Empire at the peak of power between the 11th and 13th centuries when its territorial control extended beyond Cambodia to major parts of neighbouring areas including the Khorat Plateau. So, this jar proved uncontestably that Khmer ceramics were produced in Thailand. But where were the kilns?
I looked at this jar and thought, “It didn’t have a chance to adorn an altar, to serve as a receptacle for offerings or to be gifted to the head of state of a foreign kingdom. Yet, here it is, it has survived and has come into my hands to hold, 1000 years after it was made.”
Epilogue: In 1981, the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society-Singapore held an exhibition with an accompanying book, Khmer Ceramics, 9th – 14th Centuries. By then, surveys and excavations had identified hundreds of kilns confirming extensive production of Khmer ceramics in Northeastern Thailand during the Angkor period – confirming what I suspected with the discovery of this humble jar in the 1970s.