THAI CERAMICS

Thai ceramics were among the first Southeast Asian wares to be seriously studied, starting with WA Graham’s 1922 article “Pottery in Siam” in the Journal of the Siam Society. The field only gained momentum in the 1960s following Charles Nelson Spinks’ important contributions on Thai pottery and in the 1970s from the discovery of the Prasat Ban Phluang temple site.

Known kiln sites are listed below in alphabetical order and articles will be updated as new evidence comes to light. An extensive recommended reading list and Bibliography can be found at the end of this page.

 

All references are to works named in the Bibliography at the end of this article.

Haripunjaya

Long-necked terracotta or earthenware bottle with a tapering neck; along length of neck, fine black horizontal striations and on body, incised geometric cross-hatches. 14-16C. H: 20 cm, D: 14 cm. Private collection

Although physically situated in Northern Thailand, the kilns of Haripunjaya are distinctly different. This is due to the fact that the kingdom of Lamphun in which they are located is older than others in the region and originates from the Mon-Khmers of the South.

The text known as the Camadevivangsa puts the founding of the kingdom at around 750 CE and says that “because the site where the Khmers dug was used to obtain clay for making pots, it became a great pond named Ukkhalirahada {Pot Pond].” (Swearer & Premchit 1998: 113)

Haripunjaya wares are red, unglazed earthenware, consisting generally of long-necked urns and vases rather than plates or bowls, such as the example shown. Miksic tells us they “seem to have been intended for ceremonial use, possibly as containers for cremation ashes. They are decorated with red paint or slip and incised decorations” [Shaw 1989: 103–104, 238].

No chronology currently exists, but similar examples found at the Tak Om Koi burial sites suggest that they date between the late 14th to mid-16th centuries.

Kalong

The Kalong kilns were discovered in 1933, but were still unstudied in 1977 when Brown wrote her Master of Arts thesis on the Ceramics of Southeast Asia. Since then, however, she reported that a villager had a dream and was led to the kiln in his yar. It has since been excavated and is now open to visitors.

Over a hundred kilns have now been reported, but only one mound has been systematically excavated. These are cross-draft kilns, built by plastering clay over a bamboo framework, of the same type as in Haripunjaya, and all the northern Thai kilns. This is opposed to the brick kiln type used at Sukhothai and Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai. Brown believes they operated from around 1300 to 1550.

A common characteristic of Kalong ceramics is their “fine-grained whitish body, the clay source of which may have been one reason for the location of the kilns” and the reason for the high quality of the Kalong ware, which is considered by many to be the finest of all Thai ceramics.

The wares are finely potted throughout and another feature is that they generally have wide bases. [Brown 1988: 84-86]

Kalong is best known for its underglaze black motifs, though potters there also made monochromes of celadon, black, brown and even green lead-glaze. This bowl with an underglaze black decoration shows a dark brown design of abstract birds or bats, sometimes known as the “black crow” design. 14-16 C. H: 5 cm, D: 21 cm. Private collection
Kalong kiln wasters. Private collection
Brown identifies a monochrome unique to Kalong, called the ‘rain-cloud grey’ which is a translucent greyish tinted glaze (Brown 1988: 86). This jarlet with ring handles is an exceptional specimen showing this ‘rain-cloud grey’ lead glaze. H: 12.5 cm, D: 10 cm. Private collection
Kalong kiln wasters comprising a bowl and a fallen tubular support, or pontil, and assorted kiln furniture (one tall pontil, three stands of varying heights, and two tripod-shaped supports). 15-16C. Private collection

From the photo of kiln wasters (left), we can see that within a kiln, different types of monochromes were fired at the same time, ranging from the rain-grey to celadons. This implies that the glazes used were of a similar type.

Lampang

The first kilns were discovered in 1950 by locals who were widening the old canal near Wat Chedi Sao. There are now known to be several clusters of brick kilns in the rice fields surrounding the wat.

They produced rough-manufactured, dark-bodied bottles and jars, such as the examples shown below, with thick, dribbly black or more thinly applied brown glazes. Figurines of humped bulls were also found, but it is not known what they were used for. The clay body is rough-grained and dark, mottled brownish or reddish brown. [Brown 1988: 90)]

Two jars, both dark-bodied and black-glazed, one only a fragment with cup-like mouth (D: 16.5 cm); the other with two think pinched handles (H: 13.8 cm). Collected at the Lampang kiln site. Ceramics Museum, Chiangmai University. (Photo from Brown 1988: pl. XLV c)
Drawings of black-glazed Lampang wares kept at Wat Chedi Sao, Lampang (Photo from: Brown 1988: fig. 63)
From left: Jar with dark greyish body and black glaze with white speckles from air bubbles (H: 21 cm); ewer with thick dribbly black glaze and a dark brownish-grey body fired to reddish brown on the flat base (H: 20.4 cm); jar with rough brownish grey body and traces of black glaze (H: 31 cm) Wat Chedi Sao, Lampang. (Photo from: Brown 1988: pl. 57a-c)
Figurine modelled in the shape of a bull with brownish-grey clay body and eroded black glaze. H: 12 cm. Ceramics Museum, Chiangmai University. (Photo from: Brown 1988: pl. 57 d)

Nakorn Thai and Nan

Located east of Sukhothai, Nakorn Thai is a small kiln site with six kilns visited  by the Thai-Adelaide project in 1984, although its actual date of discovery is unknown. Its primary product was unglazed stoneware, and the site probably ran from the late 13th to the 14th centuries.

The kiln sites of Nan are among the most recently discovered by Bangkok University’s Fine Arts Department. Four in-ground kilns were excavated in 1984.

The sites had been severely disturbed by agriculture, but finds included “ceramics of three main types: dish-related shapes, jars and mortars; and kiln furniture,” mainly saggers with lids. Roxanna Brown tells us that “most of the wares were monochrome olive, brown and black, with some celadon and two-colour jars with a single glaze, the lighter colour produced by applying a whitish slip under the glaze.

The dish-related shapes consisted mainly of scoop-mouth plates with a clear glaze over a whitish slip…. The clay of these wares is their most distinctive feature: it is very dark grey, almost black, with tiny whitish speckles, although the surface often fires to orange, and sometimes brown. ” [Brown 1988: 93] 

The underglaze iron decoration appearing on two bowls found during the excavation felt to her “quite similar in style” to the image shown here bottom right.

Sherds from Nan: upper row of burial-size jars, lower of dishes. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. 58 a)
Flower from Sankampaeng underglaze decoration that resembles Nan designs (Photo source: Brown 1988: fig. 60)

Pa-O

Called ‘Fine Paste Ware’, this type of Thai earthenware was very distinctive. It is characterised by a kind of clay that is very fine and smooth to the touch, often with a chalky feel. This allows the production of very fine, thin-bodied and hard ceramic vessels. When fired, the clay body turns either white or a light buff colour on the surface, but has a grey core.

Forms include bowls and covers and lids, but the majority of the excavated Fine Paste Wares are kendis, such as the two specimens below. Kendis are water containers, often associated with religious rites and rituals.

This example was purchased in Sulawesi, east Indonesia. On most Fine Paste Ware kendis, the decoration is limited to simple incised lines, as on this example, although some have been found with red and/or black painted strips. The bent spout is unusual, as is the neck with no visible flange. This may represent an earlier type of ware as it resembles the bronze kendis found in Central Java, which flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries. Possibly 9-10C. H: 19.5 cm, D: 11.5 cm, L: 13.5 cm. Private collection
This example, with a conical spout, represents a more typical kendi of the Fine Paste Ware type in form with its globular body and neck flanges. Again, the decoration is simple incised lines. 14C. H: 16.3 cm, D: 15.4 cm, L: 19 cm. Private collection

However, we cannot know for certain where these two samples are from until a chemical analysis of their composition is done. The clay used in Fine Paste Ware is an almost pure kaolin, extracted from weathered feldspar, and is only found in two locations in Southeast Asia—on the isthmus of the Thai peninsula and in East Java.

Unfortunately, no kiln production sites have been found in East Java, but at Pa-O, in southern Thailand, six updraft kilns have been excavated and sherds from there have been analysed. Pa-O clay contains a high amount of iron oxide, perhaps accounting for the reddish colour seen in the second sample above.

Because the source of Fine Paste Ware is limited to these two locales (south Thailand and east Java), it is fascinating to find them all over the region, all the more as interest in earthenware has generally been overshadowed by glazed wares. Hundreds of these Fine Paste Wares (mostly kendis) have been found: in the Intan and Java Sea shipwrecks dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries respectively, as well as sherds in the Philippines, in East Java, in north Sumatra and in Singapore, with dates ranging from the 9th to 14th centuries.

This leads us to question the nature of intra-regional trade, especially for earthenware kendis.

Phan

The Phan kilns are the third largest of the Northern Thai kilns after Kalong and Sankampaeng.

According to Roxanna Brown, “They produced almost exclusively celadons, with only a sprinkling of olive-glazed pieces, and the average quality of the celadons far exceeds that of most Sawankhalok products. The glaze is evenly applied and lustrous, without the heavy glassy pooling and trickling so typical of Sawankhalok. It is also translucent and finely crazed. The colour is extremely pale green, with yellow or greyish casts, which are almost impossible to reproduce correctly in photographs. The potting is skillful and the shapes neat and well-balanced…. The clay is light coloured and distinctive for its strange iridescent-like quality—without any actual specks of impurities being plainly defined, such as the white and black speckled clays of Sukhothai and Sawankhalok, yet the clay colour is minutely mottled, usually with beige on a grey ground.” [Brown 1988:89]

This celadon dish is of classic Phan confection, with its olive-green cast and its simple, combed, incised decoration. 14-16C. H: 5 cm, D: 21 cm. Private collection
These are other popular motifs found on Phan wares, mainly abstract, but also zoomorphic forms such as horses and elephants. The decorations are made by fine-pointed incisions under the glaze with a three- and sometimes four-pronged tool. (Photo from: Brown 1988: 89 and fig. 62)

Common shapes of Phan wares include bowls, plates and dishes, but also some rarer forms such as jarlets, kendis in bird form and elephants [Miksic 1977].

“Approximately 40 kilns have been located in two clusters, and 15 kiln sites have been excavated. The kilns, some of the most highly specialised and accomplished in northern Thailand, may have only been in service for a few decades in the 15th century.” [Miksic 2009: 65]

Phayao

The Phayao kilns were, according to legend, likely to have been established after the governor of Sawankhalok fled in 1447, taking with him potters from central Thailand.  He was later appointed governor of Phayao by the king of Chiangmai. The kilns were reported in the 1950s but have not been excavated.

The product of these kilns were Sankampaeng-like brown monochromes, as can be seen from the sherds. These mostly have a grey-black body, and some have a whitish slip painted onto them to produce a lighter-coloured glaze, much like Sankampaeng wares.

Phayao also produced plates in olive, brown and celadon glazes, with what Brown calls a scoop-mouth, “a wide, everted, deeply curved mouth-rim” (1988: 63), such as this dish below, which has an unglazed mouth-rim and was found at the Tak Om Koi burial sites. This dish also has “two fish stamped in the well, dark grey-black body and an olive-brown  glaze of which only traces remain on exterior walls.”

From observation of collapsed Sawankhalok wasters, dishes with this type of mouth-rim were stacked mouth-to-mouth rather than foot-ring to foot-ring in the kilns. The same technique must have been used in the Phayao kilns as the unglazed flat mouth-rims indicate.

There are a lot of unknowns concerning Phayao. We don’t know, for example, what relationships the kilns had to the other more renowned sites such as Kalong, Wang Nua and Phan, which were all in the same region; what distinguished Phayao from these other kilns that necessitated a different kiln site; when Phayao was established; or how the potters worked. Currently, the only way to determine Phayao ware is by chemical analysis, which is costly. More research needs to be done, both on and off the field.

Sherds from the Phayao kiln sites.
Sawankhalok Mon wasters. (Photo from Brown 1988: pl XXIXd and fig. 45)
Phayao ceramic. H: 5 cm; D: 20.2 cm. Collection of John Shaw. Photography by Kim Retka. (Photo source: Brown 19ss: pl. 49f)

Phitsanulok

Some time around 1430, the capital of Sukhothai was moved east to Phitsanulok, which then became the political centre for the area. From 1463-88, King Trailok moved the Ayutthaya capital there to better conduct wars with Chiangmai [Brown 1988: 57].

When two brick  kilns were excavated in 1984, most of the products discovered were unglazed stoneware jars and other utilitarian vessels (including earthenware ceramics) dating to the 15th century, largely in the Sawankhalok tradition. The stylistic similarities of the wares to Sawankhalok indicates that potters from Sawankhalok may have established a new kiln site at Phitsanulok in the 15th century to meet the needs of a growing market [ibid.: 82-83].

 

Jar, for storage, with four large loop handles, reddish-brown body, stacking scars at the mouthrim and at the rim of the concave base which also has olive glaze at its centre; black glaze on the upper vessel body. Probably Phitsanulok (15th to mid-16th centuries), but perhaps Singburi (17th C) kiln site H: 23.9 cm. Collection of Surat Osathanugraha. Photograph by Kim Retka. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XLIII b)
Burial-size jar with appliqué and carved decoration, mottled dark grey to reddish-brown body, and olive glaze on the shoulder. Phitsanulok ware, probably 15th to mid-16th century. H: 30.5 cm. Suan Pakhad Palace, Bangkok. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XLIII a)
Basin from the Royal Nanhai Shipwreck (1470) D: 35 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-001-0
Basin, reddish-bodied, retrieved from Koh Khram shipwreck. Compare with basin below. D: 37 cm. Bangkok National Museum. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. 47 a)
Storage jars, bulbous, with thick rounded mouth rims, short necks, incised rings round the shoulders at the level of the thick lug handles, and dark greyish bodies. No traces of glaze (if originally present) remain. Their condition indicates that these jars were on the deck of the ship and were not as quickly covered with sand that preserved other wares. From the Koh Khram shipwreck. H: 30-60 cm. Bangkok National Museum

Brown recorded that “what glaze is seen, usually on the shoulders of burial-size jars and olive or blackish in colour, may only be a fly-ash glaze, the result of firing high iron content clay in a wood-fueled cross-draft kiln. One carbon-14 result from the two large brick kilns excavated at the site in April 1984 indicated a 14th-century date, although the site must still have been active in the 15th century, the probable date of the Koh Khram shipwreck, from which many examples of the wares were retrieved [ibid.: 95).”

Sankampaeng

Sankampaeng, in Northern Thailand, is located about 25km east of Chiangmai and 70km south-west of Kalong. It was discovered in 1952 by the Thai archaeologist Kraisri Nimmananhaeminda, who also found an inscribed stone stele. Brown [1988: 86] tells us that the text “commemorates the establishment of a Buddhist pagoda in 1488, and speaks of a gift of 25 families of slaves.” Based on this, Nimmanahaeminda thought that potters were included among the slaves and hypothesised that the kilns of this area dated from this time.

However, the origin of these kilns can not be deduced from the stele. Eighty-three kilns have been discovered in the area, of which only seven had been excavated by 1970. These were in-ground kilns and similar in structure to the Laotian kilns—small (only 2-4m long) and partly buried in the ground, with the top half made of hardened earth and mixed with broken bricks.

In shape, though, they are like other Thai cross-draft kilns, having an oval form with the firebox a step below the firing chamber. According to Nimmanahaeminda, similar kilns were being in the late 1900s by Tai people still living in Yunnan Province, China.

Because of the severe disturbance of the kiln sites, it is impossible to provide a precise date to the chronology of Sankampaeng wares beyond the rough dates of 14th to 16th centuries.

Inscribed stone pillar found near the Sankampaeng kilns in the ruins of Wat Chiangsaen; once kept in a courtyard at Wat Pa Tung, but now on display within the small museum there. (Photo from: Brown 1988: fig 59)

The best-known wares of Sankampaeng are underglaze iron decorated plates and dishes, especially those with a pair of fish stamped in the centre of the wares, such as the plate below, which was found at the Tak Om Koi burial sites. The unglazed flat mouth-rim is similar to Phayao wares.

The majority of the kiln sherds, says Brown, are “green-glazed, black-glazed, two-colour and unglazed vessels, especially jars, bottles, mortars, and basins in small and medium sizes.” Dishes, plates and bowls are also among the most common finds. Grit on the base of this plate indicates that it was set directly on the floor of the kiln for firing.

Methods of kiln stacking at Sankampaeng (Photo from: Brown 1988: fig. 45)
H: 4.8cm; D: 21.7cm. Collection of Robert R Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka. (Photo from Brown 1988: pl. XXXVII c, d)
(Reverse)

As can be seen from the base of the plate (left), there are circular rings which indicate that the vessel was cord-cut from a turning potter’s while while straight lines indicate cord-cutting from a stationary wheel. This plate’s body is extremely mottled in colour due to the addition of sand into the clay, a characteristic of Sankampaeng wares. Colours of the bodies can range from buff to light brown to greyish black.

There are two other types of Sankampaeng wares. The first is a celadon-type glaze that according to Brown (1988: 88) sometimes fires to a ‘true celadon’, but is generally a “thin, greyish green, and laid over a coat of whitish slip that shows horizontal brush lines, a characteristic that helps identify Sankamapaeng products—presumably a result of the slip being applied while the vessel turned on a wheel.” This can be seen in the jar below left. This method of glaze application can also be seen in the second type of Sankampaeng wares, which are brown and black monochromes, such as the two jars shown below.

16C. H: 21.2 cm, D: 17.5 cm. NUS Museum S1954-0009-001-0
15-16C. H: 30 cm, D: 20.4 cm. NUS Museum S1969-0124-001-0
H: 12.3 cm; D: 11 cm. 14C. Acquired for the NUS Museum by William Willetts in 1965. S1972-0017-001-0

Sawankhalok

The term Sawankhalok covers the production of many hundreds of kilns of central Thailand. It is frequently used interchangeably with the term ‘Si Satchanalai’, but refers to a wider area not covered by specific Si Satchanalai kilns.

Sawankhalok was in full production by the mid-1300s. The kilns produced:

  1. Unglazed wares
  2. Monochrome white, black, brown, celadon, and olive wares
  3. Brown glaze with incised decoration inlaid with white
  4. Underglaze iron decorated wares

Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai clay is finer than Sukhothai clay and has many small black spots due to the high iron content of the clay. Sometimes, the inclusions can be red or silver coloured. Like Sukhothai, Sawankhalok mainly created relatively simple shapes – jars, bottles, kendis, bowls and plates.

The earliest Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares included dishes decorated with underglaze iron depictions of flowers in the bases, with fish on the cavettos. Specimens of the flowers and fish design have been found on the Turiang shipwreck, dated to around 1370.

Second half of the 14C. From the Tak Om Koi burial sites. D: 26.5 cm. Collection of Robert R. Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XXIXa)
Covered box with vine motif. 15C. H: 7.4 cm, D: 9.5 cm. NUS Museum S1955-0255-001-0
15-16C. H: 11.7 cm, D: 12.2 cm. NUS Museum S1980-0082-001-0

The majority of Sawankhalok kendis had mammiform spouts as the image below left  shows, but special shapes were also made, such as the kendi below right. Sawankhalok celadon appeared around 1400, but excavations of the kiln sites have provided little help as to the chronology as they have been severely disturbed.

Kendi with underglaze iron black decoration with oatmeal-coloured biscuit and a distinct pontil scar. Examples have been found in Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Bali; they are however rare in the Philippines and Sulawesi (Guérin & van Oenen 2005: 158). 15-16C. H: 14.2 cm, D: 16cm. NUS Museum S1954-0054-001-0
This celadon angsa-shaped (from the Sanskrit word for ‘goose’) ewer is a form commonly used by the Thai and was made for export. Many variations of the form exist, made in both brown and black underglaze painted versions, monochrome white, and celadon. The goose was the vehicle of the god Brahma in Hindu mythology. 14-15C. H: 10.3 cm, L: 12.6 cm, W: 7.8 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0001-036-0

Scholar Roxanna Brown and marine archaeologist Sten Sjóstrand (2003: 35–37) put together information from shipwrecks to construct a chronology of Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares. Among the first Thai exports were underglaze iron painted designs, mostly of flowers and fish.

Miksic [2009: 63-64] sums it up thus: “The Turiang shipwreck, dated approximately 1370, carried Si Satchanalai plates decorated with underglaze iron-painted designs of simple flowers and fish, but the Nanyang (c. 1380), Longquan (c. 1400) and Royal Nanhai (c. 1460) included Sawankhalok  celadon plates. These green plates were major Thai exports until the late 15th century. On shipwrecks of the Hongzhi period, beginning in 1488, they were replaced by celadons from Burma, although Sawankhalok celadon bowls and ring-handle jars continued to appear into the early 16th century.”

 

Six examples of the great variety of forms, decorations and colours of Sawankhalok celadons:

Miniature gourd-shaped celadon jarlet with ring-handles and minimal decoration of incised circular bands. 15C. H: 8.9 cm, D: 6.3 cm. NUS Museum S1969-0128-001-0
Pear-shaped celadon bottle with ring-handles broken off and incised circular bands as decoration. c. 1350–150 H: 18.5 cm, D: 16 cm. NUS Museum S1954-0056-001-0
Globular ring-handled celadon bottle. 15C. H: 16 cm, D: 16 cm. NUS Museum S1967-0030-001-0
Celadon stem-dish, or tazza (‘phan’ in Thai), with incised décor of a central chrysanthemum motif enclosed by circular bands. 14C to late 15C. H: 12.9 cm, D: 34.6 cm. NUS Museum S1968-0021-002-0
Celadon bowl with everted mouth-rim (‘scoop mouth’) and incised decoration. The biscuit is reddish in colour, but grey within the pontil scar. 15C. H: 10 cm, D: 27 cm. NUS Museum S1955-0002-001-0
Celadon dish with a foliate rim, the cavetto with a combed ‘onion-skin’ pattern and the centre medallion with a lotus. The motif on the cavetto was commonly employed on larger Sawankhalok celadon dishes and bowls. The biscuit is an orangish-pink, probably from oxidisation of the clay. The base has traces of a very large pontil. 15C. D: 26 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-014-0

Sawankhalok also produced monochromes in other colours, notably black as well as brown, such as in the two examples below. There was continuity in forms even as the glazes changed. These were probably produced for another market, and examples are found on the Turiang, dated to around 1370 (see Brown & Sjostrand 2003: colour plate 16).

Monochrome white fragment from a guardian figure (yaksha) with modelled features, the eyes and eyebrows emphasised with iron-black pigment. 15-16C. H: 13 cm, W: 15.5 cm. NUS Museum S1954-0075-001-0
Sawankhalok 15C. H: 17.5 cm, D: 19 cm. NUS Museum S1967-0025-001-0
Sawankhalok. Unknown date. H: 13.3 cm, D: 7.3 cm. NUS Museum S1967-0038-001-0-9

In the final period of Sawankhalok wares, underglaze black covered boxes made a reappearance, while celadons disappeared. They can be found on the shipwrecks of the Zhengde (1505–21) and Jiajing (1522–66) periods, and are the main decorative elements of Sawankhalok production until it ceased around 1584 [Brown 2004: 7].

John Miksic concludes: “In the Philippines, Sawankhalok  ceramics are found in large numbers at certain 14th-15th century sites such as Calatagan [Fox 1959]. On mainland Southeast Asia, Thai ceramics from Sawankhalok have been found at Angkor, where they postdated 1350, based on Groslier’s observations at the royal palace site in Angkor. Whereas Vietnamese  ceramics seem to have been exported in two distinct periods, separated by a gap of some years, Thai ceramics seem to have continued more or less interrupted from around 1400 until the late 16th century.” [Miksic 2009:93]

Si Satchanalai

There is some early specialisation for these 3 clusters of kilns: Ban Pa Yang produced mainly architectural fixtures, Tukatha(named after the Thai word for ‘dolls’) made figurines, while Ban Ko Noi manufactured ‘Mon’-type wares and early underglaze wares. But Brown [1988: 60] says “sherd debris of trade wares at all three sites today is substantially similar.”

Fig 1. Tukatha figurine of lovers embracing with designs on the sarongs painted in underglaze black. Possibly 16th C. H: 10 cm. Private collection
Fig 2. More Tukatha figurines (Tuton sia kaborn or Tukata sia kaban), female forms with slightly crazed, celadon glaze and missing heads. 15C. Left: H: 6.8 cm, L: 4.3 cm, W: 4.3 cm; NUS Museum S1954-0062-001-0. Right: H: 6.8 cm, L: 6 cm, W: 5.1 cm; NUS Museum S1954-0045-001-0.
Fig 3. Figurine water dropper of a squatting hunchbacked man with a chignon, wearing a dotted sarong in underglaze iron brown; holds in right hand a pot that serves as a spout. Probably late 15 or early 16C. H: 8.5 cm, W: 5.7 cm, L: 7 cm. Private collection

Additional notes on the figures above:

Fig 1: In Thai custom, such figurines were used in ceremonies connected with rain and fertility [Van Oenen: 262]. This example is unusual because the couple is kissing rather than merely embracing, which is the typical position (see for example, Brown 1988: pl. XXXIII e).

Fig 2: Other examples have been found in Banten Lama, West Java. The missing heads of these figurines led some researchers to hypothesise a sacrificial ritual (Spinks 1978: 86–88; Çoedès 1939). However, Guérin and Van Oenen (2005: 251–267) note that the figurines are seldom found with heads still attached and explain that the frequency of missing heads may be due to the weakness of the joint between head and body. Male figurines are also known, many also missing heads. They are often depicted with fighting cocks in place of children, but others hold fans, bottles, or other objects. The hypothesis of sacrificial rituals therefore must be judged unproven. These may not be a special category, but just one of a larger group of figurines, including humans, animals, and supernatural beings such as demons.

Fig 3: There are many examples of hunchback droppers in Thailand; some examples are known from North Sumatra, and a wide range of these figures of various qualities is reportedly found in South Sulawesi. The figures are sometimes misinterpreted as female due to the hair pulled back and secured with a pin, but they are intended to represent males [Guérin & Van Oenen 2005: 202–202]. Although the use of these objects is unknown, one theory proposes that they represent sorcerer-magicians [ibid.: 199].

 

Second half of the 14C. From the Tak Om Koi burial sites. D: 26.5 cm. Collection of Robert R. Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XXIXa)

At Ban Ko Noi, the earliest wares included dishes decorated with underglaze iron depictions of flowers in the wells and fish on the cavettos, such as the example shown here. There are no clear sources of inspiration for this motif, but specimens of the flowers and fish design have been found on the Turiang shipwreck, dated to around 1370.

CELADONS

By the 1400s, the kilns of Si Satchanalai were producing celadons as evidenced by the wasters (below) found in excavations.

This is corroborated by the number of shipwrecks of that period that have Thai celadons as part of their cargo. The Nanyang (c. 1380), Longquan (c. 1400) and Royal Nanhai (c. 1460, shown below) included celadon plates. The latter had celadons, together with underglaze iron decorated wares, such as those shown here.

Si Satchanalai ware is high-fired stoneware—the fired body is greyish with black spots (as can be seen in the above examples where pieces have been broken off). This comes from the high iron oxide content of the clay; the iron appears as black, red or silvery inclusions.

Reddish tints (for example, at the bottom of the headless figurines) can occur when the  ceramic piece is fired in a reducing atmosphere (when there is too little oxygen in the kiln during the firing process). When the piece is brought out to cool, the increase in the level of oxygen in the atmosphere can cause the exposed parts of the clay to re-oxidise, turning them red.

Identified and written about since the late 19th century, the kiln sites of Si Satchanalai are among the most well-known of Thai ceramics. The term Si Satchanalai covers a large number of kilns (over 600 in the 3 three clusters of Ban Ko NoiTukatha and Ban Pa Yang), although it actually refers to a walled settlement about 10 km from Ban Ko Noi in central Thailand.

The group of wares from this area used to be called Sawankhalok and were differentiated from Sukhothai wares. This was because—before proper excavations were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s—people thought that production started at Sukhothai and when the clay there was exhausted, potters moved to Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai.

New data has shown that this idea is now no longer valid—Sukhothai and Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares were found together at the Tak Om Koi burial sites on the Thai-Myanmar border, and on the Koh Khram shipwreck in the Gulf of Thailand. Excavations also proved that the oldest kiln was at Ban Ko Noi, which produced the oldest Thai glazed ceramics, possibly dating to around the 1300s. The site has been severely disturbed and no further refined dating can be proposed until a chemical analysis of the  sherds has been done.

 

Stoneware antefix with monochrome white glaze, probably from Ban Pa Yang, Si Satchanalai. 15-16C. H: 17.1 cm, W: 12.5 cm. NUS Museum S1954-0074-001-0
Si Satchanalai celadon kiln wasters comprising a bottle, bowls and dishes. 14-15C. Private collection
D: 12.5 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-016-0
D: 23 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-012-0

The Royal Nanhai had at least two other types of wares that typify Sawankhalok/ Si Satchanalai production, including monochrome whites and monochrome browns. Compare the potiche on the left with the potiche on the right from the Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai kilns.

Monochrome white-covered potiche from the Royal Nanhai wreck (c. 1460). The glazing and decoration, if any have been eroded after having been buried at sea for centures. H. 15 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-002-0
From the Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai kilns. H: 11 cm; D: 11.5 cm. NUS Museum S1968-0053-001-0

Singburi

According to Brown, the site of Singburi may have been founded by potters from the North who sought safety during the troubled times of the 1550s, when the Burmese invaded Thailand.

We can date the ceramics of Singburi to the late 16th century and into the 17th, when its jars sank near Africa with the Dutch ship, the Witte Leeuw, in 1613.

Singburi wares are “primarily unglazed stoneware storage jars with thick handles, baluster jars, sometimes with stamped pictorial decoration (includes elephants) on the shoulder, and other wares such as basins almost identical to [those from] Phitsanulok” … excavations began in 1988” [Brown 1988: 84, 95-96]. It may have been active until Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.

Such jars as you see (right) were found on the Royal Nanhai wreck.

Storage jar from the Maenam Noi kilns, Singburi with a thick mouthrim; 4 horizontal lugs around the shoulder with a moulded horizontal band just above them. Streaky brown slip on upper body. (Brown and Sjóstrand 2003: colour plate 35). Mid-15-16C. H: 26 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-003-0

Sukhothai

Bowl of conical form with an undecorated cavetto, the flattened mouth-rim and the outside wall with circular decorative underglaze iron-black bands; the centre medallion with a fish, mottled, nearly camouflaging the 5 spur marks. Salvaged from the Nanhai wreck (c. 1460) by Sten Sjóstrand. Private collection

There is a legend that “Chinese potters went to Sukhothai in the late 13th century and founded the Thai stoneware tradition” [Miksic 2009: 94]. However, there are no ancient sources that corroborate this story and Brown noted several forms of evidence, including decorative motifs, use of tubular supports or pontils, and kiln design, which are not paralleled in China, though there are some links with Vietnam (Brown 1977: 59).

From the historical point of view, the principality of Sukhothai was established “between 1220 and 1250 when, according to Thai history, it broke free from and allegiance to Angkor – it is around this time, in fact, that Khmer history records a war with Siam” [Brown 1988: 57]. By 1300, the Sukhothai kilns were in full production, indicating a strong relation between the founding of the kingdom and the increase in production.

Sukhothai is famed for its stoneware plates, dishes and bowls, having an underglaze iron black decoration of fish in the centre, encircled by rings (one, two or three). Other Sukhothai characteristics include the evenly spaced unglazed scars left by the spurs (usually five in number), which are sometimes integrated into the fish designs; a white slip showing on the base; and a coarse, grainy, greyish (sometimes brownish) body with white particles.


Roxanna Brown calls the drawing of the Sukhothai fish “free, lively, summary” [1988: 64], as opposed to the more formal representations of Sawankhalok fish. Examples are shown below.

With a flat lip, the inside laid with a cream slip; the centre medallion with a fish in underglaze iron-black irregularly mottled, thus concealing 5 spur marks within the well; all covered with a translucent glaze; the outside wall with a slip and two decorative circular bands in iron-black, but unglazed; the roughly carved foot unglazed, and with a coarse grey-brown biscuit containing white particles. 15C. H: 7.8 cm, D: 25.9 cm. NUS Museum S1969-0030-001-0
Bowl of conical form with an undecorated cavetto, the flattened mouth-rim and the outside wall with circular decorative underglaze iron-black bands; the centre medallion with a fish, mottled, thereby camouflaging the 5 spur marks; drawn on a cream slip and covered by a pitted thin transparent glaze; the carved foot with a brownish-pink biscuit containing whitish particles. 15C. H: 8 cm, D: 25.7 cm. NUS Museum S0001-0066-001-0
Plate with a flat lip having a décor of a frieze of double brush strokes in underglaze iron; fish motif in centre medallion with tail on cavetto. 16C. H: 8.5 cm, D: 30.8 cm. Private collection
An exceptionally well-potted bowl with somewhat flattened mouth-rim decorated with 3 circular iron-black decorative bands. The centre medallion, ringed by two decorative bands, contains a well-drawn fish, its mottled body helping to camouflage 5 spur marks. All decoration is done on a cream slip. The outside wall is similarly slipped, with 3 decorative bands, but unglazed. The carved foot shows a dark-brown biscuit containing whitish granules, and has a well-defined cylindrical pontil mark on the base, the biscuit of a lighter hue within the mark. The cylindrical pontil mark is exceptional on a Sukhothai piece, and must indicate that the bowl stood at the bottom of the stack. 15C. H: 7.3 cm, D: 22.2 cm. NUS Museum S1968-0110-001-0
Bowl with three circular bands along inner mouth-rim. The cavetto is painted in iron oxide of 2 fish separated by 2 sprigs of leaves; centre medallion bordered by 2 circular bands with central vegetal/ floral motif and 5 spur marks (the white discoloration comes from calcification of the piece). 14-15C. H: 8 cm, W: 22.3 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0001-046-0
The flattened mouth-rim of this plate is painted in underglaze iron-black with two interrupted decorative bands. The inside wall is laid with a cream slip. The cavetto has a fruiting vegetal scroll in iron-black, and the centre medallion a fish. 5 spur marks are partly concealed by the mottled body of the fish. The entire piece is covered by a somewhat opaque milky-white glaze giving a lustred appearance. The outside wall is slipped and glazed, and with 2 iron-black decorative bands. The carved foot shows a light grey-brown biscuit containing whitish granules. 15C. H: 6.4 cm, D: 26.3 cm. NUS Museum S1969-0036-001-01
Stoneware fragment with underglaze black fish motif on interior centre and a flat disc-shaped pontil with 5 spurs adhering to the foot. 15C. H: 7.8 cm, D: 18 cm. NUS Museum S1972-18-1
Sukhothai kin furniture (14-16C). Two pontil stands far L & R, and two five-spurred disc supports. Private collection
A sea-worn ring-handled jar of flattened globular shape from the Royal Nanhai wreck. 15C. D: 13.5 cm. NUS Museum S2003-0022-0007-0
How archaeologists believe the Sukhothai kilns were stacked (Photo source: Brown 1988: fig. 45)

Another common design on Sukhothai wares is the sunburst motif, which Brown calls ‘pikun blossoms’ [1988: 65], such as on the bowl (right).

Dating Production

Shipwrecks tell us that the Sukhothai and Sawankhalok kilns were operating simultaneously at least in the first half of the 15th century, rather than consecutively as previously believed [Miksic 2009: 32]. On the Turiang, dated to around 1370, a larger number of Sukhothai wares were found, compared to fewer Sawankhalok ceramics.  Sukhothai wares also appear on the Longquan wreck, dated to about 1400 [Brown & Sjostrand 2003: 80–81] as well as on the Ko Khram and Rayong wrecks of 1380–1500 [Pisit & Sayan 1990: 18–19, 48–49], which indicated an export trade for these pieces.

A neatly potted bowl with a simple, legible décor inside and out. It has an unglazed rim. The underglaze iron black decoration of the sunburst motif is painted on a dull cream slip. The glaze has totally eroded, but bubbles appear on the exterior. Five barely visible spur marks can be seen on the centre medallion. The carved foot shows a bright brown biscuit containing whitish particles. Similar bowls were recovered from the Xuande and Singtai wrecks (Brown & Sjostrand 2003: colour plate 79). 15-16C. H: 6.2 cm, D: 14.4 cm. NUS Museum S1967-0042-001-0

Brown pointed out that the types of wares found aboard the Turiang present the “intriguing possibility” of an early date for the trade of underglaze-decorated Vietnamese and Thai ceramics. The entry of Thai ceramics into the regional export market coincided approximately with the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China when all private overseas trade was forbidden and the status of the Jingdezhen kilns shifted from private enterprises to court kilns producing ceramics only under the emperor’s direction. This enabled the Thai kilns (Sawankhalok and Sukhothai) to clinch the market in glazed ceramics at least until the late 16th century when China regained the market. [Miksic 2009: 32-33]

Thai ceramics seem to have continued more or less interrupted from around 1400 until the late 16th century. J C Shaw suggests that the Sukhothai kilns ceased production in the 1560s due to Burmese invasions and the revival of Chinese exports after the Ming trade ban was lifted in 1567 [Shaw 1981:27].

Suphanburi

Suphanburi is a kiln site that was excavated in 1985-6. It produced mainly unglazed stoneware jars, much like those found in Phitsanulok and Singburi. Very little is known of this production centre, but specimens have been found in Okinawa, along with Martaban jars and underglaze blue and black decorated ware from Vietnam.

Jar, burial size, unglazed stoneware, with dusty grey body, flat base, stamped and incised decoration, and appliqué stud handles, of a type found in the Philippines, sometimes in a larger storage size. Suphanburi kilns (?). H: 23.9 cm. Ceramics Museum, Chiangmai University (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XLIII c)
Ovoid jar with a wide mouth, a carved neck flange, two double ring-handles on the collar. Two horizontal bands are incised around neck, with one at the junction of the neck and collar. The entire jar is covered in a runny green glaze that stops at the lower body. Suphanburi (?). 16C. H: 26.5 cm, D: 20 cm. NUS Museum S30421-0

Wang Nua

Together with the sherds found at the kiln site, this plate typifies Wang Nua ware with its scalloped mouth-rim, which is made, as Brown puts it, “rather like pie crust edges”, by pinching the outer edge of the rim inward. Other characteristics include: unglazed bases, brownish-grey bodies, decoration limited to incised rings around the wells and a green glaze, which can range, according to Brown, “from a watery translucent medium green to an opaque somewhat murky yellowish green which is generally applied much more thinly on the exterior than interior.” H: 6.2 cm; D: 30.4 cm. Private collection. Photograph by Kim Retka

Wang Nua was discovered in 1970, located 30 km south of Kalong. Twenty-five kilns were found, but only eleven were excavated in 1972. Archaeologists found mainly celadons, strengthening the idea that the northern Thai kilns were highly specialised.

Most of the finds at the excavations were roughly made pieces, but extremely rare fine examples have also been discovered, mostly at the Tak Om Koi burial sites, such as the plate shown below.

Cross-draft bank kilns at Wang Nua excavated in 1972. Dug into a hillside, the kilns comprised only a shell of clay earth hardened by repeated firings. Probably late 14th to early 15th centuries. (Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. 54 e)

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Brown, Roxanna M., The Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification, 2nd edn. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Brown, Roxanna M. The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia, Bangkok: Siam Society, 2009.

Brown, Rosanna M. and Sten Sjóstrand, Maritime Archaeology and Shipwreck Ceramics in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: Department of Museums and Antiquities, n.d.

Guérin, Nicole & Dick van Oenen, Thai Ceramic Art: The Three Religions, Singapore: Suntree Media, 2005.

Miksic, John N., Archaeological Research on the ‘Forbidden Hill’ of Singapore, Singapore: National Museum, 1985.

Miksic, John N. Southeast Asian Ceramics: New Light on Old Pottery, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 2009.

Miksic, John N and C T Yap, “Fine-Bodied White Earthenwares of South East Asia: Some X-ray Fluorescence Tests” in Asian Perspectives 28, 1:45-60, 1990.

Pisit Charoenwongsa and Sayan Prisanchit (eds.), Underwater Archaeology in Thailand II, Ceramics from the Gulf of Thailand, Bangkok: Samaphan Publishing Company, 1990.

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.

Shaw, John C., Introducing Thai Ceramics also Burmese and Khmer, Bangkok: Duangphorn Kemasingki, 1987.

Sjóstrand, Sten, www.maritimeasia.ws

Srisuchat, A. “Earthenware from Archaeological Sites in Southern Thailand: The First Century BC to the Twenlfth Century AD” in J N Miksic (ed.), Earthenware in Southeast Asia, Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003, pp. 249-261.

Young, C M, Marie-France Dupoizat and E W Lane (eds.), Vietnamese Ceramics, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, Oxford University Press, 1982.