A Sulawesi Trade Ware Collection

A Sulawesi Trade Ware Collection

Submitted by Ed Conyngham, a career Foreign Service Officer and ‘Old Asia Hand’

The 21 ceramic pieces in this collection were purchased from a shop on the west coast of Sulawesi in 1972, and in Ujung Pandang (Makassar) where I had been studying Indonesian. The larger pieces were purchased from itinerant vendors in Jakarta who occasionally visited our home in the evenings bearing their goods. How remarkable it seems now that such old pottery was being sold so casually. It speaks perhaps of the quantities available. I frequently visited the Museum Pusat at the time with a copy of Van Orsoy de Fline’s Guide to the Ceramic Collection in hand, and ordered a copy of Leandro and Cecilia Locsin’s Oriental Ceramics Discovered in the Philippines (the jarlets in this collection are similar to those on page 119 of their book). I boxed this collection up in 1976 when I left Jakarta and opened it only recently. 


Seeing these pieces again brought vivid memories of Bugis schooners in Ujung Pandang harbor, extravagant sunsets and a jeep trip up the coast with my Indonesian teacher to the old trading ports of Pare-Pare and Menado. This rekindled my interest and I purchased more books on Southeast Asian trade ware. I poured over the pictures for weeks looking for works similar to mine but was quickly overwhelmed by the diversity of Southeast Asian trade ware as well as by the remarkable growth in scholarly literature. I will limit myself here, therefore, to books bearing on only two items, a carelessly-made jarlet with underglaze blue rings (#6) and a celadon plate (#21) with a foliated edge, and conclude with reflections on Sulawesi trade ware and photographing ceramics. 

On re-reading Van Orsoy de Fline’s book, I came across the line, “Annamese enameled decoration was always thinly applied and in many cases flaked off…and can only be detected by the faint stains which remain” (p. 66). The circles on my pot matched that description, and I began looking for earlier examples. Curiously, I found my first lead in a book on Southeast Asian music because Vietnamese bronze drums, which feature parallel circular bands, were also musical instruments. I found many examples of early decorative bands in Volume I of John Pope’s The Freer Chinese Bronzes and in S. Lee’s chapters on metallurgy in China: 5,000 Years Innovation and Transformation in the Arts–a grand heritage indeed for my humble pot.


Terry Miller notes in The Garland Handbook of Southeast Asian Music that Bronze Age Dong Dau culture (1500-1000 BCE) was “associated not only with a different type of pottery vessels decorated with multiple parallel incised lines, but also a great blossoming of the use of bronze” (p. 23). These parallel lines were also used on drums in the Bronze Age Dong Son culture (700 BCE-1 CE). SEACS’ catalogue from its 1982 exhibition, Vietnamese Ceramics, has a picture of a Dong Son drum showing zoomorphic and geometric designs between circular parallel lines (p. 14). Examples of parallel lines can also be seen in some late Bronze Age pottery in Ban Chiang, Thailand. From then on, parallel lines (with and without decoration) became ubiquitous in Southeast Asian pottery, surely making them one of the most long-lived ceramic designs of all time.

According to John Pope (The Freer Chinese Bronzes, p. 10), parallel lines empty of design served as frames or boundaries between zones with different motifs. In time, some pots were left without any design other than circular lines making these lines decorative rather than functional. My carelessly-brushed pot (#6) has three sets of parallel lines, which follow this pattern. Single lines also came into use. Beautiful examples of single decorative lines in 16th century pottery can be seen in Dragons and Lotus Blossoms: Vietnamese Ceramics from the Birmingham Museum of Art, pages 212-213. 

Early pottery was incised by hand, but at some point, potters’ wheels came into use. An example of a 17th century potter’s wheel can be seen on p. 151  in the chapter on ceramics in Sung Ying-hsiung’s (d. 1660) Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century (Tian Gong Kai Wu). The craftsman at the wheel in the illustration, brush in hand, is said to be ‘da quan‘ or making circles, and the circles happen to be parallel circles.

Of all the  jarlets in my collection,  #2 and #8 have the most beautiful glazes and that is the problem. They are too beautiful; they show no weathering at all and not the slightest scratch. They were certainly never buried with their owners and make me wonder if there is a kiln somewhere producing modern trade ware.  

My celadon plate (#21) caused me problems. When I looked at the white edge, followed by descending wavy lines, I saw it as a series of white capped waves. However, when i looked at pictures of similar plates, I could see that many people called the edge ‘foliate’, meaning leaf-like. Others called it ‘scalloped’, meaning shaped like a scallop. Another ‘barbed’, focusing on the high points. I called it ‘wavy’ since it reminded me of waves. At first I thought ‘foliate’ was a stretch because it didn’t look like any leaf I had ever seen, but later conceded to myself that I was being too literal as these were stylized waves. I checked out ‘waves’ in Patricia Bjaaland Welch’s Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery and learned that Chinese “waves were drawn by pyramid-shaped lines made identifiable by the sprays at the top” (p. 212). A case can be made for each term, but in the end I decided to stick with ‘foliate’ because it has been in use for a long time and when we hear it, most of us will think of a particular kind of edge rather than leaves. It is thus more precise. What, I wonder, were foliate edges called in Chinese literature? 

The Phenomenon of Sulawesi Trade Ware

Roxanna Brown noted in “The History of Ceramic Finds in Sulawesi” (SEACS Transactions pamphlet No. 5, 1974), that the amount of ceramics found in Sulawesi is staggering and suggests they might have come via wide roaming inter-island traders responding to local interest. Without contemporaneous vernacular records, we can only speculate on how the peoples of Sulawesi came to value these wares for such a long time. I hazard the guess that there was a communal passion for collecting them.

Here is a quote from the work cited earlier (p, 135) by the Ming scholar Sung Ying-hsing, deftly summing up ceramics’ social and aesthetic roles:

“The sacrificial dishes of Shang and Chou times were made of wood; was it not because the people then wanted to show great respect [towards the spirits]?  In later times, however, ingenious designs began to appear in various localities, human craftsmanship exerted its specialties, and superior ceramic wares were produced, beautiful as a woman endowed with fair complexion and delicate bones. [These wares] sparkle in quiet retreats or at festive boards, a concrete sign of civilized life. It is hardly necessary to adhere to the ways of Chou and Shang forever.”

On Photographing Ceramics

The colors of the pots are subtle and difficult to describe so I was hoping my photographs would better reflect reality but in the main they do not.  And, to make it worse, I had trouble photographing glossy pots like #2 and #8. The colors in some, like plate #21 and the dark brown pots, #17, #18 and #19 however are dead-on while others look alright as photographs but not true to the original.  For example, #20, a small dish, appears white in the photo but is grayish-white in reality. My hat’s off to the photographers who helped create the beautiful SEACS catalogues. There is so much more to learn.

Additional Pot Notes: #6 See Brown, Roxanna, The Ming Gap, p. 46 for a jarlet in similar condition. #15 See Brown (above), p. 124 for similar bowl. #16 Original cover lost by owner in shipment.

Works Consulted

Brown, Roxanna M. The Ceramics of South East Asia: Their Dating and Identification. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977.

—–. The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia: Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware. Bangkok: Siam Society, 2009.

Collis, Maurice. Into Hidden Burma: An Autobiography. London: Faber & Faber, 1953. Note: See chapter 16 for an account of pottery collecting in the Tenasserim region of Burma by Collis in the 1930s. Collis compares European and local attitudes towards old ceramics.

Frasche, D. F. Southeast Asian Ceramics. New York: Asia House Gallery, 1976.

Guy, John. Ceramic Traditions of South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lammers, Cheng and Abu Ridho. Annamese Ceramics in the Museum Pusat Jakarta. Jakarta: Ceramic Society of Indonesia, 1974.

White, J. C. Ban Chiang: Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1982.

Rooney, Dawn F. Kendis in the Cultural Context of Southeast Asia, A Commentary. Available online at www.rooneyarchive.net. Accessed October 1, 2019.

As part of Ed Conyngham’s continued research on his collection of trade ware, he asked himself how all of these pots ended up on Sulawesi. Read his findings and conclusions here.