Asian Ceramics in Production and Trade in Southeast Asia’s ‘Age of Empires’
The 2007 William Willetts annual lecture by John Guy
The study of ceramics as evidence of material culture is a long established field of enquiry within archaeology, but is relatively new within the associated disciplines of history and art history, where these artefacts are increasingly studied as indicators of cultural dynamics and exchange contacts. This lecture provided an overview of the way in which the study of historical ceramics in maritime trade draws on the work of archaeologists and seeks to contextualise these findings and add further layers of meaning by situating them within a broader historical framework.
The latter part of the first millennium and especially the 10th and 11th centuries were periods of unprecedented commercial activity in the Southeast Asian region. This heightened trade exchange was largely stimulated by the engine of long-distance trade, serving China, and India and the lands of West Asia. Equatorial and mainland Southeast Asia became increasingly integrated into this international trading system, both supplying forest and animal products, and consuming international trade goods in exchange.
The major new states in the region, notably the Sailendras in western Indonesia, the Mon Dvaravati kingdom of Thailand, Angkorian Cambodia, the states of Champa, and Pagan Burma, were all stimulated in part by this commercial energy. They in turn became major consumers of international trade goods, of which high-fired ceramics are the best preserved indicators. Other commodities, most notably fine silk and cotton textiles, were almost certainly more significant in volume and value, but do not survive.
This talk was built around a series of case studies which present the growing body of archaeological evidence concerning cultural dialogues and material exchange leading up to and including the age of empires in Southeast:
i) The South Indian Roman-style rouletted wares of Arikemedu, near Pondicherry, south India – 1st -5th C – and recent finds of associated wares in West Java, Bali and central Vietnam. These are the earliest secure evidence of routine ceramic trade between India and Southeast Asia.
ii) Imported ceramic wares from peninsula sites in the late first millennium, including Palembang in Sumatra, the Bujang Valley, Kedah, and Tioman Island, represent important evidence of transhipment points in the long-distance trading system..
iii) The circulation of Persian Gulf earthenware jars with turquoise blue or green glaze. Evidence of the trade in these wares distributed along the length of the international Asian trade system, from Basra – their probable place of manufacture – to Fujian in southern China. Numerous examples recorded in Southeast Asian sites, including Champa. In circulation from around the 8th century, with some stylistic changes in evidence by the 10th century.
iv) The Belitung (‘Tang’) shipwreck cargo, an Arab dhow discovered in the west Java Sea with a cargo of 60,000 artefacts – late Tang Chinese ceramics, gold, silver – in all probability was destined for the Persian Gulf market. A dated ceramic (826 CE) and associated coin evidence suggest this vessel sailed in the second quarter of the 9th century. This cargo represents the first evidence of a new phenomenon, large-scale ceramic commodity trade from China.
v) The Intan cargo, excavated in the west Java Sea, a mixed consignment of Chinese Five Dynasties ceramics, Chinese bronze mirrors, western Indonesian metalwork including religious ritual utensils, and Islamic glass. Assigned on coinage evidence to the mid-10th century. This cargo provides a unique insight into the nature of cosmopolitan trade in 10th century western Indonesian, at the height of the Srivijayan power, and enhances our understanding of the ceramic models circulating in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia.
vi) The Cirebon (‘Nan Han’) cargo, excavated from the Java Sea at a site off Cirebon, west Java, in 2004-5. This vessel is, like the Intan, of lashed-lug construction, a local shipbuilding type belonging to the Austronesian ship-building tradition. The cargo has been estimated at in excess of 500,000 objects, of which 75% are ceramics, principally Chinese but also regional earthenwares. A hoard of coins from southern China belonging to the reign of Liu Yen (917-42) of the Nan Han (‘Southern Han’) dynasty enables this vessel’s cargo to be assigned, with a high probability, to the mid-10th century.
As excavations increase at mainland Southeast Asian sites, especially Angkor, we must increasingly be alert to the need for secure identification of lesser known imported ceramics that are being discovered. The recent shipwreck evidence will assist us in this process of understanding, interpreting and dating the ceramics which the archaeological landscape of the Southeast Asia is revealing. These ceramics also open up new lines of enquiry into the origins of forms and decorative styles in regional ceramics, most notably in Angkorian-period Khmer ceramic wares, as most dramatically indicated by the Intan and Cirebon cargoes.
About John Guy
John Guy is Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. He is well known to members as a widely published specialist on Southeast Asian ceramics and trade ceramic history. He has participated in a number of ceramic site excavations in Southeast Asia, both land and maritime, and most recently spent three days at the Anlong Thom kiln site2, on Phnom Kulen, in Cambodia, the excavation of which was sponsored by the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society.
John’s most recent publication, Indian Temple Sculpture, is being published by V&A Publications in May, and an exhibition he has guest-curated on this subject opens in Barcelona in July.
Related Publications by John Guy:
Oriental Trade Ceramics in South-East Asia. Ninth to Sixteenth Centuries, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1986 (paperback edition, 1990).
Ceramic Excavation Sites in Southeast Asia: A Preliminary Gazetteer, Research Centre for Southeast Asian Ceramics, University of Adelaide, 1987.
Ceramic Traditions of South-East Asia, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1989.
‘The Vietnamese Wall Tiles of Majapahit’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1988-89, vol. 53: 27-46.
‘A Reassessment of Khmer Ceramic’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1993-94, vol. 57.
South East Asia and China: Art, Commerce and Interaction, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, No.17, University of London; 1995, co-editor.
Vietnamese Ceramics. A Separate Tradition, Chicago, Art Media/Paragon, 1997 (co-editor)
‘Vietnamese Ceramics from the Hoi An Excavation: The Cu Lao Cham Ship Cargo’, Orientations, September 2000:125-128.
‘Ceramics from the Cu Lao Cham shipwreck’, Mot The Ky Khao Co Hoc Vietnam (Proceedings of the 100 Years of Vietnamese Archaeology Conference), Hanoi, Institute of Archaeology, 2005, vol . II: 561 – 571 (in Vietnamese; English summary).
‘Tamil merchant guilds and the Quanzhou trade’, in A. Schottenhamer (ed.), The Emporium of the World. Maritime Quanzhou, 1000-1400, Leiden, Brill, 2001: 283-308.
‘Offering up a rare jewel: Buddhist merit-making and votive tablets in early Burma’, in A. Green and T.R. Blurton (eds.), Burma. Art and Archaeology, London, British Museum Publications, 2003: 23-33.
‘The Belitung (Tang) Cargo and Early Asian Ceramic Trade’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 2001-2002, vol. 66: 13-27.
‘The Intan shipwreck: a 10th century cargo in South-east Asian waters’, in S. Pearson (ed.), Song Ceramics: Art History, Archaeology and Technology. Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, No. 22, University of London, 2004: 171-192. (publ. 2005)
Early ninth-century Chinese export ceramics and the Persian Gulf connection: the Belitung shipwreck evidence’, SFECO (Societe Francaise d’Etude de la Ceramique Orientale), Paris, Musee Cernuschi, 2006, vol. 4: 9-20.