It was only in 1984, when the Tak Om Koi Burial Sites were found along the Thai-Myanmar border, that Burmese ceramic production came to light. Prior to this, very little was known, but the idea that Martaban had produced ceramic jars was already widespread. In addition, the glazed plaques at Bagan were well-known, and earthenware pottery had been discovered in many archaeological sites.
At Tak Om Koi, however, new types of wares (mainly green-and-whites) were identified.
As this is a relatively recent discovery in the history of Burmese ceramic wares, the details are still sketchy. An article about the efforts to unearth pottery at the Phayagyi kiln near Twante was published in 2020 in the Myanmar Times (link here).
All references are to works named in the Bibliography at the end of this article.
Sometimes spelled ‘martavan’, this designation refers to the large brown glazed jars that were generally used for storage purposes. The Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta, in his travels in Southeast Asia in the 14th century, commented that such large jars were used to ship “pepper, citron, and mango, all prepared with salt” [Gutman 2001:112].
Although Roxanna Brown states that such jars are rarely found in Southeast Asian shipwrecks [2004: 89], fragments have been discovered in shipwrecks found off the coast of Goa, India, indicating that they were used further afield towards western Asia.
This jar with appliqué decoration represents a typical shape that Martabans are known for – a wide shoulder and a tapering base. Two other features characterise the Martaban jar: the large size and the brown glaze, which can sometimes be so dark as to seem black.
These stoneware jars were known to other early visitors to Southeast Asia. Western texts do not mention where they were manufactured, but the name probably derives from the port of Martaban, now known as Mottama, in lower Myanmar. This name may denote that the jars were obtainable there, but they could have been made elsewhere, and brought to Martaban overland. [Miksic 2009: 66]
Lagunbyee was an ancient town located on the Irrawaddy delta between Yangon and Bago, enclosed by curved earthen walls.
Over a hundred kiln sites were discovered along the Lagunbyee creek system. These were large cross-draft kilns capable of manufacturing high-temperature green glazes.
Myo Thant Tyn and U Thaw Kaung postulate two dates for these kilns. One possibility is that they are from the Pyu period because of the use of curved earthen walls at the settlement, and hence from the 1st to the 9th centuries CE.
The second is due to the proximity of the kilns to the Shwegugyi Pagoda, built by the Mon King Dhammaceti (1462-92 AD). The monument is covered with many glazed plaques, which are traditionally dated to 1479, at the founding of the temple. Since the kilns are only 16 km (10 miles) away, and are the nearest capable of producing such plaques, one could assume that the kilns also date from the same time. However, as plaques are decorative and not a permanent feature of architecture, they could have been added at a later date.
A 1999 excavation at Lagunbyee produced paddle-marked earthenware in shapes ranging from plates to large jars.
Another distinctive product of these kilns is the white lead-glazed earthenware such as the plate (below). Again, the rings on the foot are characteristic of Burmese ware, as well as the lack of decoration, except for incised circles on the interior surface of the dish. This is another feature which can be found in some cases of Burmese white ware.
Celadons were among the wares found at the Tak Om Koi burials along the Thai-Myanmar border, but did not correspond to known Thai celadon production. In addition, some celadon dishes were found in the Philippines, with characteristic Burmese rings on their bases. [Brown 1988:105]
From shipwrecks, Brown [2004: 7-8] was able to gather evidence that Burmese celadons such as the dish below right, were exported to Indonesia. In the latter half of the 15th century, they even appeared to overtake Thai celadon exports. Miksic [2009: 93] tells us that examples have been reported from Aceh, northern Sumatra.
In the late 1990s, 50 different groups of ancient kilns numbering in the hundreds were found in the Twante district. This is about 32 km southwest of Yangon, on the Irrawaddy delta in Lower Myanmar.
At Twante, the finds consisted of “unglazed ware of various designs, opaque white glazed wares, white and green glazed ware, and celadon ware”, with the celadons in the majority.” [Nan 2007: 19].
Testing of green-and-white ware from the Tak Om Koi burial sites as well as from northern Sumatra has shown that the clay body and glazing are similar to the sherds found at Twante.
Unfortunately, looting has caused the sites to be severely disturbed and the precise kilns where the sherds were collected cannot be identified.
Of note is the interior decoration, with its emphasis on a circular motif, which is floral here. Roxanna Brown (1988:102) thinks that these rondel type of motifs could possibly indicate a Middle Eastern influence, as they seem to recall the “evil eye” of that part of the world. This should be taken in conjunction with the use of the tin, lead and copper in the glazing. Using these minerals is not native to Southeast Asia or China, and we should probably look to the Middle East for the origin of such a glaze.
The decorative plaques of Bagan are the oldest attested glazedpieces in Myanmar, even though Chinese Tang Dynasty records of the 9th century mention that the capital of the kingdom of Piao (probably around the region of the modern city of Pyu in central Myanmar) already had a surrounding wall of bricks that were covered in a green glaze and was protected by a brick-lined moat [Çoedès 1964: 196].
However, Miksic tells us that “no glazed bricks have been found [at Pyu], though they do exist at the site of Bagan, which became the centre of a major kingdom in the 11th century. There they are used as exteriors for stupas, not for building walls” [Miksic 2009: 66].
“Other early Burmese lead-glazed ceramic wares include architectural fittings and plaques on datable temples and domestic pottery found in habitation areas from Bagan in the north to Bago (Pegu) in the south” [Don Hein 2008:18].
In 1963, the first Burmese kilns were discovered and excavated near the Abeyadana temple in Bagan. This report was not published. It was initially thought that these kilns would have produced the glazed plaques used on the temple, but among the sherds found on the kiln sites, were no relief fragments or discarded glazed bricks. This led Hein to conclude, after a second excavation in 1999, that “there was no definite evidence how the kiln worked or what it was used for” [Hein 2003: 27].
It is interesting to note that the oldest use of glazed ceramics to decorate walls of sacred buildings is at Bagan, approximately 200 years before Chinese Cizhou (circa 14th century) wall tiles were made. “On the other hand,” as Miksic says [2009: 90], “Islamic buildings in central Asia were also decorated with glazed tiles.”
The Bagan glazes used on the temples were all opaque glazes and never transparent. The colours ran from green to greenish blue with some yellow and cream-coloured glazes. They were shiny on the surface and have become matte due to weathering. These glazes were low-fired, in green and white monochromes. Analyses of the chemical composition of them identify the use of tin and lead, leading to hypotheses of a possible Middle Eastern origin of the glaze. This idea needs to be investigated further in conjunction with the decoration on green-and-white Burmese wares [see Brown 1988: 102].
One of the foremost reasons why Burmese chronology appears incomplete is because of the large-scale looting that happens at archaeological sites. Brown [1988: 107] records the story of how Mr Kyaw Shein, a caretaker at the Shwegugyi temple at Pegu, bravely tried to prevent the theft that occurred one night in 1984; several men took away hundreds of pieces and another group appeared a few months later to claim the remaining ‘several thousand’. The kiln sites at Bagan have also suffered from severe plundering for gold.
Located in the upper Irrawaddy, the area around Shwebo was the site of the ancient Pyu city-state of Hanlin, which flourished between the 4th and 9th centuries CE.
Very little is known about the production site of Shwebo, and although kilns have been found, they have yet to be fully researched. A number of Burmese ceramics have been found in southwest Sumatra, where Bengkulu (Bencoolen) is located, in the 17th-century contexts. It is postulated that these plates with a white glaze and red bodies are from Shwebo, but this remains to be confirmed [Miksic 2009: 93].
The thickly potted jar featured below is dated to the 17th-18th centuries. Its upper half is covered in a white slip under a yellowish-green glaze. Where the glaze meets the unglazed lower body, it turns purplish in colour. The interior of the jar is glazed.
One of the most common sights in Myanmar used to be the unglazed earthenware pots that one would see positioned on a small stand, covered with a cloth or green leaves, or more often, a tin plate with a drinking cup on top, in front of every home. These were water pots, making drinking water available to any passer-by in need. They were once a sign of hospitality, but moreover, a part of Burmese religious life as they were also a way of making, in Buddhist terminology, merit. Today, sadly, they are disappearing. To read more about them, follow this link.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Adhyatman, Sumarah. “Antique Ceramics from Myanmar (Burma)”. Transcript of a talk given at the Ganesha Lecture Series, Indonesia, March 12, 1991.
Borell, Brigitte. “A Burmese Ceramic Jar in the Ethnological Museum in Heidelberg, Germany” in Artibus Asiae, 2014, Vol. 74, No. 2 (2014), pp. 257-297.
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: The Siam Society, 2009, (posthumously published Ph.D. dissertation of 2004).
Collis, Maurice, Into Hidden Burma: An Autobiography, London: Faber & Faber, 1953.
Gutman, Pamela, “The Martaban Trade” in Asian Perspectives 40, i (2002): 108-118. (link)
Hein, Don, “Summary Report on Archaeological Fieldwork at Myaung Mya, Bagan, and Other Sites in Myanmar, August-September 1999”, Melbourne: Deakin University, unpublished e-manuscript.
Miksic, John N. Southeast Asian Ceramics: New Light on Old Pottery, Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society, 2009.
Myo Thant Tyn and Dawn Rooney, “Ancient Celadon in Myanmar: A New Ceramic Discovery”, in Orientations 32, 4: 57-61.
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.