The Ceramics of Southeast Asia

We commence with Mainland Southeast Asia as the ceramic production here is more profuse and better documented than anywhere else in the region. Ceramics on the mainland have been around since prehistoric times, but glazed ceramics have only been produced in the last two millennia.

Cambodian earthenware in the shape of a pig.


Towards the end of the 6th or in the early 7th century, Khmer potters instituted an important technique for mass production of ceramics: they began to use the wheel. A Khmer inscription dating to 674 CE compares the source of creation to a potter’s wheel. Ceramics of this period were sometimes decorated with slip and paint, but this practice was abandoned after 800 CE when glazed stonewares first appeared.

The first glazed ceramics made in Southeast Asia beyond the orbit of Chinese control were associated with the Khmer rulers Indravarman and Yasovarman, who reigned from the 880s to 940 CE. It is not known, however, how the process of firing stoneware or the glazing of ceramics appeared in Cambodia. Khmer ceramics were not exported beyond the Khmer cultural zone.

A ceramic architectural tile.


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 large ceramic jars was already widespread. In addition, the glazed plaques found 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, which Roxanna Brown, the late but respected expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, included in her chapter on Burmese wares (see Bibliography). Work is continuing in this field as this text is being written.

A Sukhothai shallow bowl with saucy fish.


Thai ceramics were among the first Southeast Asian wares to be seriously studied, starting with W. A. 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.

This section includes ceramics from Haripunjaya, Kalong, Lampang, Nakorn Thai and Nan, Pa-O, Phan, Phayao, Phitsanulok, Sankampaeng, Sawankhalok & Si Satchanalai, Singburi, Sukhothai, Suphanburi, and Wang Nua.

A blue & white large charger with flower motif.


High-fired ceramics were already being produced in Vietnam 2000 years ago. The white-glazed, white-bodied ceramics from tombs in Thanh-hoa are older than any that have been found in China to date. The Vietnamese were aware of the glazing process when Chinese craftsmen followed Chinese soldiers and administrators to form new settlements in the region of modern Hanoi in the 1st century. Vietnamese wares nevertheless closely resembled Chinese forms.

After the fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century, the early Vietnamese ceramic tradition seems to have come to an end. A renaissance of sorts occurred in the period of the Ly dynasty (1009-1225). Vietnamese ceramics received a major impetus at the end of the 14th century when the Ming dynasty severely restricted exports and Vietnam and Thailand rushed in to fill the gap.

An wide-bellied earthenware pot with pinched neck.


Pottery is the most abundant type of artefact made by humans throughout history and was first made in East Asia about 15,000 years ago.

We know that ceramics have been made in Southeast Asia for at least 8,000 years. During the Neolithic era, pottery was being made in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. It belonged to the cord-marking tradition, which is also found in other parts of mainland Southeast Asia.

But about 2,000 years ago, a new style of pottery appeared along the coasts of the Straits of Melaka, from south Thailand through the Malay Peninsula, Suatra, Riau, the coasts of Borneo and even West Java.