SEA Ceramic Periods of Production
Southeast Asian ceramics have been produced in the region since prehistoric times. As preliminary reading, we recommend Earthenware in Southeast Asia published by Professor John N. Miksic, an Honorary Member of the society and world-recognised expert on Southeast Asian archaeology.
This timeline shows the beginning of local, regional production that coincides with two things:
- The establishment of the great Southeast Asian civilisations such as Angkor, and hence the historic nature of these ceramics; and
- The beginning of Southeast Asian mass production, and eventually regional trade.
This timeline therefore presents a summary of the events that coincide and sometimes overlap, so that a comprehensive historic overview of Southeast Asian ceramic production can be gained.
Mainland Southeast Asia is the focus of this timeline as ceramic production there is more profuse and better documented than anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
By the term ‘Mainland Southeast Asia’, we refer to countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodfia and Vietnam. Use this timeline which shows the periods of production in conjunction with our country articles.
100 BCE - Oldest known export ceramics come to SEA
Ceramics provide the earliest evidence of trade between Southeast Asia and its neighbours, India and China.
During the transitional period between prehistoric to historic times (around the first few centuries before and after our era), important types of pottery were made in India which archaeologists call ‘Fine Wares’. One of the best-known types is the ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’. Samples of this have been found at Khao Sam Kaeo on the isthmus of the Thai-Malay peninsula [Bouvet 2006].
Fragments of Western Han unfired clay sealings were found in Go Cam, southeast of Hoi An, Vietnam, indicating contact with the Chinese to the north. [Sources: Nguyen, Glover and Yamagata 2006: 216-231; Miksic 2009: 72]
1 CE to 200 CE - Romano-Indian Rouletted Ware comes to SEA
Another type of earthenware made in southern India in the 1st and 2nd centuries is known as ‘Romano-Indian Rouletted Ware’ because it was made in India by craftsmen imitating the Roman decorative technique of rouletting. It has been found at Chansen, central Thailand; at Khao Sam Kaeo; at the southern tip of Vietnam where we find the kingdom known to the Chinese as Funan; further north in coastal Vietnam at Tra Kieu near Danang; and as far east as Bali. [Bouvet 2006: 366 and sources cited there]
However, like the ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’ from India and the Han ceramics from China, none of these three wares were major trade commodities.
As indicators of trade links, however, they are valuable; they are one of the few types of evidence which can survive burial in the ground for thousands of years. [Sources: Manguin & Indrajaya 2006: 245-257; Miksic 2009: 72]
802 CE - Traditional founding date of AngkorWat, Cambodia
We find Khmer glazed ceramics being made during the reign of Indravarman I or Yasoarman (877-889 CE). His capital was Hariharalaya at Roluos.
Cambodia was the first Southeast Asian country in which kilns producing glazed pottery were discovered. This was in an area about 40 km to the northeast of Angkor, on the hills of Phnom Kulen.
“The Khmers were the first people other than the Chinese to master the technique of producing pottery fired at a temperature hot enough to melt the surfaces of the clay particles, a process known ‘assintering’. As a result of this technical feat, the Khmer could produce stoneware, literally as hard as stone. This type of ceramic is not only hard, it is also much less porous than low-fired earthenware. The surface of stoneware can be made even more impervious by coating it with glaze, literally a form of glass, with almost unlimited aesthetic and hygienic possibilities.” [Miksic 2009: 50]
The bottle shown right was found at the Srah Srang burial site and dates to the 10th century [Miksic 2009: 103]. It was buried after being rendered useless by breaking off the neck in a ritual, the meaning of which remains unknown [Groslier 1981: 14].
880 CE - Approximate date of the Thnal Mrech Kiln No. 1, Cambodia
Found on the hills of Phnom Kulen, the Thnal Mrech Kiln No. 1 may have been associated with long-term ceramic production throughout the Angkor period.
In ceramic studies, the term ‘Kulen’ is used to refer to ‘all yellowish-to-greenish-glazed Khmer ceramics’. This thin watery glaze is probably “derived from wood ash with the appropriate iron content.” [Brown 1988: 43]
950 CE - Approximate date of the Bang Kong kiln site near Roluos, Cambodia
Excavated only in 2008, the complex of kilns at this site may possibly be older than the Thnal Mrech kilns. Radiocarbon dating suggests a date of 943 to 975 CE. [Miksic 2009: 54]
880 CE - Approximate date of the Thnal Mrech Kiln No. 2, Cambodia
“Thnal Mrech Kiln No. 2 is one of the biggest kilns yet found in the Angkor region. The builders modified the slope of a pre-existing artificial dike to construct the floor, firebox and base of the kiln wall. The superstructure, including a putative chimney, disappeared long ago. Five radiocarbon dates prove that [it] was in use in the early 11th century.” [Miksic 2009: 53-54]
1030 - 1060 CE - Prasat Ban Phluang, NE Thailand and associated ceramics
During the 11th century, this area was under Khmer rule. Roxanna Brown and Vance Childress, another archaeologist, examined the approximately 4000 glazed sherds of pottery that were found when the temple was being restored in the 1970s. More information can be found in Brown’s 1978 article in Arts of Asia.
Mid-11th Century - Lead-glazed plaques used on temples in Bagan, Myanmar
From the Dhammayazika temple in Bagan, this lead-glazed ceramic tile depicts the Dhamma Jataka (a story or parable of the Buddha’s past lives, containing within it instruction on how to lead a worthy life). Such items were decorative but also functional both in the educational sense (with the stories of the Buddha they told) and in the architectural sense (to protect the structure from inclement weather).
Very little is known of the production sites near this ancient capital in Myanmar, but it is “probable that the practice of producing glazed plaques began at some point during Bagan’s golden age during the 11th to 13th centuries.” [Miksic 2009: 67]
Other scholars state that Burmese glazed ware tradition “could go as far back as the 7th century” as the word kalathapura, meaning ‘pot-making region’ was “found in more than four places of a fragmentary inscription.” [Myo Thant Tyn & U Thaw Kaung 2003: 291]
1080 - 1107 CE - Srah Srang burials, Angkor, Cambodia
A similar example of this double gourd-shaped bottle with anthropomorphic features has been found at the Srah Srang burial site. It was at this time that this specific form emerged and its find-location indicated that it was intended for funerary rituals.
Approximately 1200 CE, the production of fine Khmer ceramics ceased, possibly an after-effect of the fall of Angkor to Champa forces in 1177 CE. [Brown 1988:53]
1292 CE - Traditional date of the Ramkhamhaeng inscription No. 1
Legend that has it that the Thai King Ramkhamhaeng brought Chinese potters to his kingdom on his return from the second of two embassies he is said to have led in person to the Yuan court in Beijing. It was then that Sukhothai was established, along with a large ceramic production centre, in north central Thailand. [Miksic 2009: 49]
“In 1296 Angkor had just been dealt a military blow by Sukhothai, and its ruler had recently died. […] A Mongol mission arrived with the goal of persuading (or threatening) the new ruler to send tribute. One member of the ambassador’s suite, Zhou Daquan, left the most detailed description of ancient Angkor to have survived: Zhenla fengtu ji (真臘風土記), ‘Description of Cambodia’, written in 1297. Zhou spent half a year at Angkor, but his mission was not mainly concerned with trade, and his report contains relatively little information on the subject. Cambodia was not an important trading country. Still, Zhou (2001: 63) gives some basic commercial information about the Chinese goods wanted by Cambodians, which included: gold and silver, silk, tin, lacquered trays, and green porcelain from Quanzhou and Chuzhu (in the Longquan region, a large-scale centre of celadon production during the Yuan Dynasty). He noted (ibid.: 81) that ‘To serve rice, they use Chinese earthenware or copper trays’.
“What he meant by ‘Chinese earthenware’ is not clear; perhaps he meant ‘ceramics, pottery’.
Ceramics can provide material for the study of Angkor’s economy and social organisation. Chinese ceramics have been discovered at several sites around Angkor, but little information regarding their types, distribution or frequency has been published.” [Miksic 2009: 76-77]
1300 CE - Kalong kilns founded in northern Thailand
The Kalong kins were discovered in 1933, but still unstudied when Brown wrote her Master’s thesis on the ceramics of Southeast Asia in 1977.
Nevertheless, she noted that a common characteristic of Kalong ceramics was 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]
1300 CE - Sukhothai glazed wares in full production
Some of the earliest known wares from Sukhothai in north central Thailand, had black, brown and green wood-ash glazes, leading researchers to postulate a possible transfer of technology from the Khmers who used the same type of glazing [Brown 1988: 57], although this is not certain.
According to Brown [1988: 67], there are four types of Sukhothai wares:
- unglazed stonewares
- unglazed earthenwares
- monochrome whites
- underglaze iron black or brown decorated, for which these kilns are famous.
The example on the right represents one of the most renowned types of Sukhothai wares: the underglaze black fish motif. Although there are no clear sources of inspiration for the earliest depictions of fish and flowers drawn in black [Miksic 2009: 63], such decorated wares can be found in abundance at several different sites in Southeast Asia, for example at the Tak Om Koi burial site along the Thai-Burma border.
Sukhothai ware is also present in the Turiang shipwreck in large numbers, along with Chinese and Vietnamese wares, indicating that Thai ceramics were likely exported at an early date (the wreck is dated to between 1304 and 1440). [Flecker in Miksic 2009:42]
1351 CE - Sawankhalok wares with underglaze decoration
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 producedUnglazed wares
- Monochrome white, black, brown, celadon, and olive wares
- Brown glaze with incised decoration inlaid with white
- 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, krnfid, 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. Secimens of the flowers and fish design have been found on the Turiang shipwreck, dated to around 1370.
The motif of classic scrolls with spiky leaves such as seen above and on Yuan wares decorated with cobalt blue, probably originated before 1350. Our covered jar above, however uses an underglaze iron black decoration. The colour is actually black, not blue, as cobalt was not a mineral that the Thai potters used (even though mines were found as near as Yunnan in southern China in the early 15th century). Brown 1988: 76] This is unlike Vietnamese production, which used cobalt for underglaze blue decoration from the 15th century on.
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.
Roxanna Brown and her colleague Sten Sjóstrand (2003: 35–37), an expert in maritime archaeology, 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 are replaced by celadons from Burma, although Sawankhalok celadon bowls and ring-handle jars continue to appear into the early 16th century.”
The covered box below is representative of early Sawankhalok ware with regard to its form, use of underglaze iron and its decoration of vine scrolls. A later production (left) has a fish-scale motif. On both boxes, the unglazed foot shows a light grey coloured biscuit with black particles and a pontil scar on the underside.
The clay and the tubular support mark on the base are two things which identify Sawankhalok wares.
Si Satchanalai covered boxes have been found in abundance at sites in Okinawa, which functioned as a gateway for Southeast Asian exports to the Japanese islands during the period of Ming isolationism.
The majority of Sawankhalok kendis had mammiform spouts as the image left shows, but special shapes were also made such as the ewer below with its goose-shaped form. These were commonly used by the Thai and made for export. (The goose was the vehicle of the god Brahma in Hindu mythology; angsa is Sanskrit for ‘goose’.)
In the final period of Sawankhalok wares, underglaze black covered boxes make a reappearance, while celadons disappear. They can be found on the shipwrecks of the Emperor 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].
Miksic [2009: 93] 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 interruptedly from around 1400 until the late 16th century.”
Late 14th Century - Founding of the Twante Kilns, Myanmar
Little has been known of Burmese production; until quite recently Myanmar was though to be devoid of old glazed ceramics.
It was the Tak Om Koi burials that brought attention to possible production sites in that region. Some exceptional discoveries, apart from those already mentioned (see 1350 CE entry above), were several green-and-white wares, whose shapes and decoration became more and more fascinating with every find.
This was corroborated by the discovery of ceramics found in 1998 at the kiln sites of Twante (southwest of Yangon) and Lagunbyee (an hour’s drive north of Yangon). Archaeologists noted that the glazing and clay body of these finds were similar to those found at Tak Om Koi. The glazes all contained lead, which requires a lower temperature of heating than other forms of glaze.
The dish (below right) is of typical Twante confection: a green-and-white earthenware. Roxanna Brown postulates a Middle Eastern influence on three aspects of its production: the green lead glaze colour, the decorative design with its emphasis on roundels, and the high-fired earthenware. [Brown 1988:99-112]
1435 CE - First Reference to Ceramic Production at Bat Trang, VN
The name Bat Trang first appears in 1352. The first reference to ceramic production here, however, is dated 1435. Bat Trang ceramics were sent to China as tribute in the 15th century [Long 1995: 87]. Local legend credits the foundation of the Bat Trang kilns to three Vietnamese scholars who went to China on a diplomatic mission during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1126). There, they visited a ceramic factory in Guangdong, and brought back technical knowledge. Bat Trang potters thus learned how to make white glaze from one scholar, while another taught them how to make red glaze and a third, brought the secrets of dark yellow glaze to a third region [Phan Huy Lê, Nguyen Chién & Nguyen Quang Ngoc 1995: 48].
Many pieces made at Bat Trang in the 16th and 17th centuries attest to the revival of Buddhism in Vietnam during that period. Brown records the development of several kiln sites in the 15th and 16th centuries, the main products of which were censers (a container in which incense is burned, typically used during religious ceremonies) for altars [Brown 1977: 22–23]. These censers were produced at the Bat Trang kiln complex in Gia Lam District, a part of the Hanoi region, along with other wares.
1450 CE - Inscribed Vietnamese vase made by a woman named Bui, exported to Turkey
Sometime during the 15th century, the technique of blue underglaze on a white background was introduced to Vietnam, most likely via the Ming invasion of the country in 1407. It was also during this time (between 1405 and 1433) that the famous admiral Zheng He made his legendary voyages.
With the introduction of cobalt, the precious mineral used in the blue decorations, both underglaze iron black and monochrome wares quickly began to disappear.
According to Brown, the blue initially replaced “underglaze iron in decoration and on shapes that remain unchanged” from the 14th century after which “more Chinese motifs such as lotus panels, lotus scrolls, some zoomorphic motifs, cloud collars, and bands of overlapping petals” started to become more popular [Brown 1988: 25]. However, “sometimes the blue even occurs on the same piece along with underglaze iron, thus providing evidence that both wares were produced simultaneously at least for some time.” See the below plate where the underglaze blue chrysanthemum flower in the centre is encircled by two rings of underglaze black.
Potters of Bat Trang included both men and women, sometimes husbands and wives worked together; this is shown by a tradition in which potters signed some of their works. In the 15th century, one potter inscribed her name (Bui) on her work. According to several sources, the inscription indicates the potter was female. This is the famous vase dated 1450 now located in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, a picture of which you see on the right.
1450 CE - Cardamon Cave Burials, Cambodia
Go-Sanh, literally ‘pottery moound’, is located in the Binh Dinh province of central Vietnam. In pre-modern times this was the realm of the Cham people, a Malayo-Polynesian speaking group who established a number of important kingdoms, and were feared adversaries of the Khmer and Vietnamese before they were gradually subdued in the 15th century.
The ceramics from Go-Sanh can be divided into three categories. The first consists of greenish or blueish-grey glazed saucers with unglazed stacking rings on their interior bottoms, such as the example right. The greyish clay on the unglazed interior helps identify this piece as belonging to this kiln site.
Celadon dishes (see example, left) make up the second category and have a similar type of clay, visible on the unglazed foot of the beaker-shaped bowl. The celadon glaze has been eroded over time, but some of the colour is still visible where the glaze pooled on the uneven surface.
The third category comprises brown-glazed vessels of various shapes that tend to be made from a surprisingly light in weight, orangey to reddish-brown clay.
Decoration is generally rare on Binh Dinh wares except for large brown-glazed storage jars, which sometimes have incised or moulded appliqué motifs.
Sources: Brown 1988: 36-39; Miksic 2009: 61-62.
14-15C, H: 8 cm, D: 8 cm, NUS Museum S1980-0161-001-1
1450 CE - Export of Cham Ceramics from Go-Sanh, central Vietnam
“In 2000, large jars were discovered in caves in the Cardamom Mountains in western Cambodia, in association with 15th century Chinese and Thai ceramics. Although their precise origin is uncertain, their shapes and production techniques indicate that some Khmer potters continued to create new glazed ceramic shapes until at least the mid-15th century.
“One of the sites] contained approximately 60 intact jars and a significant amount of sherds. Several jars were of probable Chinese origin; one brown-glazed Chinese stoneware jar about 45cm high bore the character stamp bao (meaning treasure or precious). Almost all jars were of the same type, approximately 50cm high, with a flaring mouth, and no decoration except for shoulder lugs and incised horizontal lines under a watery dark green glaze. The glaze stops short of the foot; the exposed biscuit of the body is burned a purplish-red. This type of jar is not well-known in archaeological literature. They resemble ceramics produced at the Cheung Ek site, near Phnom Penh [Phon Kaseka pers com 25/7/2006; see also Kaseka 2006].
A stack of bowls consisted of 12 green-glazed porcelain of the typical Si Satchanalai type made in Thailand in the 15th century. Another bore a double vajra [lightning] motif in cobalt blue on a white background, typical of Chinese ceramics of the mid-15th century [Lam 2001].”
1460 CE - Celadon at Twante, Myanmar
According to Myo Thant Tyn and Dawn Rooney (2001), a complex in Myanmar that made celadon for export was discovered in 1999. However, very little is known of the origin of these pieces, some of which were found at the Tak Om Koi burial site as well as on the Pandanan shipwreck. [Miksic 2009:66-67].
Brown says they comprise “mostly simple bowls and plates as well as small- and medium-sized bottles and jars, many of the latter with two vertical squarish handles made of think lumps of clay first applied to the pot and then pierced with a relatively small, round perforation.” She adds that “few of the pieces have decoration, and when they do, it is only simple incised rings, especially round plate wells and mouth-rims, reminiscent of those sometimes seen on Phan and Wang Nua plates although other potting features do not match” [Brown 1988: 105].
For more information on Twante ceramics, please see our dedicated page on the ceramics of Myanmar.
1460 CE - Lead-glazed Plates at Lagunbyee, Myanmar
Lagunbyee is located in a rice-growing area between Yangon and Bago, where over a hundred kiln sites have been discovered. The site includes a complex of earthen walls and moats, and “is believed to have been a large settlement from the period before the 15th century. An excavation by Burmese archaeologists at this site in January 1999 yielded both lead-glazed white wares and much paddle-marked earthenware. Shapes included plates and large jars [Thaw Kaung 2003].”
The plate shown right is characteristically Burmese in type, shape and glazing. Made of high-fired earthenware, it is coated in a particular off-white lead glaze that has no other decoration except for incised circles on the interior centre.
Sources: Miksic 2009: 67; Brown 1988: 104-106; Myo Thant Tyn & U Thaw Kaung 2003: 295]
1550 CE - End of Production at Kalong, northern Thailand
Probably coinciding with a “massive Burmese invasion in the late 1550s, when artisans are reported to have been taken as specially valued captives back to Burma.” [Brown 1988: 99]
1558 CE - Demise of Sawankhalok kilns, north central Thailand
The Burmese invasion continued into central Thailand in the 1560s even reaching Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam at that time. It was around the same time that the making of celadon and underglaze-decorated ceramics vanished. This seems to be confirmed through the decreasing quantities of Thai export trade wares found throughout Southeast Asia from the mid-16th century on, until they disappear completely by the beginning of the 17th century [Brown 1988: 58, 65, 76].
It remains difficult to set a fixed chronology of Sawankhalok and Sukhothai wares as the entire area (where the kilns were located) has been destroyed over the centuries by both local villagers and looters.
The kendi on the right probably represents one of the last export Sawankhalok wares to be found in Thailand as well as Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra and Bali in Indonesia.