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Thai Trade Ceramics

Since the Tang period, China was the main supplier of ceramics through the maritime trade route which spanned East/Southeas Asia and the West reaching as far as East Africa.  However, during the Ming Hongwu period, the imperial court imposed a close door policy and banned private foreign trade. Foreign trade was permitted only through the tributary system.  This resulted in a shortage of ceramics supply in  the overseas market.   However, this situation was temporary.   In fact, it opened up a window of opportunity for Vietnam and Thailand to further develop their ceramics industry. During the duration of 15th century, they became the major ceramics suppliers to the Southeast Asia market.  Vietnamese and Thai iron-painted wares were  popular during the first half of the 15th century.  However by in the second half of 15th century Thai celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares were the main products demanded by the Southeast Asia consumers.  

This chronology of the types of Southeast Asian ceramics that were produced in the 15th century only became clearer in recent years.   Dr Roxanna M  Brown is the foremost expert in the study of Southeast Asian ceramics and its role in the maritime trade of the 15th Century. In the last 20 years,  a number of shipwrecks with Southeast Asian ceramics were discovered in the sea floor of Southeast Asia.  The late Dr. Brown studied the finds from the wrecks and gathered sufficient information to develop her doctorate thesis on the chronology of Thai ceramics.  The Chinese ceramics which a firmer dating is available is crucial to date ceramics in the cargo. This short article on Thai Trade Ceramics draws on her research which is available in the recently published book "The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia - Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade ware".  It is indeed a worthy tribute to her contribution to the study of Thai ceramics.

Ceramics from production centre in Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai (the two most important cities of the Sukhothai kingdom)  manufactured the bulk of the Thai trade ceramics of the 15th century.  Over 50 kilns were found north of the city wall of old Sukhothai town.  Si Satchanalai has the largest number of kilns  located in 3 areas along the Yom river.  The first cluster of about 20 kiln is at the village of Pa Yang, less than 1 km north of the old city wall of Si Satchanalai.  About 1.5 km north, there is a cluster of 6 kilns which appears to also specialise in the manufacture of figurines termed Tukatha (dolls) in Thai.  Ban Ko Noi situated about 5 km north of the city wall, has the largest cluster of kilns with more than 300 discovered so far.  The trade ceramics in those areas are similar and commonly called Sawankhalok wares after the current name of that district.  (In Thailand, the ceramics from Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai are collectively termed Sangkalok).


Mon-type celadon plates

A joint research project of the Thailand Fine Arts Department and  Research Centre for Southeast Asian ceramics located in Adelaide in Australia was established in the early 1980s to excavate the ancient kilns in the old Sukhothai kingdom.  This project was termed Thai Ceramics Archaeological Project (TCAP).  Excavations at Ban Ko Noi indicated that Si Satchanalai started production of glazed ceramics earlier than Sukhothai.  Besides khmer inspired baluster jars and other dark brown glazed jars, the most distinctive type is a type of green glaze plate with unglaze external wall.  A layer of white slip was applied over the interior of the plate before it is glazed.  The earliest type has a dark brownish  olive celadon type glaze.  It is termed Mon ware by the local.  The later pieces showed marked improvement with finer grained paste with a more pleasing green colour.   The Rang Kwien and Song Doc shipwrecks carried some of such plates.  The Rang Kwien shipwreck also carried some Chinese celadon jarlets with impressed floral motif.  Similar jarlets were produced in Fujian Putian kiln during the Yuan period.  There were also Vietnamese bowls with underglaze iron black or blue motif.  Although the Rang Kwien wreck has been classified under the Early Ming period by Dr Brown, it is also possible that they may be dated to late Yuan period ie about 1350 or even a decade earlier.  

Mon type celadon plate

Underglaze Iron Black motif wares

However, excavations in Philippines and Indonesia and shipwrecks so far indicated that the  iron-painted black  fish and floral motif plates was the category that constituted the first wave of significant popular Thai trade ceramics in Southeast Asia.   The kilns in Sukhothai were probably the earliest to produce them.  The most recognisable form is the big plate with a iron-painted black fish on the inner bottom.

Sukhothai iron black painted fish motif

The underglaze iron-painted Sukhothai wares come in limited vessel forms.  The most common form is the big plate.  Other form consisted of bowls, jarlets, vases and jars. The clay from Sukhothai is coarse as can be seen from the unglaze base.  It has coarse grain and the finishing is relatively rough.  A layer of white slip is applied, motif drawn and then a layer of transparent glaze applied before firing.  The white slip is usually carelessly applied and visually appears to be of uneven thickness.  Usually traces of the white slip not covered by the glaze could be seen near the lower part of the outer wall or even on the outer base.  Some ceramics experts have suggested a Cizhou influence for these iron-painted wares.  However, the Thai potters were most probably more directly influenced by the Vietnamese potters instead.  Some examples of the Sukhothai iron painted floral  bowls has a layer of brown coat over the outer base which is similar to that found on Vietnamese iron-painted wares. As in Vietnamese wares, spurred disc is used as separator for the stacking of bowls/plates in the kiln.  On the interior, spur marks could be clearly seen.

Some examples of Sukhothai iron painted wares

So far, the earliest Sukhothai iron-painted wares were found in the Turiang shipwreck.  Using the Longquan celadon in the wreck as a reference for dating, it is from the Early Ming period, most probably from around 1400 to 1420 A.D.  Thai ceramics consisted about 35% of the cargo.  There were also some Sawankhalok celadon jars and vases. Hence, it is not inconceivable that  iron-painted wares were aready been produced by the late 14th century.   The early Sukhothai iron painted wares are sparsely decorated with fish or floral motif.  An elaborate version with floral scrolls on the inner wall was introduced later.  The earliest examples were found the the Nanyang wreck which is dated to around the 1420s/30s. Bowls with only the fish decorated on the bottom continued to be part of the production.

Sukhothai plate  with inner wall decorated with floral scrolls

By this point of time, large celadon plates (or termed shallow bowls by some) from the Sawankhalok kilns were also produced. By 1450/60s, iron-painted Thai wares were scarcely found in the Southeast market  and were so far not found in wrecks dated to Hongzhi period. They lost out in the competition to the Thai celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares    As a category with painted motif, they are less attractive as compared with the Vietnamese blue and white. By 1450, Vietnam was already producing high quality blue and white.  The bulbous vase with peony and floral scrolls in the Topkapi Saray Museum shows the high artistic standard achieved by the Vietnamese potters.  (For more on Vietnamese blue and white, please read this.).  The decisive victory in 1471 A.D over Champa in Central Vietnam also ensured the Le Dynasty's control over the sea route along maritime sea route along  Vietnam.  The Hoi an shipwreck dated to about 1470s carried a  cargo of more than 250,000 pieces of blue and white.  It is the first convincing physical proof of their popularity. 

Si Satchanalai (Sawankhalok) kilns also produced iron-painted wares at a slightly later date.  The product range is even more limited and consisted of mainly plates and bowls.  The earlier iron-painted Sawankhalok wares appeared very similar to those from Sukhothai.  In the past, some have been wrongly identified as Sukhothai.  In fact, Sawankhalok iron-painted motif appeears more constrained in its execution.  The strokes are more controlled and less free.  In comparison, the strokes seen in Sukhothai pieces appear to be more spontaneous.  Even in the application of the white slip, those found in Sawankhalok pieces are more carefully applied and appear smooth and even.  The clay is of better quality and the paste appears more fine grained.  Usually, a circular scar mark of the disc support could be seen on the outer base. On a whole, Sawankhalok iron-painted wares constituted only a small number in the export market.

Sawankhalok Iron-black motif plate and bowl

In the domestic market, underglaze iron black painted technique was also used for architectural ceramics for temples and the palace.  Architectural ceramics includes sculptures, roof ornaments, decorative railings, tiles and etc.

15th Cent. Sawankhalok finial of mythical serpent (naga) 


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