Medallion from Sukhothai underglaze fish plate T-717.
Last modified:
24 Aprr 2001

Ceramics background & issues

The state-of-debate pre-Turiang: assumptions of TCAP

The chronology of Thai ceramics has been ebbing and flowing with the archaeological evidence. As a starting point, we will summarise the major recent study, by the Thai Ceramics Archaeological Project (TCAP). This joint Thai-Australian project was set up in 1980 by the Research Centre for Southeast Asian Ceramics, managed by the University of Adelaide and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Several years of kiln site excavations at Si-Satchanalai (which produced the ceramics sometimes known as 'Sawankhalok')(1), and some at Sukhothai, suggested that Si-Satchanalai was the first centre to produce and to export Thai ceramics - reversing the earlier belief that neighbouring Sukhothai had started the industry. TCAP's conclusions can be summarised as follows.

The Si-Satchanalai site is divided physically and chronologically into two main production phases, each representing a time period of about 250 to 300 years. During the first of these phases, which included only the Ban Ko Noi and Bang Nong O kiln complexes, in-ground kilns were used. Production at these early kilns was less organised than in the second phase, and appears to have been family-based. The ceramics of the early period were made from secondary clay, producing rather crude utilitarian black and unglazed ware. The most sophisticated products of the time were underglaze decorated dishes with painted decoration applied on a whitish slip, referred to as 'Mon ware'.(2)

After some time a better clay was discovered and the kilns improved. The clay of this period allowed underglaze decoration to be applied directly on the clay without the use of slip. These products are referred to as 'MASW' or 'Mon Associated Stoneware'. The TCAP investigators concluded that MASW was fired in in-ground kilns. Slow and steady improvements of the kilns were suddenly succeeded by a 'major leap' development and above-ground kilns appeared.

During this time, an early type of green-glazed ware was also introduced, sometimes including incised decorations. This was categorised by TCAP as 'TRSW' or 'Transitional Stone Ware'.

The second phase included the newly established Ban Pa Yang kiln complex and was characterised by above-ground brick kilns producing export ware. These products, made from the better clay and covered by a matured celadon glaze, were identified by TCAP as 'LASW' or 'Later Associated Stoneware'.

Based on these developments and the apparent lack of similar progress at Sukhothai, where only above-ground kilns were used, the TCAP investigators surmised that the Sukhothai kilns were established after Ban Pa Yang and obtained their kiln design and techniques from that area.

Difficulties of dating the Thai kilns

The earliest Mon kilns at Si-Satchanalai were initially thought to have started production around the 9th or 10th century, based on chronological and stratigraphic evidence. However, three separate radiocarbon dates from kilns of this type indicated a mid-14th century date.(3)

The first above-ground kiln was originally thought to have been constructed around the mid-13th century, a date thought to have allowed three centuries of in-ground kiln production. Following the receipt of the three radiocarbon dates, the investigators concluded: 'if it can be shown that the production of the wares used for export (LASW) occurred from about the middle of the thirteenth century, it follows that production at Si-Satchanalai must have begun around the tenth or eleventh century.'(4)

Other difficulties with TCAP's view

The TCAP gave no reason why successful export-oriented potters at Si-Satchanalai should venture to Sukhothai to produce an earlier 'primitive' ware, by that time less attractive on the overseas market. The impact of foreign technology may have been overlooked, since all kiln and ceramic developments, despite the 'major leap', 'appeared as a continuum'. Therefore, Ban Ko Noi was also credited for introducing the first above-ground kiln and for finding the better clay, despite its discovery near Ban Pa Yang.

Relative importance of Si-Satchanalai and Sukhothai: a shifting balance of evidence

Back in the 1970s, the late William Willetts believed that the first Thai trade ware came from the Sukhothai kilns.(5) It was thought that potters moved from Sukhothai to start additional kilns at Si-Satchanalai when better clay was discovered in that area. Si-Satchanalai, it was supposed, first made a few fish and flower plates in imitation of Sukhothai and then developed its own export wares.

This was consistent with earlier thinking. H.Otley Beyer, who first examined Thai ceramics in the Philippines, was convinced that Sukhothai ware was earlier than Si-Satchanalai ware, which he found to be associated with 15th-century Chinese blue-and-white. At Cebu, he noted Sukhothai underglaze ware in association with Chinese celadon (similar to the combination on Turiang) in one stratigraphic layer. In an upper layer, there was no Sukhothai ware, but only mature Si-Satchanalai celadon and Chinese blue-and-white porcelain.(6)

This chronology was adjusted in the 1980s after archaeological excavations at Si-Satchanalai, which suggested that this was the earlier producer. It also came to be accepted that Si-Satchanalai was consistently the larger producer. It was thought that the Sukhothai kilns might not have opened until the 15th century, and that Sukhothai's output was only 10-12% that of Si-Satchanalai. These suggestions were supported by the number of kilns identified: over 800 at Si-Satchanalai, compared to only 51 in Sukhothai.(7)

Numerous wreck sites in the Bay of Thailand, although often spoilt by looting, yielded some information, and generally supported the predominance of Si-Satchanalai, as did other known wreck sites. In land excavations in the Philippines, Sarawak and Indonesia, shards of Si-Satchanalai celadon far outnumbered shards of Sukhothai underglaze ware.(8) A growing body of evidence showed that Si-Satchanalai exported large volumes of celadon in the 15th and 16th centuries, often in combination with limited amounts of Chinese or Vietnamese blue-and-white porcelain.

Based on this later evidence, scholars devised theories to explain the relative importance and relationship of the two kiln sites. It was thought that Sukhothai might have had insufficient clay resources, and/or that river rapids affected access, or that the Si-Satchanalai site was just better managed.

Four other wrecks discovered by Sten Sjostrand, all fully loaded with Thai trade ware, also showed a majority of Si-Satchanalai ware. The Longquan wreck gave the first indication that the importance of Sukhothai might not be as small as assumed, or at least not during all periods. In this case, one third of the Thai ceramics came from Sukhothai, which was estimated to make up 20% of the total cargo, with Si-Satchanalai 40%, and the rest from China.

Then came the discovery of the Turiang, with a huge preponderance of Sukhothai ware, and evidence that the Sukhothai kilns were in operation much earlier than assumed. The Longquan and the Turiang may prove that Sukhothai produced and exported far more than previously known, at least in its earlier production period.

Si-Satchanalai and Sukhothai: Turiang forces a re-think

Most of the ceramics from Sukhothai and Si-Satchanalai were transported to Ayudhya on the Yom river, and thence to the South China Sea. There seems to have been an alternative overland route towards Martaban, perhaps used mainly during periods of unrest.

Not only were Sukhothai ceramics the predominant cargo on the Turiang; the Si-Satchanalai ware on board is 'Mon' ware, dated by radiocarbon samples from the kiln site to the mid 14th century, which is earlier than the previously assumed starting date for the Sukhothai kilns. This suggests that the Sukhothai kilns were in operation earlier than previously assumed, and before the Ming ban of AD 1371. The few Chinese ceramics recovered are indeed of types traditionally assigned to the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368).

While there is no reason to think that one cargo should necessarily reflect the overall market shares of the two major production centres, it gives pause for thought. Sukhothai may have been exporting in volume before Si-Satchanalai, although certainly the latter was more important by the 15th century, when its wares were of higher quality.

The absence of mature celadon (LASW) on the Turiang prompts a rethink of the dating for introduction of above-ground kilns at Si-Satchanalai. The Turiang carried Mon, MASW and early TRSW wares, placing it in TCAP's later transitional period (between in-ground and above-ground kilns). If this transitional period had ended in the middle of the thirteenth century as TCAP suggested, the Chinese celadons found on the site should also date to this period - and they do not. It seems likely that the production of mature celadon at Si-Satchanalai started after the Turiang's voyage - which, with the balance of evidence suggesting a shipwreck date in 1305-1370, suggests a 14th century date for the mature celadon start-up, and perhaps mid or late 14th century. (1378, or soon after, is especially plausible - allowing time for Chinese potters emigrating after the Ming ban to have regrouped, and for the export route via Ayudhya to be reopened following Sukhothai's defeat and annexation.)

The possibility that the mature celadon was available at Si-Satchanalai and declined by the Turiang's merchant, who had already accepted Chinese celadon, seems relatively unlikely.

It is notable that the stylistic dating of the Turiang's Chinese celadon to the mid-14th century coincides with the three carbon-14 dates for the Mon kilns in which the Turiang's Mon ware was made.

The Turiang contains fish and flower plates from both Sukhothai and Si-Satchanalai, the first such documented instance in which both have been found together. (Fish plates were produced for a short period at Si-Satchanalai, and for hundreds of years at Sukhothai.) The Sukhothai products on the Turiang are of high quality, fired at high temperatures. The equivalent Si-Satchanalai products are inferior, suggesting that the firing techniques associated with underglaze black ware had not yet been mastered at Si-Satchanalai.

Vietnamese ceramics: who influenced whom?

The Vietnamese ceramics on the Turiang show marked similarities with the Sukhothai ware, for example the stylized chrysanthemum blossom, the bands of calligraphic scroll, and the use of disc-shaped firing supports leaving spur marks - usually five - on dish interiors. (However, the scars are circular on the Thai ceramics, and triangular on the Vietnamese.) Either one centre was copying the other, or both borrowed ideas from a common source. It is likely that the technique of painted underglaze decoration was introduced in Thailand and Vietnam at about the same time.

The absence of blue-and-white

No blue-and-white ware from either China or Vietnam has yet been found on the Turiang. The start of Chinese blue-and-white exports is currently put at 1328, so it has been suggested that an earlier sailing date is more likely - but it may have been available and not carried. Other wrecks suggest that the blue-and-white trade was relatively small in volume terms, at least for Asian destinations. Demand soared only in the sixteenth century, following the arrival of European traders.

Tubular supports for the Chinese celadon

Tubular supports & stacking ringsMany of the Longquan celadons on the Turiang show scars from a tubular support, and two of those recovered have attached remains of the support itself, with a bevelled edge resulting in a very fine scar-ring. This is identical to the scar-rings and support remains on the early mature celadon from Si-Satchanalai which was found on the Nanyang. The use of tubular supports in the production of Chinese ceramics, particularly Longquan celadons, is not widely known to international scholars, although shown in at least one recent Chinese publication. Tubular supports were used for early Thai export ceramics: one of several similarities of technique suggesting Chinese influence in the development of the Thai industry.

map of Asia showing major ceramic centresPolitics, trade, and waves of migration - the early brain drain

A late 14th century start-up date for Si-Satchanalai's mature celadon would support the widely-accepted, if not always popular, belief that experienced Chinese potters from the famous celadon kilns of Longquan in China were responsible, and that their migration followed the 'Ming ban' on private overseas trade by the emperor Hongwu, which became effective in 1371 (following earlier rumblings from 1369). After centuries of successful ceramic development and profitable trade, thousands of potters, merchants and shipbuilders suddenly found their income slashed by edict. Many were furious and left for other countries; 'the maritime merchants of Zhejiang and Guangdong built fast sea-going ships without permission, and bought goods in places such as Zhangjiang and Quanjian of Fujian' prior to departure.(9) Ma Huan and other chroniclers of the voyages of Admiral Zheng He in 1403-1433 reported that Chinese emigrants were settled and prosperous at numerous locations in Southeast Asia.(10) A rich Chinese community lived in Ayudhya by the 1420s.

'Major leap' developments at Si-Satchanalai involved larger and better-organised brick kilns with separating firewall and a well-arranged water supply system. Other improvements included better clay, new forms, incised decorations, and the introduction of 'mature' celadon ware. The loss of the Turiang preceded these improvements; the loss of the Nanyang came just after. It seems unlikely that such developments and improvements would have been achieved by trial and error in the interval. Given the coincidence of dates with the Ming Ban, it seems highly probable that Chinese migrants were responsible - which of course does not preclude continued Thai involvement.

Identical groups of Chinese celadon plates on the Turiang and the Longquan are interesting in this context, as the current dating is to AD 1360 and 1390 respectively. The implication is that the Chinese kilns continued to turn out the same products over several decades, during which all of these 'major leap' developments occurred. Si-Satchanalai's mature celadon remained in production with relatively little development for the next three hundred years.

Although many scholars agree that there was foreign influence in the Thai ceramic industry in the late 14th century, few have recently argued for earlier foreign influence at Sukhothai, despite Thai tradition attributing its development of glazed export ware to the arrival of five hundred Chinese potters during the reign of Ram Kamheng (1292-1299).(11) A group of high-ranking officials and other refugees arrived in Sukhothai in 1283, following the collapse of the Sung dynasty. Other followers of the Sung dynasty were welcomed in Vietnam and allowed to engage in commerce, but hundreds were reportedly captured there by the Mongols in 1283-1288, which may have encouraged onward migration to Sukhothai. The stylistic similarities of Vietnamese, Sukhothai, and early Si-Satchanalai underglaze ceramics to products of the Sung kilns at Cizhou are remarkable. Independent development of such similar styles and techniques seems improbable.

There are many similarities between the black underglaze ware from Si-Satchanalai and Sukhothai: techniques of firing, support, the painting of decoration, and the use of iron oxide for that paint. The similarities are uncontentious; only the direction of influence is debated. (Some maintain that the technology was a natural development of an indigenous industry at Si-Satchanalai, and that Chinese potters imitated their Thai counterparts.)

The arrival of already-experienced potters would explain the apparent lack of evidence for a development period at Sukhothai, and the 'significant leap' at this stage in Si-Satchanalai. It has been noted that the early use of slip in stoneware production suggests that the potters came from a developed production centre, rather than evolving the technique.(12)

Sukhothai profile - bowl T-053.
Sukhothai bowl T-053
Si-Satchanalai profile - bowl T-410.
Si-Satchanalai bowl T-410

Another piece of evidence is the difference in foot-rings between the black underglaze ceramics of Sukhothai and Si-Satchanalai. The Sukhothai foot-rings are high and flare slightly outwards; the Si-Satchanalai foot-rings are low and slope inwards, continuing the pattern of the earlier Si-Satchanalai ware.

Incidentally, it seems likely that the availability of ceramic products influenced the architects of the huge programme of temple construction which started in Sukhothai around the 1340s. The demand for bricks and architectural ceramics may have arisen as a result of the production capability, rather than the other way around as previously assumed. Surely the architects would not specify particular construction and decorative materials unless readily available?

Whoever the Sukhothai potters were, the Turiang challenges the assumption that Thai and Vietnamese ceramics became popular only after the 'Ming ban' created a shortage of Chinese ware. The Sukhothai potters were exporting in volume, in direct competition with Yuan China.

  1. The term 'Sawankhalok' was used at one stage to describe all ceramics made at Si-Satchanalai in north-central Thailand. By the mid 14th century, the rising kingdom of Ayudhya used the name Sawankhalok ('place of heaven') to describe the ancient town of Si-Satchanalai, which had a long ceramic tradition. However, the modern town and province of Sawankhalok were never associated with ceramics, so to avoid confusion the name Si-Satchanalai should be used to describe the ceramics made in that area.
  2. The term 'Mon' is borrowed from the local villagers, who recognise the difference between this ware and the later ceramics from the site (they used to stop digging for saleable artefacts when they reached the Mon layer), and customarily attributed it to the Mon people who lived in the area before the Thai. The actual ethnicity of the potters is unclear. Thais are known to have lived in the area since at least the 13th century. Michael Vickery (1986, op.cit.) noted that the local words for the kiln sites, 'tau thuriang', mean 'saucer, dish' in the Old Mon language.
  3. Mike Barbetti and Don Hein, 1989, op.cit. p 63.
  4. Don Hein and Mike Barbetti, 1998, op.cit. p 12.
  5. William Willetts, 1971, op.cit.
  6. The work of Beyer, who did not personally supervise the excavations, was described by Walter Robb, 1930, op.cit., and Michael Sullivan, 1956, op.cit.
  7. This is partly because Si-Satchanalai has been more thoroughly investigated. Don Hein, the principal investigator of the Si-Satchanalai kiln sites, estimates that the Sukhothai area may reveal more than one hundred kilns if properly excavated. (Meanwhile, significant damage has been done to the Sukhothai site by the construction of a new road through the Historical Park.) Si Satchanalai may have had over a thousand kilns.
  8. For example, at Muara Ciaruteum in West Java, the finds were similar to Beyer's upper layer: shards of Si-Satchanalai celadon in combination with Vietnamese blue-and-white porcelain of C15-16th. Edmund Edwards McKinnon, 1985, op.cit. pp 29-30.
  9. Wu Zhenglian, 1991, op.cit.
  10. Anthony Reid, 1999, op.cit. pp 63-68.
  11. Anthony Reid, 1988, op.cit. p 105.
  12. Dick Richards, 1995, op.cit. p 23.

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