Thai ceramics of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries

Lecture by Anne Fort, Heritage Curator for Vietnam and Central Asia.

Until the 1950 years, Thai ceramics were little known and little sought after. At this date, the ovens of the North were rediscovered but the exhumed parts were broken and lacunary. Then architectural pieces were found in the excavations of abandoned temples. For many years the pieces found came from underground excavations. The 1960-1970 years saw the formation of major collections (Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia). In these years, the first coins appear in Thailand and tombs are updated in Indonesia and the Philippines, resulting in the emergence of a Thai export ceramics market.
These ceramics (fish dishes, figurines, kendi) for domestic use were inherited and found throughout most of Southeast Asia. From the 14st s., it can be seen that the kilns at the Center (Sawankhalôk and Sukhothai) are more export-oriented than the kilns in the North. Thai pottery was found in necropolises in Indonesia and the Philippines as funerary offerings.
The necropolises of Tak and Om Koi were discovered in the North-West of Thailand between 1984 and 1985. There were many pieces in perfect condition coming from the kilns of the Center and the North but also Chinese and Burmese ceramics.

Map of Central and Northern Thailand.

Type of kiln used at Sawankhalok.

Ruins of a Sawankhalok kiln.

Stacking method for ceramics for cooking.

The majority of the ceramics in the collections come from inheritance transmissions, looting of necropolises and underwater wrecks, scraps of firing found on the sites of the ovens and, possibly, archaeological excavations.
A quick look back at the history of Thailand: The principality of Sukhothai (located in central Thailand 450 km north of Bangkok), after breaking free from Khmer rule, managed to preserve its independence from 1250 until to 15st century where she will pledge allegiance to Ayutthaya in 1412. However, despite the decline of the kingdom, ceramic production continued. If the Sukhothai site produced ceramics for only a very short time (end 14th - beginning of 15th centuries)st s. - start 15st s.), that of Sawankhalok (very close) will produce up to the middle of 16th centuryst s. The development of Thai kilns is explained by the stop of Chinese porcelain exports, following the edict of Emperor Hongwu (1328-1398) in 1371 which prohibited international trade.
The Sawankhalok site is particularly active during the 15th centuryst s. with 900 furnaces including 230 are documented. The oldest group, Ban Ko Noi, has been producing jars and celadon dishes since the end of 13st s. The ovens are related to the mantou ovens in Guangzhou; this would be due to the migratory movement of the Thai during the Tang era. These ovens, fifteen to twenty meters long, with reverse heat, made it possible to obtain the temperature of 1 degrees necessary for the production of stoneware, by supplying them with wood for about two weeks. In order to be able to produce a large quantity of ceramics, the objects were stacked using pernettes or high supports. Sometimes the cups or dishes were placed in reverse.
Towards 1350, Sawankhalok starts to produce the first ceramics with under-brown. 15st s. in the middle of 16st The production, mainly of celadon and underglazed iron-brown decorations, is export-oriented. The decline will be due to several factors: the Islamization of Indonesia with the consequence, the stop of funeral offerings, the resumption of exports by China and the Burmese invasion in 1558 which will take the potters to Burma.

Covered box. Stoneware decorated with iron brown. Sawankhalok. 16th century.

Dish. Stoneware with foliage decoration with iron brown. Sawankhalok. 14th century. © SAFA

Bottle depicting a kneeling woman carrying offerings. Stoneware decorated with iron brown. Sawankhalok. 15th - 16th centuries.

The decorations in brown underglaze take again those which were contemporary in China but, as there is no cobalt blue, the bluish glaze gives a gray-blue aspect to the decoration. The patterns are directly inspired by Chinese models, even in the distribution of the decor. The production of covered boxes show an infinity of variation in decoration. Small figurines seem to be the specific production of the Payang oven; they represent nursing women, bearers of offerings, men and animals. We do not really know what use these figurines were intended for, but women carrying a child could have been used in fertility rites. The decorations of the celadons (dishes, bowls and bottles) of Sawankhalok are dependent on those of Longquan; however the bluish covering is very brilliant. Some shaped pieces like kendi and pouring vessels are much rarer. Architectural pieces such as antefixes were also produced in these ovens.

Jug in the shape of hamsa. Celadon. Sawankhalok. 14th - 15th centuries.

Globular bottle. Celadon. Sawankhalok. 15th century. © LACMA.

Dish with foliage decoration. Celadon. Sawankhalok. 15th century. © Art Gallery NSW.

The Sukhothai kilns, probably designed to meet the strong demand for export, were created by potters from Sawankhalok. The production of these ovens was not very good because the rather impure clay required to cover it with a white slip before affixing the drawing. In addition, the decor is stereotyped, especially fish dishes (50% of the production). It is an almost industrial production. The cots used to stack the dishes in the ovens leaving marks, the craftsmen had the good idea to often include them in the decor. This one is painted in a very calligraphic way and in spite of the repetition of the motive with the fish,they are all different. Sukhothai will also produce a lot of architectural elements.
The Kalong kilns are located in Northern Thailand, between Chieng Mai and Chieng Rai. The production is characterized by the quality of the clay used which contains a high proportion of kaolin. This made it possible to shape parts with extremely thin walls and a very white paste. The underglazed iron-brown decoration is often radiant, using stylized, almost abstract, plant motifs painted in an energetic style. The production also includes small bottles. The cover used at Kalong is rather gray, which gives a gray-taupe look to ceramics, but it is fine and shiny.

Dish with fish and foliage decor. Stoneware, motifs painted with iron red . Sukhothai. 15th century.

Dish with fish decor. Stoneware with painted pattern with iron red. Sukhothai. 15th century.

Dish with foliage decoration. Stoneware with motifs painted with iron red . Kalong. 16th century.

In a nearby valley, Sankampaeng kilns have a different production with massive shapes, a thicker body and an olive or black roof. A back-to-back fish scene is reminiscent of the Chinese Yin-yang motif, but local artists reinterpreted it in their own way without knowing, probably, the true meaning.
The ceramics of the kilns of Hariphunchai (near the town of Lamphun) are shaped with a red clay and have no cover. Production is mainly centered on high neck bottles.
All Northern Furnaces have mainly produced for a local market.

Bottle. Stoneware. Kalong. 14th- 16th century.

Bottle. Stoneware. Sankampaeng. 16th century.

Bottles with high neck. Terracotta with a decoration painted on a white slip. Haripunchai. 14th- 16th centuries.

The museum Cernuschi has just benefited from a large donation of Mr. Max Bourdenave including 76 Thai ceramics, 2 Burmese and 2 Vietnamese from a collection created between 1987 and 1992. This high quality set illustrates almost every aspect of Thai ceramics.

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