Sawankolok Sisatchanalai Ceramics – Shaw Collection

Wares from the hundreds of kilns at Sisatchanalai were exported in enormous quantities to Indonesia and the Philippines. For long these wares, recovered from burial sites, were all that most people knew of Thai ceramics.

Sawankalok - Underglaze Kendi

Sawankalok - Underglaze Kendi © John Shaw

The most intriguing questions about these kilns are their dating and their origin. It is now certain that the potters were indigenous – not imported Chinese – and the origin of the craft may have been to the north. Don Hein, who has spent most of his life studying these kilns, is now of the opinion that production had started by the middle of the thirteenth century when what he calls Mon wares were made.

Sawankalok - Kiln

Sawankalok - Kiln © John Shaw

Over the years the kilns evolved and the quality of the ceramics improved as new techniques and better clays were introduced. Some historians are of the opinion that Sukothai Kingdom wares continued to be made well into the seventeenth century, but evidence is lacking.

My personal opinion is that knowledge of high-fired, glazed stoneware production radiated out from Phayao in the late thirteenth century, that designs from samples of Chinese wares were sometimes copied, but that the industry was entirely local -as is possibly proved by the fact that all writing found on Sukothai and Lanna Kingdom pots is Thai script.

Early, fourteenth century wares, some remarkably fine, were probably made for local consumption but, after Ayuthya absorbed Sukothai at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Chinese merchants, based in Ayuthya, started an extensive export trade to fill the gap left when the Ming banned private exports. The industry must have come to an end soon after the Burmese destruction of the Thai world in 1569. At this time, too, large scale exports of cheap Chinese ceramics once again began to flood the market.

Brown and Pearl

The pattern was incised into the body, the background was then glazed a pearly colour and the decoration brown, or vice versa. The commonest type, the covered box, usually has a vegetal scroll decoration.

Brown and Pearl - Covered Box

Brown and Pearl - Covered Box © John Shaw

Other types made in this unusual way are kendi and water droppers in the form of hunchbacks, frogs and other animals. There are also more spectacular pieces, some of which are genuine.

Brown and Pearl - Frog Water Dropper

Brown and Pearl - Frog Water Dropper © John Shaw

Brown Wares

Dr Spinks, writing in 1965, thought that the brown, or Chalieng wares, predated other Srisatchanalai products. We now know that, in fact, they were contemporary.

Brown Ware - Covered Box

Brown Ware - Covered Box © John Shaw

Many shapes are identical to the celadons.

Brown Ware - Vaselet

Brown Ware - Vaselet © John Shaw

White Wares

A relatively small group similar in many respects to the celadon wares.

White Ware - Covered Box

White Ware - Covered Box © John Shaw

Underglaze black

A wide range of underglaze black wares was made, mainly at Goh Noi, but also at Pa Yang. Beautifully decorated plates and bowls were, perhaps, early domestic wares. Later mass produced wares were made for export.

Underglaze Black - Jar

Underglaze Black - Jar © John Shaw

Covered boxes in enormous quantities have been recovered from burial sites in Makassar. They probably contained food for the journey and gifts to offer on arrival.

Underglaze Black - Covered Box

Underglaze Black - Covered Box © John Shaw


So called Mon wares may or may not have any connection with the Mon people.

Mon - Bowl

Mon - Bowl © John Shaw

At a kiln site at Koh Noi, Sisatchanalai, Don Hein has excavated a group of kilns built one on top of the other – the bottom kiln made Mon wares, thus proving that they were the first wares to be produced, perhaps in the middle of the thirteenth century. They continued to be made well into the fifteenth as is proved by their presence in the Tak Hilltop Burial Sites.

Mon - Bottle

Mon - Bottle © John Shaw

Mon wares are characterised by the dark gray clay of the body, the virtually unglazed outer wall of the dishes and their high out-turned rims – these two characteristics are typical of most Northern Thai wares, indicating that the origin of Thai glazed stoneware may well have been at a northern site such as Phayao.

Mon - Paan Offering Tray

Mon - Paan Offering Tray © John Shaw


Perhaps the best known of all Thai ceramics, these sturdy wares were produced for export in enormous quantities, as is attested by the thousands of pieces that have been recovered from sunken junks in the Gulf of Thailand.

Celadon - Jarlet

Celadon - Jarlet © John Shaw

A remarkably varied range of wares was produced, from superb bowls and dishes to delicate miniatures – it is strange that covered boxes are virtually unknown.

Celadon - Lamp Holder

Celadon - Lamp Holder © John Shaw

Don Hein has shown how celadons evolved from the early Mon to the fine export wares of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Celadon - Paan Offering Tray

Celadon - Paan Offering Tray © John Shaw

I have retained the term celadon to describe these high-fired stonewares, fired at approximately 1260 degrees centigrade in a reduction atmosphere, using a natural wood ash glaze with an iron content. The intention may well have been to copy jade but colours varied from a true green to yellow, brown and the beautiful cloud-greys of Kalong. To call these wares green-wares – a term also used for as yet unfired pieces – is confusing as there are yellow green-wares, brown green- wares as well as green green-wares.

Celadon - Hamsa Kendi

Celadon - Hamsa Kendi © John Shaw


An enormous variety was made. Some as offerings to spirits, some as toys, some functional.

Miniature - Restored Elephant

Miniature - Restored Elephant © John Shaw

It is interesting that figurines such as oxen, so common in the northern kilns, seem to be absent at Sawankalok, whereas the maternity figures of Sawankalok are not known in the north.

Miniature - Maternity Figurines

Miniature - Maternity Figurines © John Shaw

It is surprising that miniatures have been found in Indonesia.

Miniature - Jarlet

Miniature - Jarlet © John Shaw

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Text and photos by John Shaw © John Shaw – All Rights Reserved.
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2 Responses to Sawankolok Sisatchanalai Ceramics – Shaw Collection

  1. Laurie Dunn says:

    I am trying to determine the value of a Sawankhalok pottery maternity figure, nursing a child and with pale green glaze, the heads is 8 cm. Sawankhalok is a district in the northern part of Sukhothai Province in Northern Thailand.

    I received one as a gift in Bangkok Thailand in 1975 and would like to find out where to go to get the value on it.

    Thank You

  2. Thannaree C. says:

    Hello Laurie,

    John Shaw might be able to help you with this. Check out the info we’ve sent to your email.


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