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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many shapes are identical to the celadons.
A relatively small group similar in many respects to the celadon wares.
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.
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.
So called Mon wares may or may not have any connection with the Mon people.
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 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.
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.
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.
Don Hein has shown how celadons evolved from the early Mon to the fine export wares of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
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.
An enormous variety was made. Some as offerings to spirits, some as toys, some functional.
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.
It is surprising that miniatures have been found in Indonesia.
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Text and photos by John Shaw © John Shaw – All Rights Reserved.
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