Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Sukhothai kilns

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The story of the Sukhothai kilns is tantalizing, but still far from complete. Until recent research challenged the view, the kilns were believed to be older than those nearby at Si Satchanalai (Sawankhalok), perhaps through the logic that the kilns associated with the most powerful city must be original. It was accepted that the Sukhothai kilns were established by five hundred Chinese potters. Shipwreck cargoes and kilnsite archaeology, however, have revealed a different relationship. The Ko Khram shipwreck in the Gulf of Siam confirmed that Sukhothai wares were made in the fifteenth century rather than only in the fourteenth century as had been the standard date, and further showed that the Sukhothai and Sawankhalok operated simultaneously for some time (Brown 1975).

Don Hein's study of the technology of the Sawankhalok kiln complex made clear that it operated for some time before its ceramic technology was introduced to Sukhothai. As evidenced by close similarities in kiln structures (brick-built updraft and crossdraft kilns), stacking tools (tubular supports and five-spurred disks), and ware designs, the Sukhothai kilns adopted traits from an early moment of the Sawankhalok phase called TRSW (Transitional Stoneware, late fourteenth–fifteenth century), when they made large dishes with elaborate decoration painted in iron under a clear glaze (Hein 2001, 145–56). The mode resembles that of Vietnamese iron-decorated dishes. The central motifs were often flowers, birds, or fish. For some reason, potters at the Sukhothai kilns concentrated on the fish motif. However, materials distinguish the model and its offshoot: Sawankhalok potters used a light gray clay body, whereas Sukhothai potters used a dark gray clay that they disguised with thick white slip before adding decoration and glaze.

Roxanna Brown's intensive study of wares recovered from shipwrecks has produced the start of a chronology for Sukhothai production. Sukhothai dishes with fish motifs first appeared on shipwrecks at the beginning of the fifteenth century and continued to be made throughout the century. While the Sawankhalok potters shifted to an emphasis on celadon-glazed wares, Sukhothai potters extended the format of slip with iron decoration to other vessel forms that Sawankhalok potters made in celadon or iron-brown glaze, including bottles, bowls, and covered jars.

Sawankhalok potters once again emphasized iron decoration in the early sixteenth century—during the LASW (Late Stoneware) phase—this time with the intention of approximating Chinese and Vietnamese cobalt-decorated wares. The manner of decoration is quite distinct from the fifteenth-century products, characterized by densely drawn motifs using a fine brush line. Sukhothai potters seem to have also responded to the new style, but their brushwork (which involved a stiffer brush) is distinctly different from that of Sawankhalok potters and appears to relate not to Chinese modes but instead to long-vanished local traditions of painting (as on murals and manuscripts, or perhaps lacquer). The latest-known shipwrecks to carry Sukhothai wares date to the 1520s (Brown 2004). Sukhothai wares that successfully reached their ports of destination have been excavated in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan (Arishima 1991).

The fame of the Sukhothai "fish plates" has forestalled a more complete characterization of activities at the kiln complex, which also produced architectural ceramics, roof tiles, and unglazed jars. The question remains whether the kilns also made earthenware.

A full accounting of the range of ceramics excavated within Sukhothai will be of enormous help in understanding how ceramics were amassed and used in the ancient city between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and later. Such a study will further illuminate the activities of the kilns as well.