Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Stoneware kilns in the Middle Mekong region

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The Mekong River was the great highway that connected and defined the region of Laos and Northeast Thailand. Just as its banks were the logical location for principal cities and market towns, from Luang Prabang in the north to Champassak in the south, they were also the natural sites for stoneware kiln centers, which used the river for long-distance distribution. The frequent choice to locate kilns at the mouths of tributary rivers facilitated transport to the interior as well. The presence of stoneware jar production sites along both sides of the middle length of the river provides a striking contrast to the pattern in the north of Thailand (Lan Na), where kiln complexes were isolated within separate mountain valleys and served fairly limited markets. Moreover, it is significant that the production of jars along the Mekong and its tributaries continues today.

This region moved away from the influence of Angkor in the thirteenth century, when its Lao-speaking communities organized into the Lan Xang (Ten Thousand Elephants) kingdom, with its center in Luang Prabang. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the kingdom separated into three smaller entities, with their capitals at Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champassak.

Within this system, the northernmost kiln to have been studied is Ban Xang Hai, at the mouth of the Ou River north of Luang Prabang (Hein et al 1997). Hein identified kiln remains at Ban Tao Hai ("jar kiln village") and Ban Sangkhalok, near Luang Prabang (see Library). Kilns continue to operate in Ban Chan, downstream from Luang Prabang. The Si Sattanak kilns outside the southern city walls of Vientiane were excavated in 1989 (Hein at  al 1992).

Kilns were located until recently along the Huay Luang stream at the old silk-producing town of Pon Phisai, in Nong Khai province, and their successors further inland in Ban Pon Bok continue producing today. The major stoneware jar production system (involving more than ninety individual kilns) that lined the banks of the Songkhram River, which flows into the Mekong at Chaiburi, was surveyed by the Archaeology Division of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand in the early 1990s. Just north of Nakhon Phanom, stoneware is produced today in Ban Klang. Jar-making also continues at several locations along the left bank of the river in Laos.

Inland on the Mun River near Ubon, Ban Tao Hai was a major source of stoneware in that area, and potters from these kilns also spread kiln-building and jar-making technology to numerous satellite villages. The antiquity of production at the sites that continue today is not well understood because the modern kilns overlay older ones. Ban Tao Hai's earlier production is probably represented by old jars found along the Mun and its main tributary, the Chi River. Jar-making activities in Attapeu province, Laos, are probably the most southerly in the region, just above the rapids that cut off navigation further south along the Mekong.

Both in the past and in the present, much of the production has comprised unglazed stoneware jars. These included slender jars with tall trumpet mouths (no longer made, they are often excavated containing cremated remains, but undoubtedly were put to a wide range of uses) and stout jars with double concentric rims, which are still in strong demand because they are used in the production of the condiment plaa dek (salted and fermented fish). Some jars were glazed with a streaky caramel-brown glaze. Decoration involved pairs of applied ornamental forms or lugs together with combing on the shoulder and near the base. Older kilns also made a variety of smaller products, including small jars, flat-bottomed bottles with ring handles for carrying distilled liquor, pear-shaped bottles, gourd-shaped water bottles, mortars, grating dishes for turmeric (used as a cosmetic), and starching dishes for silk thread. Neither a typology nor a chronology of the wares has yet been developed. The slender jars appear to be related in shape and proportion to Chinese and Central Vietnamese jars of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.