Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Earthenware palm-sugar pots from Phetchaburi

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Small, shallow earthenware pots of this distinctive shape—broad rounded base; short, incurved walls; and outward rolled rim, with the base and sometimes the wall showing impressions of a carved wooden paddle used to shape them—show up in various far–flung locales and contexts in Mainland Southeast Asia, from museum collections to flea markets. For decades such pots were identified as products of Oc Eo, an archaeological site in the Mekong Delta, present–day Kien Giang province, Vietnam. French archaeologist Louis Malleret’s 1944 excavation of the site uncovered a walled port city that had flourished between the first and sixth centuries CE. Rich material finds including gold, silver, bronze, glass, and precious stones revealed Oc Eo’s participation in international maritime trade.

In his 1960 publication of Oc Eo’s material culture, Malleret illustrated earthenware vessels of this type (Malleret 1960). As a result, similar pots recovered in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand were treasured as “Oc Eo ceramics.” Possibly because Malleret’s report was published in French, many dealers, collectors, and scholars overlooked Malleret’s critical point that he acquired his ceramic samples, except those excavated from Oc Eo, as surface finds during general surveys in the area (Malleret 1960, 2: 92).

This family of earthenware vessels can now be identified correctly as made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at workshops in Phetchaburi province, Thailand. Phetchaburi was a flourishing center of palm–sugar production, which made use of these small bowls to cool the molten sugar into cakes and market them. The vessels’ wide dispersal indicates the former vitality of the waterborne palm–sugar trade. Once emptied of sugar, the handy containers found myriad uses, such as holding salt or lime paste for betel quids (as documented by holdings in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi).

Louis Malleret. La civilisation materielle d'Oc–éo, vol. 2. L'archéologie du Delta du Mékong, t. 2. Paris: école française d'Extréme–Orient, 1960.

For an update on the Phetchaburi production, see the LIBRARY for the essay “The Palm–Sugar Pots of Phetchaburi,” by Nipatporn Pengkaeo, originally published in Muang Boran vol. 17 no. 4 (October–December 1991), pp. 111–22, translated and adapted for the Library by Robert Retka.