Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Stoneware ceramics of the Angkor period

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The first concrete evidence of stoneware ceramic production in association with the Angkor kingdom, centered at Angkor in northwest Cambodia, was the documentation in 1888 by the French explorer Etienne Aymonier of an abandoned kiln site on Phnom Kulen, a plateau northeast of Angkor (Aymonier 1901). Little note was taken of that find, however, and serious investigation of Angkor period ceramics production did not begin until the late 1960s, when deforestation and road building in Northeast Thailand brought to light kiln mounds for ceramics in the fields of Buriram province (Natthaphat 1989; Tharapong and Amara 1989; Natthapatra 1990).

Surveys and excavations of kilns in Buriram demonstrated a repertory of stoneware ceramics made either with grayish-white clay bearing green glaze or with dark-colored clay using brown glaze, as well as the occasional vessel made with both clay bodies (the white laminated over the dark as needed) and glazed with both green and brown glazes. The shapes included tall barrel-shaped jars, baluster jars, ewers, bowls, lidded boxes, and a variety of vessels in the shapes of animals and birds.

While archaeologists were bringing those Angkor period ceramics into focus, other interested parties were purchasing kiln mounds from farmers, who were pleased to have their fields leveled, and salvaging the sherds to create "whole" pieces for the antiques market. Many such pieces, appealing for their "one-of-a-kind" novelty to an audience not yet familiar with the fairly limited and standardized repertory of Angkor period ceramics, entered private and public collections.

Studies of ceramic production in the immediate vicinity of Angkor started in the mid-1990s and at once began to rebalance the lopsided image that had been conveyed by study of the provincial Buriram kilns in isolation. A number of kiln sites were identified on the plane east of Angkor, and the first excavations took place at the Tani site, beginning in 1996 (Nara Kokuritsu Bunkazai Kenkyūjo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Nara 2005; Aoyagi and Sasaki 2007). The Tani excavations provided the first clear understanding of an Angkor period kiln structure—a crossdraft kiln built on an artificial mound, with a double firebox opening and a separate air vent, and with a row of pillars positioned along the length of the ware chamber to support the arch. The Tani kilns, dated by radiocarbon analysis to the second half of the tenth century, produced both small green-glazed stoneware boxes and bowls (related to vessels long known as "Kulen type" from finds near the site on Phnom Kulen) and larger unglazed jars and bottles, as well as roof tiles. No brown-glazed wares were identified, confirming Bernard Philippe Groslier's conjecture, based on evidence from archaeological studies, that use of brown glaze had been introduced at a later date (Groslier 1981).

Subsequently detailed studies and excavations were undertaken for the kilns at Sar Sei, at the foot of Phnom Kulen, and of the kilns seen by Aymonier on top of the plateau, now known by the name of the nearby village, Anlong Thom, or of the dike on which they were built, Thnal Mrech (Sok Keo Sovannara 2003; Chhay Visoth 2008; Chhay Ratana 2008). Salvage excavations are being conducted on other kilns in advance of rampant development around the city of Siem Reap. Meanwhile, comparative analysis of the Angkor region kilns has begun to yield a more nuanced understanding of the differences between the kilns that produced a mix of glazed and unglazed wares (Tani, Sar Sei, and Anlong Thom) and those that specialized in unglazed wares only (Tabata 2005).

Additional kilns within Cambodia northwest of Angkor were identified during field surveys, including a study of features along the roads connecting Angkor to outlying regions (Ea Darith et al 2008). The far northwestern kilns produced brown-glazed as well as green-glazed wares, as did a kiln in Kandal province near Phnom Penh, a site that may represent ongoing production of stoneware in the post-Angkor (fifteenth century onward) period.

One distinctive feature of Angkorian ceramics—as known to date—is the distribution over a large area of a quite uniform package of ceramic forms, both unglazed and glazed. (This contrasts to the diversity of Lan Na wares.) The remarkable uniformity of the ceramic repertory mirrors the consistency of architectural and sculptural style as transmitted to widely scattered provincial centers.

Moreover, distribution of Angkorian ceramics made noteworthy use of roads rather than rivers. The famously arrow-straight roads built on dikes and equipped with laterite bridges, rest houses, and temples also conveyed ceramics from Angkor to the hinterlands and from provincial kilns toward the center. (As more regional kilns are identified, the range of distribution of the products of particular kiln complexes will be better understood.)

The question of the origin of the technology for producing glazed stoneware remains unresolved. On the basis of resemblances of kiln structure, Don Hein proposes that Vietnam should be considered as a source of instruction (see his essay in Library). Until recently, the relationship between Angkor and the Champa kingdoms of Central Vietnam has been described largely in terms of battles. Evidence for a different type of engagement, through trade, is offered by Angkor period jars excavated from a cemetery in the Vietnamese central highlands (Bui Chi Hoang et al 2000; Bui Chi Hoang 2007) and by such jars used until recent decades in highland communities (Cort 2005; Lefferts and Cort 2008).

For the most part Angkorian ceramics did not enter into international trade. Jars distributed as far as the isthmus of Thailand may have made their way overland from provincial Angkorian centers. One jar found in Okinawa (the Ryukyu kingdom) may have traveled across the mountains to a Central Vietnamese port (Okinawa Kenritsu Maizō Bunkazai Sentaa Okinawa Prefecture Center for Buried Cultural Properties 2001, 67, no. 399). Jars in Borneo identified as Cambodian are now known to be Vietnamese (Harrisson1986).

While stoneware has been the focus of attention, archaeology has confirmed the importance of earthenware at Angkorian sites, as first proposed by Groslier (1981), as well as in pre-Angkorian centers (Stark 2000, 2003). Further studies of historical earthenware will help create a balanced image of ceramic production by the Khmer.