Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Sawankhalok (Si Satchanalai) kilns

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Sawankhalok ware has been the subject of the most thorough and detailed research of any kiln group in Mainland Southeast Asia. The surface evidence of stoneware ceramic kilns and their products in the villages of Ban Ko Noi and Ban Pa Yang, along the Yom River north of the old city of Si Satchanalai in Sukhothai province, had been well known for a century, often visited by antiquarians and explained by various stories and theories (Satow 1892; Lyle 1903; Le May 1924 and others). In 1980–87 these kilns became the focus of concerted study through the Thai Ceramic Archaeology Project (TCAP). Through a series of excavations, Don Hein and colleagues characterized the sequence of kiln types used in the complex and described the wares associated with successive kiln structures (Hein 2001 and many other publications). Roxanna Brown’s research on ceramics recovered from shipwrecks then associated approximate dates with that sequence of wares (Brown 2004).

Based on features of kiln technology, TCAP established a chronology of four main phases of production, with which dates were broadly and cautiously associated. (For details on the kiln structures and phases, refer to Don Hein’s essay in Library.)

1. MON (Ceramics of the Most Original Node)
        Inground kilns
        13th–14th century? (about 100 years of activity)

2. MASW (MON Associated Stoneware)
        Fired in MON inground kilns
        Localized in one area of the Sawankhalok kiln site, made for a short time only

3. TRSW (Transitional Stoneware)
        Surface kilns
        Late 14th–15th century

4. Later Stoneware (LASW)
        Conclusion of export trade by end of 16th century
        15th–16th century

Hein’s dating of the MON phase of production associates it with the era when Sukhothai became a central political force in the region, although Si Satchanalai had been an Angkorian outpost and before that an urban center within Mon-centered Dvaravati culture. A finer understanding of the early phase of production at Sawankhalok will entail better knowledge of early stoneware production in the Mon cultural sphere within modern Burma. Hein characterizes this phase of production as a representative regional kiln oriented mainly to markets to the north and west. The main products were jars, bowls, and dishes, either unglazed or with a dark greenish glaze applied over white slip.

Hein describes the MASW phase as representing a change in style but not in technology. The new mode of production used a light-colored clay body combined with decoration painted in iron pigment under a clearer glaze or with celadon glaze.

Hein sees the TRSW phase as a response to opportunities presented by long-distance trade, as the new kiln structure—with the base excavated and the arched roof constructed using clay or brick—lent itself to better control of the firing of glazed wares. Underglaze iron decoration became more elaborate and extensive, and celadon dishes bore incised decoration under the glaze.

The LASW phase marked the introduction of larger brick kilns constructed fully above ground. The operation should be termed an industry in this phase, undoubtedly managed by entrepreneurs. Individual workshops and the kilns they operated specialized in certain types of wares, and most output can be associated with export through the port of Ayutthaya, downriver on the Chao Phraya. Iron-decorated ware shows the impact of Chinese cobalt-decorated porcelain in design and form. Celadon glaze is thinner and paler. Hein views the eventual decline of production at the kilns as tied to international economic forces.

Hein’s perspective on kiln technology at Sawankhalok has also led him to find connections to kilns elsewhere, suggesting transfer of Sawankhalok technology to Sukhothai and Lagumbyee (TRSW) and Maenam Noi, Ban Tao Hai in Phitsanulok, and Phan (LASW).

Brown’s study of ceramics recovered from shipwreck sites necessarily deals only with Sawankhalok wares that entered the international market. She sees this as beginning in the late fourteenth century and continuing to the late sixteenth century. (She sites a specific date, 1584, when the area was evacuated during wars with Burma.)

Brown identifies five “primary phases” of Sawankhalok production and associates them with dates on the basis of Chinese dynasties and reigns, although the commercial kilns that produced wares for export operated largely independently of Chinese court control (Brown 2004, 77–78):

1. Early Ming, circa 1368–1424/30

The first subphase comprises MON wares, the second MASW.

2. Middle 15th-century classic celadon period, circa 1430–87

Celadon-glazed plates dominate, divided stylistically into an early group (circa 1430–50) and a late group (circa 1450–87). The wares correspond to Hein’s TRSW.

3. Hongzhi period phase, circa 1488–1505

Burmese celadon dishes supplant Sawankhalok celadon dishes; Sawankhalok ware is represented by ring-handled jars.

4. Beginning 16th century phase, circa 1500–1520

Alongside “post-classic” celadon, Sawankhalok brown-and-white wares and white-glazed wares appear.

5. Main 16th century phase, circa 1520–70/84

Celadon-glazed wares are gradually replaced by vessels (especially covered boxes) decorated in iron pigment under the glaze.

In terms of products, Brown sees “two important technological leaps” at the Sawankhalok kilns:

The first is the introduction of painted decoration in underglaze black sometime about 1400. The second is the introduction of better quality clays and higher firing temperatures in about 1424/30. The higher quality clay and increased firing temperature help transform the green glaze already known to the potters into the thick green to bluish green glaze that is seen on the celadon plates that replace the earlier underglaze black versions. The two leaps closely followed one another and were probably no more than 25 years apart (Brown 2004, 78).

Brown appears to describe events within the MASW (painted decoration) and TRSW (higher firing temperatures) periods defined by Hein. The eventual integration of these two perspectives—on the kiln technology that produced the sequence of Sawankhalok wares and on the products that were dispersed into international markets—will further enrich understanding of the pace of unfolding events at the Sawankhalok kilns and will extend this invaluable model for thinking about activities at kilns elsewhere.