Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Maenam Noi (Singburi) kilns

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Sturdy four-lug jars from the Maenam Noi kilns—now that they can be recognized and distinguished from Sawankhalok jars of the same type—are almost laughably ubiquitous in shipwrecks from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century and are distributed from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan and Indonesia. They were the all-purpose containers of their day, used and reused aboard ships and at their far-flung destinations.

The Maenam Noi kilns are located in Singburi province, Bang Rachan district, Choeng Klat subdistrict. They lie about seventy kilometers north of Ayutthaya. At various times the kilns have been referred to as “Singburi” after the province, “Bang Rachan” after the district, or “Wat Phra Prang” after a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the village. Most publications in Thai and Japanese use Maenam Noi, after the river, a tributary of the Chao Phraya.

Until the early twentieth century, kiln remains covered some two square kilometers, but most of the area was leveled to make fields, and now just six kilns—representing perhaps five percent of the total—remain protected within the grounds of the monastery. The surviving kilns lie inland from the west bank of the river, and they probably represent the last kilns of the area, as presumably the first kilns would have been built on the river bank. Much kiln waste has come to light during repairs of the bank and construction of houses near the river (Morimura 1989; Caaruk 2002).

The kiln site was designated a national archaeological site in 1957. Investigation by the Archaeology Division of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand began in 1985, and Kiln 2 was excavated in 1988 (Sayan 1988; Charuk 1990). It was a crossdraft kiln with a brick arch, measuring 14 meters long, 5 meters wide, and 2.1 meters high. A vertical wall 1.5 meters high separated the firebox from the ware chamber. The flue at the rear of the ware chamber was about 2 meters in diameter and 2 meters high. The kiln was built on an artificial mound composed of stones and debris from older kilns, including fragments of fired vessels and kiln bricks. Kiln 4 was excavated in 1989. The two kilns were adjoining, with the left wall of Kiln 2 adjoining the right wall of Kiln 4. Kiln 1 was determined to be the latest in operation, since it survives in excellent condition. It measures 16 meters long (Morimura 1989). Don Hein interprets the kiln structures as related to the last phase (LASW, fifteenth–sixteenth century) of the Sawankhalok kilns, but larger in scale (Hein, Library). In fact, they are the largest historic kilns in Thailand. The excavated materials are held at the Inburi National Museum, twelve kilometers north of the site.

The primary products are four-lug jars in various shapes and sizes, either bearing brown glaze or unglazed. Thick lugs are set over rows of parallel grooves incised on the shoulder below the neck—the grooves perhaps aided in placement. Sometimes additional bands of grooves are incised further down on the shoulder. Until the excavation of the kiln sites, these jars were commonly mistaken for Sawankhalok products (e.g. Harrisson 1986, pls. 5, 50–54). Other products included bottles, bowls, grating bowls, figurines, and architectural ornaments. Drain pipes made at the kilns are recorded as having been used to construct a water supply system for the Ayutthaya palace of King Narai (1656–88).

Paleomagnetic dating of Kiln 2 indicated that it ceased operation in the late seventeenth century. Carbon-14 dating gave similar results, with a range from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century (Caaruk 2002).

Evidence from shipwrecks

From her study of shipwreck evidence, Roxanna Brown discerns the presence of Maenam Noi storage jars “from about 1400–1420 until at least 1727,” with “a variety of other shapes (not including dish shapes)” from about 1450 to 1550.

The Singburi kilns show a burst of export activity involving a wider range of shapes than usual in the early sixteenth century but then revert to their normal business of supplying storage jars for the shipping trade. Singburi jars then remain a standard feature of shipwreck cargoes on European as well as Asian ships for at least a century and a half after the Sawankhalok kilns are believed to have closed in about 1584. The latest documented ship with Singburi jars is the Dutch East India Company Risdam that sank off Malaysia in 1727, and it is quite possible that this potting complex continued to operate until the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. (Brown 2004)

A striking example of the widepread use of Maenam Noi jars is provided by the Hoi An shipwreck excavated off the coast of Hoi An in Central Vietnam in 1997–99. Both large and small Maenam Noi jars were used (more accurately, reused) to contain small northern Vietnamese pots (Butterfields 2000).

Evidence from destinations

It is important to keep in mind that Maenam Noi jars were also widely distributed within the region. They are found in the highland area of Northeast Cambodia and Central Vietnam, areas to which they must have been transported by elephant.

The island kingdom of Ryukyu (Okinawa) engaged in entrepôt trade linking Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The kingdom’s official history, Rekidai Hoan, records trade interactions with Ayutthaya between 1425 and 1570. Ryukyu imported sapanwood (for red dye) and pepper and exported Chinese textiles, ceramics, and swords. Many brown-glazed jars—identified by some scholars as Maenam Noi, by others as Sawankhalok—were recovered from the site of storerooms for Kyo-no-uchi, the ritual venue within Shuri Castle, which was destroyed by fire in 1459. Also found were Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, Longquan celadon, and unglazed earthenware lids (Kokuritsu Rekishi Minzoku Hakubutsukan National Museum of Japanese History 2005).

The first chronology for Maenam Noi jars was based on finds in a Japanese archaeological site (Tsuzuki 1989; Morimura 1989). The free port city of Sakai, strategically positioned on Osaka Bay, was governed by wealthy merchants who, by the 1470s, sailed to Ryukyu and Ming China. From 1604 until the 1630s, Sakai merchants sponsored “red seal” voyages authorized by the Tokugawa government. Sakai is rich in ceramic finds, but its unique importance as an archaeological site lies in its well-documented history of repeated disasters. The city suffered destruction from fire every twenty to thirty years from the mid-fourteenth to the eighteenth century, then rebuilt on the ruins. Since excavations began in 1975, archaeologists have identified thirteen habitation layers corresponding to these intervals. Ceramics from north and central Vietnam and Thailand appear in the layers between the mid-sixteenth century and 1615. The products of Maenam Noi Kiln 2 and Kiln 4 appear in Sakai layers between the 1570s and the early seventeenth century.

Tsuzuki Shinichiro’s study (1989) was based on thirteen Maenam Noi jars recovered from six locations in Sakai as well as several heirloom jars. He identified and dated five types (all of which, by Mukai Kou’s study described below, were the latest type, Mukai’s  “neckless” jars with thick lugs).

Type I: 1475–1500

Type II: circa 1525–50 (reused in 1600–15 level)

Type III: buried 1575–1600

Two jars (with traces of white slip) were partially buried for use in storing sulfur (an ingredient for gunpowder, a major Sakai product).

Type IV: circa 1600–1615 (same type found on Witte Leeuw, which sank in 1613)

An heirloom jar in Osaka had been used to store balls of processed indigo for dyeing cotton.

Type V: 1615–50

One heirloom jar in Osaka had a hole opened in the base for use as a flowerpot. Others were used to bury cremated remains in a cemetery.

Tsuzuki concluded that Maenam Noi jars appeared in Sakai after the start of Ming trade missions, increased in number between 1550 and 1600, and stopped arriving after 1615 (along with other types of trade ceramics).

Combining shipwreck and destination evidence

Mukai used evidence from both shipwrecks and find sites in Japan to survey Thai brown-glazed jars with four lugs, with a view to distinguishing between Sawankhalok and Maenam Noi products and establishing their typology and chronology (Mukai 2003).

He classified Sawankhalok (Si Satchanalai) jars as follows:

Type 1. Jar with long neck and 4 lugs

Tall, trumpet-shaped mouth; neck makes sharp angle with shoulder

Large: 50–60 cm; medium: 45 cm; small: 30 cm

Type 2. Jar with short neck and 4 lugs

Shoulder curves up into neck with no sharp distinction; thickened rim

Large: 60 cm;   medium: 45 cm; small: 30 cm


Mukai divided Maenam Noi jars into three types, based on form and clay body:

Type 1. Short neck jar with 4 lugs I (improved clay, fine, few stones)

Made by coiling onto flat base, then throwing with ribs inside and outside

Only large: 60 cm; few in number.

Type 2. Short neck jar with 4 lugs II (unrefined clay, many small stones)

Made by coiling onto flat base, then throwing with ribs inside and outside

Large: 60 cm; medium: 45 cm; small: 30 cm; numerous

Type 3. Neckless jar with 4 lugs (unrefined clay)

Small made on wheel; medium and large made by preparing and joining lower and upper halves. Many with white slip; thick walls; largest diameter at mid-body or upper body, not shoulder. Fired rim to rim or base to base.

Large: 60 cm; medium: 45 cm; small: 25 cm.

Mukai outlined the chronological development of the Sawankhalok and Maenam Noi jars as follows:

1. Second half 14th century through first half 15th century: only Sawankhalok jars

Sawankhalok Type 1—oldest example of a Thai black-glazed jar excavated in Japan—from Sakai (1375–1400 layer).

Sawankhalok Type 1 (large and small) from Turiang shipwreck; Sawankhalok Type 2 (small) from Nanyang shipwreck

Sawankhalok Type 1 from Sakai (1425–50 layer).

2. Mid-15th century: Maenam Noi jars appear

Sawankhalok Types 1 and 2 from Royal Nanhai shipwreck; Sawankhalok (type uncertain) from Ko Khram shipwreck           

Sawankhalok Type 1 (17 jars) and Maenam Noi Type 1 (14 jars) from Kyo-no-uchi site, Shuri Castle

Only Maenam Noi Type 1 (large, medium, small) from Pandanan shipwreck

3. Late 15th through early 16th century: share shifts from Sawankhalok to Maenam Noi

Sawankhalok (type uncertain) from Ko Si Chang 3 shipwreck

Maenam Noi Type 2 from Klang Ao shipwreck (79 large, 285 medium, 1406 small); Maenam Noi Type 2 from Brunei shipwreck

Sawankhalok Type 1 (large) and Maenam Noi (type uncertain) from Hoi An shipwreck

Maenam Noi Type 2 from Sakai: two (1475–1500 layer), one (1500–1525 layer)

4. Mid- through late 16th century: Maenam Noi completely replaces Sawankhalok; Maenam Noi Type 3 appears

Type 3 from Singtai and Xuande shipwrecks, from Nagasaki, Otomo Castle town, and Sakai

5. 17th century and later: Maenam Noi Type 3 prevails

Sawankhalok Type 1, Maenam Noi Types 2 and 3 from San Diego shipwreck (1600)

Maenam Noi Types 2 and 3 from Witte Leeuw shipwreck (1613)

Maenam Noi Type 3 from Sakai (layer of 1615 fire)

Maenam Noi Type 3 (medium) from Risdam shipwreck (1727)

Maenam Noi Type 3 (medium) from Sakai layers of second half of the 17th century through the early 18th century

Mukai also noted that other shapes of Maenam Noi ware (varieties of black-glazed or unglazed bowls and bottles) appeared on early-sixteenth-century shipwrecks (Klang Ao, Ko Si Chang 3). Based on the convenient location of the Maenam Noi kilns closer to Ayutthaya than Sawankhalok, he concluded that the Maenam Noi kilns took over jar production from the sixteenth century, while the Sawankhalok kilns focused on small wares (although a few Sawankhalok jars appeared on the Ko Si Chang 3 and the San Diego shipwrecks).