Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Ban Chiang and Ban Prasat prehistoric earthenware traditions

View all related objects in the collections

Since the 1960s, Northeast Thailand has been a focus of archaeological investigation of prehistoric cultural sites with regard to early agriculture and the dispersal of technologies for working bronze and iron (Solheim and Gorman 1966; Higham and Amphan 1984; Higham and Ratchanie 1998). An important corollary of those studies has been the identification of diverse styles of earthenware production associated with local communities at various times.

The deepest sequence of ceramics production known to date spans more than three thousand years and is associated with the modern village cluster of Ban Chiang, in Udon province. Located near the headwaters of the Songkram River, which drains the upper section of the Khorat plateau into the Mekong River, Ban Chiang sits on a low, wide mound indicative of ancient habitation. It was this modern community that gave its name to the prehistoric cultures of Thailand in the popular imagination. In the mid-1960s, attention was drawn to the discovery, along the unpaved lanes of the village and in house yards and fields, of fragments of ancient ceramics. Following test excavations, in 1974–1975 the Fine Arts Department of Thailand and the University of Pennsylvania conducted excavations within the village and identified a site used for burial over many centuries (Gorman and Pisit 1976). Some burials contained bronze artifacts, and remarkably early dates obtained by carbon 14 (later found to be erroneous) caused a sensation by suggesting that the bronze metallurgy in Southeast Asia was older than that in China. The dates were later adjusted, and the site—no less important—remains the focus of ongoing research and publication by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (White 1982, 1990, 1997; White et al 1991; see Links for the web site).

As the result of the excavations at the eponymous site and elsewhere, "Ban Chiang" can be understood as an umbrella term for a sequence of ceramic types (as found in burials) representing distinctive combinations of raw materials, forming techniques, shapes, and modes of decoration, and time periods. In addition to pots bearing impressions of cord-wrapped paddles used to shape and decorate them, which appear throughout the sequence, the characteristic modes of decoration are as follows (White 1982):

Early Period (ca. 3600–2500 BCE)
            Incised designs filled with rocker-stamping, on vessels blackened during firing
            Incised designs filled with red pigment, on round cord-marked vessels (late)  

            ca. 2000 appearance of bronze objects in burials

Middle Period (ca. 1000-300 BCE)
            Incised designs filled in with white and red pigments, often on carinated vessels

            Vessels typically broken at time of burial
            Appearance of iron objects in burials within this period

Late Period (ca. 300 BCE–200 CE)
            Freehand painted "red on buff" or "red-on-orange" designs

            Vessels typically buried whole

In tandem with the excavations and the resultant growth of a collectors' market, local villagers developed a parallel industry to recover pots and recondition them for sale-by repairing broken vessels or creating pastiches from disparate parts, and by repainting faded decoration or inventing painted decoration for plain old pots. Potters working in a nearby village reproduced ancient shapes of various periods (the late "red-on-buff" was the most popular), while other villagers painted decoration. Some such vessels pass as antiques, but many others are offered for sale as souvenirs outside the Ban Chiang branch of the National Museum.

Strictly defined, the name "Ban Chiang" is applied only to pots excavated from the site. Many other "Ban Chiang-associated" pots emerged from sites in the northern Khorat plateau, drawn into the market by the sudden interest in prehistoric earthenware. These vessels in their diversity are indications of widespread localized production of pottery as well as of trade within the region.

For example, several kilometers downriver, within Sawang Daeng Din district, Sakon Nakhon province, pots of distinctly different design are found. The actual vessels are relatively small, but they are raised on wide cylindrical pedestal feet that create a  massive appearance (see S2004.55–57). The decoration is painted using white slip and a red slip of a dark shade different from Ban Chiang's red, using characteristic motifs such as bands of diamond-shaped lozenges.

Further south in the Khorat plateau, a quite separate ceramic tradition was identified in association with excavation in 1991 of the site of Ban Prasat, near Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasema province (Higham 1996, 205–208). The Bronze Age cemetery was used between 800 and 500 B.C.E. and yielded a range of ceramic vessel shapes typically combining shaping with a cord-wrapped paddle and finishing with burnished red slip. One burial contained at least forty-nine complete pots. Despite the difference in terms of ceramic vessel shapes from Ban Chiang and related sites, a clay mold for a bronze axe and a crucible were very close in form. Subsequent excavations at nearby Ban Lum Khao and other burial sites and settlement sites in the upper Mun River valley have revealed a network of settlements that made and used the same "Ban Prasat" type of ceramics, identifying them as part of a cultural tradition (see S2004.58–61).

Today the Khorat plateau is an active site for production of both earthenware and stoneware (Narasaki, Lefferts and Cort 2000). By no means does this represent the kind of technological or cultural "continuity" that is sometimes proposed for earthenware production in the region. The potters who presently work near Ban Chiang, for example, are descendants of people who migrated north from Nakhon Ratchasema province only within the past two centuries, and they use earthenware-making techniques related to that of Khmer potters living in Cambodia and the Mekong delta of Vietnam (Cort and Lefferts 2000).