Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia

Ceramics in Burma (Myanmar)

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A lengthy and complex timeline of ceramic production within the area covered by modern Burma (Myanmar) is gradually taking shape as the result of quite recent research. The documented production spans a rich variety of both unglazed and glazed earthenware and stoneware.


The complex variety of modes of earthenware production in present-day Burma has been documented by the field work of Charlotte Reith (Reith 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003; Cort et al 1997), Mick Shippen (2005), and others, which provides a framework for looking back into the history of earthenware production in this region.

Meanwhile, the first excavation of a historic earthenware production site in Mainland Southeast Asia has offered another perspective. Two large middens in the Otein Taung ("potters' hill") site in eastern Pagan were excavated in 1999–2000 by Bob Hudson (Hudson et al 2001). Radiocarbon dates showed that the site was possibly active by the eighth century and certainly during the ninth and tenth centuries. Predating the creation of the monumental center of Pagan, this site may have been operated by Pyu potters representing an earlier phase of habitation.

The mounds proved to be full of earthenware sherds and were identified as likely production sites, resembling the mounds of ceramic debris still used for firing by potters nearby. The lack of evidence of updraft kilns underscores the likelihood that firing was done in open bonfires. The wares—as identified by Burmese excavators on the basis of personal use of similar vessels—included water pots, cooking pots, and plates, as well as many straight spouts of sprinkler pots (kendi).

The tools found included several earthenware anvils. A solid clay tube (10 cm. long, 1.8 cm. diam.) bearing a carved pattern of "spokes of a wheel" on one end was interpreted as possibly a stamp for impressing designs on pots. One pot from the site was caked on the inside with bright-red fired clay that was interpreted as slip. Some sprinkler pots from the site were coated with red slip. These components bear a thought-provoking resemblance to certain later earthenware lineages, including the stamp-decorated cooking pots painted with red slip recovered from the river near Ayutthaya (S2005.353–363). Slip plays a role in the red-fired and black-fired earthenware vessels still made at kilns in eastern Shan State. The age and origin of this production are uncertain. Red-slipped, burnished water bottles are also made in Mung Kung village near Chiang Mai by potters said to be descendants of Burmese immigrants (Katz 1991). Updraft kilns are used to fire the bottles either red or black.

Earthenware and stoneware

Vessels identified as originating from kilns in Twante in the Irrawaddy delta during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries offer a curious bridge between the usually distinct repertories of earthenware and stoneware (Tsuda 2005). Records from the thirteenth century show that Twante was known then as a center for earthenware (Luce 1970, vol. 1, 20, n. 61), as it is today (Lefferts 1988). These vessels are shaped like earthenware pots, and their wide mouths, globular bodies, and round bases were formed using earthenware techniques, including the use of paddle and anvil. They were decorated with bands of stamped motifs on the shoulder. However, they were made with stoneware clay and fired to stoneware temperature, with an overall coating of green wood-ash glaze (Guy 1989, 9, fig. 9, pl. 1). These rare vessels offer important evidence for the close juxtaposition of the two ceramic traditions in some regions of Mainland Southeast Asia (attentive archaeology may reveal more) and raise the possibility that stoneware production was introduced to a site where earthenware production was already concentrated and well developed.

A source for the widely used stamped or rouletted motifs on mid-first-millennium earthenware ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia has been proposed in Arikamedu on the Coromandel coast of southeastern India (Aung Thaw 1968; Begley 1988). At the same time, the pictorial stamps used on the shoulders of the glazed stoneware pots from Twante raise questions about cultural relationships between similar pictorial motifs stamped on Dvaravati earthenware from the Lopburi region and those on unglazed gray stoneware made at the Ban Bang Pun kilns.

Glazed earthenware

Glazed earthenware is a distinctive and long-standing product of kilns within Burma. The characteristic coating is a lead-silicate mixture opacified with tin and tinted with copper or iron oxide. Uncommon elsewhere in Southeast Asia, this glaze suggests a relationship to the tin-opacified lead glaze developed in West Asia in the ninth century (Di Crocco and Schulz 1985). Early surviving products give important evidence for both terminology and technology.

Glazed plaques on the basement level of the Nanda (Ananda) temple (circa 1105) in Pagan, representing deities in procession carrying auspicious objects, bear Old Mon glosses that give us one of the earliest records of the names of earthenware pots—at least those used in ceremonial settings (Shorto 1966; Luce 1970, vol. 1, 360–61; see also Sok Keo Sovannara 2008). Na dhup ("stupa-covered vessel") is a vessel (na, Old Mon) on a tall pedestal foot, either with a pyramidal lid or containing a stupa-shaped pile of offerings. Tron is a "jar" with a round base, straight walls, and an elaborate domed lid that seem to cover the rim of the vessel. Tron pumin corresponds to the Sanskrit purnaghata ("full jar") a ritual water pot. Tambay, or timbay, is a "pot" that seems to be represented on the plaques with a long neck and a stopper, similar to klas, or kalasa, which is a water pot.