Antique Ceramics: Sawankhalok / Si Satchanalai & Sukhothai Pottery of Thailand

September 13th, 2013

The high-fired glazed stoneware ceramics that were produced at the kilns in the Kingdom of Sukhothai from the 13th – 16th century are the pride of Thailand and much coveted by curators of museums and private collectors around the world. Although beautiful red earthenware unglazed urns and other artifacts dating back to 3600BC have been excavated at Ban Chiang, the zenith of ceramic production in Siam (Thailand) is frequently cited as Sawakhalok jars, plates, bowls, and vases in celadon (light green) and dark brown glaze from the 15th century.

Confusion sometimes arises over the nomenclature of antique Thai ceramics from this period. The term Sawankhalok is generally used interchangeably with ceramics from the city of Si Satchanalai in the Kingdom of Sukhothai, although it is also used to refer to a much wider area covering many hundreds of kilns in central Thailand. Ceramics produced in Sukhothai city are distinct from Si Satchanalai / Sawankhalok wares and comparisons of clay are made; Sukhothai is known for its courser clay with a high iron content, resulting in black specks. Studies of excavations sites at Ban Noi indicate that the production of glazed ceramics began in Si Satchanalai earlier than in Sukhothai. Another term encountered in the study of ceramics from this period is Sangkalok, a Thai term for ceramics made in both Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai during the Sukhothai period. As a side note, although the Lanna Kingdom in the north of Thailand produced beautiful glazed stoneware during the same period, it was not known to be exported.

Sawankhalok Ceramics: Antique Celadon Plates 16th Century
Sawankhalok Ceramics: Antique Celadon Plates 16th Century

Sawankhalok / Si Satchanalai & Sukhothai Ceramics (13th -16thC)

Ceramic wares from the hundreds of kilns located along the Yom River in Si Satchanalai as well as from Sukhothai city were exported in vast quantities to Indonesia and the Philippines where demand was great. Sawankhalok ware was also exported to Japan and the Middle-East. The export of both Thai and Vietnamese ceramics experienced a surge when the Chinese imperial court placed a ban on foreign export during the Ming period, leaving a gap to be filled. For the duration of the 15th century, Thailand and Vietnam became the most important suppliers of ceramics to the SE Asian market. During the first half of the 15thC Vietnamese and Thai iron-painted ware were popular but by the latter part of the 15th century it was Thai celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares that were in demand.

A deeper understanding of Thai trade ceramics during this period has been made possible largely by studies of the maritime trade in Southeast Asia, in particular shipwrecked junks carrying ceramics to Indonesia and the Philippines. Over the past 22 years some 10 shipwrecks have been discovered in the gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Often amongst the cargo were Chinese ceramics for which stronger dating was possible thanks to detailed records, allowing the basis of a chronology of Thai ceramics to be formed. The foremost expert in the field was the late Dr Brown whose book, “The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia- Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware” was published in 2009.

Excavations in Indonesia and the Philippines and recoveries from shipwrecks indicate that the iron-painted black fish and floral motif plates constituted the first wave of popular Thai ceramics in SE Asia, probably originating from the kilns of Sukhothai. The earliest Sukhothai iron-painted wares were discovered at the Turiang shipwreck dated around the late 14th century. Thai wares made up around 35% of the cargo and included some Sawankhalok celadon jars and vases. Early Sukhothai wares were sparsely decorated with fish or floral motifs. More elaborate decoration was present on pieces from the Nanyang wreck dated to the 1420-30s.

By this time large celadon plates (also termed shallow bowls) from the Sawankhalok kilns were in production. In the 1450-60’s iron-painted wares lost popularity to Thai Celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares though production of iron-painted ware continued in a reduced capacity and consisted of mainly jars, plates and bowls. Usually a circular scar of the support disc could be seen on the base.

16thC Sawankhalok Ceramics: showing circular scar from support disc
16thC Sawankhalok Ceramics: showing circular scar from support disc

The Royal Nanhai Shipwreck

Another wreck that has provided important information on the chronology of Thai trade ceramics is known as the Royal Nanhai Wreck, a Siamese junk that is thought to have sunk off the coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea around mid 15th century, supported by carbon 14 dating corresponding to 1400 A.D +/- 70 years.  The junk was transporting over 20,000 pieces of green and brown glazed celadon ceramics to Eastern Java. The wreck was discovered in 1992. Most of the Thai cargo consisted of celadon ware from the famous Si Satchanalai kilns as well as black glazed stoneware jars with lids. The presence of blue and white Chinese porcelain confirmed a dating of the cargo to the mid-late 1400s.  Of the some 20,000 pieces on board, only 20% were recoverable, with nearly 3,000 pieces going to the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. A small number of pieces became available for sale, allowing some of the finest 15th century Si Satchanalai ceramics ever seen to be offered to private collectors and museums around the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Very few pieces remain available for sale today.

Si Satchanalai Jars from Royal Nanhai Shipwreck Circa 1460
Si Satchanalai Jars from Royal Nanhai Shipwreck Circa 1460
Marine Growth on Jars Recovered from the 15th Century Royal Nanhai Shipwreck
Marine Growth on Jars Recovered from the 15th Century Royal Nanhai Shipwreck

By 1500, during the Ming Hongzhi period in China, blue and white wares emerged as the most highly demanded ceramics in Southeast Asia. Thai celadon and brown wares lost favor and as demand fell so did the quality- dramatically. In an effort to revive Thai ceramics exports in the 16th century, Thai  potters introduced decorations in underglaze iron-painted black and created a niche in cover boxes, kendi and bowls. It was also during the 16th century that opaque white glaze wares were introduced. By the middle of the 16th century the Burmese invaded Siam in the first of the Burmese-Siamese wars, effectively ending production at the Sawankhalok and Sukhothai kilns. In the centuries that followed, unglazed stoneware was produced at Singburi and near Ayutthaya and Chinese and Japanese blue and white wares were imported for everyday use. In the early 20th century the production of ceramics began to thrive in Chiang Mai and Lampang, both in celadon and blue and white ware, some of which was influenced by Chinese designs. The ceramics featured in this article are currently available – just click on the photos for more details.

Early 20th Century Ceramic Vase from Chiang Mai
Early 20th Century Ceramic Vase from Chiang Mai

Asian Antiques from Burma and Thailand

February 23rd, 2011

It’s no secret that authentic Asian antiques are becoming increasingly difficult to locate. Older antique dealers in Thailand often reminisce about times long gone by when you could buy Burmese opium weights in kilo bags for a song and old Burmese lacquerware was stacked up to the ceiling in their shops. The popularity of Asian antiques in America and Europe over the past few decades has led to a steady decline in supply in the region. Rare styles of opium weights, antique bronze bells, larger antique bronze sculptures and artefacts in general are all requiring a little more time and effort to track down. That being said, we recently returned from a trip during which we acquired several impressive new items from Burma and Thailand that we would like to feature.

Antique Burmese Lacquerware
Antique Burmese Lacquerware

Featured here are two large Burmese lacquerware vessels known as pyi-daung that were once used to carry offerings of rice to Buddhist temples and in the middle, a rare antique gold gilded Buddhist manuscript known as kammavaca that was presented to the Buddhist temple when a young monk ordained. View our Lacquerware Collection

Burmese Opium Weights
Burmese Opium Weights

Here are three rare forms of Burmese ‘opium weights’ dating back to the 1600s. These bronze zoomorphic figurines were used to weigh a variety of materials including precious metals, spices and medicines. They have become popular collectibles and represent a bygone era in Burmese history with production ceasing during the 1800s while under British rule. View our Opium Weight Collection

Antique Bronze Bells
Antique Bronze Bells

Three antique bells from the 19th century- the spherical bell is an elephant bell while the other two are pastoral bells, once used to help locate grazing livestock. Like virtually all Burmese utilitarian objects, they were created with mindfulness towards aesthetics. View our Bronze Bell Collection

Antique Bronze Buddha Statues

The three Buddha statues seen here are from Thailand and all are seated in the ‘earth witnessing posture’ representing the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment when he touched the ground to bear witness to his awakening to Absolute Reality. The first two statues are in the Chiang Saen style of northern Siam while the third is in the Sukhothai style, characterized by the flame-like halo. View our Buddhist Art Collection

Antique Thai Ceramics
Antique Thai Ceramics

The antique ceramic pieces here are from Thailand – the blue glaze pieces are in La Na style (former northern kingdom) while the celadon plate is from 16th century Sukhothai, which was a major hub of ceramic production at the time.

Antique Buddhist Manuscript Box
Antique Buddhist Manuscript Box
Antique Elephant Bell, Burmese Kinnara, Monk Wood Carving
Antique Elephant Bell, Burmese Kinnara, Monk Wood Carving
Antique Buddhist Gilded Wood Carving
Antique Buddhist Gilded Wood Carving

Please click on the photos to be redirected to the listing with further details. The items featured in this blog represent just a few of the antiques from Burma and Thailand listed in our gallery so   browse our collections and if there is anything of particular interest to you please email us at info@sabaidesignsgallery.com