It was only in 1984, when the Tak Om Koi Burial Sites were found along the Thai-Myanmar border, that Burmese ceramic production came to light. Prior to this, very little was known, but the idea that Martaban had produced ceramic jars was already widespread. In addition, the glazed plaques at Bagan were well-known, and earthenware pottery had been discovered in many archaeological sites.
At Tak Om Koi, however, new types of wares (mainly green-and-whites), were identified and Roxanna Brown, the late but respected expert in Southeast Asian ceramics, included a chapter on Burmese wares in an update to her Master of Arts thesis, Ceramics of South-East Asia: Their Dating and Identification (1988).
As this is a relatively recent discovery in the history of Burmese ceramic wares, the details are still sketchy.
Sometimes spelled “martavan”, these refer to large brown glazed jars used generally for storage purposes. The Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta, in his travels in Southeast Asia in the 14th century, commented that such large jars were used to ship “pepper, citron, and mango, all prepared with salt” (Gutman 2001:112).
Although Brown states that such jars are rarely found in Southeast Asian shipwrecks (2004: 89), fragments have been discovered in shipwrecks off the coast of Goa, India, indicating that they were used further afield towards western Asia.
This jar with appliqué decoration represents a typical shape that Martabans are known for – a wide shoulder and a tapering base. Two other features characterise the Martaban jar: the large size and the brown glaze which can sometimes be so dark as to seem black.
H: 66 cm, D: 49 cm
(Photo from: Natalie SY Ong)These stoneware jars were known to other early visitors to Southeast Asia. Western texts do not mention where they were manufactured but the name probably derives from the port of Martaban, now known as Mottama, in lower Myanmar. This name denotes that the jars were obtainable there, but they could have been made elsewhere, and brought to Martaban overland. (Miksic 2009: 66)Sherds of Martaban jars have also been found in the Philippines, in Indonesia as well as in Okinawa, where they were exported to the main islands of Japan (Nan 2009).