Towards the end of the 6th or in the early 7th century, Khmer potters instituted an important technique for mass production of ceramics when they began to use the wheel. A Khmer inscription dating to 674 compares the source of creation to the potter’s wheel. Ceramics of this period were sometimes decorated with slip and paint, but this practice was abandoned after 800 when glazed stonewares first appeared.
The first glazed ceramics made in Southeast Asia beyond the orbit of Chinese control were associated with the Khmer rulers Indravarman and Yasovarman, who reigned from the 880s to 940. It is not known, however, how the method of firing stonewares or of glazing appeared in Cambodia.
Khmer ceramics were not exported beyond the Khmer cultural zone.
The term “Angkorian” refers to ceramics that have been found in relation to temples of the Angkor period, approximately 9th to the 14th centuries, with the peak period of production from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The distribution of these wares is over a vast area, under the rule of the Angkorian Khmers, even though most of the finds are concentrated around the famous Angkor Wat.
Where they were produced, however, is a bit of mystery – not only have the temple sites been looted, there are few indications of production sites. A few of these have only recently been determined but not yet sufficiently studied.
According to the French archaeologist Bernard Philippe Groslier, who excavated these temple sites in the 1960s and 70s, these Angkorian wares are wheel-made, fired in a kiln and glazed, i.e. “glazed stoneware”. Their find locations, however, suggest that these wares were cult ceramics, related to religious rituals, and their forms were therefore, most likely, specialised and limited. On the other hand, the artefacts found at the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom, in the same area, seem to indicate a clear demarcation between “common” and “high quality” ceramics. (Groslier 1981a: 15-16)
Because most of the finds come from either temples, burial sites or caches, wares of different periods and production sites have been mixed together and they cannot be dated with precision. Groslier (ibid.: 17) adds, “The situation is further complicated at Angkor by the importation throughout the centuries of Chinese pieces which were often imitated”, not to mention the fact that shapes, decoration and techniques of ceramic production may persist over time, depending on the market.
Nonetheless, the chronology established by Groslier in his 1981 book Khmer Ceramics: 9th-14th century (see Bibliography) can still be used for an overview.
After the early appearance of green glazes at Roluos and Kulen (see their respective markers on this map) in the 9th and 10th centuries, Khmer ceramics take a drastic turn and produce thickly potted stonewares called lie-de-vin by Groslier due to the resemblance of the glaze colour to the residue left in old wine bottles. Brown clarifies that the colour varies between violet and red, and appears in the second half of the 10th century. It is from these wares, rather than the Kulen-type wares, that the dark-glazed ceramics of Cambodia borrow their general construction and type of decoration. In addition, “lie-de-vin vessels are sturdy, flat-bottomed, and coil-made.” (Brown 1988: 44)
An example of a carinate, strongly angular lie-de-vin urn is shown below. Note the decoration with carved bands forming ridges and incised hatching; this becomes a characteristic of Khmer wares of the Korat Plateau in northeastern Thailand, near the Cambodian border.
The range of forms increases and baluster jars appear.
It is also during the 11th century that zoomorphic shapes begin to appear and the clay becomes finer, with a grey body, as can be seen in the lower body of the elephant-shaped jar below. Groslier (1981a: 24) states that a number of these elephant-shaped jars contain traces of lime in the interior, thus indicating that they were used to store lime for betel chewing.
It has to be noted that, according to Groslier (1981a: 28), other decorative techniques, such as mouldings, incisions and carved patterns, appear after 1100 on the zoomorphic vessels.
By the middle of the 11th century, the brown glazes become “truly unctuous, of a dark brown or very beautiful olive-green” (Groslier 1981a: 24). There is a category of two-toned vessels that are not very common, such as the example show below. These two-glazed wares disappear towards the end of the 11th century.
As can be seen, gourd-shaped jars and bottles make an appearance from that time, with brown glazes becoming predominant. A similar specimen to the anthropomorphic gourd-shaped bottle below was found at the Srah Srang burial site, about 4 km southeast of the East Gate of Angkor Thom. These deposits date to the reign of Jayarvarman VI (1080-1107). The find spot may indicate that this form was used for funerary rituals (Groslier 1981a: 29).
According to Groslier (ibid.: 30), the year 1177 is a turning point in Khmer ceramics. After Angkor was sacked by the Cham forces (of what is now southern Vietnam), culture went on the decline, as the flaky, crackled, yellowish glaze seems to show.
Sources: Brown 1988; Groslier 1981a; Miksic 2009
|Given by the Government of Cambodia, and stated to have come from the West Baray at Angkor
H: 26.8 cm, D: 24.7 cm
NUS Museum S1955-0286-001-0
|Baluster jar with dark red-brown body and thick black-brown glaze, decorated with a band of applied beading and a faint combed scallop pattern on shoulder.
Early 11th C
H: 32.7 cm
(Photo source: Groslier 1981a: fig. 57)
|Limepot with lid and moulded elephant head decoration, covered in a dark brown crackled glaze. Other elements of decoration include an incised pendant around the neck and vertical lines around the body.
H: 10 cm, L: 31.2 cm, W: 30.6 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-033-0
|Limepot in the shape of a pig, covered in purplish brown lie-de-vin glaze except on the underbelly and legs; decorations include moulded tusks and bristles on the back, as well as an incised pendant around the neck. The monkey stopper may not have been part of the original piece.
H: 14.8 cm, L: 17 cm, W: 9 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-045-0
Left: H: 9 cm; Right: H: 11.5 cm
(Photo source: Groslier 1981a: fig. 27 a and b)
|Gourd-shaped bottle with decoration of a human face
H: 12 cm, D: 8 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-024-0
|Gourd-shaped bottle with anthropomorphic features with heavily degraded dark olive-brown glaze falling short of foot
H: 29.5 cm (Photo source: Groslier 1981a: fig. 47)
|Zoomorphic fragment of a horse’s head covered in a dark brown glaze that has flaked off. Possibly once attached to a lidded pot which had heads in such animal shapes as roosters and ducks affixed. Decorations on this fragment include a diamond on the forehead and incised pendants and reins on the neck.
H: 8 cm, L: 6.8 cm, W: 3.6 cm
NUS Museum S2003-001-021-0
|Incense burner (honey pot?) in the form of a flattened globular jar upon a cup-stand; the jar with two moulded circular decorative bands on the neck, and two incised scalloped bands on the shoulder; all covered with a mottled dark-brown glaze; the foot flat and crudely thrown, and the body with a light grey, granular biscuit. Acquired at Siem Reap and stated to have been found in the north moat at Angkor Thom. It must post-date, if only by a few years, the digging of the moat about 1190 AD.
H: 9.8 cm, D: 14.9 cm
NUS Museum S1970-0051-001-0
|Jarlet covered in dark brown glaze that stops at lower body
H: 11.5 cm; D: 11 cm
NUS Museum S1980-0149-001-0