eMuseum Southeast Asia Ceramics

Phnom Kulen

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.

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Phnom Kulen

Phnom Kulen is located about 40 km east of Angkor and mounds of wasters have been known to exist there since 1901. The site is famous in Cambodian history as the place where the Khmer king Jayavarman II, in 802, is recorded to have held a ceremony regarded as the founding of the Angkorian state. (Miksic 2009: 50-51)

The term “Kulen glaze” has been applied to a wide range of thin glazes, varying in colour from creamy white to light green and most certainly made from wood ash. Jacques Dumarçay tested the Kulen glaze from a roof tile and found that its ingredients included uranium oxide (Dumarçay 1973: 9-73). Roxanna Brown established that the main colouring agent of the green glaze was cupric oxide (Brown 1977: 44 footnote 15).

This glaze is commonly found on the wasters of Phnom Kulen, and refers to “all yellowish- to greenish-glazed Khmer ceramics, whatever their provenance, as opposed to the ‘dark-glazed’ wares which also show a broad range of (often mottled) shades between brown, black, and olive” (Brown 1988: 43).

Brown (ibid.: 48) also tells us that the body of Khmer wares “are made of sandstone-based clay and so are normally coarse and grainy. They can be buff to whitish, or a dark grey mottled with reddish brown.”

In 2007, excavations were carried out at Phnom Kulen and revealed the kiln complex of Thnal Mrech. These kilns have been dated to the early 11th century, but the reports have yet to be published.

Three types of firing supports were found during the excavation. The most common are sausage-like pieces of clay possibly used to stabilise ceramics. A second type is a semi-cylindrical support meant to be placed on the kiln floor. A third type consisted of small balls of clay used to separate ceramics stacked on top of one another during firing. (Miksic 2009: 54)

In addition to the green glazes so common on Kulen wasters, the Thnal Mrech sites were also home to light brown glazed wares, which indicated that brown glazed wares were produced in areas other than the Khmer kilns of northeast Thailand, such as Buriram.

The study of Khmer kilns is still in its infancy, and no precise chronology can be established.

Sources: Brown 1988; Groslier 1981a; Miksic 2009

This bottle was found at the Srah Srang burial site and dates to the 10th or 11th centuries (Miksic 2009: 103). It was buried after being rendered useless by breaking off the neck (Groslier 1981: 14) in a ritual the meaning of which remains unknown. The green glaze is made from wood ash and applied patchily over a beige-coloured biscuit.
H: 15.7 cm, D: 15 cm
NUS Museum S1988-0283-001-0
Roof end tiles, Kulen style, with a water green glaze, probably made from moulds.. These are used like antefixes on temples. The leftmost specimen has a “nipple” (or tenon) in the interior which functions as an anchor to hold the tile in place.
11th C
Left: H: 12.2 cm, L: 15 cm, W: 11.5 cm; NUS Museum S2003-0003-258-0
Middle: H: 14.8 cm, L: 13.5 cm, W: 9 cm; NUS Museum S2003-0003-257-0
Right: H: 12 cm, L: 11.9 cm, W: 7.2 cm; NUS Museum S2003-0003-256-0
General view of the Thnal Mrech Kiln 2 at Phnom Kulen.
(Photo source: Miksic, Chhay Rachna et al 2007)
The remains of firing supports, with pieces of clay applied to the interiors of pots, and sausage-like coils on the lids of the pots found at the Thnal Mrech Kiln 2, Phnom Kulen.
(Photo source: Miksic, Chhay Rachna et al 2007)