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.
The decorative plaques of Bagan are the oldest attested glazed pieces in Myanmar, even though Chinese Tang dynasty records of the 9th century mention that the capital of the kingdom of Piao (probably around the region of the modern city of Pyu in central Myanmar) already had a surrounding wall of bricks that were covered in a green glaze and was protected by a brick-lined moat (Çoedès 1964: 196).
|Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
However, Miksic tells us that “no glazed bricks have been found there [i.e. at Pyu], though they do exist at the site of Bagan, which became the centre of a major kingdom in the 11th century. There they are used as exteriors for stupas*, not for building walls” (2009: 66).
Don Hein (2008: 18) adds, “Other early Burmese lead-glazed ceramic wares include architectural fittings and plaques on datable temples and domestic pottery found in habitation areas from Bagan in the north to Bago (Pegu) in the south.”
In 1963, the first Burmese kilns were discovered and excavated near the Abeyadana temple in Bagan. This report was not published. It was initially thought that these kilns would produce the glazed plaques used on the temple, but among the sherds found on the kiln sites, there were no relief fragments or discarded glazed bricks. This led Hein to conclude, after a second excavation in 1999, that “there was no definite evidence how the kiln worked or what it was used for” (Hein 2003: 27).
|Ananda Temple, glazed Jataka plaque with Mon writing
It is interesting to note that the oldest use of glazed ceramics to decorate walls of sacred buildings is at Bagan, approximately 200 years before Chinese Cizhou [circa 14th century] wall tiles were made. “On the other hand,” as Miksic says (2009: 90), “Islamic buildings in central Asia were also decorated with glazed tiles.”
The Bagan glazes used on the temples were all opaque glazes and never transparent. The colours ran from green to greenish blue with some yellow and cream coloured glazes. They were shiny on the surface and have become matt due to weathering. These glazes were low-fired, in green and white monochromes. Analyses of the chemical composition of the glazes identified the use of tin and lead, leading to hypotheses of a possible Middle Eastern origin of the glaze. This idea needs to be investigated further, in conjunction with the decoration on green-and-white Burmese wares (see Brown 1988: 102).
One of the foremost reasons why Burmese chronology appears incomplete is because of the large-scale looting that happens at archaeological sites. Brown (1988: 107) records the story of how Mr Kyaw Shein, a caretaker at the Shwegugyi temple at Pegu, bravely tried to prevent the theft that occurred one night in 1984; several men took away hundreds of pieces and another group appeared a few months later to claim the remaining ‘several thousand’.
The kiln sites at Bagan have also suffered from severe plundering for gold.
*A stupa is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics, typically the remains of Buddha, used by Buddhists as a place of worship.