eMuseum Southeast Asia Ceramics


Thai ceramics were among the first Southeast Asian wares to be seriously studied, starting with WA Graham’s 1922 article “Pottery in Siam” in the Journal of the Siam Society. The field only gained momentum in the 1960s following Charles Nelson Spinks’ important contributions on Tai pottery and in the 1970s from the discovery of the Prasat Ban Phluang temple site.

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Called Fine Paste Ware, this type of Thai earthenware was a very distinctive one. It is characterised by a kind of clay that is very fine and smooth to the touch, sometimes with a chalky feel. This allows for the production of very fine, thin-bodied and hard ceramic vessels. When fired, the clay body turns either white or a light buff colour on the surface, but has a grey core.

Forms include bowls, and covers and lids but the majority of the excavated Fine Paste Wares are kendis, such as these two specimens. Kendis are water containers, often associated with religious rites and rituals.

This example was purchased in Sulawesi, east Indonesia. On most Fine Paste Ware kendis, the decoration is limited to simple incised lines, as on this example, although some have been found with red and/or black painted strips. The bent spout is unusual, as is the neck with no visible flange. This may represent an earlier type of ware, as it resembles bronze kendis found in Central Java, which flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries.
Possibly 9th-10th C
H: 19.5 cm, D: 11.5 cm, L: 13.5 cm
Private collection
This example, with a conical spout, represents a more typical kendi of the Fine Paste Ware type in form with its globular body and neck flanges. Again, the decoration is simple incised lines.
14th C
H: 16.3 cm, D: 15.4 cm, L: 19 cm
Private collection

However, we cannot know for certain where these two samples are really from until a chemical analysis of their composition is done. The clay used in Fine Paste Ware is an almost pure kaolin, extracted from weathered feldspar, and can only be found in two spots in Southeast Asia – on the isthmus of the Thai peninsula and in East Java.Unfortunately, no kiln production sites have been found in East Java, but at Pa-O, in southern Thailand, six updraft kilns have been excavated and sherds from there have been analysed. Pa-O clay contains a high amount of iron oxide, perhaps accounting for the reddish colour seen in the second sample above.

Because of the source of Fine Paste Ware is limited to only these two spots (south Thailand and east Java), it is fascinating to find them all over the region, all the more as interest in earthenware has generally been overshadowed by glazed wares. Hundreds of these Fine Paste Wares (mostly kendis) have been found: in the Intan and Java Sea shipwrecks, dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries respectively, as well as sherds in the Philippines, in East Java, in north Sumatra and in Singapore with dates ranging from the 9th to 14th centuries. 

This leads us to question the nature of intra-regional trade, especially for earthenware kendis.

Sources: A Srisuchat 2003; Miksic 1985, 2009; Miksic & Yap 1988-89, 1992


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