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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Sankampaeng, in Northern Thailand, is located about 25km east of Chiangmai and 70km south-west of Kalong.

The site was discovered in 1952 by the Thai archaeologist Kraisri Nimmananhaeminda who also found an inscribed stone stele. Brown (1988: 86) tells us that the text “commemorates the establishment of a Buddhist pagoda in 1488, and speaks of a gift of 25 families of slaves.” Based on this, Nimmanahaeminda thought that potters were included among the slaves and hypothesised that the kilns of this area dated from this time.

Inscribed stone pillar found near the Sankampaeng kilns in the ruins of Wat Chiangsaen; once kept in a courtyard at Wat Pa Tung, but now on display within the small museum there.
(Photo from: Brown 1988: fig 59)

However, the origin of these kilns can not be deduced from the stele. There are 83 kilns discovered in the area, of which only 7 have been excavated in 1970. These are in-ground kilns and are similar in structure to the Laotian kilns – small (only 2-4m long) and partly buried in the ground, while the top half is made of hardened earth and mixed with broken bricks. In shape, though, they are like other Thai cross-draft kilns, having an oval form with the firebox a step below the firing chamber. According to Nimmanahaeminda, similar kilns were being used at least until 20 years by Tai people still living in Yunnan province, China.Brown thinks that the site is “in no way connected with dispersed Sawankhalok potters”, but presents similarities with the Sawankhalok Mon tradition of jar shapes and the practice of stacking ‘scoop’ mouth plates face-to-face, foot rim-to-foot rim, as shown in the illustration below.

Methods of kiln stacking at Sankampaeng
(Photo from: Brown 1988: fig. 45)
The best-known wares of Sankampaeng are underglaze iron decorated plates and dishes, especially those with a pair of fish stamped in the centre of the wares, such as this plate below, which was found at the Tak Om Koi burial sites. The unglazed flat mouth-rim is similar to Phayao wares. The majority of the kiln sherds, says Brown, are “green-glazed, black-glazed, two-colour and unglazed vessels, especially jars, bottles, mortars, and basins in small and medium sizes.” Dishes, plates and bowls are also among the most common finds. Grit on the base of this plate indicates that it was set directly on the floor of the kiln for firing.

H: 4.8cm; D: 21.7cm
Collection of Robert R Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka.
(Photo from Brown 1988: pl. XXXVII c, d)

As can be seen from the base of the plate above, there are circular rings which indicate that the vessel was cord-cut from a turning potter’s wheel, while straight lines indicate cord-cutting from a stationary wheel. This plate’s body is extremely mottled in colour. This is due to the addition of sand into the clay, a characteristic of Sankampaeng wares. Colours of the bodies can range from buff, to light brown and to greyish black, as the examples below.

There are two other types of Sankampaeng wares. The first is a celadon-type glaze, which, according to Brown (1988: 88) sometimes fires to a “true celadon”, but is generally a “thin, greyish green, and laid over a coat of whitish slip that shows horizontal brush lines, a characteristic that helps identify Sankamapaeng products, presumably a result of the slip being applied while the vessel turned on a wheel.” This can be seen in the jar below.

16th C
H: 21.2 cm, D: 17.5 cm
NUS Museum S1954-0009-001-0
This method of glaze application can also be seen in the second type of Sankampaeng wares, which are brown and black monochromes, such as the two jars shown below.

15th-16th C
H: 30 cm, D: 20.4 cm
NUS Museum S1969-0124-001-0
The brown-glazed jar shown below was acquired by William Willets, the founder of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Society, at the site of Sankampaeng in 1965, such as in the image on the right.

H: 12.3 cm; D: 11 cm14th C
NUS Museum S1972-0017-001-0

Excavated wares on display for sale to visitors at Pa Tung village, Sankampaeng
(Photo from: Brown 1988: fig. 58)
Because of the severe disturbance of the kiln sites, it is impossible to provide a precise date to the chronology of Sankampaeng wares, beyond the rough dates of 14th to 16th centuries.Sources: Brown 1988: 82, 86-88; Brown 2004: 9; Miksic 2009: 64-65, 92



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