eMuseum Southeast Asia Ceramics

Sawankhalok

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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Sawankhalok

The term Sawankhalok covers the production of many hundreds of kilns of central Thailand. It is frequently used interchangeably with the term “Si Satchanalai”, but refers to a wider area not covered by specific Si Satchanalai kilns. For more information about these specific kilns of Si Satchanalai, see the map spot “Si Satchanalai”.

Sawankhalok was in full production by the mid-1300s. The kilns produced:

  • Unglazed wares;
  • Monochrome white, black, brown, celadon, and olive wares;
  • Brown glaze with incised decoration inlaid with white; and
  • Underglaze iron decorated wares.

Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai clay is finer than Sukhothai clay and has many small black spots, due to the high iron content of the clay. Sometimes, the inclusions can be red or silver coloured. Like Sukhothai, Sawankhalok mainly created relatively simple shapes – jars, bottles, kendis, bowls and plates.

The earliest Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares included dishes decorated with underglaze iron depictions of flowers in the bases, with fish on the cavettos, and specimens of the flowers and fish design have been found on the Turiang shipwreck, dated to around 1370.

Second half of the 14th century. From the Tak Om Koi burial sites.
D: 26.5 cm
Collection of Robert R. Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka
(Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XXIX a)

The covered box (below left) is representative of early Sawankhalok ware with its form, its underglaze iron and its decoration of vine scrolls. A later production (below right) has a fish-scale motif. On both boxes, the unglazed foot shows a light grey coloured biscuit with black particles and a pontil scar on the underside. The clay and the tubular support mark on the base are two things which identify Sawankhalok wares. Si Satchanalai covered boxes have been found in abundance at sites in Okinawa, which functioned as a gateway for Southeast Asian exports to the Japanese islands during the period of Ming isolationism.

Covered box with vine motif
15th C
H: 7.4 cm, D: 9.5 cm
NUS Museum S1955-0255-001-0
Covered box with no handle, fish-scale motif
15th-16th C
H: 9.2 cm, D: 12.8 cm
NUS Museum S1967-0028-001-0 

Classic scrolls with spiky leaves resembling those on Yuan wares decorated with cobalt blue probably originated before 1350, such as on this jar with underglaze iron black decoration. The colour is actually black and not blue, as cobalt was not a mineral that the Thai potters used, even though mines were found as near as Yunnan in southern China in the early 15th century (Brown 1988: 76). This is unlike the Vietnamese production, which used cobalt for its underglaze blue decoration that became popular from the 15th century on.

15th-16th C
H: 11.7 cm, D: 12.2 cm
NUS Museum S1980-0082-001-0

Kendi with underglaze iron black decoration with oatmeal-coloured biscuit and a distinct pontil scar. Examples have been found in Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Bali; they are however rare in the Philippines and Sulawesi (Guérin & van Oenen 2005: 158).
15th-16th C
H: 14.2 cm, D: 16cm
NUS Museum S1954-0054-001-0

The majority of Sawankhalok kendis had mammiform spouts as the image above shows, but special shapes were also made, such as the kendi below. Sawankhalok celadon appeared around 1400, but excavations of the kiln sites have provided little help as to the chronology as they have been severely disturbed.

This celadon angsa-shaped (from the Sanskrit word for “goose”) ewer is a form commonly used by the Thai, and made for export. Many variations on the form exist, and they were made in brown and black underglaze painted versions, monochrome white, and celadon. The goose was the vehicle of the god Brahma in Hindu mythology.
14th-15th C
H: 10.3 cm, L: 12.6 cm, W: 7.8 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-036-0

Roxanna Brown and her colleague Sten Sjostrand (2003: 35–37), an expert in maritime archaeology, put together information from shipwrecks to construct a chronology of Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares. Among the first Thai exports were underglaze iron painted designs, mostly of flowers and fish. Miksic (2009: 63-64) sums it up thus:

“The Turiang shipwreck, dated approximately 1370, carried Si Satchanalai plates decorated with underglaze iron-painted designs of simple flowers and fish, but the Nanyang (c. 1380),Longquan (c. 1400) and Royal Nanhai (c. 1460) included Sawankhalok celadon plates. These green plates were major Thai exports until the late 15th century; on shipwrecks of the Hongzhi period, beginning in 1488, they are replaced by celadons from Burma, although Sawankhalok celadon bowls and ring-handle jars continue to appear into the early 16th century.”

Some examples of the great variety of forms, decorations and colours of Sawankhalok celadons are shown below.

Celadon stem-dish, or tazza (“phan” in Thai), with incised décor of a central chrysanthemum motif enclosed by circular bands
14th to late 15th C
H: 12.9 cm, D: 34.6 cm
NUS Museum S1968-0021-002-0
Celadon dish with a foliate rim, the cavetto with a combed “onion-skin” pattern and the centre medallion with a lotus. The motif on the cavetto was commonly employed on the larger Sawankhalok celadon dishes and bowls. The biscuit is an orangey-pink, probably from oxydisation of the clay, and the base has traces of a very large pontil.
15th C
D: 26 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0022-014-0

Celadon bowl with everted mouth-rim (“scoop mouth”) and incised decoration. The biscuit is reddish in colour, but grey within the pontil scar.
15th C
H: 10 cm, D: 27 cm
NUS Musuem S1955-0002-001-0
Miniature gourd-shaped celadon jarlet with ring-handles and minimal decoration of incised circular bands
15th C
H: 8.9 cm, D: 6.3 cm
NUS Museum S1969-0128-001-0

Pear-shaped celadon bottle with ring-handles broken off and incised circular bands as decoration
c. 1350–1500
H: 18.5 cm, D: 16 cm
NUS Museum S1954-0056-001-0

Globular ring-handled celadon bottle
15th C
H: 16 cm, D: 16 cm
NUS Museum S1967-0030-001-0

As mentioned before, Sawankhalok also produced monochromes in other colours, notably black as well as brown, such as in the two examples below. There was continuity in forms even as glazes changed. These were probably produced for another market, and examplesre found on the Turiang, dated to around 1370 (see Brown & Sjostrand 2003: colour plate 16).

15th C
H: 17.5 cm, D: 19 cm
NUS Museum S1967-0025-001-0

Unknown date
H: 13.3 cm, D: 7.3 cm
NUS Museum S1967-0038-001-0-9

Monochrome white fragment from a guardian figure (yaksha) with modelled features, the eyes and eyebrows emphasised with iron-black pigment
15th-16th C
H: 13 cm, W: 15.5 cm
NUS Museum S1954-0075-001-0

In the final period of Sawankhalok wares, underglaze black covered boxes make a reappearance, while celadons disappear. They can be found on the shipwrecks of the Zhengde (1505–21) and Jiajing (1522–66) periods, and are the main decorative elements of Sawankhalok production until it ceased around 1584 (Brown 2004: 7).

Miksic (2009: 93) concludes:

“In the Philippines, Sawankhalok ceramics are found in large numbers at certain 14th-15th century sites such as Calatagan (Fox 1959). On mainland Southeast Asia, Thai ceramics from Sawankhalok have been found at Angkor, where they postdated 1350, based on Groslier’s observations at the royal palace site in Angkor. Whereas Vietnamese ceramics seem to have been exported in two distinct periods, separated by a gap of some years, Thai ceramics seem to have continued more or less interruptedly from around 1400 until the late 16th century.”

Sources: Brown 1988, 2004; Rooney 1989; Miksic 2009; www.maritimeasia.ws