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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There is a legend that “Chinese potters went to Sukhothai in the late 13th century and founded the Thai stoneware tradition” (Miksic 2009: 94). However, there are no ancient sources which corroborate this story and Brown noted several forms of evidence, including decorative motifs, use of tubular supports or pontils, and kiln design, which are not paralleled in China, though there are some links with Vietnam (Brown 1977: 59).

From the historical point of view, the principality of Sukhothai was established “between 1220 and 1250 when, according to Thai history, it broke free from and allegiance to Angkor – it is around this time, in fact, that Khmer history records a war with ‘Siam’” (Brown 1988: 57). By 1300, the Sukhothai kilns were in full production, indicating a strong relation between the founding of the kingdom and the increase in production.

Sukhothai is famed for its stoneware of plates, dishes and bowls, having an underglaze iron black decoration of fish in the centre, encircled by rings (one, two or three). Other Sukhothai characteristics include:

  • “a circular scar with evenly space unglazed dots (usually five) in the centre” (Rooney 1989: 129) that is sometimes integrated into the fish designs;
  • a white slip showing on the base;
  • and a coarse, grainy, greyish (sometimes brownish) body with white particles.


Brown calls the drawing of the Sukhothai fish “free, lively, summary” (1988: 64), as opposed to the more formal representations of Sawankhalok fishes. Examples are shown below

With a flat lip, the inside laid with a cream slip; the centre medallion with a fish in underglaze iron-black irregularly mottled, thus concealing 5 spur marks within the well; all covered with a translucent glaze; the outside wall with a slip and two decorative circular bands in iron-black, but unglazed; the roughly carved foot unglazed, and with a coarse grey-brown biscuit containing white particles.
15th C
H: 7.8 cm, D: 25.9 cm
NUS Museum S1969-0030-001-0

Bowl of conical form with an undecorated cavetto, the flattened mouth-rim and the outside wall with circular decorative underglaze iron-black bands; the centre medallion with a fish, mottled, thereby camouflaging the 5 spur marks; drawn on a cream slip and covered by a pitted thin transparent glaze; the carved foot with a brownish-pink biscuit containing whitish particles.
15th C
H: 8 cm, D: 25.7 cm
NUS Museum S0001-0066-001-0
Bowl with three circular bands along inner mouth-rim. The cavetto is painted in iron oxide of 2 fish separated by 2 sprigs of leaves; centre medallion bordered by 2 circular bands with central vegetal/ floral motif and 5 spur marks (the white discoloration comes from calcification of the piece).
14th-15th C
H: 8 cm, W: 22.3 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-046-0
An exceptionally well-potted bowl with somewhat flattened mouth-rim decorated with 3 circular iron-black decorative bands. The centre medallion, ringed by two decorative bands, contains a well-drawn fish, its mottled body helping to camouflage 5 spur marks. All decoration is done on a cream slip. The outside wall is similarly slipped, with 3 decorative bands, but unglazed. The carved foot shows a dark-brown biscuit containing whitish granules, and has a well-defined cylindrical pontil mark on the base, the biscuit of a lighter hue within the mark. The cylindrical pontil mark is exceptional on a Sukhothai piece, and must indicate that the bowl stood at the bottom of the stack.
15th C
H: 7.3 cm, D: 22.2 cm
NUS Museum S1968-0110-001-0

Bowl with three circular bands along inner mouth-rim. The cavetto is painted in iron oxide of 2 fish separated by 2 sprigs of leaves; centre medallion bordered by 2 circular bands with central vegetal/ floral motif and 5 spur marks (the white discoloration comes from calcification of the piece).

14th-15th C
H: 8 cm, W: 22.3 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0001-046-0

The flattened mouth-rim of this plate is painted in underglaze iron-black with two interrupted decorative bands. The inside wall is laid with a cream slip. The cavetto has a fruiting vegetal scroll in iron-black, and the centre medallion a fish. 5 spur marks are partly concealed by the mottled body of the fish. The entire piece is covered by a somewhat opaque milky-white glaze giving a lustred appearance. The outside wall is slipped and glazed, and with 2 iron-black decorative bands. The carved foot shows a light grey-brown biscuit containing whitish granules.

15th C
H: 6.4 cm, D: 26.3 cm
NUS Museum S1969-0036-001-01

Stoneware fragment with underglaze black fish motif on interior centre and a flat disc-shaped pontil with 5 spurs adhering to the foot.

15th C
H: 7.8 cm, D: 18 cm
NUS Museum S1972-18-1

The image below shows some Sukhothai kiln furniture: two pontil stands at the left and right extremities, and two five-spurred disc supports. The second image below again shows how archaeologists think the wares are stacked in the kilns at Sukhothai.

14th-16th C
Private collection

Method of stacking at Sukhothai kilns
(Photo source: Brown 1988: fig. 45)
A ring-handled jar of flattened globular shape with flaking underglaze iron black decoration. Recovered from the Royal Nanhaiwreck, the jar has spent a long time underwater and the design can scarcely be identified.
15th C
D: 13.5 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0022-007-0
Another common design on Sukhothai wares is the sunburst motif, which Brown calls “pikun blossoms” (1988: 65), such as on the bowl below.

A neatly potted bowl with a simple, legible décor inside and out. It has an unglazed rim. The underglaze iron black decoration of the sunburst motif is painted on a dull cream slip. The glaze has totally eroded, but bubbles appear on the exterior. 5 barely visible spur marks can be seen on the centre medallion. The carved foot shows a bright brown biscuit containing whitish particles. Similar bowls were recovered from the Xuande and Singtai wrecks (Brown & Sjostrand 2003: colour plate 79).
15th-16th C
H: 6.2 cm, D: 14.4 cm
NUS Museum S1967-0042-001-0

Shipwrecks also tell us that the Sukhothai and Sawankhalok   were operating simultaneously at least in the first half of the 15th century, rather than consecutively as previously believed (Miksic 2009: 32). On the Turiang, dated to around 1370, a larger number of Sukhothai wares were found, compared to fewer Sawankhalok ceramics.  Sukhothai wares also appear on the Longquan wreck, dated to about 1400 (Brown & Sjostrand 2003: 80–81) as well as on the Ko Khram and Rayong wrecks of 1380–1500 (Pisit & Sayan 1990: 18–19, 48–49), which indicated an export trade for these pieces.

Brown pointed out that the types of wares found aboard the Turiang present the “intriguing possibility” of an early date for the trade of underglaze decorated Vietnamese and Thai ceramics. The entry of Thai ceramics into the regional export market coincided approximately with the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China when all private overseas trade was forbidden and the status of the Jingdezhen kilns shifted from private enterprises to court kilns producing ceramics only under the emperor’s direction. This enabled the Thai kilns (Sawankhalok and Sukhothai) to clinch the market in glazed ceramics at least until the late 16th century when China regained the market. (Miksic 2009: 32-33)

Thai ceramics seem to have continued more or less interruptedly from around 1400 until the late 16th century. One scholar suggested that the Sukhothai kilns ceased production in the 1560s due to Burmese invasions and the revival of Chinese exports after the Ming trade ban was lifted in 1567 (Shaw 1981:27)

Sources: Brown 1988; Brown & Sjostrand 2003; Pisit & Sayan 1990; Miksic 2009; Rooney 1989; Shaw 1981


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