Skip to Page Content

June 8, 2008

Next Meeting Wednesday, June 25 at 2 pm in the Freer Gallery's Meyer Auditorium

late 15th-16th century Sawankhalok celadon glazed stoneware
This plate is a late 15th-16th century Sawankhalok celadon glazed stoneware now on display in the Sackler exhibition "Taking Shape". The image comes from the Freer-Sackler's on-line catalogue of the show.

The next meeting of the Washington Oriental Ceramic Group will take place on Wednesday, June 25 at 2 pm in the Freer Gallery's Meyer Auditorium. Co-sponsored with the Freer and Sackler, this session's speaker is potter Louis Katz. Dr. Louis Katz is a professor of ceramics at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. His lecture will focus on Dank Wean, a northeast Thai village and address the changes that have taken place in its stoneware celadon products during a transition to primarily an export market. Katz received a Fulbright to document Thai pottery centers and visits there frequently. For chatty and interesting stuff on Katz check out or just put his name into Goggle. He's a most interesting fellow. Katz's talk will be another in the series of lectures emphasizing themes and traditions in the Sackler's current exhibition "Taking Shape - Ceramics in Southeast Asia". Don Hein's talk on Thai Sawankhalok / Si Satchanalai wares was also a part of this series (see below).

This June 25 session will take place in the midst of the Smithsonian's Folk Life Festival on the National Mall. It'll be another good reason to visit the FLF, which this year will look at Bhutan, as well as offering an escape into the cool Freer Gallery from the typically torrid heat of late-June Washington. For those interested, after the talk we'll gather at an oriental restaurant at 6 pm to continue the topic and dine.

Summary of Dr. Don Hein's John Pope Memorial lecture, "Below the Surface - Discovering Thailand's Most Famous Kiln Site", on June 1.

Hein has done ceramic archaeology in Thailand beginning in 1980 including lots of excavation work at the famous Sawankhalok kilns at Si Satchanalai, north-central Thailand. High-fired celadon stoneware has been produced there since at least the 1200s, perhaps even before the Sukhothai Kingdom was established. There were four developmental periods of stoneware production at Si Satchanalai, beginning with the "Mon" (1200-1300 CE), and culminating with the classic Sawankhalok celadon, white and brown-decorated export wares of the 15-16th centuries.

Don Hein discusses Sawankhalok ceramics with WOCG members on 2 June in the Sackler Storage area.

The early Mon kilns produced glazed stonewares in a variety of shapes. Si Satchanalai potters of all periods produced celadon and iron-painted wares with floral and fish designs, but only final, export, period saw monochrome white and brown ceramics. Then Sawankhalok (and Sukhothai) potters were competing with Vietnamese, Chinese, Persian and perhaps Burmese potteries to increase their market share of foreign markets, which probably explains Sawankhalok innovations in decoration and in their production of finer wares.

Mon potters were indigenous, not Chinese as some have proposed, but not otherwise identifiable. Mon kiln technology initially came from potters who migrated from the Lan Na region of northern Thailand. Thai kiln technology (and indeed all Southeast Asian high fired stoneware know-how) ultimately derives from Chinese updraft kilns that developed early in the first millennium in the loess region of north China.

In the second half of the 13th century there was foreign intervention in the Sawankhalok production process. The excavation evidence is clear that new ideas appeared, like underglaze slips and new styles of drawing. This new technology possibly came with potters arriving from the Cham area of central Vietnam or perhaps Burma. The foreign potters worked at together with as the indigenous Mon. But it this foreign influence did not last, perhaps their technology did not work out.

By the time of the export phase of the 15th-16th centuries Si Satchanalai's ceramic industry used the larger and more efficient cross-draft kiln, which had evolved from the original updraft kilns from north Thailand. Over 1000 Sawankhalok kilns have been identified at Si Satchanalai. However, probably no more than 50 or so kilns were working at any one time in this over-300 year period. Interestingly, among these 1000 kilns were about 20 which produced metal products. Also in the midst of the Sawankhalok stoneware kilns were bonfire sites producing earthenwares.

In the 16th century Chinese porcelain exports strongly reappeared and before long Thai (and Vietnamese and Burmese) retreated from overseas markets. It was about this time that the "egg-shaped" kilns appeared in Jingdezhen, China. These egg-shaped kilns are cross-draft kilns, which had no immediate Chinese antecedent. Cross-draft kilns offered specific commercial advantages over existing south Chinese kilns, including the hill climbing "dragon" kilns; they were easier to fill and had a quicker turn-around cycle. Perhaps the technology for egg-shaped kilns came from Sawankhalok, Hein proposed.

Back to Top