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June 28, 2009

Summer Update

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Cups like this one in the 17th century were imported in bulk for the European market.

The June issue of the National Geographic magazine has a great spread on the fabulous Belitung ship wreck sunk around 826 CE off Sumatra, Indonesia. Its cargo of some 60,000 Tang dynasty ceramic items was purchased by Singapore for over US$30 million. The photographs of the wares that were excavated in late 1990s are of a high standard. The Belitung is the earliest known shipwreck on the Maritime Silk Route that extended from the Southeast China coast through Southeast Asia to the Middle East. That trade continued for centuries with silk, ceramics, tea and spices being important commodities.

Beginning in the 17th century the Dutch and then the English East Asian companies were the dominant traders between Asia and Europe, which explains how this simple 17th century cup was found in a Sierra Leone harbor. It is a souvenir of the British colonial rule of that West African nation, where it was acquired by Dan and Margaret Sullivan who were stationed at the American Embassy in Freetown in the 1980s. Such cups were imported in vast amounts for the European drinkers of tea, coffee and chocolate.

Synopsis of the May 2 session

We visited the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. The some 4,000 pieces in the Collection are largely 17th-19th century Chinese overglaze porcelains made for American and European markets, often with family crests painted in bright enamels. The Collection includes examples decorated in Canton/Guangzhou for George Washington’s Society of Cincinnati.

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Chinese porcelain cup and saucer from the WLU Collection.

WLU Curator Ron Fuchs gave interesting background and told humorous illustrative tales during our handling session. The new WLU Japanese tea room was active on that Saturday with the tea ceremony. The good number of members who made the three-hour trip south were rewarded with good weather, introduction to a lovely liberal arts campus and an interesting presentation of a genre of Chinese porcelain – armorials – that few members have in their collections, and are not in the Freer – Sackler collection. This Chinese porcelain cup and saucer is from the WLU Collection.

A new idea – “From Members’ Collections”

Starting this autumn we want to add to the WOCG’s monthly announcement examples of ceramics from members’ collections. If interested, email me a JPEG image and a comment on the piece, i.e., where it was collected, its attraction for you, some background on the type of ware, etc. If not imperial that’s okay. We’d like to hear what turned you on to acquire it. I might add some additional details as appropriate. The aim is to have one piece in each WOCG announcement. I’ll be the decider on what pieces get published.

Report on Khmer Archaeological Studies June 16 at Freer

Two University of Sydney-based archaeologists working in Cambodia spoke to a fine crowd at the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on June 16. Dr. Mitch Henderson is working on a never-studied Angkorian industrial settlement northeast of Angkor. He noted that much of our basic understanding of the Khmer Empire is the product of French School of the Far East (EFEO) savants. They emphasized Khmer Empire art history and the sequences of architectural styles. Their work ended in 1975 when war and instability intervened. Only in the past ten years have serious archaeological studies have restarted around Angkor, and increasingly further out from the capital of the Khmer Empire. A result is the emergence of revised views of the Khmer Empire. For example, the establishment of the Khmer Empire may have happened perhaps hundred years earlier than its traditional date of 802 CE.

Some Cambodian and foreign archaeologists focus on the extensive road system that extended across the Empire in all directions from Angkor, the capital. What was the raison d’être for these Angkorian routes, which extended for hundreds of kilometers? Apparently an important motive was to facilitate trade in ceramics, fish, rice, gold, copper, bronze and iron tools and weapons and other products. We now know that Cambodian kilns along these Angkorian roads produced brown-glazed and other stonewares. The very large industrial town site (five kilometers on each side) that Dr. Henderson is studying was apparently a major iron producing settlement. It was the terminus of a major highway.

Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, head of Heritage Watch, presented a much darker story. Heritage Watch is an internationally recognized cultural preservation NGO (non-governmental organization) that works to preserve Cambodian antiquities and to end the destruction of its unique heritage. There is a crisis in looting cultural sites, O’Reilly said. Vast numbers of looted antiquities are smuggled out. This trade is not restricted to impressive sculptural pieces but also artifacts such as glass and stone beads, prehistoric tools and ceramics. Thailand and Singapore are prime markets for this loot. Part of the non-profit Heritage Watch’s work is educating rural Cambodians to stop rifling ancient sites. This is not an easy task in this poor country struggling to get on its feet after its decades of trouble. Plundering is a “huge” problem, as is the illegal cutting of timber. Interestingly, Dr. O’Reilly reported that farmers respect ancient above ground stone structures like temples and rest houses. But underground sites like cemeteries are ransacked indiscriminately.

Heritage Watch has produced a “Red List” of Khmer Empire objects for customs officials to use in efforts to stop the antiquities trade. At the current rate of destruction, underground sites will be gone within five-six years, according to O’Reilly. Heritage watch’s website is http://www.heritagewatchinternational.org

Taking Shape Exhibition Launched

The official introduction of the online catalogue for the “Taking Shape”exhibition of the Freer-Sackler Gallery took place on June 23. This is the first online catalogue produced by the Freer-Sackler. It is intended to be a reference tool for researchers and others interested in Southeast Asian ceramics. The event itself was a webinar (web seminar) live broadcast to an audience of hundreds in the US, Asia and Europe. Curator Louise Cort described the array of material available in this catalogue. David Rehfuss and George Williams, who contributed articles, explained their contributions and all took questions. The website is at http://seasianceramics.asia.si.edu.

The next WOCG meeting will be in the autumn, September 30. Have a cool summer.



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