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Among the museum's collection are a group of ceramics excavated from the ruins of ancient kilns at Sawankhalok in Thailand.
The Sawankhalok kilns which produced these ceramics were located within the kingdom of Sukhothai in north Thailand, which submitted peacefully to the more powerful Thai kingdom Ayudhya to the south in 1378. At the height of its power, Ayudhya was a renowned trading centre and port.
Sawankhalok kilns produced a large number of ceramics from the 14th until the early 16th century. The establishment of so many kilns in this area may have been in response to the growing cities of Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai. They produced a wide range of shapes and glazes which come from both earlier Thai ceramics but were also influenced by Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer ceramics.
Celadon pieces (pottery made with a translucent green glaze, often with a grey or a blue tint) were a major Thai export until the late 15th century, and it is what Sawankhalok is best known for. Many of these ceramics have been found in excavated shipwrecks, which gives an insight into how extensively they traded across Southeast Asia.
The museum acquired this group of ceramics from a 'Mr W H Graham (London)' in 1906 and 1914. In the Royal Museum's Annual Report for 1906 there is the following entry under acquisitions:
“An interesting group of examples of Celadon Ware found in Siam [Thailand] has been acquired from Mr W H Graham, who excavated the objects from the buried ruins of ancient kilns near the now deserted city of Sawankhalok and brought them to this country. The specimens are at least 1,000 years old – even a greater age is claimed for them – and they are of value as undoubted and very early examples of the famous and highly-prized Celadon which found its way across Asia as presents to kings early in the Mohammedan era.
It seems highly likely that this is, in fact, Walter Armstrong Graham (1868 - 1949), a British colonial official who worked in Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand (Siam) between 1889 and 1903. He then became a government advisor for the Malay state of Kelantan from 1903 to 1909. He published numerous books, and an article on the 'Pottery of Siam' in the Journal of the Siam Society in 1922, which was one of the first studies of Thai ceramics.
Celadon is made with a translucent green glaze. Typically thick and glassy, it displays a tendency to pool and to form heavy droplets.
The colour of greens/blues ranges, which indicates the inconsistency in the control of the kiln temperature and reduction atmosphere.
The most common shape is small ring handled jars. The glaze stops some distance above the base of the vessel and these are mainly undecorated apart from incised horizontal bands in most cases.
This seated figure type of miniature has been commonly found amongst Sawankhalok wares.
Holding a fan in its left hand, there was probably a small pot with an opening held at the right shoulder. Its hair is tied up in a bun at the back of the head, and the ball-like lump may either represent betel-leaf chewing or miang (a fermented tea-leaf).
The animal with four feet appears to have a trunk and could be a stylized elephant.
Most Sawankhalok wares were fired on tubular supports. One end was narrow and open, the other wider and closed. If the vessel was stacked on the narrow, open-end, for firing an adhesive was used that left a black circular ring on the base. The surface inside the ring is normally lighter in colour than the surrounding area as this would not have been exposed to the kiln atmosphere.
Production in the Sawankhalok kilns seems to have ended rather abruptly when the area became the battlefield of warring forces of Ayudhya and Chiengmai. There was a particularly devastating raid in 1512 which probably ended production and depopulated the area.
Some kilns are said to have been found in the late 19th century still stacked with their fired contents. In fact, many of the pieces in our collection are 'wasters' a term for pieces that were damaged or broken during the firing process.
Unexpected things can happen in a kiln, and these are interesting examples of mishaps or things that went wrong during the firing process resulting in the pieces being discarded.