Ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia:
Collections in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Print | Back to Normal Layout

Ceramics in Burma (Myanmar)

View all related objects in the collections


A lengthy and complex timeline of ceramic production within the area covered by modern Burma (Myanmar) is gradually taking shape as the result of quite recent research. The documented production spans a rich variety of both unglazed and glazed earthenware and stoneware.


The complex variety of modes of earthenware production in present-day Burma has been documented by the field work of Charlotte Reith (Reith 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003; Cort et al 1997), Mick Shippen (2005), and others, which provides a framework for looking back into the history of earthenware production in this region.

Meanwhile, the first excavation of a historic earthenware production site in Mainland Southeast Asia has offered another perspective. Two large middens in the Otein Taung ("potters' hill") site in eastern Pagan were excavated in 1999–2000 by Bob Hudson (Hudson et al 2001). Radiocarbon dates showed that the site was possibly active by the eighth century and certainly during the ninth and tenth centuries. Predating the creation of the monumental center of Pagan, this site may have been operated by Pyu potters representing an earlier phase of habitation.

The mounds proved to be full of earthenware sherds and were identified as likely production sites, resembling the mounds of ceramic debris still used for firing by potters nearby. The lack of evidence of updraft kilns underscores the likelihood that firing was done in open bonfires. The wares—as identified by Burmese excavators on the basis of personal use of similar vessels—included water pots, cooking pots, and plates, as well as many straight spouts of sprinkler pots (kendi).

The tools found included several earthenware anvils. A solid clay tube (10 cm. long, 1.8 cm. diam.) bearing a carved pattern of "spokes of a wheel" on one end was interpreted as possibly a stamp for impressing designs on pots. One pot from the site was caked on the inside with bright-red fired clay that was interpreted as slip. Some sprinkler pots from the site were coated with red slip. These components bear a thought-provoking resemblance to certain later earthenware lineages, including the stamp-decorated cooking pots painted with red slip recovered from the river near Ayutthaya (S2005.353–363). Slip plays a role in the red-fired and black-fired earthenware vessels still made at kilns in eastern Shan State. The age and origin of this production are uncertain. Red-slipped, burnished water bottles are also made in Mung Kung village near Chiang Mai by potters said to be descendants of Burmese immigrants (Katz 1991). Updraft kilns are used to fire the bottles either red or black.

Earthenware and stoneware

Vessels identified as originating from kilns in Twante in the Irrawaddy delta during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries offer a curious bridge between the usually distinct repertories of earthenware and stoneware (Tsuda 2005). Records from the thirteenth century show that Twante was known then as a center for earthenware (Luce 1970, vol. 1, 20, n. 61), as it is today (Lefferts 1988). These vessels are shaped like earthenware pots, and their wide mouths, globular bodies, and round bases were formed using earthenware techniques, including the use of paddle and anvil. They were decorated with bands of stamped motifs on the shoulder. However, they were made with stoneware clay and fired to stoneware temperature, with an overall coating of green wood-ash glaze (Guy 1989, 9, fig. 9, pl. 1). These rare vessels offer important evidence for the close juxtaposition of the two ceramic traditions in some regions of Mainland Southeast Asia (attentive archaeology may reveal more) and raise the possibility that stoneware production was introduced to a site where earthenware production was already concentrated and well developed.

A source for the widely used stamped or rouletted motifs on mid-first-millennium earthenware ceramics in Mainland Southeast Asia has been proposed in Arikamedu on the Coromandel coast of southeastern India (Aung Thaw 1968; Begley 1988). At the same time, the pictorial stamps used on the shoulders of the glazed stoneware pots from Twante raise questions about cultural relationships between similar pictorial motifs stamped on Dvaravati earthenware from the Lopburi region and those on unglazed gray stoneware made at the Ban Bang Pun kilns.

Glazed earthenware

Glazed earthenware is a distinctive and long-standing product of kilns within Burma. The characteristic coating is a lead-silicate mixture opacified with tin and tinted with copper or iron oxide. Uncommon elsewhere in Southeast Asia, this glaze suggests a relationship to the tin-opacified lead glaze developed in West Asia in the ninth century (Di Crocco and Schulz 1985). Early surviving products give important evidence for both terminology and technology.

Glazed plaques on the basement level of the Nanda (Ananda) temple (circa 1105) in Pagan, representing deities in procession carrying auspicious objects, bear Old Mon glosses that give us one of the earliest records of the names of earthenware pots—at least those used in ceremonial settings (Shorto 1966; Luce 1970, vol. 1, 360–61; see also Sok Keo Sovannara 2008). Na dhup ("stupa-covered vessel") is a vessel (na, Old Mon) on a tall pedestal foot, either with a pyramidal lid or containing a stupa-shaped pile of offerings. Tron is a "jar" with a round base, straight walls, and an elaborate domed lid that seem to cover the rim of the vessel. Tron pumin corresponds to the Sanskrit purnaghata ("full jar") a ritual water pot. Tambay, or timbay, is a "pot" that seems to be represented on the plaques with a long neck and a stopper, similar to klas, or kalasa, which is a water pot.

On the upper terrace of the Nanda temple, green-glazed plaques illustrate the Mahanipata jataka. One plaque (illustrated above) shows two potters at work (Luce 1970, vol. 3, pl. 326-d). The corresponding Old Mon text is "Mahosadha lives as a potter" (Luce 1970, vol. 1, 150). This plaque gives critical information about the presence of a certain version of earthenware technology in a particular place at a particular time. These two figures are not casually juxtaposed. They appear to represent the two steps in making an earthenware pot used today by potters in Ayutthaya (Morimura 1992) as well as in various communities in Burma (Reith 1997, Cort et al 1997). In the illustration on the left, a potter uses a wheel to shape the vessel's neck and body, turning the wheel with one hand while manipulating the clay with the other. This is the first stage of production. On the right, another potter uses a paddle-and-anvil set to close the base of the wheel-thrown form and round out the body to its final shape.

White tin-opacified lead glaze was used on wares from an as-yet-unidentified kiln site. The glaze concealed the red earthenware body and served as the basis for designs imitating fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Ming Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, substituting copper-green tinted glaze for cobalt pigment. These wares were first brought to wide attention through finds at grave sites along the mountainous border between Burma and Thailand (Shaw 1987, Sumitr 1992, Machida Shiritsu Hakubutsukan [Machida City Museum] 1996). Tsuda Takenori dates such ware provisionally to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on the basis of the discovery of a Burmese white-glazed dish in Sakai site in Japan, in a stratum datable to 1580, as well as to the presence of early Qing dynasty blue-and-white porcelain in the finds along the Thai-Burmese border (Tsuda 2005). Tsuda suggests a possible contemporaneous model in the white-glazed earthenware with cobalt decoration produced in Abbassid Persia in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Tsuda 2005).

Low-temperature lead-silicate glaze was also used on earthenware made at kilns in Arakan in the capital city of Mrauk-U (Tsuda 2005). Tsuda suggests that production was active by the early sixteenth century, on the evidence of tiles used on a Buddhist temple built in 1525.


The existence of Burmese glazed stoneware is just becoming widely known. In Rangoon in 1951 Kenneth Orr conducted his excavation of a site for glazed stoneware, which he was told had been operated by Shan potters, unaware that he was defining a new domain (Orr ca. 1994). Shan production of ash-glazed stoneware continues near Honar (Myo 2005, Myo 2006). Don Hein surveyed Burmese ceramic production broadly and helped to identify locations of kiln sites (Hein 1995, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2006; Hein and Barbetti 1998; Hein et al 2006). An early survey was conducted by Imai Atsushi (Imai 1996), while Tsuda has made an intensive study (Tsuda 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005). Sumarah Adhyatman confirmed the identify of brown-glazed jars widely distributed in insular Southeast Asia as made in Burma (Adhyatman 1985, 1988).

The story of Burmese stoneware, both unglazed and glazed, needs to be told in conjunction with that of adjacent areas of north and north-central Thailand, with specific attention to the role of Mon potters in developing and spreading early technology (Vickery 1990). For example, the resemblance of celadon-glazed dishes from the Twante kilns and from the Wang Nua kilns in Lan Na calls for study of whether the relationship is more than simply stylistic.

The production sites now known to be scattered across the Irrawaddy delta—including not only Twante, but also Ngapudaw and Pathein (Myo and Rooney 2001)—and especially their association with delta port cities suggest a close link to international trade. Sasaki Tatsuo and Sasaki Hanae's efforts to distinguish celadon-glazed wares of Thai and Burmese manufacture in their excavations at Julfar have clarified the considerable quantity of celadon-glazed stoneware exported from Irrawaddy delta kilns to West Asia (Sasaki and Sasaki 2002). While Arab traders no doubt played a role in such transport, activities of Mon trading ships in Indonesia in the eleventh century have been documented (Gutman 2002).