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

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Pot for palm sugar, re-used as a lime-paste container

  • Unglazed earthenware; lime and bronze bracelet.
  • 9.7 x 14.2 cm
  • Muang Phet ware
  • 19th-mid 20th century, Bangkok period
  • Origin: Muang Phet kilns, Phetchaburi province, Thailand
  • Provenance: Mekong River Delta, Southern Vietnam
  • Gift of Osborne and Gratia Hauge, and Victor and Takako Hauge
  • S2004.123


Small, rounded-bottom vessel with everted rim. Paddle-stamped patterns on surface--diamond lattice on wall, "comb"-shaped sets of parallel straight lines on base. Hand-formed, using a wooden paddle carved with two patterns and an anvil. White accretions (lime?) on interior and exterior, with traces of bronze corrosion in the lime.

Curatorial Remarks

1. (Louise Cort, 11 July 2002) The Hauges acquired this vessel as "Oc Eo." They knew a Vietnamese military officer stationed in the Mekong delta area; he recovered pots from the swampy margins of rivers during the low-water season. Such pots were said to be "from Oc Eo."

What is the white accretion on the interior?

According to Mrs. Tran Thi Thanh Dao, Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, the museum has some examples of this vessel shape donated by a Vietnamese collector before he left Vietnam around 1992.  He collected them from the archaeological site of Go Cong in Tien Giang Province, beyond Long An City on the way to the Mekong Delta.  He said the site was in swampy land with salty water, near the sea. Large shells are attached to some of the pots.  See also S2004.166, 160, 122.

2. (Louise Cort, 28 April 2005) Nguyen-Long 2001: "[Lime] pots come in many sizes, from tiny personal to large ritual vessels.... The closed limepot is a container for slaked lime. Approximately one third of crushed limestone is placed in the pot together with one-third of water with the remaining space allowing for effervescence.

"To make a quid in the simple classic way one needs areca nut, betel leaf and lime. Slaked lime is removed from the limepot with a small spatula and spread on the betel leaf. The areca nut is then placed on the leaf, and the ingredients folded into a neat package. This is the quid. The quid was used to facilitate social exchange at all levels of society and as the Vietnamese saying goes, 'The quid is the beginning of the story.'

"Limepots were never discarded but rather placed on the family, village or pagoda altar. Retired limepots were also placed around the village banyan tree. Such a village tree was itself an object of veneration.

"The action of the lime-laden spatula passing through the narrow mouth of the limepot caused a build up of lime which eventually formed a collar around the mouth. As the collage grew in size the mouth of the vessel became choked with lime and eventually closed. When this happened the limepot went into retirement."

Nguyen-Long, Kerry. 2001. "The Vietnamese Limepot." TAASA Review (The Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia) 10(2): 20–21.

3. (Louise Cort, 13 May 2005) The Hauges owned a copy of Malleret's 1960 publication on Oc Eo and employed it to confirm the pieces they acquired as "Oc Eo culture." It is important to note that Malleret acquired all his ceramic samples, except those that he excavated from Oc Eo, as surface finds located in the course of general surveys of other sites (Malleret 1960, 92).

Malleret summarized his vision of Oc Eo culture ceramics drawn from such surveys: "Ceramics held a considerable role in the material life of the ancient inhabitants of the Transbassac. Judging from the enormous mass of fragments that lie scattered under the sun in Oc Eo and occur in compact sheets at certain levels, one is inclined to think that the ceramic industry occupied an important place among their activities. In fact, it seems that one was in the presence of a city whose population had been dense and had deposited enormous accumulations of debris over several centuries. But pottery was not mixed solely into the domestic aspect, where it was manifest as stoves, as cooking pots, as diverse containers, as lamps, as rattles for infants. It had furnished containers and crucibles for metallurgists, net weights for fishermen, spindle-whorls for the preparation of thread from textile fibers, and perhaps also stamps for impressing patterns onto woven cloth.... It is possible that pottery served numerous additional offices in a commercial setting in a maritime location." He goes on to mention the probable roles of small-mouthed vessels for storage and transport of foodstuffs, including oils and salt; of straight-necked jars for holding liquids and creating an air-tight seal necessary for fermenting fish sauce (nuoc mam); of small, wide-mouthed vessels for domestic storage of materials in the kitchen, as well as for unguents, perfumes, medicines, cosmetics, and rouge (although they were easily portable and could have been commercial items). He proposes that ceramic containers, along with wooden ones, served to transport raw materials and finished products of the important industries of Oc Eo (including gold jewelry, glass and stone beads, bronze and tin metallurgy) (ibid., 92–93). He describes necks of large jars over forty centimeters in diameter, presumably used for storing rainwater (ibid., 94).

Malleret studied 291 whole objects and more than 2000 sherds (787 from systematic excavations). He found five types of earthenware body (ibid., 98–100, analysis in Appendix I, 353–357):
(I) unfired or very low fired, without sand (including crucibles and spindle-whorls);
(II) red clay containing considerable sand and mica, naturally occurring in the clay, which seemingly was used without adding additional temper, formed by hand or on the potter's wheel into fishnet weights, stoves, and lids for cooking pots. Even when the exterior is fired red or gray, the interior may retain the color of ochre earth. Some appear to have been slipped;
(III) red clay with added fine sand temper, possibly derived from ground laterite containing particles of limonite; worked by hand or on the wheel;
(IV) blackish clay containing little sand, blackened by firing in reduction, sometimes with burnished surface, worked by hand or on the wheel, found in the lowest levels beneath the brick monuments at Oc Eo;
(V) fine paste, sometimes hard but usually soft, of homogenous, well-processed texture, variously rose, salmon, gray, or yellowish in color, sometimes appearing to contain temper made from prefired and ground clay, used mainly for special products with a certain "artistic cachet."

In addition, (VI) much higher fired than the previous five types, like stoneware, showing a connection to glazed Khmer stoneware, suggesting a Khmer occupation level at Oc Eo.

Malleret, Louis. 1960. La civilisation matérielle d'Oc-Eo. L'Archéologie du Delta du Mékong, tome 2. Publications de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient, Vol. XLIII. Paris: l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient.

4. (Louise Cort, 14 June 2007) Dr. Nguyen Dinh Chien, Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, agrees with my hypothesis that earthenware vessels of this type were made by Khmer potters in the Mekong Delta and suggests a date of 17th–18th century.

5. (Louise Cort, 1 October 2008) To Period added Nguyen dynasty. To Date added 19th–mid 20th century (1800–1945).

6. (Louise Cort, 7 April 2014) While resident at the Freer|Sackler as the first Hauge Research Fellow in 2011, Pariwat Thammapreechakorn identified small paddle-shaped bowls of this type as made in Phetchaburi province, central Thailand. They are pots for palm sugar (Thai: moh tal).

According to Nipatporn 1991, 122, Phetchaburi was a center for processing of palm sugar, and the small earthenware pots were made locally for use in transporting palm sugar for sale. The standard size held a liter of palm sugar. Such pots were also used for keeping vegetables. From 1893 to 1927, home-based production of such pots was replaced by a government factory that bought unfired pots to be fired and also taxed sales of palm sugar. The pots made during this period were made in regulated sizes and were typically smaller. After 1927, production returned to private hands, although the small specialized pots were gradually replaced by square metal cans or larger pots made by Mon potters.

Changed Period from Nguyen dynasty to Bangkok period. No change to Date. Changed Title from Shallow bowl with flattened base to Pot for palm sugar. Changed Geography, Origin, from Southern Vietnam to Phetchaburi province, Thailand. No change to Provenance.

Nipatporn Pengkaeo. Moh Tal of Petchaburi. Muang Boran 17, 4 (October-December 1991), 111-122.

Niyom Sukruangrong. Moh Tal of Phetchaburi. Sinlapawatthanatham (Art and culture) 8, 5 (March 1987), 86-90.

7. (Louise Cort, 17 November 2014) An article described the efforts of a Phetchaburi high school teacher, Kittiphong Peungtang, and his students to recover palm sugar pots from the bed of the Phetchaburi River. The palm sugar used to be transported by boat, and occasionally pots were lost overboard.

"Phetchaburi's Treasure Hunter." 2012. Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum Newsletter vol. VI no. 1, p. 1.

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