Ceramics in Northern Thailand (Lan Na)

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CERAMICS IN NORTHERN THAILAND (LAN NA)

The Lan Na region covers present-day northern Thailand, bounded by the Mekong River to the north, by mountains to the west forming the border with Burma (Myanmar), by the Petchabun range to the east, and by the Central Plain to the south. Viewed as a whole, the various ceramic traditions of Lan Na seem an incoherent jumble in their relation to one another. They are far easier to understand if viewed as local craft industries operating more or less independently of one another, associated instead chiefly with the cultural and economic milieu of their central market cities (“muang”).

According to David K. Wyatt, the term muang

denotes as much social as it does spatial relationships. It can mean both the town itself and also the totality of towns and villages ruled by a single chao, ‘lord.’ Such muang arose out of a set of political, economic, and social interrelationships. Tai villages banded together for mutual defense under the leadership of the most powerful village or family, whose resources enabled it to arm and supply troops. In return for such protection, villages rendered labor service to their lord or paid him in quantities of local produce or handicrafts (Wyatt 2003, 6–7).

A topographical map shows that these centers lay within the succession of north-south valleys, separated by mountain ridges, that furrow the Lan Na region. Rivers following these valleys also facilitated connections either northward to the Mekong or southeasterly to the Chao Phraya River. As Wyatt notes, the economy of the various Tai-speaking groups centered on irrigated rice agriculture, which “kept them to the lower-lying valleys. Hills above them were inhabited by other peoples of a variety of ethnic and linguistic stocks” (Wyatt 2003, 7). In addition to the Tai populace in some of the valleys, Wyatt emphasizes that inhabitants of the Ping River valley connecting Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang “would have been people socialized as Mon, which is the language of the surviving inscriptions of the region” (Wyatt 2001, 39). Even after their nominal organization into the kingdom of Lan Na, ruled from the city of Chiang Mai after 1292, the affiliated provincial cities continued to operate as distinctive cultural and economic entities. As a result, in contrast to the uniform style of the “imperial ceramics” of the Angkor kingdom, those of Lan Na were “muang ceramics,” distinguished by their diversity of local styles.

The ceramic kilns making stoneware that arose in association with muang in northern Thailand between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, as conceptualized with regard to chronology by Sayan Prishanchit (1999), and organized here roughly north to south within each group, appear as follows. (The kiln name is followed by the modern province name.)

13th century                 14th century                 15th century                 16th century    

Wiang Bua (Phayao) . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

San Kamphaeng (Chiang Mai) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wiang Thakarn (Chiang Mai) . . . . . . .

Wiang Kalong (Chiang Rai). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wang Nua (Lampang). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thung Tao Hai (Lampang) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Huay Mae Tam (Phayao) . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Phan (Chiang Rai) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Inthakhin (Chiang Mai)

Ban Bo Suak (Nan). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  

Ban Nong Rong (Lampang) . . . . . . . . . . .

Ban Mae Tam (Lampang) . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sayan does not propose that any kilns continued into, or arose during, the seventeenth century. Two kilns are known to have been active in the eighteenth century—Huay Nam Yuak (Mae Hong Son province) and Wang Hai (Lamphun province)—and the latter continued into the nineteenth century.

The ability to give reliable dates for the full duration of activity at any of the Lan Na stoneware kiln centers is severely hindered by the scarcity of excavated and published kiln structures. As Don Hein observes, the dates given for the one or two kilns excavated at any given site indicate at best moments along the trajectory of operation; they tell us little about the full story of the beginning, duration, and end of production. The accurate characterization of stoneware production in Lan Na will require much more intensive study.

However, the earliest production associated with an urban center in Lan Na is of earthenware, not stoneware—namely, the varieties of footed jars and dishes made by potters serving the principality of Haripunjaya (modern Lamphun), which was established in 661–62 and brought under Chiang Mai rule in 1292. Production of fine-bodied earthenware, especially of long-necked water bottles (nam ton) and spouted water bottles (kendi) with stamped decoration inlaid with slip, continued through the late nineteenth century (Di Crocco 1991).

Lamphun water bottles and stoneware from San Kamphaeng, Kalong, Wang Nua, Phan, San Sai, Nan, and Phayao were recovered in the 1980s from burial sites along the mountain range between Thailand and Burma (Shaw 1985, 1986, 1989; Sumitr 1992). These grave sites, lamentably disturbed to feed collectors’ hunger, suggest a pattern of upland ceramic consumption parallel to that of the highland area spanning Central Vietnam, northeastern Cambodia, and southern Laos. They also reflect a pattern of circulation of ceramics westward over the mountains to coastal port cities of the Mon area of Lower Burma.

Lan Na wares are also found at kiln sites along the Songkhram River in Northeast Thailand (Walailak Songsiri 1996; see Library) and presumably were used at habitation sites. They were probably shipped by way of the Mekong River toward Muang Kok, on the right bank opposite Vientiane, a principal commercial center in the mid-seventeenth century (Cort and Lefferts 2000).

Compared to the wares made at the kilns in North Central and Central Thailand, however, stonewares made at northern kilns were seldom exported. Exceptions are the early San Kamphaeng celadon dishes from shipwrecks (Brown 2004) and in the Philippines (Guthe Collection, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan) and the Lamphun long-necked water bottles found in Japan (Arishima 1991).

Ceramics produced at the northern kilns share certain features. Jar forms show the  ongoing inspiration of Khmer baluster jars, and they often combine green and brown glazes. There appears to have been little production of Chinese-style jars with large functional lugs. White slip appears in combination with sgraffito decor under the glaze at kilns in Nan and Phayao-as at Si Sattanak near Vientiane and in the early phase of Sawankhalok. Stamped designs appear on both stoneware and earthenware, and a question remains of their cultural relationship to stamped designs on earthenware jars from the Irrawaddy Delta, on one type of cooking pot found in the river at Ayutthaya, and on wares made by ethnic Mon communities along the Chao Phraya River. At the same time, stamped designs of two circling fish that appear on dishes from Phayao and San Kamphaeng are strikingly similar to stamped fish motifs appearing on.a Chinese Longquan ware bowl fragment and on a dish from Putian dating to the thirteenth or fourteenth century (Hughes-Stanton and Kerr 1981, nos. 100, 182).