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Ceramics From daily utensils to forms of living arts By Blue Lotus

  Ceramic
    From daily utensils to
                 forms of living arts
                                         
Ceramic ware has been produced in many types for various uses and has become an inseparable part of daily human life since prehistoric times. In many archaeological sites in Thailand, a large number and variety of ceramic remains have been discovered.
 
*The elegance of ceramics
 
According to their sources of manufacture, ceramics unearthed in Thailand are classified into two main groups: those produced in Thailand and those produced in foreign countries.
 
Making ceramics requires great skills.
 
With the skills of ancient Thai artisans and the abundant raw materials available in the region, the ceramics excavated were well made. They were decorated using a wide range of techniques and designs. So they are ranked among the finest in the world and its quality is remarkably distinctive.
 
 
A number of archaeological sites and ancient ruins found throughout Thailand have been excavated to study the social and cultural conditions and the development of communities in the past. During that process, some sites have been disturbed, to their detriment, either with intention or through carelessness. Serious damage has occurred to archaeological artifact in many sites, especially to fragile artifact made of clay.

Clay artifact can be classified into three types, according to the type of clay and the temperature used in firing:
1. Earthenware is made of clay mixed with sand or grog and has been fired at 1,100 degrees Celsius maximum. It has either a rough and rather thick texture or fine and rather thin texture with many tiny holes. When it is rapped, it sounds dull. The clay used here, easily found in this region, maybe reddish, light brown, light grey, dark grey or beige and may be coated or uncoated.
 
Fine earthenware is produced at Ko Kret, Nonthaburi province.
 
2. Stoneware is made of clay mixed with kaolin and feldspar, which has been fired at 1,200 degrees Celsius minimum until it is completely burnt and becomes Vitreousware. This ware is more durable and impervious because the clay's elements are amalgamated. The colours of the enamels include green, brown, white, black and dual colours.

3. Porcelain is Vitreousware which requires special preparation by mixing kaolin with ball clay, feldspar and flint. It is fired at 1,300 degrees Celsius minimum and is strong, thin, translucent, glass-like and impervious. The clay artifacts found in Thailand are mostly earthenware and stoneware, since these were locally produced. Meanwhile translucent ware (porcelain) was almost all imported.
 
    Major ceramic sites in Thailand
One of the most important ancient ceramic sites in Thailand is in Ban Chiang. It is located in the Korat Plateau in north-eastern Thailand, where a large quantity of fine pottery several thousand years old were found. Before the discovery, this area was thought to be an uncivilized backwater, although it actually possessed a highly developed culture that had a great impact on the whole region. The deepest levels of Ban Chiang can be dated to B.C. 3600.
 
Unearthed artifacts of Ban Chiang archaeological site at Ban Chiang National Museum, Udon Thani, reveal the grandeur of ancient arts.
 
The early pots are undecorated or have simple pressed or incised patterns. The ones from later periods are superbly shaped vessels of buff colour clay decorated with swirling, fingerprint-like designs. Besides pots, Ban Chiang also made many types of ceramics such as vases, jars, animal figurines, ladles, crucibles, phalli, spindle whorls and beads.

Besides that, unglazed, low-fired pottery has also been found at other sites throughout Thailand. One of the major sites is at Ban Kao in Kanchanaburi province, central Thailand, where distinctive earthenware pieces including tripod vessels with hollow tapering legs were excavated. Another site with particular fine examples was unearthed in the 1980's at Ban Prasat, which is typically in black or red clay. The pieces have less decoration than Ban Chiang, but the shapes are equally distinctive.
 
Sangkhalok ware of Sukhothai
 
In the period of Sukhothai kingdom, the great Thai King Ramkhamhaeng was believed to bring potters from China to set up the famous Sukhothai Kiln. The quality of the ceramics improved during the period of early 14th century as Sukhothai established itself as one of the more important Thai kingdoms. At that time, the demand for fine ceramics from ceremonial use to building materials increased greatly. It is estimated that there were 600-800 kilns built over the centuries throughout the region.
 
*Designs influenced by the beauty of nature
 
However, the kilns of Si Satchanalai are believed by some to have started even before Sukhothai kilns, perhaps as early as the 10th century. Their domestic ware including earthenware, unglazed stoneware, Mon ware, underglazed black, celadons, brown ware and white ware.

The great years of the ceramic industry of Thailand clearly fell between the 14th century and the middle of the 16th century. In the meantime, it was a period of great prosperity both for Ayutthaya and Lanna in the north of Thailand. During a large Burmese attack in 1569, many constructions were destroyed and resulted in the end of the great Sukhothai ceramic industry. New kilns were built at Singburi around the year 1600 but produced only coarse utilitarian goods. Many types of earthenware and stoneware were made in Singburi during the Ayutthaya period. The typical Singburi ware was jars with loop handles, covered with a lacklustre brown glaze.

Today, there are many types of ceramic products in Thailand that are well-khown for their distinctive beauty. The prime products include:

Stoneware
Stoneware is another type of ceramic or pottery which is produced in matte finish in muted colours. Since the 10th century, stoneware has been common to the various cultures of Thailand and has been one of the main container materials.

Some obvious examples are water jugs, cooking pots, storage bins and other utensils, decorative stoneware vases and bowls. The development of stoneware in Thailand was the result of a combination of cultures at different periods in history.

Celadon
The north of Thailand is famous for celadon, both historically and up to the present day. It is another form of glazed stoneware which became famous at a very early date. The word 'celadon' is derived from the Sanskrit language and means green-glazed stone.
 
Celadon, the ware of a characteristic
colour and a cracked texture
 
Besides its typical colour of green, Thai artisans also produce pieces with glazes of golden brown, bronze, and subtle tints of blue as well. Celadon is classified as high-fired stoneware, fired in wood-fired kilns. The green-coloured glaze is achieved by a mixture of wood ash being fired into the clay, giving it its characteristic colour and cracked texture.

Benjarong ware
This heavily decorated art form of ceramic was once reserved only for the royal family. The production of Benjarong ware is an incredible labour intensive process. Decorated with five colours, each different colour must be applied to the vessels and successively fired in the kiln five times before the decoration of the piece is complete. The paints used to decorate Benjarong ware are usually made of natural materials, and the colours brighten on the decorated vessels during firing. Benjarong ware is frequently gilded as well to heighten the decoration.
 
Benjarong ware, another form
of Thai fine ceramics.
 
Traditional Benjarong items were designed as items to grace the royal dining in the form of food containers or tea sets. Modern designs include flower vases and other decorative items.
 
*Another set of designs influenced by nature
 
Nowadays, many communities all over Thailand have produced and developed ceramics in their own styles causing the gradual growth of the ceramic business to become a powerful industry. The significant growth of the ceramic industry can be observed from the export revenue. In 2003, the export of ceramic ware valued up to 7.84 billion baht (US$ 196 millions), an increase of 8.52% from 2002 at 7.22 billion baht (US$ 180.5 millions).
 
*Fine pieces of ceramic made by
skillful Thai artisans
 

With the great skill of Thai artisans, Thai ceramic is neatly made into fine pieces. Moreover, it is inexpensive, making it one of the popular souvenirs among foreign visitors. If you happen to be in Thailand, a pick of fine pieces of ceramics back home is one of the must.

*Photos by courtesy of Ceramics of Phuket

 

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language .

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