Chinese ceramics have long played a central role in our understanding of Southeast Asia’s ancient past. For over a thousand years, their high quality and wide-ranging style have made them highly sought after commodities throughout the maritime trade route that spanned the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Workshop
Chinese ceramics have long played a central role in our understanding of Southeast Asia’s ancient past. For over a thousand years, their high quality and wide-ranging style have made them highly sought after commodities throughout the maritime trade route that spanned the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. An intimate understanding of Chinese ceramics is therefore essential for researchers of Southeast Asian material culture.
It is with this goal that the Nalanda–Sriwijaya Centre (NSC) organised a one-day workshop on 19 February 2019 for 35 participants which included the Archaeology Unit’s researchers and volunteers, as well as external academics, curators, and conservators from the National Heritage Board, Heritage Conservation Centre, Asian Civilisations Museum, NUS Museum, and the Southeast Asian Ceramics Society.
From left, Dr Terence Chong with Dr Tai Yew Seng at the first session of the one-day workshop. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
This workshop was conducted by current NSC Visiting Fellow Dr Tai Yew Seng. Dr Tai is a ceramic archaeologist specialising in Chinese ceramics and is currently researching Chinese navigational charts and text. Another of his recent projects involved the analysis of ancient ceramics recovered in the Aceh Geohazard Project. He is also the author of several book chapters and research papers.
The workshop was made up of three components. The first component was a lecture that introduced the basic concept of ceramics types, the raw materials used, and the physical characteristics such as decorations, form, and shape. The traditional manufacturing process followed this, in addition to kiln types and firing techniques.
Participants getting acquainted with some ceramic artefacts. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The second component was a hands-on session shortly before lunch allowed participants to get acquainted with a variety of ceramic types. By handling actual artefacts, participants were encouraged to make observations about the differing stylistic traits, fired clay qualities, and the unique workmanship from different kilns in ancient China.
One of the items on display: Fujian Chayang green ware with carved decoration, 11th century (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The final component of the workshop introduced hallmark pottery from different parts of China and time periods, with an emphasis on specific styles found in pre-modern Singapore. When and how did they come about, their unique qualities, typological evolution, and how information derived from these artefacts can help with the dating of archaeological sites, and vice versa.
No workshop or seminar is complete without an interactive Q&A session! Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The Q&A segment raised several important points. One of which was the source for cobalt blue pigment used in the production of the commonly known blue-and-white porcelain wares. Interestingly, the pigment was an imported material before cobalt deposits were discovered in China. Other questions about the temporal lifespan of kilns, suggested the suitability of archaeology as a method to determine their lifespan, and the socio-political factors influencing pottery style evolution. These questions reflected the multi-dimensional nature of ceramic studies.