Rediscovering Thailand’s ceramic exporting industry, and why a shipwreck helped

Brenden Wood
4 min readSep 3, 2023

Over the past 40 years an Australian archaeologist has helped Thailand rediscover the glory days of its former ceramic production and exporting industry, and in the process has forged a strong bond between Australia and the people of a central Thailand region.

First visiting Thailand in 1977, South Australian archaeologist Dr Don Hein led a modern-day rediscovery of the large pottery and klin industry that operated in Si-Satchanalai district, and later concluded that the region was exporting pottery items during the 1300s.

An underground kiln on display at the The Center for Study & Preservation of Sangalok Kilns in Si Satchanalai

Ancient pottery was created using a klin which is a thermally insulated chamber that operates like a type of high-fired industrial oven that can create long lasting pottery items.

While Dr Hein was a high school teacher, he spent his summer holidays researching the above ground and underground klins of Thailand.

An underground kiln on display at the The Center for Study & Preservation of Sangalok Kilns in Si Satchanalai

Dr Hein and his partner Toni eventually began full time archaeology research in Thailand in 1984, and documented 1000 kilns within an 11 kilometre radius in Si Satchanalai.

Dr Hein believes that there was about 600 years of active pottery production via kilns in the Si Satchanalai region.

An underground kiln on display at the The Center for Study & Preservation of Sangalok Kilns in Si Satchanalai

Radiocarbon dating and a sunken Chinese ship have been used as evidence to conclude the period when Thais were producing and exporting their pottery items.

Radiocarbon investigations dated the kilns to a mid-14th century date.

The shipwreck of Turiang was discovered in 1998 in the South China Sea and was an important find for the people of Si Satchanalai. The wreck is dated to 1305–1370, and is one of the earliest shipwrecks discovered with Thai export ceramics. Found on board were neatly packed Si Satchanalai early green-glazed jars and bottles.

An above ground kiln outside the Sangkhalok Ceramics Conservation and Study Center in Si-Satchanalai

Researchers say that the Turiang wreck has plates with fish and flower designs on them from both Sukhothai and Si-Satchanalai, the first such documented instance in which both have been found together.

An above ground kiln outside the Sangkhalok Ceramics Conservation and Study Center in Si-Satchanalai

“The Sukhothai products on the Turiang are of high quality, fired at high temperatures. The equivalent Si Satchanalai products are inferior, suggesting that the firing techniques associated with underglaze black ware had not yet been mastered at Si-Satchanalai”, says a document by Professor Brian P. Coppola of the University of Michigan.

During the course of this decades-long research by Dr Don Hein, archaeologists and Australian universities, Thailand’s Fine Arts Department has established amazing museums and archaeology parks where people can now explore and learn about Thailand’s historic ceramic industry — An underground kiln is on display at the The Center for Study & Preservation of Sangalok Kilns in Si Satchanalai, at this location.

The Sangkhalok Ceramics Conservation and Study Center in Si-Satchanalai

For more information and citations about this part of Thailand’s search online for the Thai Ceramics Archaeology Project — it’s a joint Thai-Australian research project that works closely with the highly regarded Fine Arts Department of Thailand.

Above ground kilns in Sukhothai Historical Park in central Thailand

A lot of Dr Hein’s early research was conducted as part of his involvement with the Research Centre for Southeast Asian Ceramics, managed by the University of Adelaide and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Ceramic items located near an above ground kilns in Sukhothai Historical Park in central Thailand

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