1st Meeting – December 1984
Illegal Hilltop Burial Site Excavations in Tak
A talk by John Shaw
The content of John’s talk formed the basis for the chapter entitled ‘The Tak Hilltop Burial Sites’ which appeared in his book ‘Thai Ceramics’ published in 1987. That chapter is reproduced here in its entirety.
The Tak Hilltop Burial Sites
In September 1984,
ceramic wares appeared in the antique shops of
The wildest stories
This was booty being taken back to
The only fact clearly
was that these artifacts were indeed coming from the Mae Sot area of
Then in February 1985 another deluge of ceramics surged into the antique market, this time from Mae Tun-Omkoi area further north, in Chiang Mai Province. Here there were many more wares from Lan Na, mostly from San Kamphaeng and now included some underglaze black decorated dishes, also superb Kalong Group I monochromes and black and white pieces, Phan and Phayao wares and large brown glazed jars from no known kiln.
It is now definite
that all these
ceramics came from hilltop burial sites. Thousands of graves from at
forty sites have already been looted; they are scattered throughout the
mountain spine of Thailand, from Omkoi and Mae Tun in the north, down
Mae Ramat and Ban Tak, Tak and Mae Sot, to Kamphaeng Phet and Umphang,
there is a strong possibility that they extend much further north and
also well into Burma. In almost all cases the sites are too far away
lowland valleys, where it is thought that wet-rice cultivating Thais
it to be conceivable that it was they who carried the ashes of their
the mountains for burial. Nor are the sites, with one or two
any likely major trade routes although local trade routes undoubtedly
the mountain ridges. The probability that these wares are in any way
with international trade routes is remote in any case since they are so
different from the selection of ceramics found in Indonesia, the Middle
India, which would seem to be the most likely markets for goods shipped
Martaban. The wares from Sukhothai must have passed through
A few graves are reported to contain skeletons but with the exception of one lowland site the vast majority contain either ashes and small bones in a jar, or else there is no remaining trace of any ashes at all. It seems therefore that the body was usually first cremated and the ashes then buried with grave furniture.
The grave sites are occasionally marked with a menhir (a large upright standing stone); in other places depressed circles of varying sizes are clearly visible circumscribing areas which contain one or more graves.
The burial sites do
not seem to predate
1300 and only very few pieces that could conceivably be given a Sung
date are known. The difficulty differentiating between Sung, Yuan and
Ming celadons, especially provincial export wares, is notorious. All we
is that the Tak sites have the appearance of being C14th-C16th when
with burial wares found in
We do not know who those mountain people were who so lovingly buried their dead with ceramics of value and with other personal possessions such as bronze lime-pots, bracelets, bells and mirrors, iron swords, knives, axes and daggers, beads of rock crystal and coloured glass and sometimes with gold. But always with ceramics, for the rich, an elephant urn or superb Sukhothai, Chinese or Kalong wares; for others, less fine wares from China, Sukhothai, Lan Na, Burma and Vietnam, and for the poorest, what are probably locally made coarse earthenwares.
Who were these people? Were they perhaps the Lawa, the original inhabitants of Thailand, about whom so little is known and if so did they barter forest products, which were so important in the Chinese tribute trade, for these lovely ceramics carrying them down the mountain tracks to local markets at the frontiers of Lan Na or Ayutthaya, or perhaps even to the great trade centres of Tak, Chiang Mai and Pitsanuloke?
The most interesting feature of the ceramics from Tak is the pieces that are not there. A personal view of several thousands of wares seen in antique shops in Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Tak, in villages, especially in Chedi Ko, and further down the Umphang road at Mae Tun and Omkoi, and at digging sites, gives the following impression – however it must be borne in mind that diggers have tended to bring down mainly those pieces that are easily saleable, i.e. large Chinese and Sawankaloke celadons of top quality sell for high prices whereas unglazed jars and Fujian Putian-type bowls are often thrown away. The Omkoi – Mae Tun sites have yielded a strikingly higher proportion of Northern Thai wares than those in the Tak – Mae Sot area and correspondingly fewer wares from the Sukhothai kilns. This is to be expected as this area fell within the boundaries of Lan Na whereas the Mae Sot – Tak area was nearer to the Ayutthayan power centre.
‘fish’ dishes found in sunken
junks and in
The vast majority of
celadon, some olive green and others a beautiful marine-blue green.
dishes, bowls and stem trays predominate. There are a few very small
superb elephant, with warriors at each leg and two riders, was found at
Muser. Totally absent are the figurines and animals, the coconut and
vases that feature so largely in
Totally absent, too,
incised pearl and cream and the white wares, commonly found in
The commonest of all
On the other hand, there are very different types of underglaze black wares commonly found at Tak.
Also found are a few wares designated ‘Mon’ by the Thai Ceramics Archaeological Project and which are said to be the earliest glazed wares made at Ko Noi.
Although underglaze black, brown, dual glaze and underglazed wares as well as celadon wares were made at San Kamphaeng, only celadon wares were found at Tak. No San Kamphaeng pieces are known to have been exported. Some of the dishes are of very fine quality.
Many more San Kamphaeng wares, including pieces with underglaze black decoration are found in the Omkoi area.
Of the many types of ceramics produced at Kalong, only celadons from the Wang Nua kiln have been found at Tak. No Kalong wares are known to have been exported, some of these large plates are very fine.
At Omkoi, however, the selection is strikingly different. There are many fine Group 1 black and white and cloud grey celadon monochromes: also one Group III Pa Dong bowl has been recorded.
Late Haripunchai or Lamphun
These wares, so called because they have been found in some abundance at Lamphun, mainly in the River Kuang although no kiln has been located, are also found at Tak but are not known to have been exported. They are found in far greater quantities in the Mae Tun – Omkoi area.
Other Northern Wares
No wares from other northern kilns have been found outside the borders of old Lan Nan.
It seems very likely that some of the rather fine celadons, usually incised, that are attributed to San Kamphaeng were in fact from Phayao kilns.
Phan wares are also found at Omkoi and there is a group of large jars sketchily covered with a runny brown glaze from no known kiln. Very primitive low fired urns found at Doi Ka and Omkoi may have been made locally and used for those who could not afford glazed funeral furniture.
Only very few
can be positively identified, one is a small underglaze black decorated
Other bowls have a very simple floral design in underglaze blue of
would generally be considered C14th. There are none of the blue and
ceramics so common in
There are however
celadon plates that may be attributable to
Khmer wares are
A few pieces that could possibly be Sung have been seen but it seems unlikely that any of the burial sites are earlier that C14th.
With only very few exceptions the wares are Chekian-type celadons and blue and white wares, some with overglaze enamel.
Many of the celadons and some of the blue and white wares are almost certainly late C14th. Others appear to be typical ‘Ming’ which in an Indonesian context would be dated C15th-C16th.
At the Chedi Ko and
sites and occasionally at Omkoi there is a group of wares of previously
province, creamy white lead glaze with tin opacifier, sometimes with
decoration, inglaze copper green decorated wares with free wheeling
floral or animal, in the majolica style, and chocolate slip wares. The
red and they seem to have been fired at a relatively low temperature,
pieces have incised marks of unknown meaning, possibly script on the
of two similar wares have been reported from
The closely related
Sawankaloke (Ko Noi), San Kamphaeng and Kalong (Wang Nua) found at Tak
prove to be earlier than the underglaze black decorated wares and it is
noteworthy that the kilns of the three sites are not dissimilar and
seem to be
made of clay slabs and not bricks which appear to be a later
Kalong, Phan and Sawankaloke. Similar wares were also made at the Lan
Through association the late Haripunchai wares would also seem to have an early, perhaps C14th attribution.
The other interesting
fact is that
the assortment of wares is so different from that found in
A wide variety of iron artifacts ranging from swords, spears and daggers to such everyday items as knives, sickles and betel cutters of a type still used today are found at most if not all sites. Since these artifacts are not valued by collectors they are mostly thrown away. Some swords and dagger have finely crafted bronze handles and traces of wood are sometimes seen where the blade fitted into the handle.
Iron must have been an important part of the local culture and maybe these wares were locally made. (See De La Louberes’s description written in 1693 of steel manufacture in Kamphaeng Phet.)
Bronze lime pots seem to have been a highly important item in the culture. The pots must have been the personal possessions of the deceased as they are all used and still filled with lime. Sometimes a bronze bell is found inside. Quality and design vary considerably. Traces of cloth and sometimes a piece of string round the foot have been seen. Bracelets of all sizes, usually not a complete ring, are common. Some are of a spiral type. One possibly silver bracelet has been seen. There are bowls of all sizes, some very thin and fine, as well as gongs and mirrors, chains, belts and beads still threaded on a string, lances, sword hilts and handles, and an extraordinary mace with bells attached, and many loose bells.
Mostly clear rock crystal but a few coloured glass beads have been found – turquoise, red and green, some carved.
A prosperous group of
have lived in the mountainous area dividing the kingdoms of
Their economy was
mature for them to be able to barter, possibly forest products such as
bird plumes, gumlac, ironwood, sapanwood, beeswax, etc. which were in
demand for the tribute missions to China, for fine bronze wares and
from Lan Na, Sukhothai and China. Their prosperity seems to have
the Golden Age of Lan Na, Sukhothai and early
The history of this area is a blank except for the mention in the 1292 AD Ramkamhaeng inscription of Muang Chot (Mae Sot).
Although the burial
are so different, could it be that these people were Lawa, such shadowy
in the early history of