Mawlamyaing (Myanmar): Ancient site offers clues to trade with Middle East

Kazuto Tsukamoto

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MyanmarFragments of celadon bowls unearthed in Myanmar (Provided by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

An archaeological site in southern Myanmar may be the missing link in a chain that explains how sublime celadon porcelain from Asia ended up as far as the Middle East centuries ago.

Celadon pottery, distinctive by its jade green celadon color, was highly prized by China's imperial court in ancient times.

Researchers at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, as well as Kyoto University, recently joined a team from Myanmar's Ministry of Culture, along with specialists from the archaeology department at the University of Yangon, to excavate the site on privately-held land.

The Kyoto University team was led by Mamoru Shibayama, director of the ASEAN Center at the university. The Feb. 3-6 dig was at a kiln operated in Mawlamyaing, now the capital of Mon State in southern Myanmar that faces the Andaman Sea.

The kiln is believed to have been a major celadon porcelain production center in the 15th to 16th centuries.

The site is on private property. There was almost no trace of the kiln itself because it had been gradually dismantled over the years. But what remains led the researchers to determine the kiln was constructed along a slight incline.ymbol found on the bottom of a

Numerous celadon bowl fragments were uncovered in the course of the dig. The bowls are believed to have been about 14 centimeters in diameter. Designs of lotus petals were found on the surface, similar to designs found on Chinese celadon.

About 60 percent of the bowls had characters or markings on their base. The meaning of the symbols was not clear.

Myanmar3A symbol found on the bottom of a celadon bowl (Provided by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

It seems likely the kiln was used almost exclusively to produce bowls because very few fragments from plates were found.

The researchers also dug up a large number of clay columns. There were two main types, with one measuring 11 cm in length and 4.5 cm in diameter, while the other was 20 cm long with a diameter of 6.5 cm.

Myanmar2A large number of clay columns were also uncovered from the former kiln site in Myanmar (Provided by the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties)

Hiroshi Sugiyama, who heads the Planning and Coordination Department at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, believes the columns were placed within the kiln and a single bowl was placed on top during the firing process. The different lengths of the columns was likely intended to make most efficient use of the kiln interior in a three-dimensional manner.

"Even though the kiln was not very large, it produced very beautiful works of high quality," Sugiyama said.

Mawlamyaing has a long history as a flourishing trading port situated along the Andaman Sea.

It seems probable that the celadon porcelain was exported from Mawlamyaing to the Middle East. This is because Myanmar celadon has been uncovered from archaeological sites in the Arabian Peninsula.

The recent research prompted researchers to hypothesize that Myanmar celadon production technology might have been transmitted in the 13th century from what is now northern Thailand. Back then, the area was in the vicinity of Sukhothai, which was the capital of the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai.

"Mawlamyaing is believed to have been situated along the route for religious and cultural exchange that connected Southeast Asia with India and Sri Lanka from about the 4th century," Shibayama said. "Further research at the former kiln site may lead to a greater understanding of the trade and cultural exchange that occurred in that region."

Sugiyama noted that college students in Myanmar have few opportunities to take part in archaeological digs.

"So I believe the latest research was an excellent opportunity for them. We hope to involve them in classifying the remains as one way of fostering young researchers."