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Question - Re: Earthenware Jars

I am currently researching an archaeological site in northern Australia.

The site is associated with the Chinese who came to this region in search of gold during the late nineteenth century.

The site has considerable quantities of broken earthenware.

The pieces are large and appear to be from large ovoid containers which most likely were used for the bulk importation of preserved foodstuffs.

The material is a coarse, chocolate brown earthenware (although not as porous as some earthenware can be) and covered on the outside and inside (but not base) with an opaque slip (ranging from mustard, green, grey to brown in colour).

As you can see from the first picture, the jars had a narrow, rolled neck, with a 'basket-like' pattern around the shoulder. The second picture is of an intact sample at a local museum.

My question is: are these Chinese? There is no question that the site is associated with the Chinese. But I am having trouble linking this kind of crude earthenware to Chinese places of manufacture.

Most texts only mention stoneware in association with bulk containers. However, earthenware jars seem pretty common to parts of South East Asia.

Do you suppose it might have originally come from South East Asia, given the extensive Chinese trade links and merchant enclaves in this region?


"Reply: Martabans" - South East Asian Transportation Jars

From the look of the different shards in the top picture, I would really assume they could come from several different places, some of them possibly China. To figure out exactly from where, is another question though. Interestingly enough, the intact jar on the second picture does not strike me as "identical" to the shards, or am I wrong? The differences between these storage and export jars are often very small, so anything counts.

If you look for a Chinese source for earthenware, I would like to remind you of the Han dynasty pottery pieces, often covered with a green lead glaze. Their pastes are yellow to brick red depending on firing condition with their glaze varying from green to brown and actually colorless. This kind of wares seems to have had a long tradition even if it was superseded rather early by green glazed "proto porcelain" i.e. stoneware.

The place formerly called "Sawankaloke" in Thailand - nowadays called "Si Satchanalai" have also made Jars with a stoneware paste similar to your description, but so have a lot of other places. The brown color are caused by the iron content in the clay and does not give that much of a clue.

Sawankhalok was largest and focal point of Thai's ceramic industry in 1300s to 1600s. Located inland of Yom River which joints Chao Phraya river at Nakon Sawon. These river gave access to ports on the gulf of Thailand to India, Japan, Indonesia and Arabia.

If the clay were mixed with coarse grains, of which some are white, that would strengthen the possibility they come from the Thai area.

This question is interesting since there have been few studies made and the jars obviously was used and reused until they broke. Nowadays they can be found all over the world, in any country which ever traded with the east.

I would personally find it most interesting if your would be able to pinpoint some characteristics of your jars and connect them to a specific time. Things I would love to know are:

  1. Size and proportions on mouth/height/base
  2. Decorations - glazes and their combinations, designs and place on the jar
  3. Potting technology - throwing, cutting, molding, specifically the shaping of the base
  4. Paste - fineness, tempering, water absorption, chemical properties

The reason for this is that we really know very little about these huge jars and that they are notoriously hard to date, and finally that they are all called "Martabans" despite the fact that lots of these jars could actually have been made all over Asia.

Most probably all merchants, in the ports along the South China Sea from Korea/Japan down along the Fujian coast, around the South East Asian peninsula and up along the east side of the Bay of Bengal and all the way around the Arabian Sea, had their storage jars made locally whenever possibly.

Of all the most important ports with a ceramic industry near by, such as Hangchow, Swatow, Amoy and Canton in China - and Martaban in Myanmar (former British Burma), Martaban are historically the most important, connected as it is specifically to large storage jars.

"Martaban" is the conventional name, long used by all the trading nations, Asiatic and European, for a port on the east of the Irawadi Delta. In 1827, after a short war, this part of the world became "British Burma".

Martaban was well known for its trade in huge storage jars, lack, cloths, and food, salt pickled pepper, citron, and mango, wood and water. So much so that Martaban finally became synonymous with the name of the jars themselves.

Martabans, or Pegu jars, are known in western literary sources from at least the 16th century.

They were both exported as jars as such, and holding all kinds of provisions such as water "of a size that took two men to carry when empty". They also seem to have made do as water and vermin tight caskets for storing all kinds of food, provisions, and merchandizes.

These citations might be of interest:

"In this town of Martaban are made very large and beautiful porcelain vases, and some of glazed earthenware of a black color, which are highly valued among the Moors, and they export them as merchandize." (Barbosa, 1516, p.185.)

"In this towne many of the great earthen pots are made, which in India are called Martauanas, and many of them carryed throughout all India, of all sortes both small and great; some are so great that they will hold full two pipes of water. The cause why so many are brought into India is for that they use them in every house, and in their shippes insteede of caskes." (Linschoten, 1598, p. 30)

"They took it out of the cask, and put it into earthen Jars that held about eight Barrels apiece. These they call Montaban Jars, from a town of that name in Pegu, whence they are brought, and carried all over India." (Dampier, 1688, ii. 98)

In the 18th century there is a reference to the Jars being glazed with lead glaze; "Martavan was one of the most flourishing Towns for Trade in the East.… They make earthen Ware there still, and glaze them with Lead-oar. I have seen some Jars made there that could contain two Hogsheads of Liquor." (A. Hamilton, 1727, i. 63, ed. 1744, ii. 62)

For a reference on "modern Martaban pottery production" possibly contemporary with your finds, I have been suggested to see "Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma, 1900, Pt. i. vol. ii. 399 seq."

To figure out where exactly all these original "Martaban" jars were really made might take some doing though, since I figure that would take some investigation up the Salwen river which enters the sea near old Martaban. It actually comes from China in its upper course where it is called Lojiang and must have been the most important inland trading route.

I have enclosed a picture of something I believe is an original Burmese "Martaban". The shoulder has a simplified lotus scroll. The base is cut off with a string. The putty colored paste is remarkably even which stands to prove the local clay was naturally - without tempering with sand - suited to be used for big jars. My guess of a date would be mid 19th century since the jar is conveniently marked with a nice "20lb" mark. I am completely open for corrections here since I just do not know.

Opinions and further information are highly appreciated, but I feel I would like to get a start somewhere.

Thank you for your interest.

Best regards,
Jan-Erik Nilsson


Comment added December, 2000: