Ancient kilns uncovered in Phitsanulok
reveal a village’s rich pottery-making history
Story by CHOMPOO TRAKULLERTSATHIEN
Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT
A team of local scholars from Pibulsongkram Rajabhat Institute's Office of Art and Culture play a crucial role in excavating and preserving the historical site. From left to right: Asst Prof Damrong Prasertkul, Prajerd Setthanyakarn and Krongsak Phummarin
In 1983, the great flood that hit a tranquil village in Phitsanulok province and engulfed much of it in the blink of an eye brought not only catastrophe but great discovery. The following summer when the river dried up, a mystery of the old world was unveiled, shedding new light on an ancient community that dates back some 600 years.
SOME VOCABULARY HELP
surrounded and covered completely
a sudden disaster
to make something visible
to gradually destroy the surface of something by wind or water
a city or object that is controlled by another larger or more powerful one
to get information or with difficulty
to be sold for a particular price
much too high
to decide how to deal with a problem
having or using very little money
to develop quickly and be successful
able to do things by yourself, rather than depending on others for help
a room used for the particular purpose
having regular shapes or lines
to make a strong clear mark
a quality or characteristic
to wait secretly, especially to do something bad
very careful to notice any signs of danger or trouble
carefully watching a place where a crime may be committed
small and not very important
Thanks to the floodwaters that eroded the upper and lower banks of the Nan River, the missing pieces of a puzzle concerning ancient Phitsanulok were unearthed in the community of Ban Tao Hai. Terracotta objects in various shapes and designs produced from Ban Tao Hai’s kilns were discovered scattered on the dry Nan River bed.
About 93,481 artefacts, weighing approximately 7.1 tons in total, were excavated from just two of the kilns.
Judging from the number of objects found, local archaeologists believed that there must have been a large number of kilns. Indeed, they subsequently found that there were approximately 100 kilns along the river's bank covering about two kilometres.
The ancient kilns shed new light on the history of Phitsanulok, once one of the most important satellite cities in the north during the late Sukhothai and early Ayutthaya periods. It reveals that Phitsanulok was once a major porcelain production centre.
The significant discovery at Ban Tao Hai allows local archaeologists and historians to glean more information about the old community and its people.
Sadly, there has been little advancement on the excavation of the site. Worse still, after the news of discovery was spread far and wide, some villagers and other outsiders secretly ransacked the site and sold off the pieces, some of which could fetch exorbitant prices. As a result, some parts of the ancient kilns were ruined, with only fragments of pottery left behind.
In an attempt to address the situation, several scholars from Pibulsongkram Rajabhat Institute’s Office of Art and Culture, along with other cultural groups, joined forces to help preserve the significant historical site. They launched several conservation campaigns to attempt to safeguard the vulnerable remains.
“We educate villagers, children, teachers and monks about the importance of this historical site. At first, they paid no attention. One temple had planned to build atop the remains of the kiln. We had to ask the abbot to stop the construction,” said Krongsak Phummarin, the institut’'s director.
“Part of our effort is to discuss the lootings of the site with community leaders. We desperately need their cooperation,” he said.
According to Krongsak, the discovery of the kilns shed a lot of light for local scholars. Previously, academics had no idea where the name Ban Tao Hai came from (in Thai, the name means “the village that has kilns to produce large pottery jars”. The name indicated that the community must have been a pottery centre, but they had no evidence to back this up.
“We had always wondered where the ancient kilns were located. Now, we have found the key to unlock the old world. Previously, when archaeologists found ancient pottery, they jumped to the conclusion that they belonged to the Sukhothai period. Now we have to rewrite some of that history,” said Krongsak.
Sadly, due to the shoestring budget of the Fine Arts Department, only two of the kilns have been excavated. The others still remain, most submerged in the river, vulnerable to being ruined by natural causes, and the perfect porcelain may be swept away by the strong currents.
“We are fighting to get money to preserve our priceless heritage, but it’s a dream. The country has lost so much of its precious legacy because the government pays no attention,” Krongsak said.
Phitsanulok was once an ancient community that flourished during the Sukhothai period, but it has a long history of development and new communities have been built atop old ones. Thus, many historical sites remain buried — and so does a wealth of information about the past.
According to Prajerd Setthanyakarn, who excavated the site, ancient Phitsanulok was the self-reliant community. It could produce its own earthenware and also supply it to other places.
“It took us several months to dig up and ready the site. We needed to preserve the original patterns to study the structure.
“We learned that the community could produce a large number of pieces every day, judging from the large interior chamber of the kilns,” explained Prajerd.
All ancient kilns were specially designed to circulate and intensify the heat, increasing the temperature. They were built along the riverbank for ease of transporting the finished products and because the high-quality clay used in production was found there. The riverbank had 16 layers of soil with eight different colours from dark brown to grey.
“We found that the pottery at Ban Tao Hai was produced for a certain period of time and then, all of a sudden, production stopped. There is no trace of continuous evolution,” said Prajerd.
According to Prajerd, the uniqueness of Ban Tao Hai pottery is the symbols imprinted on it that serves as trademarks, showing which kilns each piece came from and which artists created them. In total, they found about 137 symbols, including geometric shapes, sword designs, leaves, stars, and swords. Carved wood, nails, stamps, and etching tools were used to make these symbols.
“The trademarks are very interesting because pottery found in other communities doesn’t have trademarks. Designs on porcelain are usually for the sake of beauty, so it's a challenge to explain the trademarks,” said Prajerd.
Sydney University used palaeonmagnetism to analyse the site and dated it to about 600 years old.
Krongsak said that the excavation of the historic site is still in its infancy, and it could provide a wealth of information.
“We need to find out why other communities couldn’t produce tall jars like these. Maybe this clay had a special property, or the firing and glazing techniques were kept secret by the artisans.
“That is our next job — to explore the lost world,” he said.
The conservation team plans to develop the kiln sites into a historical park and education centre where visitors can learn about the ancient processes of making pottery. The Fine Arts Department will protect the site to keep its remains safe.
But until this comes into being, conservationists must keep a watchful eye on the looters who still lurk.
“When it comes to our national legacy, we must be vigilant on surveillance. Petty looting of the site means a great, permanent loss. Historic remains belong to everyone,” said Krongsak.