Glazed and confused

08 June 2015
Glazed and confused
Dr. Myo Thant Tin. Photos: Aye Min Soe Aye Min

The discovery of ancient Myanmar ceramic-making techniques, thought to have disappeared more than 1,000 years ago, fuel hopes for a renaissance in the country’s depressed ceramic market. Despite potential global sales, however, modern makers are reluctant to invest in the process, citing the heavy need for wood and other problems.
It took Dr Myo Thant Tin more than two decades of research to unearth the lost ancient technique for making glazed wares.
The 70-year old doctor of industrial chemistry says the process uses botanic raw materials, including ash from trees and straw, and could attract foreign buyers seeking an alternative to pottery that contain toxic lead and tin.
Myo Thant Tin, who started his research in 1987 with local and foreign colleagues, went to Twantay Township, 20 miles south of Yangon, to share the technology with modern ceramic producers.
It would have been a feat to resurrect an ancient art in its traditional home.
Some 1,000 old kilns have been discovered in the area and many more are thought buried around the area, he adds.
It wouldn’t have taken a drastic change in technology. The modern equipment used in Twantay are similar to the ancient kilns, Myo Thant Tin points out.
“I’m very sorry, but current makers won’t produce celadon wares with the use of our traditional technique,” the expert says.
“I had expected that my clarification on the technology of their ancestors would make them jump,” Myo Thant Tin says.
Instead, producers complained about the poor market for celadon and the cost of using wood fuel.
“They have no confidence in using their ancestors’ technique,” laments the expert.
Chicken-and-egg situation
Myo Thant Tin could not organize producers.
“They don’t dare to invest in making ceramic wares with the use of ancient technology. Their ancestors’ technology is strange to them,” he says.
The expert acknowledges that the ancient method consumes larger quantities of wood to reach 1,250 degree Centigrade – the temperature needed in a kiln to melt sand.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.
Myanmar’s ceramic industry is suffering from a scarcity of lead, one the main raw materials for their products – and now increasingly scorned worldwide for health reasons.
Conflict in the Shan State has hampered producers from sourcing the lead output of Bawsai Mine. They tried to turn to local battery makers to extract lead. As the mineral is being phased out of batteries, however, the shortage has worsened for ceramic makers.
Thirty years ago, 60 to 70 Twantay households produced ceramics. Today, only five families own big kilns; 15 others operate small kilns.
They could shift to the old process but claim the price of woodbased materials would increase production costs.

Ceramic tradition
Myanmar has a long tradition of producing glazed ceramics with some experts citing works as early as the 5th century.
Others, citing glazed plaques with figures decorated at ancient pagodas, say the tradition dates back to 1,000 years ago.
Around 1966, Myanmar archaeologists unearthed an ancient kiln in Bagan. Local researchers assumed more kilns could be buried around the country.
But until then, foreigners never considered Myanmar as a centre of ceramic production.
The Myanmar Ceramic Society started its voluntary services to find the country’s lost ceramic tradition around 1987 and 1988.
In 1997, Japanese researchers Hanae Sasaki and Tatuso Sasaki, from the University of Kanazawa, unearthed some glazed wares in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Most products’ origins were easily identified: Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
But a group of celadon wares stumped them.
Two years after, in 1999, Myanmar organized a ceramic conference and invited foreign experts to Bagan. Before the event proper, the participants made a field trip to Twantay to check out the kilns.
A Japanese researcher working in Myanmar showed some local pieces of celadon to the Japanese visitors, who noted their resemblance to the celadon discovered in the UAE.
After conclusive matching, ex-perts acknowledged that Myanmar was exporting celadon products to the Arab world earlier than the 15th century, says Myo Thant Tin.
Thailand celadon
He cites Thailand as a model of ceramic renaissance.
Ceramic making started in Thailand around the 10th and 11th centuries , but disappeared in the 16th century, according to that country’s experts.
After 400 years, however, Thailand reintroduced celadon making in the late 19th century.
Today, the country enjoys the biggest share of the global celadon market, notes Myo Thant Tin.
But he cites from a book that claims Thailand got its new head start in 1920 when a British officer named A P Morris brought home glazed wares, including celadon produced from Mongkai in Shan State.
Clues have traced those products to the ancient celadon technique currently used at Honar Village and Mongkai in Shan State, close to the Thai border.
The neighbouring country exploited the borrowed technique and earned big profits. In contrast, Yangon makers remain reluctant today.
Ancient Twantay kiln sites
Twantay’s ceramic tradition is not a secret. Ancient kiln-sites have become museums, attracting local and foreign ceramic researchers.
Several kiln sites and glazed ceramics, including the prized celadon green glaze on display in the museums, have excited foreign researchers.
Myanmar archaeologists and ceramic experts estimate that there may be more than a thousand kiln sites under the earth in Twantay. The modern kilns also attract tourists.
The discovery in 1987 of the first cross-draft glazed ceramic kiln in Myanmar at Lagumbyee, an old Pyu town northwest of Yangon, marked a watershed in the discovery of old kiln sites to establish the ancient craft, says Myo Thant Tin.
Many more ancient kilnsites were found at Myaungmya (Myohaung), Twantay, Ngaputaw, Mrauk-U, Pathein (Thaletkhwar, Ngwepark, Thebyu) and Ho-nar (Moung-Kung).
This Article first appeared in the June 4, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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