Arts of Asia

Ban Chiang vessel

Thailand, Ban Chiang (4th–3rd millennium BCE)
10 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches
Gift of Class of 1908 1979-9-1

This black incised vessel is similar to pottery found at the lowest levels of excavations at Ban Chiang in northeast Thailand. There is much disagreement on dating artifacts from the site, but recent radiocarbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) suggests that Ban Chiang was probably first occupied around 2100 BCE. As in related sites on the Khorat Plateau, there is evidence here of cultivated rice, domesticated cattle, and mold bronze casting by around 1500 BCE. The excavations suggest that the Ban Chiang area was the center of an advanced civilization of communities with well-developed ritual systems.

Black incised pottery is commonly found in burial sites accompanied by food offerings, perhaps suggesting rituals that may have been related to ancestor worship. The black color indicates controlled firing in a kiln, or oven. The pottery was made by hand with a paddle and anvil, and decorated with incised cross-hatching. The complex geometric and curvilinear designs with double triangular shapes and spirals do not appear to be representational, although for their makers and users they undoubtedly carried symbolic and ritual associations. A foot ring stabilized the vessel, suggesting that it may have contained offerings such as rice.

By 1000 BCE, the black incised burial ware was replaced with a dramatic painted red-on-buff pottery, one of the most striking pottery traditions in Southeast Asia. However, since so many burial vessels—both black incised and red painted—were looted from the Ban Chiang site, it is difficult to confirm dates for individual pieces or to trace the relationship between the two styles.

Text by Penny Van Esterik, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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