Part Five: Discussion of Artifacts: Local and Regional Earthenware

John Miksic

April 2003

Pottery making must have been a common pursuit in Temasek. Low-fired earthenware was used for cooking (although some iron frying pans may have been imported from China, based on cargoes of shipwrecks from this period). Clay suitable for pottery-making was found in the area formerly called Bras Basah, now the campus of Singapore Management University, according to 19th-century British sources. This area lay just outside the 14th-century earthen rampart or “Malay Wall” which ran where Stamford Road now is found. The general style of earthenware pottery made in Singapore, its shapes, production techniques, and decorative motifs, is typical of the area from southern Thailand , along both coasts of the Straits of Melaka, to western Borneo in the Temasek period. As in most parts of the world where pottery is made by hand without a wheel, Temasek’s pottery was probably made mainly by women for use in their own homes.

The most common pottery shape was the round-bottomed jar, used for storing a wide range of commodities. Singapore’s earthenware used in the kitchen was made from clay mixed with very fine sand. Most decoration was created by beating the wet clay with a carved wooden paddle. Decorative motifs were mainly simple linear patterns, with some curvilinear motifs.

Local Earthenware

Significant Decorated Earthenware Items Registered and Photographed and/or Drawn:

  • Reg No 02996, 02998, 03004; photo DSC09793; TP7
  • Reg No 00958, photos DSC03606, DSC03607; TP3 7
  • [NO REG NOS; GROUP PHOTOS OF ~100 SHERDS] DSC04287; DSC04291; TP1 8;
  • [NO REG NO] DSC04331, DSC04332. TP I 14. [This pattern on this sherd is quite unusual; it closely resembles a sherd from Tambon Phra Praton, Thailand. See Phasook Indrawooth 1985, Index Pottery of Dvaravati Period (Bangkok: Silpakorn University), plate 9, where it is described as “a band of stamped lotus petals, bordered on the lower and upper sides, a row of triangular teeth”.]
  • [NO REG NO] DSC04333, TP1 14
  • [NO REG NO] DSC04343, TP2 8
  • Reg No 03263 DSC08368, TP2 9
  • Reg No 03174, DSC09537, TP1 11A
  • Reg No 03172, DSC09540, TP 1 11A
  • Reg No 03256, DSC09561, TP2 9
  • Reg No 03252, DSC09565, TP2 9
  • Reg No 03459, DSC09567-DSC09568, TP1 10A
  • Reg No 03474, DSC09572, TP1 10A
  • Reg No 03478, DSC09576, TP1 10A
  • Reg No 03461, DSC09581, TP1 10A
  • Reg No 03949 DSC09606 (bottom), TP1 10A
  • Reg Nos 02254, 03250, 03261, 03253, 03260, DSC09789-DSC09790, TP2 9
  • Reg Nos 03010, 02997, 03005, 03000, 02999, 03008, 03012, 03009, 03006, 03001, 03011, 03002, 03003, DSC09791-DSC09792, TP 3 7
  • Reg Nos 00981-00983-00985-00982-00987-00989; 00993-00994-00995-00996-00997-01000-01001-01004-01005), DSC03674 TP1 11


Some pots were wider than they were tall, and had carinated bodies, i.e. a sharp angle separated the lower part from the upper part, rather than being described as a smooth curve.

Slipping, Painting:

Some sherds bear traces of the use of slip, a coating of fine clay used to create a smoother surface with a more pleasant color, mainly white or buff. Some sherds bear traces of red paint; it is possible that this was a common means of decorating cooking pots, which usually did not have paddle-marked surfaces. Red painting may have been more common than is known; in many cases the paint probably eroded away during burial in the soil for 400 to 700 years.

Other modes of decoration

molding, incising:


Mat impressing


Object types


Some pots had lids with knobs to hold them.


Some of the sherds preserve a kind of residue which has not been analyzed. The study of these would provide more important information about their use.


Another type of object made from pottery was the stove. In houses made of wood or bamboo, cooking was often done in a separate lean-to attached to the rear of the house. The traditional clay stove had a horse-shoe shaped base with a raised circular end for the pot to stand on. Wood would be fed into a fire under the pot from the other end of the horseshoe.

Coarse Tempered Ware:

A special kind of pottery was made with coarse temper including large grains of milky quartz. It is not known what these objects were used for. They seem to have had some industrial purpose, but what that may have been has not been discovered. No analogous objects have been found.


Another type of industrial object was the crucible. These were simple cylindrical or bowl-shaped pieces of clay with thick bodies and coarse temper. One advantage of coarse temper is that it enables earthenware to withstand the thermal shock caused by rapid expansion or contraction associated with heating and cooling.

Crucibles with smudges:

In addition to a thick body, smudges of a dark substance are found on the interior. This object was probably used for melting some type of metal.

Model of a human face

Made from fine clay; it may have been a children’s toy.

Imported Earthenwares

Fine Paste Ware (Pa O, South Thailand) Sherds: 1,072, weight 1,311 grams

Most earthenware from Temasek-period Singapore, like early Southeast Asian earthenware in general, is tempered by potters with sand, rice chaff, shells, or other materials. One type of earthenware made in southern Thailand however consists of quite pure clay. Production of this ware at the Pa-O site began in the 12th century (Srisuchat ); similar ware may have been made at Nakhon Si Thammarat. Potters here were able to produce high quality ware due to the presence of deposits of excellent clay. Pottery from this site has been found at land sites such as Kota Cina in Sumatra, and on shipwrecks in the Riau Archipelago and Java Sea. Examples of this ware have also been unearthed at most Temasek-period sites in Singapore.

Pottery of this untempered type is often called Fine Paste Ware. It is usually creamy white in color, though it often has a gray core due to the presence of carbon in the clay. Its surface often has a pink tinge due to iron in the clay. A few round-bottomed storage pots of this ware have been found at Kota Cina, but almost all examples found outside of south Thailand are water-storage vessels, called kendi, with long necks and spouts. They are wheel-made, often with flanges on the bodies and rims, and usually have tall feet. At Kota Cina some were decorated with red paint; on the 15th-century Bakau shipwreck, they had red burnished surfaces. Incised decoration is rare but present.

  • Reg No 006xx (last two digits flaked off); DSC00012 TP2 7
  • Reg No 00631 spout; DSC00013TP3 7
  • Reg No 00678 incised décor; DSC04093 TP1 13A
  • Reg No 00629 incised body sherd; DSC04279 TP2 8
  • 23 sherds with various designs; DSC04293 TP1 8
  • NO Reg No DSC04354 TP2 8 incised design
  • Reg Nos 03195, 03196, 00198, 03199, decorated FP sherds; DSC08362 TPII 8
  • Reg No 03418, incised design; DSC08381 TP1 10A
  • Reg No 03420 flanged body (interior and exterior); DSC08384, DSC08384 TPI 10A
  • Reg No 03417 incised décor; DSC08387 TPI 10A
  • Reg No 03421 incised circle and dot (interior and exterior); DSC08389, DSC08390 TPI 10A
  • Reg Nos 03948 and 03949 incised circle and dot; square matrix DSC09606 TPI 10A


Sherds of Javanese ware have been found at three sites: PHC, EMP, and SCC. They are distinguished by their orange color and flanged bodies which gives them a resemblance to Fine Paste Ware. However, they contain fine sand temper. Onlytwo examples of this ware were found at SCC, in a disturbed layer. They fit together, forming the junction between the body and neck of a kendi.