August 2010


Sri Lankan Pottery: a continuing tradition
August 2010




A painted traditional jug (kalaya) from the Kandyan period

Today, we seek porcelain and ceramics to adorn our homes and beautify our dinner tables. These are considered as symbols of prestige. However, Sri Lanka has a heritage of pottery where the traditions have survived the test of time and find a unique niche in the world of pottery.

Words: Udeshi Amarasinghe | Photography: Menaka Aravinda

Recent excavations at a village called Uda Ranchamadama near Embilipitiya, an ancient settlement site situated 3,000ft above sea level have uncovered sherds of a painted pot, which through Carbon 14 dating has been placed at 1120 BC, making it the oldest pot found in Sri Lanka so far. The significance of this finding is that Sri Lanka had the tradition of pottery during its proto historic period where there were no urban settlements and the country consisted of rural, sedentary village settlements.

It is these communities that were responsible for the earliest dated earthenware in Sri Lanka. In terms of technology there were two types; the hand made clay pots and the wheel turned and fired pots where black and red ware and plain red ware were prevalent. One of the oldest earthenware, which is dated to the 900 BC was recovered from the basal levels of the stratigraphy of the excavation at the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura and is of the black and red ware type.

The identifiable characteristic of red and black ware is that the interior is black and the exterior is red. The firing technology of producing this type of vessel was special; the vessel is kept in the kiln upside down, then heat penetrates the exterior and turns it red. As the interior is not oxidised completely, it becomes black. This technique prevailed for nearly a 1000 years from 900 BC to 300 AD after which this technique started to decline. The technique used today for firing clay vessels became prominent after the 3rd Century AD.

During ancient times the use of clay vessels were twofold; namely for day-to-day functions such as domestic utensils and religious purposes and as specially made vessels including funeral urns. Such urns have been found at Ibbankatuva and Pomparippu along with human remains and utensils used for the rituals contained inside.

In the second millennium BC Sri Lankan potters were well versed in the methods to distinguish normal clay from the clay needed to produce pots, which was rich in iron compounds such as, hematite and magnetite. Ancient vessels have been found in various colours; white colour comes from the use of kaolin and to obtain the red colour after heating, clay with a high content of iron compounds were selected.

According to archaeological evidence from several excavations in Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama, the earliest cities and towns emerged around 350 BC. During this period firing technology of earthenware became more advanced and potters started using glazing techniques, exterior decorations and new variations in their creations. After 350 BC, we see vessels of various sizes and designs produced using new technologies that have led archaeologists to believe that local potters interacted with foreign pottery traditions and they incidentally upgraded their technologies while maintaining the Sri Lankan identity.

Furthermore with Sri Lanka becoming a hub in the maritime trade route foreign crockery was imported to the country from the end of the first millennium BC. However, what is amazing is that from the earthenware that has been found from that era, it is evident that the pottery tradition has continued to the modern day as there has not been a marked difference between the vessel types and the technologies and the traditional potters still use the wheel to produce clay vessels to this day.

Ancient chronicles state that potters were one of the craftsmen who came to Sri Lanka with Sangamitta Theri who brought the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka. However, the pottery traditions were very much instilled in Sri Lankan society by that time and not only vessels but sculptures such as small terracotta figurines and other utensils have been found dating prior to the arrival of the Theri. Ancient inscriptions and literary chronicles give a number of references about potters and that they lived in villages called ‘Kumbakaragama'.

According to archaeologists there is no rational demarcation of Sri Lankan pottery according to timeframes of the various kingdoms and the technological traditions should be evaluated according to continuity and change where alterations have occurred through foreign influences but there is no leap from one tradition to another.

Pottery painting has been evident from the time of proto history where not only designs but the name of the owner was also scratched on the surface. Recently a fragment of a pot was excavated from Tissamaharama and on this pot there was an inscription written in very early Brahmin script.

In earliest pottery the designs were very simple and had only lines and separation of colour, the composition was very simple. Later on the design and colour composition became complex with more intricate designs of flowers, vines, birds and other motifs. However this can be expected, as society evolved, their aesthetic and rudimentary needs also enhanced. Earth colours especially red, yellow and other types of ocher that were naturally available were used to decorate the clay vessels produced. Though replicating foreign designs occurred during later periods of history such as the 17th and 18th Centuries, Sri Lanka had a very strong tradition of art with its own motifs and symbols as evident from paintings at Sigiriya, Thivanka Image House in Polonnaruwa and Sithulpauwwa where the expertise of mixing colours and obtaining the correct composition was much apparent.

Glazed pottery was introduced to Sri Lanka during the 7th and 8th Century AD. Glazed pottery technology is very special, high temperatures are required to produce glazed vessels. This technology was practiced mainly in the urban centres, especially Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama. It was not widespread at that time and there were only a few who specialised in the technology. Glazed pottery is where the exterior has a finish of almost porcelain like texture.

It is believed that when society evolved from rural to urban society the community was dominated by urban elites. They had power and were wealthy people, who intended to maintain prestige. As such they needed prestigious items to show their status and power and that is why they promoted foreign trade to acquire fabrics, perfumes, beads and other such items. Further it is to establish their status that they also made their craftsmen upgrade their technologies, to produce such prestigious items. These were symbols of power. Glazed pottery is one such product. In the archaeological context, glazed pottery is very rare as the average citizen did not require such sophisticated items. Archaeologists have found very few specimens that could be identified as glazed and though initially the potters replicated foreign traditions they soon advanced to produce vessels with a style of their own.

The tradition of pottery in Sri Lanka that dates back to its proto history has continued until today, it has absorbed from other traditions while maintaining its uniqueness. This tradition is bound to continue in the years to come with a truly Sri Lankan identity.

Timeline

1300AD
Late historic period spans 1300 - 1500 AD. Colonial era began in the 1500s AD with the Portuguese and subsequently the Dutch reigning the coastal areas. The Kandyan Kingdom was prevalent in the hill country until the 1800s.

1000AD
Polonnaruwa period; no major change in the technologies used in the pottery industry.

450BC
Early urban settlements developed. Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama were the earliest urban centres in Sri Lanka. This continued down to around 1000 AD. Sri Lanka became a player in maritime trade.

1120BC
According to recent findings the upper limit of proto history has been expanded to 1120 BC. The lower limit of proto history is 450 BC. During this period there were no urban cities or settlements in Sri Lanka. Long distance trade was not prevalent at that time. The country consisted of rural, sedimentary settlements.
Pre history
Hunter-gatherer community.

  • image01
    image01

    An array of painted earthenware from the Kandyan era

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Funeral urns excavated from Pomparippu, Puttalam

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A black and red vessel from Pomparippu

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The clay vessel excavated near Embilipitiya, this vessel dates back to 1120 BC and is probably the oldest painted pot found in Sri Lanka (photograph courtesy: Prof. Raj Somadeva, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology)

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Clay roof tile

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    An earthen pot from Pomparippu

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Terracotta figurines found during excavations

    Prev Next