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Antiquity Vol 80 No 309 September 2006

Tang dynasty pottery in Sri Lanka

Priyantha Jayasingha

A significant quantity of pottery from about seven Chinese dynasties has now been unearthed in Sri Lanka. The earliest examples date from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906), the Five Dynasties and the Ten kingdoms (AD 902-979). Pottery and coins from the North Song, South Song, Ming, Yuan, and Qing dynasties and ancient Chinese coins have also been discovered.

Documentation

Early links between China and Sri Lanka are documented in Sri Lankan historical texts such as the 'Sihalavattuppakarana' (AD 5), 'Sahassawatthuppakarana' (AD 9), Buthsarana and Jataka Atuwa Getapadaya (AD 12) and Pujawaliya (AD 13) and imply contact from the first century AD. At that time, Han dynasty missions had reached several south Asian countries including Sri Lanka which was known in Chinese as Ssu-Cheng-pu (Siriweera). In AD 411-412 the Chinese Buddhist historian Fa-Shien examined texts and recorded matters relating to the situation and navigation of the island (Wimalabhuddi 1960). He also reported seeing a Chinese-made Taffeta fan in front of the Buddhist statue at Anuradhapura.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Sri Lanka was the centre and the meeting point of ancient sea roots in the Indian Ocean.

In the period AD 1260-1294, Kublai Khan's four Chinese missions reached Yapahuwa and Dambadeniya, the sub-kingdoms of Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankan missions were also sent to the Yuan dynastic court. China now played an ever more important role in ocean trade between the Far East and the West. During the Ming dynasty (AD 1368-1644) Sino-Sri Lankan relations were at a very high level. The eunuch Admiral Zheng from the Ming Court of China came to pay his respects to the Sri Lankan court in AD 1405, 1409, 1411 and 1412 (Needham 1954), as is supported by a trilingual inscription found at Galle port (Southern Sri Lanka).

Sri Lanka was thus a central point in east-west travel from the first millennium, and the evidence from pottery presented in this brief paper suggests that contact intensified from the time of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906).

Pottery in Sri Lanka

Among imports from abroad, Chinese pottery is found in Sri Lanka, together with Islamic pottery, from the early middle ages onwards, the Chinese types representing the greater numbers of vessels. In Sri Lanka during the period (300 BC - AD 1017) Anuradhapura was the capital of the kingdom and the period is known as the Anuradhapuran. The earliest pottery imports belong to the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) (Pramathilaka 1990). Chinese ceramics are found on both inland and coastal sites. Inland sites include Buddhist monasteries such as Jetavanaramaya, Abahayagiriya and Mihintale in north central province in Sri Lanka.

The eastern tip of the island, known as Mantai, was an important port for the Anuradhapura kingdom, and has produced a significant assemblage of Chinese ceramics, including those from the Tang period. The material includes a type of heavy storage jar so far only known from Mantai. It has a flat base, a short vertical neck, six horizontal strap handles around the shoulder, and is made of thick grey-brown, coloured stone-ware with pale olive green glaze interior and exterior. This type of jar could have been used to contain drinking water or another liquid such as wine. Sherds from these jars have so far been found only at the Mantai port; there are none on the monastery sites. This may indicate that the jars were used primarily as containers on board ship.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Tang period: complete vessel and fragments.
Figure 3

Figure 3. Luxury Song porcelain in Sri Lanka.

Black striated stone-ware and dark brown glaze stone-ware jars and jar fragments have also been unearthed at Mantai port, Abhayagiriya monastery and Mihintale ancient hospital site. These are datable to the late Tang and the period of the Five dynasties (AD 902-979). Yue kiln celadon porcelain ware, Changsha kiln porcelain ware, Tang white ware and brown glaze ware, have all been discovered on Anuradhapuran monastic sites. Most of the ceramics ware of that period may be seen as religious gifts from local governors and foreign missions. The assemblages unearthed from coastal sites are always larger than those inland.

Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) ceramics occur, but according to the Mantai excavation records of 1980, 1982, 1984, are only represented by a few sherds of Northern Song porcelain ware were found compared to Islamic ware (Frenendo 1990). However, valuable collections of southern Song (AD 1127-1270) pottery have been unearthed. Coastal sites in the north west, such as Vankalai, Allaipiddy in Keyts and Jaffna have yielded Chinese porcelain including best quality Song white ware (qing bai). John Carswel who conducted rescue excavations in the sand dunes of these sites recovered more than six thousand sherds (Pramathilaka 1990). 443 vessels and 35 types were identified, including white porcelain bowls (qing bai), quality translucent white porcelain ewers, stem cups, and a fragment of pale green northern celadon.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Blue and white polychrome ware (Sri Lanka National Museum collection).
Figure 5

Figure 5. Unearthed blue and white fragments (From archaeological sites).

The biggest group of south Song porcelain, including examples of white ware dishes, green-yellow Changsha ware and olive green decorated bowls, have been unearthed at Polonnaruwa Alahana parivana site (north central province of Sri Lanka). Most of these originated in well-known kilns at Yue and Longquan in Zhejiang province, Changsa in Fujian province and Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. The other important site for South Song ceramics was Yapahuwa (North western province). Three complete bowls found from Yapahuawa, included two of white ware and one in celadon.

Blue and white porcelain of the later dynasties of Yuan (AD 1271-1368) Ming (AD 1368-1644) and Qing (AD 1644-1911) have been found on several archeological sites in Sri Lanka. The first evidence, of a few pieces of Chinese blue and white, is from Polonnaruwa (Pramathilaka 1990) and dated to the Chinese Yuan period. From about the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, a great deal of blue and white porcelain came into Sri Lanka, as can be seen from the large collection of complete vessels in the National Museum.

Conclusion

The geographical position of Sri Lanka is a significant factor for trade and exchange. Chinese ceramics, silk and lacquer were bartered for gems, spices and pearls from Sri Lanka and beyond. The traffic seems to have begun in earnest in the Tang dynasty and reached its peak levels during the thirteenth-fifteenth centuries.

In inland Sri Lanka, Chinese ceramics, dating from the Tang dynasty to the southern Song dynasty, have been discovered mainly on Buddhist monastery sites. These findings suggest that at that time the use of porcelain ware was limited to royalty or monks. It is also possible that ceramics received by nobles were re-gifted to monasteries as valuable gifts. Chinese devotees also came to Sri Lanka as pilgrims to Buddhist sites. For example, 1352 Chinese coins, with porcelain dated to the Song period, have been unearthed in Yapahuwa rock port and Buddhist temple (twelfth-thirteenth centuries) (Yapahuwa 2001). It is reasonable to conclude that early pottery not only arrived as items of trade, but also in the form of religious and political gifts.

References

Priyantha Jayasingha: Archaeological Department Colombo 7 Sri Lanka and Department of Scientific History and Archaeometry University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) 96, Jinzhai Road, Hefei 230026, Anhui P.R. China (Email: xinghe@mail.ustc.edu.cn)

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