Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Recreating the kilns of Angkor

Recreating the kilns of Angkor

Archaeologist Armand Desbat examines pottery made in an Angkorian-style kiln.
Archaeologist Armand Desbat examines pottery made in an Angkorian-style kiln. Nicky Sullivan

Recreating the kilns of Angkor

Archaeologists hope to discover more about Angkorian civilisation by using ancient pottery-making techniques

The Angkorian Khmers were prolific ceramics makers, and the Angkor Archaeological Park is still littered with fragments of ancient pots and bowls that were used in households and temples for storing water, foods, oils and other materials.

Finding pieces of them today is, literally, just a matter of a walk in the park. It’s harder, however, to understand how they were made and determine what they can then tell us about the people who lived there.

Seeking to build on that knowledge, the Ecole Française d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) has designed and built an Angkor-era kiln in the middle of the school’s tropical gardens.

Over the course of a week, the researchers fired up two separate lots of ceramic ware as part of their efforts to understand the techniques involved, and also how the Angkorians created natural glazes, which occur as a result of the process rather than from applying anything to the wares before they are fired.

The first attempt ended explosively after they allowed the temperature to drop. Refuelling the oven again, the temperature soared too quickly, shattering the pieces inside.

“It was a little bit for the fun of it,” admitted Armand Desbat, an archaeologist from the school who has been researching Angkorian ceramics for the past seven years, when asked about the EFEO’s motivation.

“But it’s also for the pedagogy. We start to see how they created natural glazes, how long they needed to fire the pottery, how much wood was required, all of these things.”

The Angkor-style kiln.
The Angkor-style kiln. Nicky Sullivan

Understanding the techniques, glazes and materials enables the researchers to distinguish and date the ceramics and the workshops where they were produced, yielding clues about trade and cross-cultural exchanges, or the periods during which temples were in use and particular sites inhabited.

The Angkorian Khmers used a kaolinite clay, which can be red or white. It appears to be homogenous in composition, which has limited the ability of the researchers to distinguish production sites based on chemical analysis of the pieces they find.

Many workshops, however, used unique designs that can be fixed to a particular time and location. The glazes are also different colours in different locations, which helps to identify the origin of pieces.

Desbat and his colleague Nicolas Josso constructed a Dragon kiln, based on a design originally seen in China, though the Khmers would very likely have adapted it to their own needs.

“It is difficult because, unlike in Thailand, where they made their kilns in the ground, here they were above ground, so they disintegrated once they were abandoned,” said Desbat.

From the outside, the kiln is a clay hump-shaped shell about three metres long and one metre wide. One large and three small holes at the front allow the fire inside to be fed with air and wood, while a flue at the back belches out the smoke. Along the sides, bricked-in holes provide access to the interior and gauges monitor the temperature. The fire burns in a recess at the front while, on a brick platform behind, the pots and bowls cook at temperatures hotter than lava.

It took heats of up to 1,200 degrees Celsius and 50 hours to successfully fire the pieces inside. This meant a constant vigilance had to be maintained as the fire consumed roughly 10 cubic metres of wood through two firings of about 70 pots and bowls.

The researcher’s second attempt to use the kiln was far more successful than the first. On Wednesday morning they pulled out 34 intact bowls and pots, some with traces of a naturally formed glaze on their exteriors.

They were rough and rang with an almost metallic tone when rapped. The insides had petrol-like traces of blue-green created by the burning of rice husks placed in them. The exteriors were blackened in uneven patches.

“I’m very content,” said Desbat. “It has gone beyond my expectations.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Rainsy stopped in Paris from boarding Thai flight

    Airline officials at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on Thursday prevented Sam Rainsy from boarding his flight to Bangkok ahead of his announced return to Cambodia on Saturday. Prime Minister Hun Sen had earlier in the day assured Phnom Penh residents that there would be

  • Analyst: Rainsy blocked from boarding flight 'an excuse'

    THAI Airways not allowing Sam Rainsy on its route from Paris to Bangkok on Thursday is being used as an excuse to keep his standing among fellow coup plotters and his uninformed supporters as flights to non-Asean countries are available, an analyst said on Friday.

  • Rainsy lands in Malaysia

    Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy arrived in Kuala Lumpur airport on Saturday afternoon after boarding a flight from Paris, where he has been living for more than four years. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Koy Kuong said on Saturday that Cambodia respected

  • Touch: Rainsy will never return

    Sam Rainsy, the “acting president” of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has claimed it has achieved 70 per cent of its struggle to find a solution to the current political situation in the Kingdom. Just before boarding a plane at Charles de Gaulle

  • Sokha continues call for dropping of charge after bail conditions reduced

    Not satisfied with having his bail conditions reduced, allowing him to travel freely in Cambodia, Kem Sokha says he wants his charge totally dropped. “As an innocent man who has been in detention for two years even without being found guilty, I continue to demand

  • MEPs' call for Rainsy's safety not European Parliament position

    The European Parliament said on Friday that a statement by 56 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) calling for guarantees of Sam Rainsy’s freedom and safety should he return to Cambodia did not represent its position. Delphine Colard, the European Parliament’s press officer told