1st Meeting – December 1984


Illegal Hilltop Burial Site Excavations in Tak

A talk by John Shaw


The content of John’s talk formed the basis for the chapter entitled ‘The Tak Hilltop Burial Sites’ which appeared in his book ‘Thai Ceramics’ published in 1987. That chapter is reproduced here in its entirety.


The Tak Hilltop Burial Sites

In September 1984, thousands of ceramic wares appeared in the antique shops of Bangkok, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. There were beautiful large C14th Chinese celadons, Ming blue and white wares, spectacular underglaze black decorated dishes and bowls from Sukhothai-town and Sawankaloke, celadons from Sawankaloke, Kalong-Wang Nua and San Kamphaeng, superb late Haripunchai water bottles and an extraordinary and quite unknown group of white wares, some with vivid inglaze green decoration which many now believe to have been made in the area of Pegu in Burma.

The wildest stories circulated. This was booty being taken back to Burma after the sack of Ayutthaya in 1569 or was it 1767? They must have been dead soldiers, as swords were so often found in the graves, soldiers presumably fighting with plates, bowls and their very own burial urn in their knapsacks. Or were the goods from a series of markets along the old trade route to Martaban, the great port of Burma. Perhaps they were burial sites but if so whose, high up in the mountains?

The only fact clearly established was that these artifacts were indeed coming from the Mae Sot area of Tak Province near the Burmese border.

Then in February 1985 another deluge of ceramics surged into the antique market, this time from Mae Tun-Omkoi area further north, in Chiang Mai Province. Here there were many more wares from Lan Na, mostly from San Kamphaeng and now included some underglaze black decorated dishes, also superb Kalong Group I monochromes and black and white pieces, Phan and Phayao wares and large brown glazed jars from no known kiln.

It is now definite that all these ceramics came from hilltop burial sites. Thousands of graves from at least forty sites have already been looted; they are scattered throughout the mountain spine of Thailand, from Omkoi and Mae Tun in the north, down through Mae Ramat and Ban Tak, Tak and Mae Sot, to Kamphaeng Phet and Umphang, and there is a strong possibility that they extend much further north and south and also well into Burma. In almost all cases the sites are too far away from main lowland valleys, where it is thought that wet-rice cultivating Thais lived, for it to be conceivable that it was they who carried the ashes of their dead unto the mountains for burial. Nor are the sites, with one or two exceptions, near any likely major trade routes although local trade routes undoubtedly followed the mountain ridges. The probability that these wares are in any way connected with international trade routes is remote in any case since they are so totally different from the selection of ceramics found in Indonesia, the Middle East or India, which would seem to be the most likely markets for goods shipped from Martaban. The wares from Sukhothai must have passed through Ayutthaya, which controlled the export trade, before going on to Indonesia and the Philippines, the two great markets for Sukhothai ceramics.

A few graves are reported to contain skeletons but with the exception of one lowland site the vast majority contain either ashes and small bones in a jar, or else there is no remaining trace of any ashes at all. It seems therefore that the body was usually first cremated and the ashes then buried with grave furniture.

The grave sites are occasionally marked with a menhir (a large upright standing stone); in other places depressed circles of varying sizes are clearly visible circumscribing areas which contain one or more graves.

The burial sites do not seem to predate 1300 and only very few pieces that could conceivably be given a Sung (960-1276) date are known. The difficulty differentiating between Sung, Yuan and early Ming celadons, especially provincial export wares, is notorious. All we can say is that the Tak sites have the appearance of being C14th-C16th when compared with burial wares found in Indonesia and the Philippines. Many wares seem to be late C14th: the Chekiang celadons, the early blue and white wares and, by association, many of the Sukhothai and Lan Na wares. The ubiquitous blue and white bowls could be dated as late as the end of the C16th but there appears to be nothing with a post-Ming (1368-1644) date. It therefore seems likely that the inhabitants of this mountainous no-man’s land that divided the kingdoms of Burma from Thailand flourished during the Golden Age of early Ayutthaya and Lan Na perhaps from the middle of the C14th, coinciding with the founding of Ayutthaya in 1351, until the devastation of Thailand by the Burmese in the middle of the C16th.

We do not know who those mountain people were who so lovingly buried their dead with ceramics of value and with other personal possessions such as bronze lime-pots, bracelets, bells and mirrors, iron swords, knives, axes and daggers, beads of rock crystal and coloured glass and sometimes with gold. But always with ceramics, for the rich, an elephant urn or superb Sukhothai, Chinese or Kalong wares; for others, less fine wares from China, Sukhothai, Lan Na, Burma and Vietnam, and for the poorest, what are probably locally made coarse earthenwares.

Who were these people? Were they perhaps the Lawa, the original inhabitants of Thailand, about whom so little is known and if so did they barter forest products, which were so important in the Chinese tribute trade, for these lovely ceramics carrying them down the mountain tracks to local markets at the frontiers of Lan Na or Ayutthaya, or perhaps even to the great trade centres of Tak, Chiang Mai and Pitsanuloke?        


The most interesting feature of the ceramics from Tak is the pieces that are not there. A personal view of several thousands of wares seen in antique shops in Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and Tak, in villages, especially in Chedi Ko, and further down the Umphang road at Mae Tun and Omkoi, and at digging sites, gives the following impression – however it must be borne in mind that diggers have tended to bring down mainly those pieces that are easily saleable, i.e. large Chinese and Sawankaloke celadons of top quality sell for high prices whereas unglazed jars and Fujian Putian-type bowls are often thrown away. The Omkoi – Mae Tun sites have yielded a strikingly higher proportion of Northern Thai wares than those in the Tak – Mae Sot area and correspondingly fewer wares from the Sukhothai kilns. This is to be expected as this area fell within the boundaries of Lan Na whereas the Mae Sot – Tak area was nearer to the Ayutthayan power centre.


The ‘fish’ dishes found in sunken junks and in Indonesia are very common, some have a finer black design all over the cavetto: there are also unusual pieces with no underglaze black decoration and a rather pale celadon glaze. Some of the unglazed burial jars and mortars may come from Sukhothai-town although similar types were made both at Sawankaloke and Phitsanulok. Some very lovely ‘early’, large underglazed black dishes with floral and fish designs, are virtually indistinguishable from the Sawankaloke ones.


The vast majority of wares are celadon, some olive green and others a beautiful marine-blue green. Plates, dishes, bowls and stem trays predominate. There are a few very small vases; one superb elephant, with warriors at each leg and two riders, was found at Doi Muser. Totally absent are the figurines and animals, the coconut and other vases that feature so largely in Indonesia.

Totally absent, too, are the incised pearl and cream and the white wares, commonly found in Indonesia and at the kiln sites. Brown wares are represented only by an occasional small gourd shaped bottle and possibly a few large burial jars.

The commonest of all types in Indonesia are the underglaze black wares, covered boxes, vases, figurines, miniatures, kendi, bowls, etc. Only one hong kendi and a few miniature bottles have been reported from Tak. 

On the other hand, there are very different types of underglaze black wares commonly found at Tak.

  1. Plates usually with flower motive in the mirror, often with spur pontil marks, under a rather green celadon glaze.
  2. Fine ‘early’ wares often with fish swimming round the rim, plates, dishes and stem trays that are found at the kiln sites but which do not seem to have been exported. They are very similar to the Sukhothai-town ‘early’ dishes. 

Also found are a few wares designated ‘Mon’ by the Thai Ceramics Archaeological Project and which are said to be the earliest glazed wares made at Ko Noi.

San Kamphaeng 

Although underglaze black, brown, dual glaze and underglazed wares as well as celadon wares were made at San Kamphaeng, only celadon wares were found at Tak. No San Kamphaeng pieces are known to have been exported. Some of the dishes are of very fine quality.

Many more San Kamphaeng wares, including pieces with underglaze black decoration are found in the Omkoi area.


Of the many types of ceramics produced at Kalong, only celadons from the Wang Nua kiln have been found at Tak. No Kalong wares are known to have been exported, some of these large plates are very fine.

At Omkoi, however, the selection is strikingly different. There are many fine Group 1 black and white and cloud grey celadon monochromes: also one Group III Pa Dong bowl has been recorded.

Late Haripunchai or Lamphun   

These wares, so called because they have been found in some abundance at Lamphun, mainly in the River Kuang although no kiln has been located, are also found at Tak but are not known to have been exported. They are found in far greater quantities in the Mae Tun – Omkoi area.

Other Northern Wares

No wares from other northern kilns have been found outside the borders of old Lan Nan.

It seems very likely that some of the rather fine celadons, usually incised, that are attributed to San Kamphaeng were in fact from Phayao kilns.

Phan wares are also found at Omkoi and there is a group of large jars sketchily covered with a runny brown glaze from no known kiln. Very primitive low fired urns found at Doi Ka and Omkoi may have been made locally and used for those who could not afford glazed funeral furniture.


Only very few Vietnamese pieces can be positively identified, one is a small underglaze black decorated plate. Other bowls have a very simple floral design in underglaze blue of black. These would generally be considered C14th. There are none of the blue and white ceramics so common in Indonesia.

There are however many heavy celadon plates that may be attributable to Vietnam although this is not certain. 


Khmer wares are virtually absent from Indonesia and Tak.   


A few pieces that could possibly be Sung have been seen but it seems unlikely that any of the burial sites are earlier that C14th.

With only very few exceptions the wares are Chekian-type celadons and blue and white wares, some with overglaze enamel.

Many of the celadons and some of the blue and white wares are almost certainly late C14th. Others appear to be typical ‘Ming’ which in an Indonesian context would be dated C15th-C16th.


At the Chedi Ko and Umphang road sites and occasionally at Omkoi there is a group of wares of previously unknown province, creamy white lead glaze with tin opacifier, sometimes with stamped decoration, inglaze copper green decorated wares with free wheeling designs, floral or animal, in the majolica style, and chocolate slip wares. The body is red and they seem to have been fired at a relatively low temperature, many pieces have incised marks of unknown meaning, possibly script on the base. One of two similar wares have been reported from Ayutthaya and Indonesia. It now seems likely they were made near Pegu in Burma.  


The closely related celadons of Sawankaloke (Ko Noi), San Kamphaeng and Kalong (Wang Nua) found at Tak may prove to be earlier than the underglaze black decorated wares and it is noteworthy that the kilns of the three sites are not dissimilar and seem to be made of clay slabs and not bricks which appear to be a later development at Kalong, Phan and Sawankaloke. Similar wares were also made at the Lan Na kilns of Nan and Phayao.

Through association the late Haripunchai wares would also seem to have an early, perhaps C14th attribution.

The other interesting fact is that the assortment of wares is so different from that found in Indonesia, perhaps indicating that many of the Tak sites predate the period of export for Sukhothai wares. It also tends to show that these wares found at the burial sites were not trade goods passing along the Sukhothai, Tak, Mae Sot, Moulmein/Martaban trade route but were wares obtained specially by the local people. The preponderance of Northern Thai ceramics at the Omkoi sites in the north underlines this and shows that this area was within the orbit of Lan Na.  


A wide variety of iron artifacts ranging from swords, spears and daggers to such everyday items as knives, sickles and betel cutters of a type still used today are found at most if not all sites. Since these artifacts are not valued by collectors they are mostly thrown away. Some swords and dagger have finely crafted bronze handles and traces of wood are sometimes seen where the blade fitted into the handle.

Iron must have been an important part of the local culture and maybe these wares were locally made. (See De La Louberes’s description written in 1693 of steel manufacture in Kamphaeng Phet.)


Bronze lime pots seem to have been a highly important item in the culture. The pots must have been the personal possessions of the deceased as they are all used and still filled with lime. Sometimes a bronze bell is found inside. Quality and design vary considerably. Traces of cloth and sometimes a piece of string round the foot have been seen. Bracelets of all sizes, usually not a complete ring, are common. Some are of a spiral type. One possibly silver bracelet has been seen. There are bowls of all sizes, some very thin and fine, as well as gongs and mirrors, chains, belts and beads still threaded on a string, lances, sword hilts and handles, and an extraordinary mace with bells attached, and many loose bells.  


Mostly clear rock crystal but a few coloured glass beads have been found – turquoise, red and green, some carved.


A prosperous group of people must have lived in the mountainous area dividing the kingdoms of Thailand and Burma in the C14th-C16th with the greatest concentration in the early part of this period.

Their economy was sufficiently mature for them to be able to barter, possibly forest products such as benzoin, bird plumes, gumlac, ironwood, sapanwood, beeswax, etc. which were in great demand for the tribute missions to China, for fine bronze wares and ceramics from Lan Na, Sukhothai and China. Their prosperity seems to have coincided with the Golden Age of Lan Na, Sukhothai and early Ayutthaya and terminated at the time of the Burmese invasion in the middle of the C16th.

 The history of this area is a blank except for the mention in the 1292 AD Ramkamhaeng inscription of Muang Chot (Mae Sot).

Although the burial customs now are so different, could it be that these people were Lawa, such shadowy figures in the early history of Thailand? If so they clearly deserve a far more important place in history than has ever been given to them.