VGP - The new archaeological discoveries at the Thăng Long Citadel in Ba Đình District have opened up new doors for studies of Thăng Long pottery.
Pottery is a large part of Vietnamese culture and has been found in the Thăng Long Royal City through several dynasties. Of the pottery discovered, type and origin of the artifacts were exceedingly diverse. The kind of pottery found included a variety of glazed terra-cotta. The origins of the pottery varied from Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, to West Asian. The discovered pottery dates back from the 8th–9th centuries and the 19th century. This is a lively and convincing demonstration of the many aspects of social, cultural, and economic life of the Imperial Palace throughout history.
This article will present a discussion of the collection of Vietnamese pottery during the Lý, Trần and Lê Dynasties.
Pottery items under the Lý Dynasty
Pottery during the Lý Dynasty
Scientists and antique lovers have been deeply impressed by the pottery items under the Lý Dynasty found in the Citadel area. The reason for this is not only because of their beauty, but also because the quality of the pottery can be compared to craftsmanship in neighboring countries. The discovery of the Lý Dynasty pottery can be compared to the skill and sophistication of works from the Song Dynasty in China. Formerly, because of the lack of evidence, most foreign scholars presumed that all pottery from the Lý Dynasty came from China with the exception of some brown flower glazed pottery. In the past scholars did not believe that artisans from the Lý Dynasty could produce such sophisticated white and jade glazed ceramics. Various collections in Thăng Long from the Lý Dynasty were collected by the French in the early 20th century. Those that were collected were often referred to as “Song pottery.” Some Vietnamese scholars also shared the same viewpoint. They contended that under the Lý Dynasty the technology for pottery production were underdeveloped, and thus, the white and celadon glazes in this period were usually categorized as Song pottery.
However, this hypothesis has been shaken because of the new credible evidence found at the excavation site. In many spots, archaeologists have found a number of high quality porcelains with white glazes, green glazes, jade glazes, brown glazes, and yellow glazes from the Lý Dynasty.
The Lý period’s white glazes were immaculate and lustrous like those of the Song period, and the majority reached a level of quality equivalent to that of the Song. Many specimens indicate that in the Lý Dynasty, there were also white-blue glazes with similar motifs as the Southern Song pottery in Jingdezhen kilns. The key differences between Song and Lý white glazed ceramics are in the brightness of the glaze color, motifs, and underlining shape. There are difficulties distinguishing the difference in characteristics between white glazes of the Lý and the Song Dynasties. One way to distinguish between the two is examining the Lý pottery in detail. The shape of the dragons and the floral decorative motifs were similar to stone carved motifs on pagodas and towers during the Lý Dynasty (i.e. Chương Sơn Pagoda and Phật Tích Tower). This research will provide a clearer understanding of the white glazed ceramics of the Lý Dynasty.
Plates and bowls of the Lý Dynasty
Pieces of the white porcelain pedestal with dragon motifs and the porcelain pedestal with fairy motifs are vivid illustrations of the the highly developed techniques of white glazed porcelain making under the Lý period. Another convincing proof is that among the white porcelains found in the citadel, there were bowls, plates, box lids, lotus shaped lamp supports, etc., that were deformed or burnt because of over-firing, indicating that they were produced on the premises. A study of the big under-glazed pottery items, such as the dish with a 38 cm diameter hold at D5, shows that there is a high probability that there were pottery kilns nearly.
Further important characteristics to look at would be the Lý Dynasty’s jade glazed pottery. Ceramic bowls and dishes were decorated with chrysanthemum motifs similar to the Song decorative style. Lotus carved bowls and dishes were more typical of Vietnamese motifs. These jade glazes were high quality with the popular dark celadon glaze. Evidence of on site production of this pottery is also confirmed by the discarded pottery items, particularly through looking at the pieces of a mould that was used to paint chrysanthemum motifs, which was discovered in hold D6. The motifs in this mould are of a similar style to that of the celadon dish found in the well from the Lý Dynasty in hold A10. Both of them reflect the deep influence of the Song’s decorative style – the chrysanthemum motif. According to many documents, this is a classic motif of Song Dynasty pottery between 1090 and 1906. Based on these findings, we can identify clearly and accurately differences of the Lý’s jade glazed ceramics.
The most important discovery about the Lý Dynasty pottery in the Thăng Long Citadel was the group of ceramics that were green glazed. This group has fascinating glazes and beautiful designs of floral and dragon motifs. The lid found in hold A9MR was one of the special specimens, showing the advanced development of the green glazes under the Lý Dynasty. The lid was 18.5 cm in diameter and decorated with a dragon bending in 18 sections circled in the center, surrounded by a stone-gong or a cloud, and a ring of small spots at the outermost rim. Since the pottery is embossed and interposed by gouges, the glaze is not uniform, creating a vivid design with varying shades and colors. The skill and quality of the dragons on this lid were similar to the round-stone items used to decorate the Chương Sơn Tower in Hà Nam.
Looking at the collection of the Lý Dynasty pottery found in the Citadel, I realized that there were three basic types of design making techniques which include embossing, carving, and printing with molds. There were also many types that were not decorated with motifs but still had beautiful shapes and are beautiful glazed. Pottery items under the Lý Dynasty were elegant in shape, sophisticated in craftsmanship, and skillful in decorative motifs. Popular motifs were lotuses, chrysanthemums, dragons, apsaras, and clouds. These motifs contain deep Buddhist elements and some revealed the highly refined influence of the Song era’s pottery. However, the most popular designs and shapes were the embossed lotus petals and small circle motifs. These designs were more distinctly linked to Vietnamese traditional pottery. The crystallized brown flower glazes are considered one of the most unique and beautiful type of Vietnamese pottery. The quality of this pottery can be observed in their shape and design. Some believe that these pottery wares were produced for the elite class. There are grounds for this assumption, as a large amount of precious brown flower glazes were found mainly in Mường mandarin graves. However, there are great differences in quality between the pottery items found in the Citadel. Besides pots and terra-cotta jars with lotus and floral motifs, there were many large terra-cotta jars with dragon motifs as well as a variety of highly sophisticated lids, bowls, or dishes with dragon and lotus motifs following the principle, “brown background with white motifs.” They all reveal an opulent beauty. From this, I presume that the discovered items were probably utensils used in the Royal palace.
This discovery will set a precedent for future studies of pottery from the Lý Dynasty, especially those in the Royal Palace produced by Thăng Long pottery kilns. Research is important because the discovery of the pottery and kilns have opened up new questions about craftsmanship during the Lý Dynasty. This discovery opens new doors and questions about craftsmanship during the Lý Dynasty. This discovery opens new doors and questions for Vietnamese as well as foreign scholars. Aside from the brown flower glazes, there are other high grade pottery items such as white glazes, green glazes, jade glazes, and yellow glazes. The yellow glazes were a surprise since they were previously thought to be products of the Lê and Nguyễn Dynasties. This type of glaze was often seen architectural materials like yellow glazed tiles on the roofs of palaces. After the excavation, yellow glazes were found to be ubiquitous among the artifacts found. There were highly decorated and skillfully crafted utensils that were believed to belong to royalty.
Brown glaze in Trần Dynasty
Pottery during the Trần Dynasty
During the excavation, a large number of pottery items were also found from the Trần Dynasty. Among the pottery were decorative architectural artifacts. There were a variety of pottery types from this era which included: white glaze, pearl glaze, green glaze, brown glaze, brown flower glaze, and white-blue glaze pottery.
Directly inheriting pottery décor from the Lý Dynasty, pottery style from the Trần Dynasty looked practically the same. Because of their similarities, it was not easy for researches to distinguish between the two types. However, studies were done on the techniques of making spur marks and have helped us differentiate between the two types. Generally, the spur-making techniques under the Trần Dynasty were not as sophisticated as those of the Lý. Regarding the motifs, though the two were similar, the details under Trần Dynasty were not as sophisticated as those of the Lý. Regarding the motifs, though the two were similar, the details under the Trần Dynasty were simpler than those of the Lý Dynasty. Pottery from the Trần Dynasty was gradually simplified with stronger shapes and sometimes more plain than those of the Lý. Another noticeable character is that the printed motifs under the Trần Dynasty were much more diverse than those under the Lý.
A distinct feature of Trần Dynasty pottery is the appearance of white-blue glazed ceramics. Many items of this type were found throughout the excavation sites. The most popular ones were bowls and dishes decorated by an iron brown and cobalt daisy motif. These motifs were most likely exported to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Japan in the mid-14th century. In the holes of Area D, there were a huge pile of dishes with chrysanthemum motifs along with many piles of one-color glazes with decorative motifs consisting of clouds, a phoenix, and flowers. This helps support the notion that kiln pottery making existed under the Lý as well as the Trần Dynasty.
Pottery during the Lê Dynasty
Large amounts of ceramics were also found from the Lê Dynasty at several excavation sites. Lê Dynasty pottery items were found most densely along the basin of the old river, between Area A and B.
White glazed pottery pots and lime pots of the Lý - Trần Dynasties
In order to classify the quality and development of the pottery used in the Royal Palace. I would like to divide pottery items of the Lê dynasty into three small periods: those of the Early Lê period (15th century), those of the Lê-Mạc period (16th century), and those of the Restored Lê period (17th–18th centuries). In general, pottery items in the Lê-Mạc and Restored Lê period were of poor quality, with simpler decorative motifs. The majority of the pottery items that were collected were found in kilns from Hải Dương and Bát Tràng. This shows a big difference in comparison to pottery from the Early Lê Dynasty.
Pottery from the Early Lê Dynasty started the development of large pottery centers, especially in Hải Dương. In this period white-blue glazes, white glazes, and colored pottery reached the peak of aesthetics and sophistication. These items became the largest export during this era. In my previous study, when focusing on Việt Nam’s foreign trade, I put forth the idea that a large portion of the high quality pottery items on the wrecked ship in Hội An were products of Thăng Long kilns. That observation now seems to be well supported, since many high-quality white-blue glazes with similar shapes and motifs as those from the wrecked ship in Hội An have been found along the river in Area A. One example is the bowl with a four-clawed dragon motif with the Chinese character “Trù” (kitchen) engraved on the bottom and a painted “Kính” in the center. This discovery has allowed me to reassert the importance of Thăng Long pottery in its cultural significance and economic relations with other kingdoms throughout history.
Another discovery that receives respect and admiration from specialists and antique-lovers is the high-quality white-blue glaze and the thin white ceramics. These ceramics displayed the motifs of five-clawed dragons (or four-clawed legs) with the Chinese characters “Guan” or “Kính” in the center of the item. Observing Hải Dương and Kim Lan pottery, I assume that these are products of Thăng Long pottery kilns.
A few years ago at Ngói, Chu Đậu (Hải Dương), and Kim Lan (Gia Lâm), I found evidence of court pottery kilns. The main product discovered in these kilns were white glazed ceramics with motifs of waves in shapes of fish scales and the Chinese character “Quan” incised in the center very similar to Thăng Long pottery. However, items from Hải Dương court-pottery kilns were heavier and thicker with poorer glaze quality than those of Thăng Long kilns. Pottery items in Thăng Long, thick or thin, were of better quality than those from Hải Dương. Thăng Long white glazed ceramics, including mainly small-sized bowls and dishes were thin as an egg shell (the transparent china type), with a dragon with five-clawed legs incised on the relief, cavetto designs, and the word “Guan” in the center. These types of thin white ceramics have never been found anywhere in Việt Nam except for the royal tombs in Lam Kinh (in Thanh Hóa). Notable characteristics of this pottery were that they were fired one at a time and the bottoms along with the rim of the spurs were glazed.
Beautiful design of dragon motifs decorated on plates and bowls of Lê Dynasty
The spurs were very thin and were rolled, not cut, and the glaze on the rim was not scraped like the ceramics from Hải Dương. This is the technique that made pottery from Thăng Long different to Hải Dương or Kim Lan. Beside those with dragon motifs in Thăng Long, there were also white ceramics with chrysanthemum or line motifs, with the character “Guan” incised or painted blue in the center. Among various types of white glazed pots, and jars, there were also many specimens with “Guan” painted in burgundy. The amazing sophistication and aesthetic beauty of this pottery as well as the symbolized royal motifs (a dragon with five-claws and a phoenix) reveal that these were royal palace utensils.
This examination becomes more convincing as we find pottery printed with Sino-Vietnamese characters such as “Trường Lạc” or “Trường lạc khố”. As recorded, Trường Lạc is the palace of Trường Lạc Thánh Từ, Nguyễn Thị Hằng, the wife of King Lê Thánh Tông (1460-1497). Because of this, these items are considered to be utensils from the Trường Lạc Palace.
The location of excavation, with all the architectural relics, has been identified by experts to be a part of the Thăng Long Citadel. The citadel lied on the western part of the Kính Thiên palace throughout the Lý, Trần and Lê Dynasties.
This hypothesis is exceedingly important that the ceramics discovered belonged to the Thăng Long Imperial Palace. Together with the evidence of on-site exaction, I believe that even from the Lý Dynasty, there were pottery kilns continued to operate until the Lê Dynasty, producing high-quality product with sophisticated designs.
Evidence that makes me confident about this hypothesis is that the pottery wares from the Early Lý Dynasty were decorated with a dragon motif and the words “Guan” or “Kính” in the center. At the moment, we may conclude that the discovery of these utensils from the excavations provide us not only with important data for further study about Thăng Long pottery used in the Imperial Palace, but also more convincing evidence for the argument that the artifacts came from the palace centers of the Lý, Trần and Lê Dynasties.