Paddle and Stamp: An Archaeological Perspective on a Contemporary Thai Pot Maker

Richard A. Engelhardt & Ayesha Pamela Rogers

Heritage Matters Ltd., Hong Kong

Throughout much of Asia, pottery has been manufactured for millennia using carved or cord wrapped paddles to form and shape the vessel in conjunction with an interior anvil. The methodology results in the distinctive surface treatment we call corded and stamped coarse wares. This ceramic tradition can be characterised as an early and very long-lived technology; widespread across much of mainland and insular Southeast Asia and deeply conservative in method and form. These surface treatments have often been viewed as markers making cultural statements through time and over space. Surface patterns have been interpreted as cultural markers expressing chronological development and providing evidence of cross-cultural links. Research stemming from this position focuses on isolating individual patterns and their development and defining cultural groupings based on decorative similarity. Such an approach presupposes that the patterns carved on paddles are imbued with symbolic meaning, selectively carved and utilised with the intention that patterns be clearly transferred along with the meaning they carry. We would like to propose an alternative interpretation of carved paddle surface treatment based on our observations of the manufacture of coarse paddle stamped vessels in the village of Ban Phorn, in Phuket, South Thailand. We propose to view the range of patterns on carved paddles as not decorative but as functional traits of a ceramic tradition of paddle stamped coarse vessels associated with shapes – all related to fulfilling performance requirements. They reflect a trend towards easily carved patterns dictated by the wood material and the size of the paddle, lacking cultural or chronological meaning in themselves. In order to understand the paddle stamped ceramic tradition, we referred to evolutionary archaeological theory as a tool with considerable explanatory potential.