Today Myanmar is famed for its gems, jade, gas and teak but in the 15th century, it was known across the region – and as far away as the Middle East and Europe – for another commodity: Martaban jars.
However, the location of the kilns where the jars were made has been something of a mystery, although that appears to have changed.
U Chan Thar, a resident of Min village in Kawkareik township, Kayin State, told The Myanmar Times on the sidelines of a Mon archaeological seminar in Mawlamyine on Saturday, November 3 and Sunday, November 4 that more than 50 pottery furnaces have been uncovered in villages alongside the road between Kawkareik and Kyaikmayaw in Mon State since 2004.
He said there are thought to many more ancient kilns in the area and it appears likely they were used to make the Martaban jars. Each of the kilns uncovered is about 30 metres (100 feet) long and wide, and 4.5 to 6m (15 to 20 feet) high, he said.
“We heard about Martaban jars since we were young but had never come across any pottery furnaces. These were only uncovered when a bulldozer was used to flatten the ground for the construction of the road. When the first few were found, the news spread and more were found in almost all villages in the townships,” he said.
“We have very little knowledge about the cultural or historical value of the sites but we cherish them because they are our heritage and understand we need to protect them,” he said. “For the time being, there has been no official survey from the Department of Culture and no recommendation about how they should be maintained.”
Martaban jars reached the peak of their popularity from the 13th to 16th centuries and traces of the jars have been found as far China, Japan, the Philippines and Portugal. They are named after the town of Martaban, now Mottama, on the north bank of the Than Lwin River opposite Mawlamyine in Mon State. The town became the centre of a Mon kingdom in the 13th century and was a major trading centre until the mid-16th century.
Despite the popularity of the jars and their widespread distribution, no evidence of large-scale kilns had previously been found near Mottama. The recent discovery of the kilns in Kawkareik and Kyaikmayaw could prove the jars came from the area around Mottama, rather than other proposed sites such as Twante in Yangon Region, said U San Win, a retired assistant director from the Department of Historical Research at the Ministry of Culture.
“Bago and Martaban jars are very famous in lower Myanmar but it is first time that large pottery industries have been found in the area. We can confirm that the industry produced jars. In this area, we found two colours of earthenware, green and white, while only the green colour has been found in Twante township,” he said.
U Chan Thar, a businessman with a passion for archaeology who attended the seminar, said local officials had not shown much interest in the kilns but residents were keen to protect them.
“One of the residents found a beautiful pot in his yard and I offered to buy it from him for K2 million but he rejected my offer because he really cherishes it,” he said.
“But not everyone is so interested in safeguarding our heritage. We need some official recommendation or permission from the authorities to protect these old industrial areas from development projects.”
Daw Lei Lei Win, deputy director of the Department of Historical Research, said officials began surveying the sites in early November and hoped to be able to show that the kilns were used to produce Martaban jars.