Characterizing the Stoneware "Dragon Jars" in the Guthe Collection: Chemical, Decorative, and Formal Patterning

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This paper presents a multifaceted study of a collection of stoneware ceramic vessels in the Guthe Collection of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. These vessels, recovered in the Philippines but manufactured in multiple production sites across East and Southeast Asia, provide insights into premodern economic interactions and maritime trade. Our study of this collection drew on multiple approaches to identify coherent groupings of vessels associated with locations and traditions of production. These include instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) of pastes; laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LAICP-MS) of glazes; stylistic analysis of decorative motifs and their execution; and study of morphological attributes. Results of our analyses point to at least four production areas for these ubiquitous trade wares and lay the groundwork for future research on Southeast Asian maritime trade from the twelfth through nineteenth centuries A.D. Keywords: Southeast Asia, ceramic classification, trade wares, dragon jars.


Ceramic vessels were important commodities in the extensive East and Southeast Asian maritime trade routes of the second millennium A.D. These vessels, which moved as containers and as objects of exchange in their own right, originated from multiple production locales in China and mainland Southeast Asia. Through complex mercantile and political distribution networks, they found their way to consumers on Mainland and Island Southeast Asia, as well as to South Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, Europe, and by the sixteenth century, the New World.

This paper addresses a small subset of Asian trade wares--large, brown-glazed stoneware storage jars recovered in archaeological research in the Philippines in the early decades of the twentieth century. Today, these vessels are part of the Guthe or Philippine Expedition Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology (UMMA). Many were decorated, using a variety of techniques, with representations of dragons, botanical elements, lions, or demons. The decorated vessels are commonly referred to as "dragon jars" and are the primary focus of this study, although some undecorated vessels will also be included.

We have employed a variety of approaches in studying the Guthe dragon jars. We began the project interested in materials characterization of the stoneware jars in the Guthe collection and to that end employed instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) at the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) laboratory in Columbia. That laboratory later conducted a laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) analysis on the glazes from sherds in the same sample. In Ann Arbor, we subsequently supplemented the characterization work with macroscopic ware analysis, morphological analysis, and stylistic studies. In this paper, we bring together all of these approaches to characterize these poorly understood materials.

The Guthe Collection derives from the endpoints of dragon jar exchange rather than their source areas or kiln sites. However, by identifying discrete coherent subgroups of vessels and integrating these with what is currently known about production locales, we hope to contribute to discussions of vessel production as well as consumption. Before presenting the results of our analyses, we provide some general background on the Guthe Collection and on the large stoneware jars that are the subject of our study.


The Guthe Collection of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, provides a unique resource for the study of East and Southeast Asian trade ceramics. The collection is derived from the University's Philippine Expedition, directed by Harvard-trained archaeologist Carl Guthe, former curator of the Museum's Division of the Orient. …


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