A million little pieces……

There was such a positive reaction to my short little post earlier on reconstructing a pot that I decided to go back and write a more complete article to submit to TouchStone magazine.  I interviewed Sokha Tep who is one of the ceramics conservators at the Ceramics Conservation Lab (which just moved into their new space at the National Museum earlier this month).  I’ve posted the article, plus some more photos after the jump.

Above: Members of the Ceramics Conservation Lab working on reconstructing pots at the EFEO office in Siem Reap.

A Million Little Pieces:  Reconstructing a Pot with the Ceramics Conservation Lab

The most abundant artifacts at almost any archaeological site around the world are tiny pieces of broken pottery known as pot sherds.  In Phnom Penh, a group of highly trained ceramics conservators are working on reconstructing these broken pieces into beautiful works of art.   One of these conservators is Sokha Tep, who began a three-year course with ceramics conservator Bonnie Baskin at the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2002.  Prior to this, Sokha studied archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts and worked on several archaeological excavations in Kampong Cham province and Phnom Kulen.  However, he finds that working as a ceramics conservator is better suited to his personality.    To work with ceramics requires “much patience,” he says, “and you have to be used to working by yourself.”

When ceramics first arrive at the conservation lab, they are in a plastic bag, having been packed by the archaeologists who excavated them from the ground.   The first step is to clean the ceramics and remove most of the dirt (some dirt is left as a sample of where the pot was excavated).

The next step is not unlike putting together a puzzle.  Sokha and the other ceramics conservators, Ms Sopheara Chap and Ms. Thyda Pich (currently studying in Japan), begin sorting the sherds and start to match the pieces together.  It is often easier to begin fitting together either the top or bottom of the pot, rather than starting in the middle.  Sokha notes that although he does not know the exact shape of the pot before be begins, he can often tell the general shape by looking at the rim pieces and determining if it is a bowl, jar, storage jar or another type of pot.    “From experience I know that, for example, a jar may have an oval shape or a round shape.”

Above: Sherds ready to be sorted and matched. (Photo by Sokha Tep)

Below: Sherds after they’ve been sorted and matched. (Photo by Sokha Tep)


The next step in the process is to begin joining the pieces together with a variety of adhesives.  If a mistake is spotted after the pieces are joined, a hair dryer is used to heat and soften the adhesive and the pieces are adjusted.  “Normally when putting a pot together, my heart does not feel comfortable because I have to pay attention,” Sokha says,   “I have to be so careful about putting a pot together.  If we don’t pay attention or we are not careful, the pot that we put together is not the right shape.  Joining a pot is like building a house using bricks and cement.”


Above: The pieces have been joined together into top and bottom halves of the pot. (Photo by Sokha Tep)

Above: The two halves have been joined together and a variety of objects are holding them in position until the adhesive dries. (Photo by Sokha Tep)

Above: Another pot in the process of being joined, with clips holding together the pieces until the adhesive dries.  (Photo by Sokha Tep)

Sometimes not all the pieces of a pot are collected or available.  In that case there are empty spaces in the reconstructed pot that may then be filled with plaster.   Sokha explains that not all of the spaces need to be filled, “just places that support the body [of the pot] and make it strong enough to stand.”  After the plaster is dry it is painstakingly sanded down to match the shape of the pot and then painted to match the rest of the pot.   After painting, the pot is done and is ready for display in a museum exhibit or to be returned to the archaeological project for further study. This entire process can take as little as one week for a small pot, or up to 3 months for a larger pot with several hundred pieces.

Above: Sopheara Chap works on sanding down the plaster fill on a pot.

Above: Sokha Tep works on painting the plaster of a pot.

Below: Detail of the same pot before painting

Above: The same pot after painting of the plaster.

Sokha does not just have experience reconstructing broken pots but also producing his own pots from scratch and is interested in studying traditional methods from potters in Kampong Chhnang province.  “By learning how to make a pot by myself, I can learn how to analyze archaeological ceramics.”    Reconstructing the pots has also given him insight into how a pot was made.    Most of the prehistoric and pre-Angkorian pottery he has worked with was made using a common technical method of coiling and then fired by the open-firing method in an outdoor bonfire, not in a kiln.

Recently, Sokha and the other conservators have been working on a group of ceramics, some of which are around 3,000 years old.   “We are lucky to work on ceramics from [these sites] because most of them are fantastic pots and the potters were specialists in making those pots,” says Sokha.    Their work may soon be featured in an upcoming museum exhibit. It is the first time the work of the Ceramics Conservation Lab will be on public display.

Sokha explains that putting these objects on display is exciting for Khmer people who may only be familiar with finding dirty potsherds in a field, and have no idea that they were once part of a beautiful pot.  “Now they will see the whole thing put together.”

Indeed, seeing a completed pot in a museum exhibit can help people understand the skill and artistry of prehistoric peoples.  However, one should also take a moment to appreciate the talent of the ceramics conservators who helped bring that pot back to life.  In this way, the ceramics conservation team is saving a part of Cambodian cultural heritage and also improving the field of archaeological research in Cambodia.

Want to learn more? Here are some links you might find interesting:

An exhibit at the Smithsonian Insitution on Southeast Asian ceramics, on display until 2010!

Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum website

Southeast Asian Ceramics Society

A list of papers from a 2007 ceramics conference at the Center for Khmer Studies

Khmer Ceramics Revival. I hope to visit this place on my next trip to Siem Reap- check out their website with photos on how ceramics are made!

-Noted SEA scholar Dawn Rooney’s articles on ceramics in SEA. (Includes links to PDF downloads)

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6 responses to “A million little pieces……

  1. Wow! Great informative post!

  2. Pingback: Unsmashing a pot « Cambodia: Details are Sketchy

  3. So well illustrated, written, and above all, accessible! Now if only my flint knapping friends would write like this! Thanks for the links too…

  4. Pingback: Khmer Ceramics Revival « Alison in Cambodia

  5. Pingback: Highlighting Cambodia’s Archaeological Conservators « Alison in Cambodia