By Jeanette Ahn
This two-part vessel is a corn roaster sitting on top of a brazier (bray-zee-er). The roaster has a spherical body, rounded base, restricted neck, and simple angular rim. The brazier’s bottom is open so that it can be set directly over the coals, and one side was cut out to let oxygen enter. Both objects have a yellowish-brown glaze, which coats their rims, and a paddle-impressed decoration consisting of bands of vertical lines. To cook corn, a villager would build a fire and let it burn down to glowing coals, then place the brazier over the fire and the corn roaster on top and fill it with corn.
These objects are part of the Reith Collection in the UMMAA’s Asian Ethnology division. They were collected by Charlotte Reith, an experienced potter of 25 years, who traveled to Myanmar during the 1990s and 2000s to do research on contemporary pottery making. Reith donated her collection and associated records to the Museum in 2012. The Reith Collection consists of dozens of field notebooks and videotapes, thousands of photographic slides, and more than 200 ceramic vessels and pottery-making tools. (We featured another pot from the Reith Collection in our 200 Objects for 200 Days project; see it here.) See references below for Reith’s four articles about her travels in Myanmar.
Reith actually watched this corn roaster and brazier being made: she took notes and photographs as the potter Pi Kulh Thluai made the vessel from start to finish in Lente, a small village in the Chin Hills.
Reith describes the process in great detail:
“Pi Kulh Thluai then began to make a pot in a way that I had never observed or even read about… Setting a clay cylinder on the floor in front of her, Pi Kulh Thluai used a flat cord-wrapped paddle to pound the top of the cylinder gently, spreading the clay out a little at the top. She wetted the end of the pounder and inserted it into the middle of the solid clay cylinder, making a depression. She then raised the pounder and struck the clay in the depression, repeating this about for times. Her next step was even more unusual. She inverted the pounder with the clay cylinder still attached, so that the pot was now upside-down, with the walls hanging down. She sat down on a low stool. While using her left hand to turn the pot, she paddled the wall of the pot with the paddle held in her right hand, elongating it. In this case the pounder acted as an anvil to beat against. She then re-inverted the pounder so that the pot rested on the floor… [and] paddled the rim of the clay pot so that it flared out slightly; she then began using a paddle and anvil to compress the pot’s walls, making it taller…. Rather than sitting and turning the pot on her lap as we had seen elsewhere, she stood up and walked around the pot part way and then backed around to the starting position, wielding the long rock anvil against the pot wall on the inside and at the same time applying the paddle from the outside. Pi Kulh Thluai moved these tools in unison against the pot wall as she moved around the pot, sometimes walking all the way around it. To accomplish this, she was bent at the waist in a back-breaking position.” (Reith 1999: 41–42).
To Reith’s amazement, even though the corn brazier was not completely dry, the potter could grab the pot without breaking it. Also atypical was the fact that the potter kept adding damp clay on to dryer walls of the pot until it was ready for firing, and the firing process itself, which took only nine minutes. While the pot was still hot, Pi Kulh Thluai applied a yellowish-brown resin (obtained from a local tree), which melted and burst into flame around the pot’s rim.
This particular corn roaster and brazier were never used, but an item like this would be an important part of a Lente villager’s household kitchen. In Myanmar, farming is the main occupation for both men and women, and corn is one of the main crops. In 1943, H. N. C. Stevenson, described roasted corn as being prepared in the same way as vai kan (roasted millet). The grain is soaked in water, then steamed, and the grains are spread on mats to dry in the sun. After that, the grain is roasted until it bursts (like puffed wheat). Stevenson describes the traditional grain-roasting pot, called a peibung, as being shaped like a beer-pot with a large hole on one side—a description that fits the Reith corn roaster.
Reith, Charlotte. 1997. Comparison of three pottery villages in Shan state, Burma. Journal of Burma Studies 1: 45–82.
Reith, Charlotte. 1998. Alms Bowl Place: Tha Pait Tan. Unpublished manuscript.
Reith, Charlotte. 1999. Pottery in the Chin Hills. Journal of Burma Studies 4: 35–60. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jbs.1999.0000
Reith, Charlotte. 2003. A Comparison of Ground Firing Techniques in Contemporary Myanmar Villages. In Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium on Premodern Southeast Asian Earthenwares, edited by John N. Miksic, pp. 311–321. Singapore: Singapore University Press and the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society.
Stevenson, H. N. C. 1943. “Full Text of The Economics of The Central Chin Tribes.” Internet Archive, The Library Shelf, archive.org/stream/economicsofthece033105mbp/economicsofthece033105mbp_djvu.txt.