Institute of Archaeology


Chen Lim

Shopping in Ancient Southeast Asia: The Ceramic Trade and its Footprint in Three Port Settlements


Email: chen.lim.15@ucl.ac.uk
Section: Heritage Studies



Shopping in Ancient Southeast Asia: The Ceramic Trade and its Footprint in Three Port Settlements

Coastal trading cities grow from their abilities to effectively procure, if not monopolize merchandize and redistributing them. Many of these port settlements are not production centers but rather centers of procurement - importing and exporting produce and goods from the region and beyond. In the last one thousand years, numerous trading ports littered the Southeast Asian coastline. Some were part of a larger network in the likes of Sriwijaya in Sumatra, Majapahit of East Java, or Central Java based Mataram. Others were smaller independent commercial cities but equally proficient as centers of interaction and exchange - 14th century Singapura (Singapore), 15th century Melaka (Malaysia), and 16th century Banten (West Java, Indonesia) were such coastal trading centers. In today's context, Melaka and Banten would be considered international trading ports catering to the global trade in exotic commodities, while Singapura may have been a smaller regional polity serving the straits and islands around the Riau Archipelago.

In Singapore, trade ceramics from China and the region form the bulk of the archaeological assemblage recovered. Correspondingly, large quantities of ceramics were also recovered from the trading emporiums of Melaka and Banten. The study of these ceramics provides the foremost dataset for establishing chronology, as well as provision information on social, economic, and potentially the political organization of ancient societies. The presence of these trade ceramics affords an insight of ancient Singaporeans, Melakans, and Bantenese as not only importers but also possibly exporters and redistributors of these tradewares.

Beyond establishing typologies, chronologies, and distribution patterns, the ceramic assemblage from these three port settlements provides informative aspects on sources and exchange, both local and long-distance trade economies, and trade center and exchange network variability between the three coastal sites. This research seeks to investigate and evaluate the ceramic material cultural trends of three city ports and conjectures what trade ceramics were popularly available for the shopping consumption of local inhabitants and visiting "shoppers" from further afield, but more importantly it hopes to address the vast potential on understanding how these past cities shaped the settlements of today.


Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore


  • BSBA, Archaeology and Finance, Boston University 2002
  • MA, Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore 2009