Photo courtesy of Karen Lindner

The late Roxanna Brown, who earned a UCLA doctorate in art history near the end of a creative scholarly career, found sweeping historical narratives in recovered Southeast Asian ceramics. Some of her unpublished works will be pieced together, but her vision can't be replaced, say three speakers at a UCLA symposium.

As part of an effort to assess the loss to scholarship, the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies dedicated a symposium to Roxanna Brown.

"This is new," repeated Robert Brown, a UCLA professor of art history.

The three words punctuated Brown's reading of an unpublished paper by Roxanna Brown (no relation), a museum curator and art historian who died last May at the age of 62, four years after taking a doctorate at UCLA. The paper was about ancient ceramics, but its surprising and new claims involved the founding and the fall of Angkor (802–1431), the seat of a Khmer empire in what is now Cambodia. Using evidence from the wreckage of ceramics-laded ships, Roxanna Brown had opened a window onto the maritime ceramics trade and onto Southeast Asian geopolitics, assigning economic causes to the epochal events.

"This is new. It's not going to get unpacked, because she's dead," said the UCLA professor.

Roxanna Brown had careers as a journalist and finally as the curator of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University in Thailand. She will be remembered by scholars for her work on the identification of the beautiful, useful, and historically eloquent objects that issued from the region's kilns. Her "Ceramics of Southeast Asia: Their Dating and Identification" (1977, 2nd ed. 1988) remains a standard text. Brown became an expert on shipwreck ceramics and the Ming Gap (roughly 1350–1480), when a Southeast Asian ceramics industry flourished due to the Chinese dynasty's ban on overseas trade. In seminars that she taught at UCLA, she was known for dumping pottery shards on tables and having students sort them by time and place.

Brown died on May 14 at a federal detention center in Seattle, Wash., having been charged with aiding a tax fraud scheme related to valuations of Southeast Asian ceramics. A lawyer for her family disputes the charges and has filed suit alleging that Brown died because the detention staff neglected her medical condition and pleas for medical attention, according to an article in Seattle Weekly. Brown had been scheduled to deliver another paper at a University of Washington conference on maritime trade cosponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute.

As part of an effort to assess the loss to scholarship and to encourage studies along the lines pursued by Brown, the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) dedicated a symposium to her on Nov. 24, 2008. As of the meeting, Brown's 2004 dissertation was set to be published by River Books, and her papers were being sought for publication. A panel at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in March will consider Brown's legacy. In addition to Robert Brown, the speakers at last month's event were Dr. Caverlee Cary, program coordinator for the Institute of East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley, and Nhung Tuyet Tran, a University of Toronto historian and ex-roommate of Roxanna Brown's at UCLA. Tran and Brown filed their dissertations on the same day.

Cary explained that Brown was able to reconstruct not only timelines for Southeast Asian ceramics production but also trading routes, based on the locations of some 120 shipwrecks and physical evidence from the sites. The discoveries, usually by fishermen, of new shipwrecks at a rate of perhaps six per year meant that the field was always evolving. Until her death Brown chronicled the developments in her museum's newsletter.

According to Cary, Brown was distressed that "so many shipwrecks were not excavated by professionals."

Tran added to the picture of Brown as a scholar with a special talent for linking her findings on ceramics to the broadest historical questions. Material evidence, always of use to historians, is crucial in places where early written records are relatively scarce, a generalization that holds for much of the region.

Had Brown lived, observed Tran, she would have delivered a talk this December at the international Vietnamese studies conference in Hanoi about the sacking of the capital of Champa (southern Vietnam) in 1471 and, indeed, ceramics. As Tran and a few others learned in email messages, Brown had developed a hypothesis that a dramatic increase in the production of high-quality Vietnamese export ceramics between that time and about 1500 owed to the capture of Cham potters and artisans who would contribute significantly to the economic strength of Vietnam's dynastic rulers.

"What is controversial," Tran said, given a dominant historical narrative about Vietnam's efforts to "civilize" Champa, is the "irony that Vietnam's effort to civilize these 'barbaric' lands led to the rise of Vietnamese ceramics."

In a productive period of her life, then, Brown was rapidly developing ideas, making the most of one kind of material evidence. The trajectory of those ideas has been cut short, in one of the upsets and setbacks of learning.

"For the future of ceramics scholarship the blow cannot be softened," said Robert Brown, reading from his forward to Roxanna Brown's forthcoming "Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia."

Published: Monday, December 08, 2008