there’s more than … in these pots – Power, peace, prosperity

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Al-Sabah Collection LNS 315 C - c.1280-95
Al-Sabah Collection LNS 315 C – c.1280-95

KUWAIT CITY, Feb 17: Dr. Robert Mason delivered a lecture on ‘Trade technology and industry of elite ceramics of the Islamic world’ at the Yarmouk Cultural Centre, Monday evening as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 21 cultural season, in which he outlined the significance of the pottery of the Islamic world and its significance in the world at large.

Dr. Mason’s particular area of specialisation is the material culture and archaeology of the middle east and Europe during the Islamic and medieval periods (roughly 500 CE to the present), especially ceramics and vitreous materials. Mason received his doctorate from the university of oxford in 1994, and is cross-appointed between the royal Ontario museum and the near and middle eastern civilisations department at the university of Toronto, where he is an associate professor.

 “The technology of early Islamic pottery is highly developed, appropriate for one of the most technologically advances regions of the world in this period”, he remarked, also stressing that the technology of the past was difficult and not everyone could do it.  “This select group of ceramicists that made this pottery did not exist everywhere, but instead would typically be found in a very few centres at a time, creating a significant industry, the products of which spread across the extent of the old world”, he continued.

Lustre painted pottery represents the highest form of ceramic art in the early Islamic world and a demanding one as it involved taking an already fired vessel, and then painting a design with a very special paint. While a number of recipes exits from medieval times, Mason shared that modern analytical work has been undertaken to understand the paint and the process while involves the application of a paint that contains copper, silver and other elements.

In a further firing, undertaken at lower temperature in a reducing atmosphere, the metal elements fuse to the surface of the glaze. If the temperature is too high, all of the paint will fuse to the glaze, if too low, nothing will happen, and if any oxygen gets into the kiln, the copper and silver will combine and vaporise. After the firing, what remains of the original paint is a black layer on the surface, which is wiped off to reveal the metallic lustre paint surface below.

The lustre wares, and associated pottery, of the Abbasid of the 9th-10th centuries are known from Samarra and other sites across the Middle East. Dr. Mason informed, “On all of these sites, and on others, I have studied the pottery of the Abbasid period, to try to determine where it was made, when it was made and how it was made.” For this, the technique mason used was the application of a scanning electron microscope, or SEM, with an attached x-ray spectrometer.

This requires taking a sample and inserting it into the SEM under vacuum. The sample is bombarded with x-rays and the reflected x-rays are collected to create an image. In this image, the degree of intensity of reflectance is created by the density of the elements in the material being studied. A focused beam of electrons is used to analyze a microscopic part of the sample, as x-rays emitted from the sample are characteristic of the elements analyzed, the chemistry of the object can be determined.

Prior to the Islamic period, the technologies involving ceramic glazes and the closely related glass industry were spread over the region. Tarsus is known as a centre for making pottery with a flux of lead which enables the silica of the glaze to melt at a low enough temperature for a pottery kiln.

Glass making technology was important in the Levant, especially in Sidon in the roman period. In Mesopotamia, the pottery was fluxed with the alkali elements, soda and potash, in the Sassanian period, Ctesiphon has been suggested as a major production centre. With the conquest of all of these regions by Islam, all these technologies could be brought together in a new synthesis which was quickly exhibited in the pottery.

Dr. Mason shared another important technique that he uses to determine where the pottery was made called petrographic analysis, a geological technique developed to identify minerals and examines them in high magnification.

He elaborated on several sampled pottery in his lecture and named Basra, Kufa, Baghdad, Samarra and Raqqa as the main sites ac. Petrographic analysis of Abbasid pottery has shows only a few distinct petrographically defined fabrics. Raqqa has been identified by analysis of pottery from the site, Samarra and Baghdad have been associated with petrofabrics that seem appropriate to that area according to the model, aided in Samarra’s case by analysis of prehistoric pottery from the site.

He discussed a group of pottery objects presently in the metropoloitan museum of art in new York that was donated in 1052 by N. M. Baker who had found them near old Basra. A number of these pieces are wasters i.e. pottery ruined in the firing and discarded immediately, but the group also included rod shaped objects that were kiln furniture. Analysis of objects like this enable reliable attribution of a petrofabric with a specific pottery production centre.

In discussing the locations of potteries, he shared in the civilised middle east they had to be downwind of the occupied areas. In Damascus, evidence for pottery production was outside Bab Al Sharqi on the eastern side of the city while fustat, on the south side, was the pottery quarter of the 14th and 15th century Cairo as the wind blows from the north. At Raqqa the  wind blows from the West South West, and the well recorded pottery kilns, and also glassworks, are to the north and east of the city.

Dr. Mason pointed out that this ceramic body is distinctive even without microscopes. To create a chronology for the pottery he uses seriation, a technique first invented by archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the late 19th century to try to date prehistoric Egyptian pottery found in tombs.

Petrie would notice that assemblages of the tombs would often share vessel types with other tomb assemblages and if ordered a sequence could be created that depicted some vessels coming into fashion, and going out. This is one of the well-established relative dating techniques of archaeology although the process doesn’t tell you is which way up the sequence is, or provide absolute dates.

Dr. Mason ordered the assemblages of form and motif of the vessels themselves, with some motifs coming into fashion, and going out  to create a sequence for the wares.

He pointed out that is widely thought that al-Fustat was the potter’s quarter but asserted that it may be more likely that in Fatimid times the pottery manufacturer was outside the city to the south,  on the now heavily occupied Istabl ‘Antar plateau.

He shared that his data indicates only one production centre for the Abbasid material. The lustre-ware was part of a package along with tin-opacified glazes, not made everywhere and not easily re-invented. The Basra lustre production seemed to end exactly as it started in Egypt, and all the motifs and forms seem to maintain a direct continuance of Basra tradition, which led Dr. Mason to believe that the lustre-potters went from Basra to Egypt. “One of the major changes the lustre potters underwent was in their figural depictions, which now owe a great debt to Coptic traditions. The reasons the potters moved could be entirely economic, with the deteriorating Iraqi economy many left for Egypt at this time”, he said.

Another major change was in the ceramic body. The lustre paint was a demanding technology, and it needed the specifics of the glaze that had been developed to work with the lustre technology. The glaze in turn has to work with the body, it has to expand and contract at exactly the same rate as the body during firing, or it will fall off. The lustre potters actually modified the clay by mixing clays together, incorporating a calcareous clay with the Nile alluvium. They also experimented radically with the bodies and developed a mixture of fine clay, quartz, and glass.

He then discussed Syrian lustre-wares known as Tell Minis wares, after a large group of whole vessels found in caves near the village of Tell Minis in Syria. They have a distinct petrofabric that is not found in later Syrian pottery. All later lustre-wares were made of stonepaste.

Damascus became the great centre for production of underglaze-painted wares, and may have been where the technology was developed at the beginning of the 12th century. 12th century lustre wares, made at Raqqa and elsewhere, show a much more copper-rich pigment as you can see by the dark brown colour which may actually explain the beginnings of underglaze-painting.

All sampled Syrian underglaze-painted wares found west of Damascus have been found to be of the Damascus petrofabric, including at Fustat, but the distinctive late Raqqa lustre ware, however, was only made at Raqqa.

He shared that petrographic analysis of stonepaste ceramics from Iran have revealed a number of distinct petrofabrics, including one for Rayy, one of the largest cities of the Middle East before 1221; and also this group found in pottery from Rayy and elsewhere, but of an unknown production centre which made nice underglaze-painted wares in the early 13th century.

However one petrofabric dominated Persian stonepaste pottery, found in all sampled lustre-wares, he informed. It is highly distinctive, comprising microcrystalline quartz of from chert or flint. The only sustainable evidence for linking lustre-wares to a specific site are the lustre-wares inscribed with their place of manufacture, which is Kashan.

“Since there is only one very distinctive fabric, and only evidence for one site, it is pretty certain that this is the Kashan petrofabric. The Kashan pottery often has dates written on it, and at times also carry the signatures of the potters themselves”, he remarked.

Dr. Mason shared this showed that some of the potters are related to each other. Other potters come from other known pottery-production centres, although still work in Kashan. This may indicate that the lustre-potters were essentially one lineage, occasionally supplemented by other potters, possibly with skills the lustre-potters needed. The sudden ability of the lustre-potters of Fatimid Egypt to paint like a Coptic Egyptian might be explained in this manner.

Another important observation is the effect of the Mongol conquest of 1221. The dated objects would seem to indicate that production of lustre-wares fell off sharply at this time. Unlike the lustre-potters of Egypt, the Kashan potters did not leave, but started up production again at the beginning of the Il-Khanid period, which ushered in a new period of stability and prosperity for Iran. This correlation indicates a close relationship between the production of lustre wares and a stable economy.

In conclusion, Dr. Mason asserted that pottery not only represents a significant industry, with massive productions that spread across the full extent of the old world but also stability and prosperity, as it is an enterprise encouraged by strong governments that invest in infrastructure and industry.

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