C. The Ceramic Assemblage:
Problems of Dating


The problem with the ceramics is that it is very difficult to establish a chronology of development, and this is crucial to the question of what Chinese influence there was on the ceramic technology of Islam.

Arthur Lane believes that “Chinese stoneware and porcelain reached the Near East as early as 800 AD”. This early date is based on the passage in a work written by Muhammad ibn al-Husayn Baihaki, circa 1059: he states that the governor of Khurasan, ‘Ali ibn ‘Isa, sent as a present to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809),

“twenty pieces of imperial China-ware, including bowls, cups and half-cups, the like of which had never been seen at a Caliph’s court before, in addition to 2000 other pieces of porcelain”.

Did ‘Ali b. ‘Isa acquire this Chinese pottery through a diplomatic gift, or perhaps via the Central Asian land-route for trade? Whatever the answer, this gift to Harun al-Rashid, which was thought special enough to be mentioned by a historian some 250 years later, cannot be taken as representative of the broad trend towards the importation of Chinese ceramics by sea in the C9th and C10th. Lane goes on to say that examples of Arab writers praising Chinese porcelain do not occur until the C9th. Adams is another advocate of a “high” (ie. earlier) chronology by his assertion that the evidence at Tell Abu Sarifa shows a Sasanian derivation for the emergence of an Islamic white glazed pottery, while other scholars have suggested the technique comes from the Romans via the Umayyads.

Another problem which has effected the understanding of the ceramic chronology is the so-called “Samarra horizon”: ie. the published wares from Samarra were traditionally thought to be dated specifically within the period of Caliphal occupation at Samarra from 836-882. However, the mint at Samarra was known to be functioning in 833, before the Caliph al-Mutasim even moved there, and occupation at the site is still attested in the mid tenth-century by the writers Ibn Hawqal and al-Muqaddasi who both went there, giving a period of occupation of at least 150 years. The unreliability of the dating of the Samarra horizon evidence thus argues for a “low” (ie. later) chronology.

One fixed piece of dating evidence is provided by the reconstruction of the mihrab of the Qairawan mosque, in present-day Tunisia. This mosque was severely damaged by an earthquake in the year 862, and to help with the repairs the Abbasid Caliph sent money, marble panels, teak for a new minbar, tiles and a tile-maker from Baghdad to make more tiles. These tiles still survive around the mihrab, and are decorated in polychrome and bichrome lustre techniques – but there is no use of monochrome, which Hallett thinks only becomes the dominant technique on lustre at the very end of the ninth-century. We can therefore say with certainty that a fully-developed polychrome palette had been achieved by the time the tiles were sent to Qairawan in the mid-ninth-century.

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C.1. The case for Revolution

As we have mentioned, Ibn Naji (circa 1016) tells us that the Abbasid Caliph sent “a man from Baghdad” to Qairawan to produce lustre tiles for its refurbished mihrab. This evidence, as well as that of the worldwide distribution of Abbasid ceramics and the fact that the new types of pottery were first excavated at Samarra, has led to the assumption that the Abbasid pottery industry was directly sponsored by the Caliphate, and therefore located near the Court (variously at Baghdad and Samarra). Furthermore, the new ceramic techniques – as we will see below – required very costly ingredients, that sometimes had to be imported across long distances: tin-oxides for the opacified glazes were imported from Europe or Malaysia; cobalt was imported from Iran for the characteristic blue-on-white decoration; in addition to other minerals required to make the different coloured pigments, oxides of copper (probably from Sardan, on the border of Khuzistan and Fars) and silver (brought overland from Khurasan or Najd) were required to form the metallic sheen of lustre decoration.

It was not just the ingredients, however, that were expensive. The growth of a large-scale new pottery industry required other investment: the construction of an infrastructure of production, ie. facilities such as workshops and kilns, but also potters skilled enough to make the new types of pots; fuel with which to fire the kilns, as the reducing atmosphere necessary to form lustre requires a large amount of fuel, and constant attention. Lastly, the fact there was probably a great deal of experimentation at the start of this new industry’s development means that there would inevitably have been failures – pots which warped in the firing, glazes which did not turn out white, pigments which did not achieve lustre. It is worth mentioning in relation to this that the modern potter, Alan Caiger-Smith, notes in the Preface to his book on Lustre Pottery that it took him 26 trial firings before he achieved any lustre on his pots – and this was following medieval recipes, such as Abu'l-Qasim's treatise. Abbasid potters had no prototypes to follow, and it is likely that this period of experimentation would have been very costly because of the waste and failures which would have resulted.

Pottery is usually conceived of as a lowly craft – only in a few instances in Islamic history have pottery movements been directly associated with the Court, such as in Iznik during the Ottoman period, and even then inventories show us that it was not so highly considered as porcelain or metal objects. Since it is difficult to imagine individual Abbasid potters spontaneously investing this much capital in the growth of an industry which later becomes so widespread, it has long been assumed that the technical innovations of ninth-century Iraq came about by imperial fiat – ie. that the Abbasid pottery industry was “revolutionised” by the deliberate sponsorship of the ruler and the court which, thanks to the successful growth in international trade, would have had the ability to fund this risky new enterprise. Hallett believes, however, that while the court may have provided the initial impetus, the rest of the story relied more on ‘evolution’ than ‘revolution’, and that it might not have been set exclusively in the royal capital cities, but might have occurred in more provincial locations (see below).

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C.2. The evidence from Pella and Siraf

Whether or not we can reach any conclusions about the dating of the first Islamic glazed pottery, the fact remains that there was a change in the ceramic technology resulting in the emergence of a new kind of Islamic pottery which is found across the Islamic world. Walmsley describes the change at Pella (Fihl) in Jordan: “With the onset of the C9th, a critical break with the earlier potting technologies is represented by the quite abrupt end of Ware 11 [fine ‘metallic-thin’ fabric, coloured patchy orange/brown/grey, white painted decoration] in favour of the thin-walled Samarra-style pale cream jars and strainer jugs of Ware 18. These quickly dominated the ceramic assemblage of C9th Fihl… By the midC9th other previously unrepresented wares make an appearance [including] very limited quantities of 3 glazed wares following Iraqi or Egyptian styles (Wares 15-17). The adoption of these new ‘international’ wares represents a major artistic and technological break with the past”. Furthermore, as Donald Whitcomb writes, luxury Islamic ceramics and Chinese imported ceramics are found at Fustat and Aqaba, which are part of the same Red Sea-focused trading system.

Siraf, because of its prime significance in the trade of the time, is likely to have been one of the first places where such changes appeared. Whitehouse, who excavated there, has tried to establish a sequence of development based on the pottery finds at this site. His dating sequence is based on the construction of the Friday Mosque: this was built on the site of a Sasanian fort in the early C9th, and then re-built over the top of some shops from the surrounding bazaar which were incorporated into an enlarged mosque complex. Many thousands of pot sherds have been discovered at this site. Before the building of the mosque, the latest material is blue-green Sasanian-Islamic pottery, mostly storage jars, which neutron activation analyses have shown to be made from clay from Iraq: these are possibly specialised containers for dibs or date honey and have a wide distribution in the eastern Islamic lands, Africa, South East Asia, along with jars of barbotine ornament which are also characteristic of this period. Also found in this phase are dusun and black stoneware, which come from China, showing that contact with China of some sort had begun. A suggested date for this phase is circa 800.

During the C9th (Periods 1 [circa 825] and 2 [circa 850] of the mosque) there are finds of painted stoneware and other imports from the Far East, but there are still no instances of white stoneware or porcelain, or any Islamic white- or splash-glazed imitations. Whitehouse therefore suggests that the emergence of Islamic glazed ceramics is a gradual one occurring in several stages, after 850.

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C.3. ‘Dynamic’ versus ‘Dynastic’: the evolutionary chronology

Hallett (Chapter 5) thinks that the ‘dynastic framework’ used for considering Abbasid pottery (ie. products emerge, are developed [innovation], defined [maturation], abandoned [decline], according to the ascent and decline of political rulers) obscures the dynamic evolution of a living pottery industry. She therefore proposes that it is more useful to conceive of a pottery chronology in a ‘production framework’ which considers that the potters themselves provided the momentum for the development of the Abbasid ceramic industry, though the impetus might have come from Caliphal investment. The following is paraphrased from pp.194-197 of her thesis.

Her model sees rapid technological innovation between circa 820 and 860, possibly involving no more than two generations of Iraqi potters. In this period, new methods of fabrication, new glaze technology and new decorative techniques are developed, followed by a more sequential evolution of vessel shapes, colour palettes, and decorative vocabulary. The form of imported Northern Chinese bowls was rapidly and overwhelmingly adopted, followed by a gradual increase in the range of dimensions. According to her experiment-based theory, other vessel shapes were introduced and abandoned.

The absence of opaque white-glazed wares in the foundation deposits at Raqqa points to a post-C8th date for Phase 1 of experimentation in Iraq (ie. the introduction of Chinese forms and fabrication methods, as well as experiments to produce a viable opaque white glaze), ie. about circa 820. Cobalt blue painting appears to have been introduced before circa 833-4, according to survey data from Samarra (constructed at this time). This is followed by additional embellishments in green (during the Caliphal occupation of Samarra), ie. a shift from Phase 1 to Phase 2 around about the mid ninth-century. The development of lustre painting on pottery occurs around 850-870, since the tiles in the mihrab at the Qairawan mosque (Tunisia) display the fully-developed abstract polychrome style: this gives a terminus ante quem of 862 for the introduction of a multicoloured lustre palette and the use of monochrome brown. The general absence of monochrome yellow lustre at Samarra and its presence at Madinat al-Zahra (Spain) suggests the abandonment of a polychrome palette in favour of a monochrome yellow between 883 and 976.

Thus, Hallett’s tentative chronology for the development of the new Abbasid ceramics (p.196 of her thesis) is as follows:

1.   Chinese whitewares arrive by land in latter half of C8th, and a gift of these wares is made to Harun al-Rashid (786-809); provides inspiration for the pottery industry.
2.   Chinese whitewares arrive by sea not earlier than the reopening of Canton (792) and by time of completion of the shops in the Bazaar at Siraf / beginning of Level I at Susa (circa 820)
3.   Whitewares from Gong Xian provide the model for innovation; Chinese vessel shapes and fabrication practices are adopted, and the development of an opaque white glaze gets underway (circa 820-833)
4.   Painting in cobalt blue is introduced by the time of the foundation of the Caliphal residence at Samarra (833-4)
5.   Painting in cobalt blue with additional green is introduced subsequently, as well as a second phase of decoration (circa 850)
6.   A glaze recipe combining lead and tin is fixed (circa 840-850)
7.   Bichrome stains are borrowed from the glass industry (circa 850)
8.   Discovery of the reduction firing of lustre (circa 850)
9.   The fully-developed polychrome palette is achieved by the time the tiles are sent to Qairawan (pre-862)
10.   Monochrome yellow supersedes polychrome lustre after the caliphal occupation of Samarra (post-892)
11.   Cobalt blue is abandoned in the late C9th or early C10th
12.   Lustre production ceases in Iraq perhaps in the late C10th (and moves to Egypt?)

It will be helpful to keep referring to this outlined chronology in the sections to come.

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