This is fine earthenware with a buff coloured body, which varies in lightness so that it can be almost bone-coloured. The quality of the vessels ranges from well-turned and elaborately decorated pieces to crudely painted kitchen utensils. The clay body is covered with a fine slip (see glossary) and the basic design painted over this in black, often with a purple stain as the pigment is derived from manganese. The most common additional colours are a thick yellow (derived from antimony) and a transparent green (derived from copper); very occasionally a brick red slip is added as a third colour but it always has a minor role. The glaze is transparent with a high lead content: during firing the copper-green fuses with the glaze and is therefore much better preserved in all extant pieces, unlike the yellow which has a lot of clay in it and so remains as an impasto on the surface and is liable to flake off.
The whole interior of the buff ware bowls is covered with decoration and there is no regard for the shape of the vessel. These bowls are mostly 20-30cm in diameter, sometimes more. There are two fundamentally different styles of decoration which, according to Wilkinson, seem to have been popular at the same time. Inscriptions are at best very limited on this type of ware and where included seem to be primarily decorative as they are usually illegible, and therefore described as "pseudo-Kufic".
Lid decorated in inanimate buff style [1974.14]
As a general rule these pieces are more strongly potted than the animate wares. The exterior decoration is very simple and standardised and is not found on any other Nishapuri wares. The interior decoration is often symmetrically organised, usually in four radial panels issuing from the centre, though with subsidiary bands to make the decoration more interesting. Thus the patterns can range from simple to very complex.
The quadrants formed by the radial bands are filled with motifs like cross-hatching and checkering, though floral-derived motifs such as rosettes, palmettes and half-palmettes are also common. These types of motif may have encouraged the potter to relax his strictly linear segregation of the decorative field as they start to add leafy forms between bands, or make the bands curve or loop or interweave, resulting in a less formal arrangement.
Ashmolean bowl [1956.91] showing the division into quadrants of the decoration
Another type of decoration is organised in concentric rings emanating from the centre of the pot, with circular ornaments or leafy scrolls filling the spaces between. The central ring is usually filled with lines of pseudo-Kufic, or patterns of checkering or cross-hatching.
A different, shallower and sometimes almost flat group of vessels with near vertical rims supports a similar though distinct type of decoration which includes motifs like peacock-eyes, curling S-lines and figures of 8s, which are found on other Nishapuri vessels and are known from the western Islamic world as characteristic background motifs on lustre.
Ashmolean bowl [1992.74] showing animate style decoration
This is the type off buff ware that has inspired more interest and study as nothing like it has ever been found anywhere else: symmetrical inanimate designs are not uncommon throughout the Islamic world and there is only a finite number of motifs that can be employed in such designs, resulting in natural similarities with other traditions of ceramic decoration, which do not necessarily imply contacts or influences. However, the representation of humans, birds and animals on the animate buff ware from Nishapur is like nothing that comes before or after it: it is especially different from the popular Saljuq moon-face style which takes over directly from it in the C11th.
from an animate buff-ware bowl from Nishapur (not in the
showing the distinctive style of human representation
from the same bowl as above, showing birds, a motif common to
To see whole pot, click on one of the pictures above
The decoration of these vessels suggests no sense of order or composition: Wilkinson describes it instead as "improvisational". Usually a large figure occupies the space in the centre of the vessel, and is always surrounded by subsidiary figures and decorative motifs. The only group with any implication of organisation is that with a central "medallion" filled with a figure surrounded by repeated decorative elements in concentric circles, like a similar style in the inanimate group. The vessels vary greatly in shape and size, and include bowls, dishes and pitchers, with a few anthropomorphic jugs. They are generally more finely potted than the inanimate group and the colour-sheme tends to include more yellow than green.
The representational style has been well-described in the MPhil thesis by Teresa Fitzherbert, in such a way that brings the characters on these vessels to life. She says the "pots convey an overwhelming sense of space compulsively filled; the plethora of background motifs confuse the eye and cause the composition to appear more haphazard than it really is. No area of solid colour is left unadorned. The human figures are characterised by an uncompromising severity of line, angularity of form and stiffness of pose." She thinks it is as if the decorators were painting by formula with little incentive for elaboration or innovation. The variety occurs in the subsidiary patterns. Wilkinson thinks the decorators of the pots are "confused by or indifferent to" details of dress or ways of wearing the hair, and most of the human figures represented seem to be of indeterminate sex. There is no attempt at naturalism or to differentiate species of bird or animal from each other: the only exceptions are birds which might be peacocks, with an upturned wing attached to their backs, and animals which might be ibexes with long curving horns. There are not even any realistic distinctions of size: the birds are as large as the animals and humans.
pot shows well the lack of distinctions of size.
Click the picture to view.
Typical human poses may be a figure standing holding a goblet, or a pair of figures seated, perhaps representing a party, though many figures are shown on horseback with a polo stick or a drawn sword, and an animal or bird of prey seemingly jumping up behind them. But the prey seems to go by unmolested and the always-gaunt figures do not seem to be involved in any action.
A few vessels have been found which bear explicitly Christian motifs (such as Nestorian crosses), and we know from the literature that there were Christian and Jewish communities living in Nishapur, as one would expect from a flourishing and cosmopolitan city situated on major trade routes. It seems that they also patronised this type of pottery, and some communities were perhaps involved in its production.