B.4. & C.2. Questions and Interpretation:


b. Interpretation:

R.W. Bulliet has, in his consideration of the topography/demography of Nishapur, included its pottery assemblage. His approach is theoretical and does not allow any firm conclusions, but it is an interesting interpretation which aims to explain that the peculiarity of the wares found at Nishapur derives from the unique political situation that pertained in Khurasan before and during the period when these wares were produced. It also seeks to discover something about the people that made the vessels and to put into practise the theory that material remains can actually tell us something about the producing culture.

Firstly, establishing a chronology is essential to his argument. Wilkinson explicitly states in the introduction to his catalogue that determining a chronology for the Metropolitan finds was nigh impossible as they were all found so jumbled up together. However, Bulliet puts together the following data from Wilkinson's published finds: we must remember that this published material only represents a select sample of the results of an excavation that dealt with a very small and select part of the medieval city, and thus the material should not be thought of as generally representative nor should Bulliet's thesis be thought to be founded on solid facts.

He establishes dates for the three excavated sites where buff-ware was found in large quantities, on the basis of coin finds: ie. 85% of coins found at Qanat Tepe were pre-C9th; 67% at Tepe Madrasah; 59% at Sabz Pushan. Of these pre-C9th coins, no pre-Islamic or C8th coins were found at Tepe Madrasah. Bulliet thus concludes that Qanat Tepe is the oldest of the three sites and Tepe Madrasah is the latest. Turning then to quantities of pottery found at each site he produces the following data:


Ware Qanat Tepe Sabz Pushan Tepe Madrasah Other sites
Buff painted 8% 16% 56% 20%
Splash ware 9% 39% 34% 18%
Samanid epigraphic 19% 35% 26% 20%

N.B. There was less total pottery from Qanat Tepe than from the other two sites, so this is not officially a valid comparison.


From the combined information that he derives from coin-dating and percentages of finds at these three sites, Bulliet concludes that buff-ware becomes popular at a later stage than the other two wares. The figures do not suggest that buff-ware replaced the other two styles, rather that it became increasingly popular in the C9th and C10th. However, what it actually suggests at the simplest level is that buff-ware was more popular in the district nicknamed Tepe Madrasah by the Metropolitan expedition. Why it was more popular here than elsewhere may be to do with any number of factors that we have no information about.

This is only the beginning of Bulliet’s thesis, as dating is a crucial basis for the rest of it. He interprets these disparities as indicating factional divisions within Nishapur in the C9th and C10th. Here it is helpful to recall the historical background of the region, outlined in Section A. Bulliet’s personal interpretation of the upheaval of these years is that Nishapur was split by factional differences based on attitudes to religion and the appropriate role of religion in society. The two major opposing factions were "elitist" and "populist", the origins of which were rooted in the social consequences of conversion to Islam and accompanying urbanisation. The following is a quote from Bulliet which succinctly outlines his thesis:

"The "elitist" group, by this interpretation, was composed of the descendants of comparatively early converts to Islam who persisted in supporting the legal, theological and spiritual traditions that were dominant at the time of their ancestors’ conversion. This group, therefore, held attitudes originating in the C8th and early C9th when Islam was the religion of a small, but dominant, minority of the population. Their rivals were the descendants of later converts to Islam, including many from families that had constituted the powerful rural aristocracy of pre-Islamic Iran, who entered the faith during the bandwagon period of the late C9th or C10th. They adhered to later developing legal and theological attitudes and saw Islam as a more universal and "populist" faith, their purpose in this being, in part, to reattain, as Muslims, the social eminence they had enjoyed as non-Muslims but now found precluded from by the elite stratum of Muslims belonging to families who had converted earlier."

There is undoubtedly much truth in this sketch of ideological differences, but as Bulliet goes on to ask, how do you conceptualise the day-to-day differences between these groups? His answer to this question lies in the different pottery styles and distributions. He concentrates on the differing emphases between the Samanid epigraphic wares and the in/animate buff-wares. The former is in keeping with the "elitist" faction, as you have to be educated and literate to appreciate it, and the calligraphy is only ever Arabic with no Persian inscriptions; on the other hand the buff-ware has echoes of Sasanian motifs thus symbolising a revival of interest in Persian culture led by the "populist" faction, employing popular local motifs rather than "impenetrable Arabic inscriptions".

Bulliet even postulates that the different predominant vessel shapes between the two pottery types represent the different dietary of habits of Arabs versus Persians: ie. buff-ware vessels are most often deep bowls, more suitable to traditional Persian dishes which have the consistency of thick soups, as opposed to the large flat platters, presumably for serving rice, and small (sauce) bowls. This would then show that the "societal change that accompanied the progress of religious conversion in Khurasan [went] beyond doctrine and affected the fabric of everyday social intercourse and popular taste".

There is much that is attractive in Bulliet’s theory, but none of his suggestions can be supported by any firm evidence. Much of what he adduces as proof has been founded on tenuous links strung together from the already very select information published in Wilkinson, and in the absence of further evidence from excavation, this must remain a hypothetical and thought-provoking argument which does not really allow for conclusions.

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