Bearing in mind the long and complicated history of Nishapur, and especially the constant resettlements of the site, it can already be seen how difficult such a site would be to excavate. Add to this the Second World War, which began after the Metropolitan had done only 5 seasons of excavating (1935-40, with some tidying up in 1947), meaning they had to surrender their concession to the Iranian government, which could not stop the subsequent ransacking of the site for products that would fetch high sums on the art market. All in all, very little has been written on Nishapur as a result; neither have any scientific or detailed technical studies been done on this pottery which might explain some of the mysteries surrounding it. As mentioned above, this does not do justice to a city that was comparable in size and status to the other great capital cities of the medieval Islamic world, including Baghdad and Cairo. Nevertheless various studies have been made of the site and its treasures, and the place to start has to be the archaeology.
|Wilkinson and the Metropolitan Museum|
Charles Wilkinson was among a team of three from the Metropolitan who led five years of excavations at carefully selected sites within a small area of the original city (see site map). Trial sondages had been made in previous years to see which areas would repay investigation by excavation, as well as talking to farmers who had found surface sherds and vessels while cultivating their land. An agreement with the Iranian government meant that half of the material found at the site would go to the Iran Bastan Museum in Tehran and half to the Metropolitan.
Wilkinsons book on the pottery of Nishapur therefore publishes only a small selection of the best preserved of the Metropolitan's finds; what is in the Metropolitan Museum from the sherds and vessels found at the site; it does not include anything that did not directly come into their hands as a product of excavation and therefore doesnt include any pieces in other collections, even for the sake of comparison; furthermore, the catalogue only presents a limited selection of the thousands of pottery finds from the site. Lastly, the excavated areas should not be taken as being representative of the city as a whole. It is therefore important to bear in mind the fact that Wilkinsons book is only a catalogue of certain pieces in the Metropolitan collection, and is not to be taken as a representative survey of Nishapuri pottery. However it is the only major publication on the subject.
Wilkinson describes the sites excavated including a limited amount of data from coins to attempt a tentative dating for each site. No sign of any Sasanian settlement was found in any of the excavated areas, yet we know from literary evidence that they existed somewhere in this large and difficult site. Several of the areas showed signs of kiln debris, and in one case (the "East Kilns") the excavators uncovered three large kilns which tell us much about kiln structure, and also confirm that there was an established organisation for the manufacture of ceramics actually in Nishapur, as one would expect from a wealthy and bustling city with access to major trade arteries. The kilns seem not to have functioned after the Mongol sack, but this does not indicate that production died out altogether as it may have moved to another part of the city, which remains unexcavated.
Twelve types of pottery were identified by Wilkinson, many of which are high in quality and obviously made for a discerning market: some of these types are peculiar to the region, for example the graceful Samanid epigraphic platters (see below, Section C); some of the types are found all over the Islamic world, for example the sgraffito splashed wares, or the 'Abbasid opaque-white glazed wares with cobalt blue decoration. However, one particular group is found only in Nishapur and this is the focus of discussion in section B.3 below.