C. Ethnographic Approaches:


This approach aims to learn much about past social patterns by studying contemporary potters in traditional societies who may work under environmental and socio-economic circumstances comparable to historical societies. This has been an especially worthwhile approach in ceramic studies, since pottery has been a continuous method of making utensils, whether utilitarian or luxury objects for trade, for thousands of years. It thus allow archaeologists to interpret their excavation results by analogy with the "ethnographic present". For example, The Museum of Mankind exhibition was based on the premise that pottery is produced wherever a community becomes sedentary, and this pattern was traced from prehistoric cultures through various phases of settled living ranging from early sedentary communities, to urbanisation, to professional workshops producing for specific patrons or, today, tourists.

The ethnographic approach can be subdivided as follows: i. experimental archaeology involves the manipulation of raw materials of a particular type of pottery to try and reconstruct the methods used by potters in that historical context, and this may include procedures of ceramic ecology (see below) such as the collecting and experimental preparation and testing of clays; ii. ethnoarchaeology is the more encompassing term for the method of inference by analogy with/observation of potters of today around the world. Ceramic ecology is the term coined by Fred Matson for the interaction between the potter/ production process with his environment: for example, the topography of an area may determine the accessibility of raw materials, thus the Dayton and Bowles approach to Abu’l-Qasim’s treatise (outlined above) can be categorised as "experimental archaeology"; ceramic ecology also considers the types of pottery being produced by looking at location and accessibility to possible markets, the nature of subsistence economies, population density and distribution, factors influencing the introduction of new technologies.

These types of approaches allow the formation of such models as the following, which defines a hierarchy with a three-fold division in attitudes to innovation:

i. the potter at the bottom of the hierarchy, who has just entered the craft and has no reputation, innovates through desperate attempts to find himself a niche and a market.

ii. the established artisan, with a regular market and a steady trade, does not innovate in the belief that he will lose his cherished customers, and is thus described as conservative.

iii. the top class of potter innovates in order to maintain the prestige accorded to his rank.

As Mason points out, this third class is the category into which fit most Islamic potters that we are dealing with in this programme, the creators of lustre, minai, underglaze etc.

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C.1. Applications to questions of stylistic groupings:

An interesting question that may be benefited by ethnographic approaches is: why and how do stylistic groups develop? In the history of Islamic ceramics it seems clear that there are various trends which show continuity through time and across geographical areas: for instance, lustre traditions, stonepaste bodies, tin-glazing techniques, also precise styles of decoration. On one hand this evidence may support theories of migration especially where technologies for the production of luxury wares move between different places; at the same time however, this evidence points to genealogical continuity, and in the case of Kashan we have epigraphic evidence from inscriptions to show that families of potters worked together and succeeded each other in workshops.

This is still the case in many parts of the world today. For example, Piccolpasso wrote how Italian lustre-producers keep the secrets of their glazing techniques safe from all, even their own family, by locking their kilns away in their basements, and only on their death-beds do they call their successor to reveal the secret!

Furthermore, Mason suggests that, instead of 50 years, a better average time-span for a defined ceramic style is 25 years: this correlates with the generally accepted time-span of one generation, and suggests that at any one time in a ceramic workshop, an individual is dominant, and responsible for short periods of innovation within a continuum of slowly-changing attributes. In the archaeological record, this appears as developing modes of decoration/technology which are then grouped together by archaeologists into typologies according to features held in common.

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C.2. Experiments in Archaeology:

A number of archaeologists and interested individuals have applied what they know of ceramic studies to reconstructions of certain aspects: this may be mechanical, ie. to do with manipulation of the raw materials, or technical ie. to do with reconstructing the methods used in production. The following are some examples.


a. Alan Caiger-Smith:

As well as writing books on lustre-wares and tin-glazes, Caiger-Smith is a practising potter, who ran Aldermaston Pottery in Berkshire for many years. He applies both the aforementioned techniques to his pottery, covering a wheel-thrown red earthenware body with an opacified tin glaze. He decorates his pots using traditional methods of lustre decoration. His books are therefore all the more enlightening as he has tried and tested all the techniques that he writes about, and is fully aware of the difficulties of the process and faults that can occur in firing.

Silver Lustre Plate   Copper Lustre Plate

click on the pictures to go to larger versions of these lustre plates made by Alan Caiger-Smith

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b. Investigations into Abu’l-Qasim’s treatise (continued):

The article by Allan et al which investigated scientifically the treatise of Abu’l-Qasim employed Miss Rosemary Brewer, previously lecturer in ceramics at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, in the experimental production of ceramic bodies formed according to the recipe described in Abu’l-Qasim (the oft-quoted ratio of 10 parts quartz to 1 part glass frit to 1 part fine white clay). Miss Brewer made a stonepaste body composed of 80% flint, 10 % frit, 5% bentonite and 5% ball clay, and tried to throw a vessel on a wheel. Her results showed that it was extremely difficult to do so: Allan therefore says "the skill of the medieval Persian potter in throwing such a wide range of shapes and such delicate ceramic bodies is all the more to be admired". [illustration of her pot shown in Allan et al article? are there any others?]

Click here to read James Allan's article


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c. Experiments with an ancient potter’s wheel:

These experiments were done in Israel to try to determine how two stone blocks from a Canaanite potter’s wheel could be reconstructed sufficiently well to form vessels on. It is an interesting article which outlines the different assumptions and approaches made by the Ruth Amiran and Dodo Shenhav from the Department of Antiquities in Jerusalem. Other wheels like this one are known, including fragments found at the Canaanite potter’s workshop in Lachish, and a Byzantine wheel found at Mefalsim, near Tel Aviv.

The two stone blocks are round and domed, one of which (the upper one) is pivoted and the other socketed. The interfacing surfaces are worn smooth and shiny by rotary movement. Through several experiments it became clear that the two blocks did not constitute the entire wheel and that an essential part of it was missing; it was concluded that this part was a large board on which the vessel was thrown. This may have rested straight on top of the upper stone and was kept moving by the potter and/or an assistant, though the board would have to be large enough to generate enough momentum giving time for the potter to create. This was the method adopted by Amiran and Shenhav, and several small pots were thrown successfully on their wheel.

A variation of their reconstructed wheel would be the more sophisticated kick-wheel, whereby the two blocks would act as bearings which rotated as small wheel at foot level, which the potter kept moving by kicking it; a long rod would then attach the kick-wheel to a larger wheel at table-level on which the potter would throw his vessel. This is the kind of wheel that many North African potters use today, and this probably preserves a much older tradition which is likely to have been the one used by our Islamic potters.

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C.3. Select Bibliography on Ethnographic Approaches:


See also main bibliography for this section.


1.   Amiran, R. and Shenhav, D.,
    "Experiments with an ancient potter’s wheel", in Pots and Potters: Current Approaches in Ceramic Archaeology. Ed. Prudence Rice, UCLA Inst. of Arch. Monograph 24 (1984), pp107-112
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