A. Introduction:


Pottery once fired is highly resistant to weathering and erosion, all the more so if the pot or sherd has been buried by sediments which have accrued over time, and thus preserved intact for archaeologists to find. Because of this, ceramic sherds probably make up about 99.9% of all artefacts in all museums, and are therefore a tremendously important link to the cultures and technologies of the past. Much worthwhile scholarship has been dedicated to ceramic studies, to try to reconstruct the contemporary social aspects of ceramics; however, this has often been founded upon assumptions for which there is no certain proof, or evidence gleaned from unstratified and unscientific archaeological excavation. Other than the sherds themselves the actual evidence is negligible, as we have seen in Technology Part 1, sections B and C: at best, the literary and excavation evidence tells us a little about a select few aspects, and as we can’t always reconstruct the social context with certainty, we find it very difficult to interpret the evidence that we have.

This stalemate is broken by the recent applications of scientific analysis to ceramic studies. Though this was thought to be a possibility since the 1950s, it has taken off particularly in the last twenty years, encouraged by developments in technology which have produced ever better results when applied to ceramics. This type of approach is discussed in section B below. Though there is a long way to go before a complete reappraisal of older accepted traditions is feasible, a few breakthroughs have been made in certain important areas which already allow us to know for sure what was only guessed at in the past.

Dating and chronology is another important aspect of ceramic studies which can help in understanding the social conditions of the time; developments in art and iconography give us a further insight into the society, allow comparisons with other cultures, or perhaps even specific objects or buildings, that allow us to postulate models of exchange and patterns of movement. Developments in technology can help us understand intellectual advances in sciences and aesthetics, which we may know of from other sources (usually literary), and we can thereby build a clearer picture of the interaction of intellectuals and the arts, a connection which was often closely patronised by royal circles in the Islamic world. Innovations in technology or iconography help us to chart new contacts with other peoples outside the Islamic world: we may know of these from historical texts, and this helps to form a chronology, but looking at the artefacts produced by the people of the time shows us what impact was had on them by external political forces, and by regarding this impact we may even glean further insight into the characters of the artisans themselves.


A.1. Problems of the "Samarra Horizon":

One thing that has continually beset students of Islamic ceramics is the confusion over dating caused by the so-called "Samarra horizon". Archaeologists such as Herzfeld who first discovered ceramic vessels and fragments at Samarra in the 1930s believed that they were all produced strictly within the 56 year period when the palace-city was occupied by the ‘Abbasid caliphs (between 836-892AD). All ceramics of the same types that were found on other sites around the Islamic world were thus thought to originate in Samarra and to be dated between 836 and 892.

(where does this fit in? and what else is there to say??) This dating was thought to be corroborated by the story that the ‘Abbasid caliph sent a craftsman from Baghdad to Qairouan in Tunisia in 862, after an earthquake had destroyed the mosque: this craftsman was sent to make lustre tiles for the mihrab of the mosque, which still survive in situ to this day. A mid-C9th date was therefore taken as the terminus post quem date for the development of lustre.

However, this neat chronolgy has come into question since the realisation that the site of Samarra was occupied long before and long after the presence of the ‘Abbasid caliphs. Perhaps the most reliable evidence is coinage: finds prove that the imperial mint was functioning at Samarra as early as 833 and as late as 953. However, literary evidence tells us that previous occupation of the site dates back to Sassanian times, and the major water distribution systems supplying Samarra were probably built by Khusraw Anushirvan in the early C6th. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809) began building an octagonal walled palace-city (known as al-Qadisiyya) at Samarra in the late C8th, but abandoned it unfinished for whatever reason in 796. There seems to have been an attempt to resettle the city in 903, by al-Muktafi (902-8), who found the great Jawsaq al-Khaqani in ruins. Furthermore, eye-witness accounts of the geographers Ibn Hawqal (c. 978) and al-Muqaddasi (c.985) testify to continued occupation in certain areas of the city more than a century and a half after al-Mu’tasim and his troops first made Samarra their home, and parts of the site remain inhabited to this day.

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A.2. Select Bibliography on Samarra:


1.   Miles, George C.,
    "The Samarra Mint", Ars Orientalis 1 (1954) 187-191
2.   Northedge, Alistair,
    "Samarra", Encyclopaedia of Islam article, 2nd edition, vol ??
    Comments: Helpful summary of all his articles and archaeological studies of the site.
3.   Whitehouse, D.,
    "Islamic glazed pottery in Iraq and the Persian Gulf: C9th and C10th", Istituto Orientale di Napoli (Annali) 39 (1979) 45-61
    Comments: Clear discussion of the problem of dating according to the Samarra horizon and an examination of the evidence, based on finds at Siraf.
    Shelfmark: Oriental Reading Room, Bodleian: Z. Per. 13a (open shelves)
    N.B. This volume will be in the stack, and has to be called up under a different shelfmark, which is Or. Per.100.
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