E. The Ashmolean collection


E.1. Origins

The vessels in the Ashmolean collection come from a variety of sources, and most are the result of generous gifts to the Museum. The accession numbers for the donated vessels begin with the year in which the Museum received them. Large collections were donated by Sir Alan Barlow in 1956 and bequeathed by Gerald Reitlinger in 1978. Those given by Mr. Bartels are prefixed with the letter P. Except for two vessels given in 1933 by Professor Sayce (X3130 and X3131), the origin of the few pieces whose accession numbers begin with the letter X remains a mystery.


E.2. Characteristics

The decoration of most of this collection is vegetal or geometric, though some is epigraphic; none is figural. It has been noted that the style of decoration is similar to the Persian wares of the period, although coarser and more carelessly painted. It could be added that the decoration often has a "pudgy" appearance, with the split-palmette-type motifs and large white swirled designs being especially exaggerated. Examples of this quality can be seen in jar 1978.2172, bowl X3130, bowl X3067, dish X3068, jug X3131, jug X3438, bowl 1956.147 and bowl 1978.2176. I also noted a similar style of vegetal depiction on a fragment of silk twill from C11th-C12th Iran donated by Gerald Reitlinger to the Ashmolean Museum, which is only an instance of a cross-media influence which was probably extensive in the arts of Syria at this time.


Five of the vessels in the Ashmolean collection bear exterior decoration of large whorls or spirals (mentioned above in the section on Characteristics of Raqqa lustrewares): bowl X3130, bowl 1956.147, sweetmeat dish 1978.2174, bowl 1978.2176, and bowl 1978.2355. The small spirals used to fill space in the background are also found on several of the pieces in this collection. Examples of this are jug 1978.2172, bowl X3067, bowl 1978.2176, and bowl 1978.2175.


In this collection one can also note the use of medallions spaced around the interior of a bowl or exterior of a jug, often without any interior design but filled with an underglaze blob of cobalt or turquoise colour. There are six vessels bearing these types of medallions, three of them having medallions filled with simple designs in addition to colour.


A particular way of depicting the split-palmette can be seen on several of these vessels (X3130, X3438, 1978.2175, 1956.147), as well as on a large C14th underglaze-painted jar from Syria in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Other vegetal designs are in a similar style, such as the split-leaf design found between the medallions on jar X3131.


The reluctance to let space go un-filled manifests itself not only in the extensive use of filler decorations such as the tiny spirals already discussed, but also in the use of concentric bands of solid lustre, of varying widths. Three of the manganese-glazed vessels employ this technique, pot 1956.143 and bowls 1956.173 and P6988. It is also used in a few of the clear-glazed vessels, such as dish X3068 and bottle 1978.2173. The bands are normally used in conjunction with other decorative bands, usually of inscription, pseudo-inscription, medallions or other such designs.


Most of these pieces are fairly well made, but not particularly fine, which is typical of Raqqa wares. With the exception of stemmed cup 1978.2171 (which has a glaze extending to the base), they are glazed very thickly, but only to just above the exterior of the base. The glaze often pools inside the bowl. Almost all of them are clear-glazed tinged with green, with the exception of the four-piece manganese-glazed group. This group is a puzzle. Most of the lustre decoration is too worn away to be easily distinguishable, but what can be seen is different from the clear-glazed wares. For example, although bowl P6988 bears a band of pseudo-inscription common to Raqqa lustreware, it is otherwise adorned with stripes running diagonally across the inside walls. Partial-jar P6987 is earthenware rather than stonepaste, and bowl 1956.173 is decorated with sparse vine scrolls with the leaves reduced to dots. Jar 1956.143 is not necessarily unusual, although its band of medallions filled with spade-shaped designs seems to be unique. Otherwise it is decorated with the conventional concentric solid lustre bands. The shape of the two manganese bowls suggests they are Raqqan, because they are both conical, although on low bases rather than the usual high foot, rather like the earlier Fatimid wares. On the other hand, manganese-glazed wares have been found at Damascus, and it is possible that these pieces were actually manufactured there rather than Raqqa.


Almost every vessel in this collection has one or more of the decorative characteristics described in the Characteristics section above, and seems to be representative of a coherent group, perhaps made by the same workshop. There are a few vessels that do not fit with the others, having an unusual shape or bearing a decorative style or motif that is out of character. The first of these is small dish X3068, which, although it has familiar decoration, is of a shape uncommon to Raqqa lustres and more easily associated with Tell Minis. Next the pear-shaped bottle 1978.2173 is shaped like one of the Persian ewers (although it has no handle) which often are elaborately decorated and topped with a moulded human or animal head (often of a chicken). The decoration, although not unusual, does not bear the immediately recognisable characteristics of the rest of the collection. Bowl 1956.103 is a hemispherical bowl with a simple rim, standing on a medium-high foot. It is the only bowl with this shape in the Ashmolean’s collection, although bowls like it are said to come from Raqqa. The decoration, although perhaps in the same general style as the others, contains none of the motifs now familiar to us.


The remaining vessels all have at least one and usually several characteristics that identify them as Raqqa lustreware as opposed to Persian or Tell Minis. Aside from decoration, which will always be somewhat variable in design although the styles are similar if not the same, the thickness and colour of the glazes is remarkably similar. The convention of leaving the base uncovered by glaze is also represented on all vessels, except for the aforementioned stemmed cup. In addition, the glaze covers what is almost without exception a bare stonepaste, devoid of slip, so that the body does not appear completely white.

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E.3. Epigraphy

Several vessels in this collection bear epigraphic decoration. This comes in four forms: bands of pseudo-inscription; bands of inscriptions which may be authentic but which are largely illegible due to decay; readable words and phrases; and finally words that are so degraded they have become completely decorative in nature. There are nine pieces in this collection bearing bands of pseudo-inscription or inscriptions which are illegible: manganese-glazed jar 1956.143, manganese-glazed bowl 1956.173, tankard 1978.2201, triangular table 1978.2203, conical bowl 1978.2355, partial manganese-glazed jar P6987, manganese-glazed bowl P6988, tankard X3069, and large flat-rimmed bowl X3134.


Five vessels have readable inscriptions. Stem cup 1978.2171 is a commissioned piece and many words of the inscription are readable. It may read: "By order of Sheikh …Taqiy al-Din, …at the house of…." (I believe I have identified the words taqiy ["pious, devout"], al-din ["the pious one"] li-rasm ["by order of"] and dar [actually "house" rather than "at the house"], but have been so far unable to decipher the other four words). Sweetmeat dish 1978.2174 has at least one readable word: sirr, which means "joy", although there are a few others I cannot make out. Bowl X3067 has several repetitions of the word barakat ("blessing"), both in the base and around the inside. Bowls 1978.2175 and X3068 both contain a degraded but readable rendition of the word sirr. Finally bowl X3130 contains some rather disorderly inscriptions consisting of single words scattered around the field of the base. Only one word is legible, although it may appear twice. This is ‘amara, which means "to live long, flourish, prosper." There is only one example of a purely decorative, and now unreadable inscription. It is found in conical bowl 1978.2176. The same word or phrase is used on a Raqqa piece in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

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