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A Proposed Study for the Analysis of Early Islamic Glazed Ceramics from Al-Mansurah, Pakistan

BLUE PRINT: PHASE I Sample Groups 1.0–8.0
Al-Mansurah Archaeological Complex, Pakistan

David V. Hill Ph.D.
Senior Research Scholar, ASET
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Metropolitan State University of Denver


Predating the founding of Baghdad and remaining a principal Arab metropolis and a major centre of trade and culture until its destruction by an earthquake in the 13th century, al-Mansurah was the first Arab city established in the Indian sub-continent between 728–37 AD by the Umayyad governor ‘Amr Thaqafi. Built on the shores of the Indus River, and surrounded by fertile farmland, the 10th-century Muslim Arab writer, geographer, and chronicler, Ibn Hauqal records its wealth and its wealthy merchants of Sindhi-Arab origins.1

In 1854 A. F. Bellasis carried out the first excavation at the site. The excavated material was deposited in the British Museum. Excavations were also conducted by Henry Cousins between 1896 and 1898. Recent work at the site has been conducted by archaeologists from the Department of Pakistan Archaeology most recently by Dr. Shahid Ahmad Rajput. Al-Mansurah served as an entry-point for the Silk Road. Consequently, manufactured goods from Mesopotamia along with products from Central Asia and China have been recovered during these excavations. Artifacts including glaze-decorated ceramics originating in Basra and Samarkand or Nishapur along with coins, ivory, and manufactured iron and bronze objects have been recovered. The objective of the present study is to determine the origins of raw materials and the sources of production of ceramics recovered from the al Mansurah archaeological complex.

Mesopotamia and Central Asia have a long history of the production of glaze-decorated ceramics. The artistic and technological traditions of the production of glaze ceramics include periods of stasis punctuated with innovations in the use of raw materials and design. Some of these technological and artistic innovations may originate from potters moving from one craft center to another during periods of dynastic change (Lane 1948). Other innovations such at the use of lead as a glaze flux, stone-paste technology, cobalt and splash decorated ceramics may owe their origins ultimately to the exposure to and imitation of contemporary Chinese ceramics (Henshaw 2006; Mason and Tite 1994). And some innovations such as the use of calligraphy and figurative design by potters in Nishapur and Samarkand appear to be local in origin.

While broad patterns of technological and stylistic stasis and innovation in ceramics have been identified across the Middle East and Central Asia most of these studies have come from the analysis of collections primarily from a single site or small sample of a specific type of ceramic. One approach to the examination of the origins of innovation in ceramic technology in Mesopotamia has been to look at paste and glaze technologies together (Mason 1994; Hallett 1999; Hill et al. 2004; Hill 2006). These studies not only examine ceramics from single localities but include analysis of raw materials, kiln furniture and operate under a regional perspective. Such a project was undertaken by the author to examine glazed ceramics from the Parthian, Sasanian and Islamic periods recovered from the Deh Luran Plain, located in southwestern Iran.

The Deh Luran project is unique in that the ceramic data are derived from an extensive archaeological survey collection rather than the excavation of a particular site. The Deh Luran collection of Parthian, Sasanian and Islamic glazed ceramics was derived from ninety-four archaeological sites primarily residential in nature. Chronological control over the ceramics was based on comparison with previously published ceramic assemblages, dating from associated coin finds and a series of optically stimulated luminescence dates of ceramics of commonly recovered types and paste compositions. The sample of ceramics from the Deh Luran Plain allowed for an examination of change through time in the types of pottery, their sources and the technology of their glazes (Hill et al. 2004; Hill 2006; Hill and Fenn 2014).

Based on instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA) of 375 glaze-decorated ceramics dating to the Parthian, Sasanian and Islamic Periods from the Deh Luran Plain were produced at one of two locations. One source identified through statistical comparison of the Deh Luran INAA sample with data from a previous neutron activation study of kiln wasters, splash glazes and early lusterware dating to the Early Islamic Period collected from near Basra, Iraq (Hallett 1999). Petrographic analysis of glazed ceramics from the Deh Luran assigned to the Basra source through INAA were compared with previous petrographic studies of splash glazes and early lusterware (Hallett 1999; Mason 1994). In addition to a variety of monochrome glazes, early splash glazes, lusterware and early majolica shared a common ceramic paste with glazed ceramics that had been assigned previously to the “Basra Petrofabric” (Keblow-Bernsted 2003; Mason 1994, Mason and Keall 1991). The Basra petrofabric is characterized primarily by a light-gray to light yellow silty paste containing a sparse amount of rounded quartz grains. As the results of these various studies it was determined that Basra had been a source of glazed ceramics since at least the Parthian Period and extending into the Early Islamic Period. Glaze-decorated ceramics ceased to have been produced in any quantity or exported after the ninth century.

A second source of glazed ceramics was identified through INAA and thin section petrography. The paste of these sherds has a light reddish brown color containing sediments that include fragments of volcanic and metamorphic rocks and mineral grains derived from these rock types. These ceramics had been previously classified as the “Siraf 4 petrofabric" (Mason 1994:48). The source of this material was not identified. Comparison with the published geological literature at suggests a source of these ceramics in northern Iraq (Dunnington 1958). Recent on-going collaboration between the author and Jan Petrik of the Department of Geological Sciences, Masaryk University, Czech Republic suggests that this group of glazed ceramics were produced in or near Arbil, Iraq. One under-glaze blue sherd with this fabric produced an optically stimulated luminescence date of 1750+/-100 AD (OxL-1348). However, typologically earlier grazed ceramics with the Siraf 4 petropabric were also discovered during the course of the INAA and petrographic studies. Based on typological and compositional studies of ceramics containing volcanic and metamorphic rock fragments in a reddish brown paste indicate that this source produced glaze ceramics beginning in the Sasanian Period lasting into the Safavid or early Qajar Dynasties.

The third most common body composition that was identified in the Deh Luran collection using INAA and thin section petrography is characterized by a light buff silty paste with sparse quartz inclusions. This fabric was confined to examples of Splash-glazed sgraffiato. The origin of this tenth century type has not been identified.

Other glazed ceramics were recovered from the Deh Luran Plain. The few Achaemenid sherds observed in the Deh Luran collection could not be analyzed due to extensive weathering of the glaze surface. Also glaze-decorated ceramics dating after the tenth century were very uncommon in the Deh Luran ceramic collections with few locations producing more than a single sherd.

Based on the identification of only two different paste groups from the Parthian, Sasanian and Early Islamic Periods indicates that the production of glaze ceramics was a specialized spatially-restricted craft activity in Mesopotamia for centuries. Future analysis of ceramics from sites of this age in Mesopotamia should examine the pastes of the sherds to examine possible patterns of ceramic circulation and trade across the region.

In addition to the paste study glazed ceramics from the Deh Luran Plain the glazes were examined by electron microprobe and laser ablating inductively coupled mass spectroscopy (LA-ICP-MS). The same ceramics that had pastes characterized by INAA were also analyzed using LA-ICP-MS. The glazes were classified into three composition groups. The low-lead group contains less than one percent lead. It is assumed that the lead present in these otherwise alkaline-based glazes was the result of contamination from the use of recycled metals used as glaze colorants. An intermediate group of “moderate-lead” glazes was identified during this study. The moderate-lead glazes represent the addition of small amounts of lead to an otherwise alkaline-based glaze to enhance the spread and reflectance of the glaze. Moderate and low-lead glaze glazes were used by potters in Basra and northern Iraq from the Parthian and Sasanian Periods. Both glaze recipes continued to be used during the early Islamic Period. However, lead-based glazes, glazes that contain over twenty percent lead appear during the early Islamic Period. Interestingly splash-glazes dating to the early Islamic Period were made using either tin-opacified glazes or low-lead alkaline glazes confirming the results of a previous study (Mason and Tite 1997). The microprobe study indicates that the use of lead glazes decreased the fusion temperature of the glaze relative to low-lead alkaline glazes by as much as 200 degrees centigrade. Such a technological innovation would have decreased the amount of fuel needed to produce glazed ceramics.

After 900 AD the technology of lead-based glazes spreads across the Islamic world. However, alkaline-based glazes continue to be produced in some places in Iran and in Central Asia (Henshaw 2006). With the decline in the production of glaze-decorated ceramics at Basra glaze decorated ceramics are produced in Egypt and in Central Asia, predominately at Samarkand and Nishapur (Wilkinson 1973). The Central Asian glazed ceramics are readily identified by their decorative focus on calligraphy or figurative design. Early examples of the calligraphic style are executed in black on a white background. While there are compositional differences in glazed ceramics from Nishipur and Samakand (Mason 1994:185) it likely that additional sources of glazed ceramics from Central Asia can be identified (see Henshaw 2006). The proposed al-Mansurah project in part will help to differentiate some of the ceramic sources.

Al-Mansurah is an appropriate place to test the results of the technological studies conducted during the Deh Luran study. Al-Mansurah was founded as an Arab city before Baghdad. Al-Mansurah was founded between 728 and 737 AD (Rajput n.d.). The city was occupied continuously into the Fatimad dynasty ca. 1171 AD. While al-Mansurah remained in contact with its Mesopotamian homeland it also participated in regional exchange that brought ceramics from across the Islamic world to this site. Consequently, the artifact assemblage from al-Mansurah contains glaze-decorated ceramics that continuously spans over four hundred years. The long continuous occupation span of the site makes analysis of ceramics from al-Mansurah an ideal archaeological site to examine technological and stylistic change not just in Mesopotamian but Central Asian glaze-decorated ceramics as well.

Glaze-decorated ceramics for material analysis will be selected based on their typological distinction and temporal placement. Multiple samples of the same types will be analyzed to characterize the variation with different typological classes. When possible, comparative ceramics from other locations will be procured to aid in the identification of the locations of sources of different ceramics.

The paste and glaze of the glazed ceramics will be analyzed. The paste of glaze ceramics will be subject to INAA. The different composition groups identified through INAA will be independently confirmed through thin section petrography drawn from the INAA sample. This method will yield replicable data for the characterization of the different types of glazed pottery recovered. While it is recognized that different decorative treatments may have been applied to the same ceramic paste be analyzing a large enough sample of sherds we will be able to address stylistic change within chronologically relevant, closely related groups of ceramics with similar techniques of productions.

The glazes of the same sherds analyzed by INAA will be characterized by LA-ICP-MS. This technique will identify the composition of the glaze used. This technique will also identify the colorant used to color the glaze. LA-ICP-MS will also be used to identify the types of colorants used to decorate the ceramics. Data from the LA-ICP-MS study will also be used to estimate firing temperatures of the different types of ceramics examined.

Lead-based glazed ceramics will be examined through stable lead isotope analysis. This technique will reveal potential source of lead used to fabricate the ceramic glazes. As a component of this work samples of lead from various deposits in Iran and Central Asia will also be analyzed for the purpose of comparison with the lead glazes.

Cobalt is the latest component of ceramic glazes to be able to be differentiated between sources (Zhu et al. 2015). Cobalt was used as a glaze colorant contemporaneously in both the Near East and China. As with the lead study samples of cobalt will be obtained from known cobalt sources in Iran and Central Asia for comparative purposes.

The proposed study of early Islamic glazed ceramics from al-Mansurah will make a substantive contribution to identifying the origin of those ceramics in Mesopotamia and Central Asia. Through understanding how different decorative technologies were created and spread, it will be possible to reconstruct a technological history of Islamic ceramics. It will also develop an analytical protocol for conducting such studies elsewhere along the “Silk Road” where such ceramics were traded and transported. In addition the present study aims to provide research results with significant databases for identification of the provenance: the origins of the raw materials and the sources of production of a large but highly significant body of glazed and ceramics in various public and museum without verifiable archaeological contexts (Watson 2004, 11–20).

References Cited

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1958 Generation, Migration, Accumulation and Dissipation of Oil in Northern Iraq. In Habitat for Oil, edited by L. G. Weeks, pp. 1194-1251. American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa.

Hallett, J. R.
1999 Trade and Innovation: The Rise of the Pottery in Abbasid Basra. Unpublished PhD thesis, Oxford University.

Henshaw, C. M.
2006 Early Islamic Ceramics and Glazes of Akhsiket, Uzbekistan. Unpublished PhD thesis, University College, London.

Hill, D. V.
2006 The Materials and Technology of Glazed Ceramics from the Deh Luran Plain, Southwestern Iran: A Study in Innovation. BAR International Series 1511. London.

Hill, David V. and Thomas Fenn
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Hill, D. V., R. J. Speakman, and M. D. Glascock
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Mason, R. B.
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Zhu, Tiequan, X. Ding, C. M. Kusimba, and Z. Feng
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1 Pending further research to determine as to whether or not the technique of inscribing with brush on pottery and glazed ceramics has originated from China where some of the earliest epigraphic ceramic vessels (with archaeological contexts) can be found dating back as early as Tang Dynasty.