From the collections: A broken Islamic bowl (John Ericson)

Among the ceramics in the Joukowsky’s collection is a mostly complete bowl—the entire base and roughly two-thirds of the sides remaining. The bowl is glazed beige with brown details. The inside bottom contains the most complex design. Many spirals about a centimeter in diameter cover the majority of the bottom. Two opposing wisp shapes are left uncovered, and, extrapolating as a little of the original work has been lost to corrosion, 6 disks a little bigger than the spirals are filled in. The design on the inside bottom is roughly radially symmetric, i.e. every slice along the diameter is symmetric with respect to the origin.

Working up the inside from the bottom of the bowl, there are four bands. The first a centimeter or less—the width is uneven as one goes around—band of the unadorned beige, then two centimeters of fully filled in brown accent, another more even centimeter of plain beige, and finally another slightly thinner band of brown. Above that is what appears to be an Arabic inscription topped with more centimeter-diameter spirals, but about half of the glyphs are corroded away, and only a few spirals are visible. The rest is completely corroded until the top rim, where either the brown accents and underlying beige coat completely wore away, or there was never any glaze to begin with.

The outside of the bowl is much more corroded than the inside, but seems to have been less detailed anyways. Starting from the rim, we have mostly corrosion again, but from what remains it seems most of the visible outside of the bowl was covered with three–four centimeter-diameter spirals. Near the bottom is one brown one–two centimeter brown ring like the inside. Finally the bottom itself perched on two–three centimeter base. Almost all of the base and bottom of the bowl is just glazed plain beige, but interestingly where the inside of the base meets the bottom of the bowl is one last one-centimeter wide brown ring.

I use the word “corroded” because the ceramic is an example of what has been termed lusterware. Lusterware refers to ceramics made iridescent via a fine coat of metalic pigment on top of the glaze. In a second, low-temperature firing, the glaze softens and absorbs the grains of metal, which then give the ceramic it’s characteristic luster [1]. Lusterware is usually thought to have emerged as a glass making technique in ninth-century Egypt, and been adapted from glass to glaze (and thus ceramics) the following century in Southern Iraq. In the case of this bowl, the beige is the original glaze coat, while the brown is the application of the second metallic coat.

In the tenth and eleventh century Fatimid Egypt became the first major center for lusterware production, and with that material record does this piece in particular best fit. A very close match is undoubtedly a bowl, 14923 at The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. In that piece’s description from the Qantara Mediterranean Heritage project, very similar spiral motifs are identified as ocelli, literally “eyelets” but in this case a motivic representation of the eyes of peacock feathers, which the author asserts is “present on contemporary works” [2]. Furthermore, in that piece and another the author mentions, the “motifs [ocelli] are separated from ground with a white border” [2]. Here the ocelli on the inside bottom, and especially the ocelli near the text, is separated exactly the same way.

Given the difficulty in producing lusterware, and novelty of the technique during this time, it is inevitable that this bowl was a luxury good only available to the economic elite. The presence of the brown band on the inside of the the base, a part of the bowl almost never visible unless it is placed upside-down, attests to an attention of detail even in places where it probably would not have been appreciated. It is an excellent testament to the production of luxury ceramics in Fatimid Egypt, and the spread of technology throughout the Islamic realm.

[1] F, V. (n.d.). Lustre. Qantara Medeterranian Heritage. Qantara, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.
[2] Dish with Female Rebab Player. (n.d.). Qantara Medeterranian Heritage. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.qantara-med.