By Leah Saddy
In the UBC CNERS George Fuller Artifact Collection is a Persian Bowl which seems to defy the forms and artistic traditions of Islamic Art. Shallow and rounded, its colour scheme is a mixture of reddish to yellow-brown, white, and blue-green “splotches”. It conforms neither to the bright colours of later Islamic Pottery, or to the delicate browns and yellows of Abbasid Era Islamic Lustreware. Indeed, the colour scheme and design are so unusual, that, when first asked to research the piece, I initially debated the possibility that its origin lay in a glazing or firing mistake. But why would a misfired piece survive virtually intact for a millennium? The outcome is at once both obvious and surprising: the Fuller Collection “Persian Bowl” is not in fact Persian at all, but Tang Dynasty Chinese. And the arrival to that conclusion is a fascinating one spanning centuries of Silk Road trade and several countries.
With no provenance, context, or recognizable features beyond the possibility the bowl was medieval and potentially from the city of Rhages, as was indicated on an accompanying notecard, researching the Persian Bowl initially left me stumped. I decided it had to belong to some little known tradition in Islamic Art, and sent a photo of it around the Middle Eastern side of my family, asking if anyone recognized it. A response surfaced: one family member could recall seeing something similar in the National Museum of Tehran once. Appropriately, the piece had stuck out in his mind for being so unusual in design and colour palette. Further digging in the websites of the Iranian National Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and various auction houses came up with a name: Nishapur Imitation Splashware.
Featuring exquisite “splashes” of pale blues and greens and delicate shades of brown and yellow, Nishapur Imitation Splashware Vessels dating from the ninth and tenth centuries are a mainstay on sites dealing in ancient Persian Antiquities. At the time the city of Nishapur, at the crossroads of Asia as the capital of the endlessly contested province of Khorasan, was one of the greatest centres for pottery production in the Islamic World (today it has just four working pottery shops). The “imitation” proponent of the name of the style, however, remained elusive. Finally one site labelled a piece not as Nishapur, but as “Tang” Imitation Splashware, and for the first time revealed the possibility of a Chinese origin to the piece.
Once I was entertaining the possibility of Chinese origin to the bowl, it was easy to see that the Fuller Collection’s Persian Bowl had very little in common with Splashware of Persian origin. Local potters certainly adopted the technique of the art form, but used it in a completely different way: examples like the piece below, which uses Splashware to create an exquisite floral pattern in bright blues and greens with a distinctly Islamic bent, showed that myself and my colleagues had been correct in the assumption that the piece’s colour palette was entirely alien to the Islamic Artistic tradition.
Furthermore, I could find no equivalent examples for the Persian Bowl’s rounded shape in Nishapur Splashware of Persian origin: the imitations almost invariably used a much more flat-sided elongated shape than the shallow, rounded example in our collection.
A quick glimpse into the conveniently meticulously documented history of Chinese ceramics revealed that the Splashware technique was invented during the Tang dynasty and exported east along the Silk Road, early examples of its presence in the Middle East coming in the form of pot shards and Chinese imitation vessels excavated at Samarra in Iraq. These shards show a close similarity with the green “splashes” on our own piece.
These vessels, and the technique of Splashware glazing itself, belong to the style of Chinese ceramics known as Sancai Ware- which utilised copper, iron and cobalt to achieve a polychrome effect of green, brownish-yellow and blue on a white base. Sancai ware it was. I Google Image searched Polychrome Sancai Ware and was linked to the following image of a Sancai water vessel.
The similarities between the water vessel and the Persian bowl cannot be seen as mere coincidence; the colour schemes are effectively identical.
Finally, the Wikipedia entry on Chinese Influences on Islamic Pottery comments that splashed stoneware from the Changsha kilns in Hunan province has been found at, among other places, Nishapur. Bingo.
Cultural-China’s description of the Changsha kilns is as follows:
“The Changsha Kiln 长沙窑 was first established in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and its site was found in the town of Tongguan in the suburb of Changsha in Central China’s Hunan Province , hence its other name of the Tongguan Kiln 铜官窑.
The kiln prospered at the junction of the late Tang Dynasty and the Five Dynasties (907-960), before gradually declining after the Five Dynasties. The products of the kiln were mainly common house wares like pots and jars. The most prominent achievement of the Changsha Kiln was its invention of underglaze painting technology, which exerted tremendous influences upon the underglaze decoration technologies succeeding it.”
Searching for images of Changsha Kiln wares online closed yet another loophole in the mystery of the Persian Bowl: the bowl’s distinctive shape and base reappeared time and time again on vessels from the kilns, such as this one. I found both bowls with similar bases to the George Fuller piece, and vessels with similar rounded shapes such as this one.
(It should be noted that the George Fuller Persian Bowl has been broken and reassembled, which accounts for its slightly crooked appearance when compared to forms of the two other examples).
I had earlier on in the search made a note of the Belitung Shipwreck, the ninth century wreck of an Arabian Dhow which sank carrying the largest single hoard of Tang ceramics discovered by archaeologists to date. This seemed an appropriate time to re-research the wreck, so I searched for Changsha Wares from the Belitung Dhow, and was linked to the image at the right.
Sadly, these pieces come not from the meticulously excavated Belitung Shipwreck, but from “an unknown wreck” somewhere in Central Vietnam, and eventually surfaced on the illegal antiques market. Nevertheless, these vessels provide a parallel for the Persian Bowl’s unique splashware pattern much as the Sancai Ware Water Pot did for its colour scheme.
The same site comments that: “The overseas consumers preferred the motif on the interior framed by four brown arc-shaped patches on the rim. Whereas for the domestic market, there are no brown patches or the patches substituted by cluster of short vertical lines”. In a related article, Changsha Blue and Copper Red Wares and their Religious Motifs by Lim Yah Chiew, he tells us that: “Abstract geographical pictures are commonly found in Changsha bowls meant for the Arabic market. First, small dots or beads are applied at random and the beads are arranged in circles, squares and lozenges which are typical design found in Persian embroideries or carpets”. Both these articles would seem to support the idea of the Fuller Collection Persian Bowl being manufactured specifically for export to the Arab World.
Glazed and polished, the “Persian Bowl” would have been packed alongside other glaze wares in rice, which was soaked in water and set in a humid place, a packaging process which “glued the ceramics into a solid, unbreakable mass”. Thus too large and bulky to be stolen, it would have been carried across the mountains to the tropical coast, packed aboard ship in a Chinese harbour, and carried across the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. Somehow, between the eighth and the tenth century, the “Persian Bowl” found its way to Persia.
Unfortunately, that is where the account of the Bowl’s travels end. What became of it, where it lay discarded or buried in the up to eleven centuries before it found its way to a market and the George Fuller collection, remain a mystery. A solid argument can be made that it found its way to Nishapur: not only were wares of this sort common enough in the city to be imitated by Persian potters, but since excavations of the city were halted by the outbreak of the Second World War, the ruins of Nishapur have been looted for seven decades and fuelled the world trade in Persian antiques. The city also holds the distinction of “having been destroyed and rebuilt more than any other city in history”, an environment well-suited to the burial and subsequent survival of pottery. It is quite likely but by no means certain that the Persian Bowl (and possibly other items in the collection) may have come came from the environs and looted ruins of Nishapur.
To conclude, I theorise that the Persian Bowl is in fact a Sancai Ware Vessel manufactured in the Changsha Kilns in Hunan for Arab export, sometime between the eighth and the tenth century. It is a sobering comment on the importance of provenance and proper records to the archaeological process that we can know more about this piece’s travels in the ninth century than in the twentieth, but the story of its origins is a fascinating one, and one which fills in an intriguing little mystery in the artifacts of the George Fuller Collection.
Leah Saddy became involved in Stone to Screen shortly after declaring her major in Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at the end of the second year of her undergraduate degree. She works primarily in tracing the origins of artifacts in the George Fuller Collection, and has a particular interest in the expression of cross-cultural interaction in the material culture of the Near East and Central Asia, in both the ancient and medieval periods.