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Pottery of the Islamic
Period on the Karak Plateau

Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP

Marcus Milwright

POTTERY OF THE ISLAMIC PERIOD ON THE KARAK PLATEAU

Note: Use this map to make yourself familiar with the places mentioned in this section. A glossary of technical terms used in the discussion of Islamic pottery is provided at the end of this section.

Introduction

Why is pottery important? The study of pottery is a key discipline in the archaeological investigation of the Middle East. Ceramic sherds are amongst the most common finds on excavations and field surveys. The ubiquitous presence of pottery can be attributed to a number of factors: first, the materials needed to make pottery are generally cheap and readily available; second, pots are easily broken; third, unlike organic materials such as textiles or leather and inorganic materials like metal, pottery sherds are not prone to decay in the soil; and fourth, unlike metal or glass, baked ceramic cannot be melted down or recycled. Thus, of all forms of manufactured artefact, it is pottery that is most commonly found. The shapes of vessel and the modes of decoration change through time, and so pottery can be used to understand the periods during which a site was occupied. In addition, pottery was traded (either for itself or because it was used as a container for other products such as wine or oil), and so the presence of imported objects on a site can tell us about the way in which the inhabitants of the site were involved in trade with other regions.

Click to see enlarged versionIslamic pottery and archaeology. The issues outlined above are relevant to the study of archaeological pottery from all pre-Historic and Historic periods. The same concerns can also be applied to the study of the ceramics of the Islamic period (a period from the seventh century C.E. to the present day), although other issues also need to be considered. Perhaps the most important issue is the disparity between what is considered to be “Islamic pottery” by archaeologists and art historians. If you visit many of the major museums in USA, Europe and the Middle East, or read most of the general guides to Islamic pottery, you will encounter examples of glazed and decorated vessels produced in different regions of the Islamic world from the ninth to the nineteenth century. The quality and the range of techniques employed in the manufacture of such pottery has, quite rightly, led art historians and collectors to regard the Islamic period as one of the most important in the development of fine glazed ceramics. It is important to recognize, however, that these decorated objects were only a tiny proportion of the total amount of pottery produced. The vast majority were much simpler unglazed wheel thrown vessels meant to perform a wide range of functional tasks. This situation is vividly described by a fifteenth-century Egyptian historian, Maqrizi. Discussing the Egyptian capital of Cairo, he remarks:

They said that the rubbish that was thrown into the rubbish heaps of Cairo each day was worth a thousand gold coins (Arabic: dīnār). They were referring to the utensils used by milk merchants, the cheese dealers and the food tradesmen. These are red clay bowls into which milk and cheese are put, or in which the poor eat their food in the cook shops.

We must be aware, therefore, that the beautifully decorated glazed pottery seen today in museums was made largely for the wealthier social groups in the cities and towns of the Islamic world. As we will see, the specialized products of the urban centers of the Middle East did find their way in small numbers on the Karak plateau, but the archaeologist working in this region, and other parts of southern Jordan, has to spend much more time looking at more humble unglazed or monochrome glazed sherds. Throughout the Islamic period, the Karak plateau was a predominantly rural area and this fact is reflected in the types of pottery found there.

 

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