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Basra's Inventive Potters Volume 58 Number 2, March/April 2005
by Roger Atwood

[image] Two earthenware pieces from 9th-10th century Basra show colors, imagery, and techniques developed by local potters. (Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery) [LARGER IMAGE]

In the ninth century, pottery makers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra developed bold decorative techniques that would change the look of ceramics forever. They invented cobalt glazes and luster-firing (the latter probably by accident), which gave their pottery an iridescent metallic sheen, and then proudly signed their work. Basra was at the cutting edge of ceramic technology for about 160 years.

The city was the hub of a vast maritime trading network that carried Iraq's wares as far as Portugal, Madagascar, and Japan. With the exhibit "Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade, and Innovation," Washington D.C.'s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery has put together a small but intriguing show about the role of commerce in the spread of ceramic technology, the influence of Iraqi pottery around the world, and its debt to the Chinese. The objects (there are only about 60, mostly discovered in Basra) give an unmistakable impression of wealth, prosperity, and self-confidence.

While much of Europe languished in feudal isolation, traders from the Near East ventured all over the Indian Ocean and beyond, trading bowls and storage jars for spices, tea, textiles, and other goods. Particularly enamored of ceramics imported from China, Iraqi artists often took these pottery forms and decorated them with Iraqi motifs such as stylized palm fronds or simple inscriptions. Improvising with local materials, they glazed them with innovative colors like cherry red, burnt gold, or cobalt blue. One of the most striking pieces is a large, Basra-made ninth-century jar glazed in vibrant teal that likely contained rosewater or date syrup. Iraqi innovations eventually found their way back to China; the blue-and-white porcelain long associated with that country actually has its origins in the Near East, where cobalt-blue pigment was found.

In the tenth century, the Baghdad-based Abbasid Empire collapsed under the weight of civil war and political strife. The center of Islamic power shifted to Cairo, and the master potters of Basra went with it, taking their closely guarded trade secrets. Their techniques died out in Iraq but, as the exhibit shows, spread across Asia and Europe. "Iraq and China" runs through April 24.

Roger Atwood is an archaeology journalist and author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America