Persian Pottery in Iran
Prominent archeologist Roman Girshman said, "The taste and talent of these people [Iranians] can be seen through the designs of their earthenware.
Of the thousands of archeological sites and historical ruins of Iran, almost every one of them can be found to have been filed, at some point, with earthenware of exceptional quality. Thousands of unique vessels alone were found in Sialk and Jiroft sites. The occupation of the potter (kouzehgar) has a special place in Persian literature. No art is known to have been practice so continuously on the plateau- examples of which have been unearthed from burial mounds (tepehs) from the 5th millennium BC. The history of the art of pottery in Iran goes back into ancient time. When agriculture came into existence and cultivation started on Iran's plateau by primitive races of this land, people made utensils of baked clay in order to meet their needs. Gradually simple earthenware was decorated with geometric designs. Studying the designs shows us that ancient Iranians were skillful also in designing earthenware and represented their works in a lively and gracious manner. Iran can be called the birthplace of designed earthenware utensils. Designing earthenware in Iran started about 4000 BC. Earthenware of those times had been baked more carefully in newly made kilns. Shapes and forms of these been baked more carefully in newly made kilns. Shapes and forms of these potteries indicated invention of the pottery- rotaing instrument may be of that time. Artists produced a variety of utensils like piped pots, bowls and jars to store corn and grain. Among excavated potteries belonging to those eras, some primitive earthen statues in the form of animals and birds have also been found which presumably had ornamental value more than anything else.
One of the earliest known and excavated prehistoric sites that produced pottery is Gani Darreh Tappeh in the Kermanshah region, dating back to the 8 th millennium BCE. Another great discovery was made south of the Caspian Sea in a cave, in the so- called Kamarband, (Belt cave) near the city of Behshahr. Here again the pottery finds date to 8000 BCE. This type of pottery is known to experts as the "Kamarband Neolithic potter". This pottery was fired at a low temperature, and its body is very soft. Not far from the above- mentioned cave there was another, called Huto. The pottery there, from a technical point of view, shows similarities to that of Cheshmeh Ali in Ray, near Tehran.
The second phase of development in pottery making in Iran is represented by the wares that were discovered at Chesmeh Ali, Tappeh Sialk near Kashan and at Zagheh in the Qazvin plain. The pottery of these centers is different from that of the earlier periods. Their paste is a mixture of caly, straw and small pieces of various plants, which can be found and collected in the desert. When mixed with water they stick well together and form a very hard paste. All these vessels were made by hand rather than on a wheel. As the potters were unable to control the temperature of the kilns, there was no stable color for these wares. It varied from grey and dark grey to black, occasionally even appearing with a greenish color. The type of vessels produced was limited, mainly bowls with concave bases and globular bodies. Their surfaces were painted mostly in red depictin geometrical patterns. The date of these wares is ca. the 6th millennium BCE.
In the subsequent periods pottery making became more and more refined Although the wheel still had not been introcuced, the shapes of the vessels became somewhat more varied and more carefully executed. The temperature in the kilns was better controlled and the decoration of the vessels now included animals and stylized floral designs. Numerous ecamples of these have been unearthed at Sialk. To achieve a finer paste, the potters added fine sand-powder to the mixture that has already been mentioned. Thus they were able to produce vessels with a very thin body.
With the invention and the introduction of the potter's wheel, ca. the 4th millennium BCE, it became possible to produce better quality and symmetrically shaped vessels; the decoration of these objects was with much greater care and artistic skill, and the designs used were greatly enriched and carefully selected. By that time this more advanced type of pottery was produced in several parts of Iran. Thus it reveals the close economic and cultural ties that must have existed then amongst prehistoric communities. Ideas, techniques and artistic trends must have travelled great distances and were freely exchanged. A good example to demonstrate this connection is the pottery types that were unearthed at Tappeh Qarbrestan in the Qazvin plain, which is comparable to those from Sialk and Tappeh Hessar near Damghan, all of the same period. The location of these three places forms a kind of triangle. One may presume that further archaeological work will produce more evidence for the close ties that existed amongst these communities.
Around the 2 nd millennium BCE in most parts of Iran we have evidence of local pottery manufacture. The vessels usually consists of bowls, pitchers, jugs, and jars. Most of these wares are simple, without any surface decorations. The color of these wares varies from grey to dark grey, red to buff. Some of these have buff. Some of these have burnished surfaces and are decorated with geometrical patterns. The most beautiful wares of that period, however, are the zoomorphic vessels (humped bulls, camels, rams, etc.) or human figurines, which were mainly discovered in the Gilan region (Marlik, Amlash and Kaluraz). The zoomorphic vessels and vessels, used in everyday life, while others, probably more important, were used in religious ceremonies or in burials. Quite a wide variety of shapes are known today. Their actual function may be determined by the shape of the vessels and by the gesture of the figurines. The manufacture of these zoomorphic vessels and figurines continued until the middle of the 1 st millennium BCE.
Median and Achaemenid Dynastic Periods (728-330 BCE)
Our knowledge of Median pottery is rather limited. Recent excavations, however, particularly at one of the most important Median sites, Tappeh Nush-j Jan near Malayer, produced a great variety of vessels. These are still under study and examination. It is hoped in the near future a great deal can be learnt about the pottery of that important period. At other deal can be learnt about the pottery of that important period. At other sites, e.g. Bisotun, in several places in Gilan and Kordestan provinces have also been recovered. Recent excavations at the site of Ziwiyeh conducted by the Iranian Centre for Archaeological Research produced a good sampling Median pottery. One of the most important innovations in ceramic technology appeared during the Median period, i.e. the introduction of glazed ware, although the earliest evidence for the use of glaze on bricks the discovery of glazed bricks in the Elamite temple at Chogha Zanbil, dated to the 13th century BCE.
With the coming of the Achaemenid Dynasty in the 6th century BCE great advances were made in pottery manufacture. The simple ware became more popular and widespread. It was nevertheless in the finer wares that progress is most noticeable. New shapes were introduced, e.g. the rhyton. The surfaces were now decorated with incised and molded designs. Certain prehistoric traditions have survived and continued. This designs. Certain prehistoric traditions have survived and continued. This is perhaps best observed in the application of animal figurines. These are attached to the handles of jars and rhytons. It is widely accepted that these figurines had iconographic significance.
Shapes and decorations of Achaemenid pottery disclose close connections between pottery- making and metalworking. Frequently metal shapes and decorations are produced, and one may add, successfully, in pottery. It is during the Achaemenid dynastic period that glazing was introduced generally into Iranian plateau. Excavtions at Persepolis and Susa revealed that the walls of palaces were coverd with glazed bricks, which included elaborate decorations, depicting animals and soldiers. The practice of glazing must have been introduced from Mesopotamia.
Parthian Dynastic Period (248 BCE- 224)
Until quite recently information on the arts of the Parthian period was rather meager. At the time when the late Professor Arthur Upham Pope and his team were collecting material for the 'Survey of Persian Art', hardly and Parthian site was known and none was excavated. It was only during the last fifty or sixty years that a few extremely important Parthian sites were investigated by archacologists. Some of these are beyond the present borders of Iran, e.g. Nisa, the former Parthian capital in Central Asia, or Dura- Europos in Syria. More recently in Iran a number of Parthian sites have been located and are, at present, under excavation. These sites are Kangavar, Sharh-e Qumis, Valiran, Ecbatana and several sites in the Gorgan plain, in Gilan and Sistan.
From these new archaeological discoveries we have learnt a great deal about Parthian art and Parthian pottery. In a recent study it has been pointed out that pottery was not the same throughout the Parthian Empire and the wares of Iran proper were different from those of Syria and Mesopotamia. Even in this area several differences are recognizable. In general, Parthian pottery can be divided into two major groups: unglazed and glazed wares. The unglazed wares can be further subdivided into two categories: namely grey and red wares. The grey pottery consists of bowls, small cups and large jars, all with convex bases and without any surface decoration. Som of them, nevertheless, have a polished body. The red ware, which was perhaps the most popular, also included large jars, bowls and jugs, similar in shape to those of the grey wares. They have everted rims. Under the red ware another type, the so-called "clinky ware" should be mentioned. This ware has a very fine thin body, which is red outside, and dark grey inside; when tapped it gives a clinking sound, hence its name.
It also should be noted that zoomorphic vessels, in the shape of rhytons, were still very popular in Parthian times. These were made both in grey and in red, occasionally even in buff earthenware. One of the greatest achievements in pottery- making during this period was the introduction of alkalin-glazed vessels. The body of these glazed wares was a fine white past on which the alkaline glaze could be easily applied. Two of the most common types of vessels in this group were the "pilgrim flask", and large bowls. The latter usually rest on three or four short legs. These types of vessels may have been produced under Far Eastern influence, since their forms recall contemporary Chinese bronzes.
In addition to glazing, most of these Parthian glazed vessels reveal some kind of surface decoration, mostly simple incised lines or strokes. Another, rather important, group of Parthian glazed pottery were the large coffins which became widely used at the period due to a change in religious beliefs concerning burial.
Sasanian Dynastic Period (224-651 CE)
In general it could be stated that Sasanian pottery is, strictly speaking, a continuation of Parthian traditions, with two exceptions; the grey ware was practically discontinued, as were the glazed coffins, since Zoroastrian burial customs were re- introduced. Sasanian pottery thus can be subdivided into two major groups: unglazed and glazed wares. The unglazed wares were mainly of heavily potted red wares. These included large jars, jugs, and various types of bowls. They have thick, everted rims and their surfaces now reveal intricate incised or stamped decorations, including wavy lines, geometrical patterns, rosettes, or occasionally, even Pahlavi inscriptions. The number of these Sasanaian red wares is constantly increasing. They have been discovered at a number of sites, such as Bishapur; Siraf, Kangavar, the Gorgan Plain, Tureng Tepe, Takht-e Soleyman, at Ghubayra near Kerman and Takht-e Abunasar in Fars Province.
Glazed pottery, although the alkaline glaze was still used, has in fact considerably advanced technologically. Instead of the Parthian dark green or brownish- yellow glaze, the most important color now becomes turquoise green, or turquoise blue. This is to be found on a number of pilgrim flasks, bowls and particularly on large storage jars. These storage jars, which and been unearthed at Siraf and also at Ghubayra in late 1970s, in addition to galzing, were also decorated with appliqué patterns, most frequently with cable patterns, which run around the upper part or on the shoulder of the vessels. Terracotta figurines were also produced in Sasanian times, of which a great variety is known today. Some of these are partially glazed.
The Post- Sassanian and Islamic Period
With the advent of Islam during the first half of the 7th century CE, pottery manufacture gradually started to change all over the Islamic world. At the beginning Iranian potters continued their pre-Islamic traditions and in Iran some of these early wares are known as "Sassano-Islamic". It has been suggested that due to contact with the Far East, particularly with Chian, on one hand and to the restrictions of orthodox Islam on the other, considerable changes gradually took place in pottery- making, and several new types of wares were produced. Potters of the Near East made several experiments, partly imitating imported Chinese ceramics, partly using their own skill and imagination in inventing new types.
In general the history of Iranian – Islamic pottery can be divided into three main periods: Post- Sassanian or Early Islamic Period (9 th – 10 th centuries CE), Middle Islamic Period (11 th – 15 th centuries CE) Later Islamic Period (16 th- 19 th centuries CE). In these three periods, which lasted for more than a thousand years, numberous pottery centers were established, which produced innumerable types of wares. Recent excavations in famous Islamic cities, e.g. Samarra, Siraf, Nishapur, Jorjan, Fustat, etc., together with the discovery of pottery kilns at several sites, provide us with considerable information on pottery manufacture in the Islamic world. It is worthwhile to emphasize that in pottery manufacture Iran and the Iranian world was always ahead of the rest of the Islamic world, and it was always Iranian potters who experimented most widely with new types and new ideas.
Early Islamic Period
The most important information on early Islamic pottery was, for a long time, provided by the German excavations at the short-lived early abbasid capital of Samarra. Recently, several other Islamic sites have been investigated and these have considerably altered, and at the same time enriched our knowledge of the subject. In our investigation we are restricting our knowledge of the subject. In our investigation we are restricting our interest to Iran and accordingly, we shall deal only with the pottery of two early Persian dynasties, namely that of the Buyids and the Samanids.
Buyid Dynasty (932-1055 CE)
The most common type of pottery was the so-called "guebri", better known as champleve ware. The decoration of this pottery comes very close to Sassanian metalwork and pottery. This ware, it appears, was produced at Zanjan, Garrus, Amol and Sari. It was actually a kind of Sgraffito technique (the term champleve is actually a metalwork technique and should not be applied for pottery), where the surface of the vessels, which always had a red earthenware body, was covered with thick white slip and the decorations were carved away. The vessels then were coated with transparent green or yellow lead glaze. The decorations of these wares include floral, geometrical or epigraphic designs, and frequently human and animals figures as well.
Samanid Dynasty (819-999 CE)
The Samanids were probably one of the most important Persian dynasties in the eastern part of the Islamic world during the early Islamic period. Their realm included large centers like Samarkand, Bukhara, Marv, Nishapur and Kerman. The most important contribution of Samanid artists to Islamic pottery-making was the invention and perfection of the slip painted ware. These slip-painted wares constitute a great advance in pottery decoration. Normally the pigment runs in the kiln under the lead glaze, as it was practiced in Mesopotamia in early abbasid times on splashed wares. By the introduction of a ground slip and slip pigments, potters could control the designs while in the kiln, and thus were able to produce a great variety of Surface decorations.
Middle Islamic Period (11th – 15th century CE)
Seljuq Dynasty (1037-1194)
At the beginning of the 11th century CE a new dynasty, the Seljuqs came to Iran and unified the country under their ruld. This period under Seljuq rule in Iran lasted for hardly more than one and a half centuries, yet it witnessed great progress in literature, philoshophy, in architecture and in all fields of the Iranian arts. The Seljuqs became great patrons of the arts and their patronage made it possible for Iranian artists to revive their pre-Islamic traditions and develop new techniques in metalwork and in introduction of a new composite white frit material. This new white body made the application of alkaline glaze easir; the actual body of the vessels was considerably thinner, almost translucent. Thus potters and nearly achieved the fineness of imported Chinese Sung porcelain, which potters of the Near East greatly admired. Cities like Ray, Kashan, Jorjan, Under Seljuq patronage the following types of wares were produced in Iranian potters:
• white wares
• Monochrome glazed wares
• Carved or laqabi wares
• Luster-painted wares
• Underglaze- painted wares
• Overglaze- painted, so-called minai and lajvardina wares
Another type, which has to be added to these, is the unglazed ware, which has also gone through considerable changes and refinement.
Il- Khanid Period (1258-1334 CE)
The Mongol invasions of 1220 and 1221 CE devastated large parts of Iran and in particular destroyed cities like Ray, Nishapur and Jorjan which previously were the most important centers of Iranian pottery. Kashan, although likewise destroyed by the Mongols, seemed to have quickly recovered and pottery production continued. Towards the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century CE, however, new pottery centers emerged. One of the these was in the northwest, probably at Takht-e Sulayman, where the Mongol Abaqa Khan (1265-1281 CE) built a palace for himself, which as we habe already seen ws decorated with luster and lajvardina tiles. Takht-I Sulayman, however, must have been connected with another major pottery producing area, namely the Soltanabad district (modern Arak), which included not only the town itself, but also at least another twenty or thirty villages. Further south, Kerman became another center and soon Mashhad pottery appears as well. The pottery of the Il-Khanid period can be divided into the following groups:
• The wares of Kashan
• Soltanabad and Takht-I Sulayman pottery
• The wares of Kerman
• Jorjan wares
• Provincial wares
Timurid Pottery (1370-1502 CE)
In 1393 CE there was another devastating invasion in Iran. This time it was Timur, who came with a large army, conquered the entire country and destroyed many cities, such as Jorjan, Esfahan, Shiraz and Kerman. Timur carried most of the artists away with him to his capial at Samarkand. Thus Samarkand became the center of the Persian arts, particularly of architecture and architectural decoration. The golden age of Timurid art, however, did not start until the reign of shah Rukh (1404-1447 CE). Shah Ruku, himself a calligrapher, became a patron of the Persian arts. Persian miniature painting flourished; beautiful religious buildings were erected all over the Timurid realm. Architectural decoration becomes important at which time the most beautiful and elaborate faience mosaic decoration was made. It is perhaps sufficient to mention the shrine complex, the Shah-e Zendeh in Samarkand, or the Gur-e Amir, timur's mausoleum, the Madrasah of Gauhar Shah in Heart and Mashhad, or perhaps the most famous and best known, Masjid-e Kabud (the Blue Mosque) in Tabriz.
Later Islamic Period (16th- 19th Centuries CE)
Safavid Wares (1502-1722 CE)
The Safavid dynastic period was a renaissance in the history of Iranian pottery, when not only long forgotten Persian techniques were re-introduced, but also when new Persian wares were invented. Thus perhaps it is more logical to consider the rise of the Safavid dynasty as the beginning of a new epoch in the long history of Perso-Islamic pottery. The pottery of this time featured many geometric shapes, such as diamonds, triangles and stars. The Safavids came to power at the beginning of the 16th century CE, and for the first time after more than one thousand years a national and native dynasty, came to power in Iran. The dynasty was founded by Shah Ismail (1502-1524 CE) who united the country under his rule. The Safavid period was a golden age for Iran, particularly for the arts. Mounmental and richly decorated mosques, madrasahs and palaces were built: Iranian metalwork flourished again; carpet weaving gained new impetus and miniature painting reached its apogee during this time. Shah Ismail's successors, Shah Tahmasp I (1524-1576 CE), Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1628 CE) became active patrons of the Persian arts. First the capital was at Tabriz, and later, due to the Ottoman threat, was transferred to Qazvin; at the end of the 16th century ot was moved to Esfahan by Shah Abbas. Iranian Pottery manufaced, due to the different age and requirements, in a new guise. The body of these Safavid wares in now so fine, thin and translucent, that it comes very close to the important Chinese porcelain. It is a kind of faience but much more refined than that of the Persian potteries of Seljuq period. Safavid pottery can be divided into the following types:
• Kubachi wares
• Luster wares
• White or "Gombroon" wares
• Late blue and white wares
• Monochrome and polychrome wares of Kerman
Wares of the Zand and Qajar Periods (1756-1925 CE)
Post- Safavid pottery so far has not been seriously studied, and the available information is scarce and not very reliable. Yet we many presume that after the Afghan invasion of mainland- Iran when the Safavid dynasty was swept away, for a while there was chaos in the country, but pottery production must have continued along the same lines as previously. The change, or rather the decline, was gradual. It is true that even as late as the middle of the 19 th century fine blue and white or white "Gombroon" wares were produced, but in general the quality of pottery deteriorated. With the removal of the capital from Esfahan, first to Shiraz under the Zands, and then to Tehran under the Qajars, the artists themselves moved.
Traces of Zand architectural decoration are visible in the "Majidiyeh Noe" and in other buildings in Shiraz. New colors were introduced, including pale pink. Later, tile production continued in Tehran. These tiles depict human figures in low relief against a dark blue background. Esfahan produced a kind of blue and white ware and an underglaze polychrome- painted ware throughout the 19th century, but the quality of these never reached that of Safavid pottery. A new type of pottery painted in the blue and black with pierced decoration, again the clear glaze filling the small windows, was made in Nayin during the 19th century. Toward the end of the century there was general decline in Iranian pottery manufacture, due mainly to the mass imported and cheaply produced industrial porcelain from Europe and the Far East. This ment the end of artistic pottery production in Iran and it was not revived until early 1970s.
Today, the industrialized ways of producing pottery, ceramic, chinaware, etc. have been innovated and science has helped upgrade the know-how of this field. But, it is not an art anymore. Fortunately, there are some traditional workshops still working and people's interest for these products is growing nowadays. There have been some challenges in Iranian contemporary ceramics and pottery, which mainly arose from insufficient knowledge about new technology and lack of enough knowledge about new techniques, materials, equipment and history of Persian pottery and ceramic. To prevent the annihilation of the pottery and ceramic art and pottery in Iran, some solutions should be considered. The potters should be supported and taught how to produce their artworks for the people's demands. In addition art students in pottery and ceramics field should be well-trained in a universities to face the challenges in Iranian contemporary pottery.