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Photo: Joachim Rotteveel

Sgraffito - The Middle East

Before the middle of the 9th century, ‘lead-glazed splashed wares’ with splashes in green, brown and yellow started to get produced in the Middle East, which recall the mottled decoration of Chinese ceramics of the contemporary Tang period (AD 618-907). There is a nice story of imprisoned Chinese potters introducing the art of Chinese pottery manufacture in the Islamic World. However, this is not sure. The Chinese-Islamic connection might be coincidental, because Tang mottled earthenware mostly seems to have been used in China for funerary purposes and not for export. One must, therefore, take into account with the possibility of an indigenous invention developed by Islamic potters in Syria, Iraq or Iran. It remains unclear what came first and who inspired whom, as it is often difficult in excavations to distinguish Chinese from Islamic products.

From the 10th century onwards, the lead-glazed splashed wares from the Islamic World became lightly incised with a sharp point through the green, brown and yellow splashes and underlying white slip coating (A 3547). This would leave a dark incised line of the clay body on the white background; hence the oldest known Sgraffito Ware was created. The splashed colours in the transparent glaze relate only in a general way to the incised abstract designs, which were first simple scrolls but later included more elaborate designs (such as animals, or eagles with spread wings). The incised technique spread east and west across the Islamic world. Lead-glazed Splashed Wares with a sgraffito decoration were especially found in Iran, Iraq and Syria, but were less common in Palestine and Egypt.

In the 11th century, new types of sgraffito wares were developed in the northern and north-western mountainous parts of Iran and neighbouring regions (e.g., Azerbaijan and Georgia), as soon as the pottery craft began to decline in older Iranian production centres (e.g., Nishapur and Samarqand). The designs on these new wares often were influenced by Zoroastrian motifs and by metalwork from the preceding Sasanian Empire in Iran. In addition, they showed a more controlled use of colour and of incised decoration.

The three main sgraffito types from these new pottery centres in north-western Iran were firstly ‘plain incised ware’ from the Amol region in Mazanderan with simple incised designs (often fantastic animals or birds, as well as scrollwork and epigraphic designs) under a transparent yellow glaze; secondly, ‘Garrus Ware’ (named after a district in north-western Iran, but also called ‘Gabri Ware’ ) with decoration of floral designs, animals and human figures in champlevé-technique carved through a thick white slip (A 3895 and B 53); and finally, ‘Aghkand Ware’ (attributed to a north-western Iranian town with this name) with polychrome designs of birds, hares and other animals in green, brown and yellow outlined with incised lines, a technique derived from metal-working (also known as cloisonné). A variety of sgraffito wares of similar character, as the three pottery types mentioned above, started to get produced in Syria, Egypt and in the Byzantine World in the following centuries, taking an old tradition into more western areas.