Glazed Bowls of the 11th–12th Centuries from Ferghana

Issue #3 • 1400

Among the medieval historical and cultural regions of Uzbekistan Ferghana holds a special place. The 10th century traveller Al-Muqaddasi mentions the export of white textiles, arms (swords, armour), copper and iron from Ferghana. Gold, silver, mercury, and other metals were mined here. A rich source of raw materials contributed to the development of different crafts, specifically pottery. Major centres producing glazed ceramics were the medieval cities of Akhsikath and Quba; archaeological excavations carried out there in different times helped us to discover and study the production of these centres.

This publication presents several rare forms of ceramics preserved intact – the evidence of diversity and originality of the Ferghana Valley ceramics from the Karakhanid period. These are the items with painting on the slip, covered with transparent lead-based glaze. The bowls were found at Eski-Akhsi archaeological site – the medieval Akhsikath, the capital city of Ferghana in the 9th–10th centuries; in the 11th–12th centuries, after the capital had been moved to Uzgend, it remained a major economic and cultural centre.

One of the popular ornamental motifs in glazed ceramics of Mawara al-nahr, a whirl, features on two of the vessels presented in this publication. The ancient symbol of perpetual motion, the whirl or a whirling rosette appears on glazed ceramics in the 10th century, becoming most popular in the 11th century. In the second half and the late 11th century, peculiar variations of this motif, typical for the region, began to appear Ferghana. A bowl with gently sloping walls and a low rim (Fig. 1) is decorated with polychrome painting in olive, ochre-red and black colours on a white engobe under transparent glaze. The rim diameter is 36 cm. The whirling rosette with petals bent to the left is placed at the centre of the composition and surrounded by several concentric bands in red and olive, and a band of pseudo-inscription. Along the edge of the bowl there is another band of imitated Kufic inscription, with dots and specks (1, p. 155).

The second vessel from Akhsikath is a bowl 22 cm in diameter (Fig. 2) – a remarkable example of creative approach to the development of the whirling rosette motif. The bottom is decorated with a complex triple rosette, the centre of which is a conventional image of a flower painted in black, olive and white colours; it is surrounded by an ochre-red rosette with black outline and white veins, and petals traditionally bent to the left; this one, in turn, is surrounded by an olive-green rosette with petals pointing in the opposite direction. Along the middle of the vessel walls there runs a pseudo-inscription band in brown, and the rim is decorated with dented border in olive (1, p. 155; 2, p. 215, fig. 1: 6). Similar rosettes were found in the Quva site (3, p. 102, fig. 8: 1). This may suggest that this ornamental style was common to the Ferghana school of glazed ceramics of the Karakhanid period characterized by the fact that in the second half of the 11th century, as we can see, the whirling rosette motif is getting more complex. It starts looking more like a flower with tightly closed petals with tips bent slightly to the left. Multi-beam rosettes are polychrome: petals-beams are outlined with black or dark-brown colour, while the petals are painted ochre-red or olive green, with white paint showing the axis of each petal; petal tips are sometimes marked with a white speck. Also, a rosette is surrounded by a concentric band of pseudo-epigraphic ornament, separated from the rosette by an empty field or a red ring with white specks. Thus, the reviewed motif can be considered one of the hallmarks of the 11th century Ferghana ceramics.

In his studies of glazed ceramics of Mawara al-nahr, Dj. K. Mirzaahmedov notes that its features characteristic of the late 11th and mid 12th p. 189). In this regard, of particular interest are some of the Akhsikath vessels, which may date to this period, discussed below.

A bowl 30.5 cm in diameter, discovered by archaeologist I.A. Akhrarov during excavations, is decorated with underglaze painting in olive-green, brown and pink (Fig. 3). In the centre there is an ornamental element that resembles a stylized two-handed vase or a graceful flower bud. It is surrounded by a continuous strip of epigraphic ornament, in which one may recognize its prototype – Arabic writing in Kufi script. Another bowl, also discovered by Akhrarov (Fig. 4), is painted in olive green, brown and red. Its diameter is 31.5 cm. In the centre of the vessel, inside a double circle, there is a symbol of perpetual motion – the swastika, with tips decorated with fan-like blades. Between them are vague brown lines – perhaps, a crude imitation of an inscription. Radiating from the centre are four leaf-like shapes with large specks inside and strokes on the sides; between them are half-palmettes with curved swirls. Two bands run along the rim of the bowl: a solid narrow one right along the rim, and a wider one, with slanted notches, below. Fan-shaped elements became popular in the 11th century Ferghana ceramics; less frequently these can also be found on the items from Shash and Sogdiana.

Another bowl (Fig. 5) is richly ornamented with a design completely covering its surface. Olive and brown paints were used. In the centre there is an eight-petal rosette surrounded by a ring of triae. Around it there are nine “palm leaves” alternating with V-shape designs representing stylized flower bouquet. This is an example of a splendid Ferghana product of the 11th–12th centuries, with ornamentation combining elements used in decorating ceramics of other stylistic groups of earlier period. Six- and eight-petal rosettes (originating from metalwork) with vegetable volutes painted inside the petals are also found on other Akhsikath vessels, as well as in Shash (5, p. 237, fig. 6: 4). The “palm leaf” element features on the Akhsikath ceramics in a few other composition types; for example, in combination with floral rosettes. Some researchers date the appearance of the palm leaf motif to the early 12th century (6, p. 170). However, the ornamentation of a bowl found in Akhsikath (7, pp. 221, 222, Fig. 2) testifies in favour of an earlier date: in the bowl design this element alternates with half-palmettes, which, apparently, represent the tips of stylized letters. This kind of inscriptions (or imitation thereof) is known from the ornamentation of an 11th century conic bowl from Tashkent (8, Fig. 36: 2, 4). It may be that the Akhsikath master combined the motif borrowed from imported Shash bowls with the palm leaf design popular in Ferghana.

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