Adrian J. Boas
On an Influence of the East
When many years ago I took part in a team examining the ceramic finds from a certain excavation, we held an internal competition, a joke really, for the finding of the smallest identifiable fragment of pottery, the smallest of what we referred to as an "indicative" find, that is, a piece of pottery that, however tiny it might be, could be satisfactorily identified and dated, to use the legalistic terminology, " beyond a reasonable doubt". I don't recall if there was a winner in this competition, but one of the things that gave the pottery we were dealing with an advantage over a good deal of earlier wares was the frequent presence of glaze on the surface, both on decorated table wares and on cooking pots (since the ninth century cooking pots were covered internally with a lead-based glaze - not perhaps the healthiest of methods for preventing food from sticking to the vessel during cooking, but then, no one at the time was aware of the danger involved in the use of lead). I recall sifting through a tray of pottery sherds and coming across a tiny piece no bigger than the nail of my little finger, smooth and grey with an olive-grey glazed surface. It was flawless and as hard as stone and it was distinct from all the other pieces. It might easily have been mistaken for something modern, but although I had only previously seen complete vessels in museums, I was immediately aware that it was a piece of Celedon ware.*
In Hong Kong this week, on my way to Australia, I was wondering how, as is my custom in this blog, I might tie in this part of the world with a Crusader topic. And then I remembered how influential China was in the medieval Middle East through its products, its silks and spices, and particularly its ceramics, and how indeed the world of Islamic pottery underwent a revolution as a result of import of the porcelain vessels from China and the Korean peninsula that began to reach Egypt in the ninth century. It was not long before potters throughout the Islamic world were attempting to imitate the Chinese imports. The Tang Dynasty "Three Colour Wares" for example were a powerful influence on potters of the Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties. While the Middle Eastern potters lacked sources of kaolin (the fine white clay used to manufacture the Far Eastern porcelain that gave it its hard and smooth, stone-like quality) they were able to make up for this by the beauty, variety and originality of their designs. By the Crusader period, Celedon ware was reaching the Latin East, and some fine pieces have been recovered in Crusader sites (Acre, for example). It is never very common in ceramic assemblages and remained a luxury ware, but well before the time of the Crusades Islamic glazed ceramics were widespread and had evolved into an art form inferior to none.
*The name "Celedon" was not applied to these vessels in China, but is comparatively recent, and the question of its origin is still debated. One theory is that it was a corruption of the name Saladin, and indeed, it is known that after the conquest of Egypt, the Ayyubid sultan had sent forty pieces of this Chinese ware to Nur ad-Din, the ruler of Syria.