Syria or Iran
7th-8th century CE
Materials and technique
Ceramic; earthenware, with carved decoration and painted in a green lead glaze
Height 19 cm
While pilgrim flask shapes can be traced in the pre-Islamic Iranian world to as early as the second millennium BCE (Fehervari 2000, p. 29), flasks covered in glaze date to the later pre-Islamic Parthian (2nd c. BCE - 3rd c. CE) and Sasanian (2nd-7th c. CE) periods. According to Oliver Watson, in the early Islamic period, three distinct trends of glazed pottery appear, including the continuation of pre-Islamic glazed ceramics, the invention of new glazed ceramics, and the addition of new glazes on previously unglazed wares (Watson 2004, pp. 161-62). The present bottle falls within the first category: it has an oval form, its surface decorated with impressed and carved patterns and featuring the figure of a bird with a fish-like tail. The existence of an Arabic inscription in kufic, possibly a blessing, distinguishes the flask from its pre-Islamic models; the outline format of the calligraphy can be found on early ceramic dishes from this part of the world (see, for example, a dish in the David Collection, Copenhagen, published in von Folsach 2001, p. 129 [no. 99, inv. no. 50/1999]; and one in the British Museum, London, published in Pancaroglu 2007, p. 29 [fig. 14, inv. no. OA1963.4-24.1]). The ceramic technique and bird motif, however, pre-date the Islamic period. Representations of birds in profile may have been inspired by Sasanian prototypes of different media (Auld 2005, p. 5) (see Harper 1978, pp. 63-65 [nos. 19, 21, 26, 49, and 77]). The shape of the present flask is rare among the variety of Islamic pilgrim flasks; the closest parallel found for it so far is also a one-handled vessel with a design of birds carved in relief, which is in a Japanese private collection.
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