Parthians in Nineveh: Ceramic Evidence


One of the most frustrating aspects of the ceramic corpus for this period is that it follows regional trends.  In western Iran there are green glazed wares, as is diagnostic of the Parthian period in Mesopotamia, while in north Iran, apparently isolated from east-west trade, there are dark polished, and painted wares, which clearly follow an earlier Iron Age repertory (Haerinck, 1983: 149-173).  There are few unglazed vessels that can be securely dated to the Parthian period [FIGURE 8]

Figure 8

Green glazed vessel.  In both form and color this ceramic vessel imitates a metal prototype.  The twisted handles are particularly reminiscent of bronze shaping.  Birmingham City Art Gallery 371’61.  22 cm high.

For much of the Parthian empire, green glazed wares are taken as a cultural and chronological marker (Hauser 1993; Debevoise 1934; Toll 1943).  But green glaze was not a Parthian innovation, this technology was adapted from southern Mesopotamian cultures.  Similarly, Parthian ceramic forms follow long-standing models.

Ceramic shapes from the western part of the Parthian empire show a blending between Mesopotamian and Greek forms.  It is no simple matter to separate the two traditions, as the eastern Greeks had themselves adapted  Mesopotamian elements into their ceramic repertoire.  As a general rule, however, a clear correlation can be made between the arrival of the Greeks and a discrete change in ceramic styles.  Many Greek forms imitate metallic vessels, which - due to their higher initial cost - influenced ceramic forms (Vickers 1985). This hierarchy from metal to ceramic is particularly well illustrated with green glazed wares.  The glaze reflects a patinated bronze surface with its green colour.  This similarity is further enhanced by the decorative elements on many vessels.  Bowls may have ‘turning’ lines, that occur on lathe turned metallic vessels.  Many two-handled jars also have regular striations on the handles to suggest that they imitate twisted bronze [FIGURE 9].

Figure 9

Parthian period unglazed ware.  Because of the distinctive stamped decoration applied around the shoulder of this vessel, it can be securely dated to the Parthian period.  The animals and the riders are similar to Scythian art.  Ashmolean Museum 1991.306.  Illustrated section is 8 cm high.  Vessel was 30 cm in diameter.

Because clay is less plastic than metal, twisted ceramic handles are rare, so that the potter had to adapt their decoration to fit the material.  One of the most typical Parthian forms is the pilgrim flask.

These vessels are not limited to the Parthian period, and similar vessels are also found in the classical world.  It seems that this shape was particularly popular in Mesopotamia.  Earlier examples tend to be round, while more angular forms appear in the west. Rounded pilgrim flasks continued to be made in the more remote parts of Iran.  Many of the earlier forms bear designs that are clearly designed to imitate stitching.  A stitched leather vessel for liquids is still used by nomadic groups today (Eiland 1996: 114-115).

As has been noted before, glazed wares did not spread into eastern Iran, and much of Parthian Central Asia seems to have been without a glaze tradition before the Islamic period. Vogelsang (1985: 172) suggests that is was from the rather diffuse nature of Parthian rule.  During the late third and second centuries BC - when the Parthians occupied Mesopotamia - most of Iran was effectively cut off from the west.  This hypothesis fits well with what is known of Parthian history.  The Parthians soon placed their seat of empire in the west, to the new city of Ctesiphon, away from the nomadic hordes that continued to threatened their stability in Iran.  At the same time, there may be other factors that played a role.

As a rule the glaze used during the Parthian period is that it adhered poorly to the clay.  Soda-lime-alkali glazes have their origin in faience (with high silica), and were not intended to cover clay bodies.  During firing, the glaze creeps away from the ceramic body, leaving regions on a vessel free of glaze.  Geologically, Mesopotamia is easily characterized by clays that contain a large amount of calcium compared to clays from  eastern Iran and Central Asia. The local raw materials, as well as political factors, may have limited Parthian green glazed wares to the Mesopotamian region.

Figure 10

Parthian ‘Pilgrim flask.’  This mold made vessel bears decoration that imitates stitched leather.  Leather flasks are still used by nomadic groups today.  Birmingham City Art Gallery 1319.52.   9 cm long.

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