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]
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.
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].
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.
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).
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.
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
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.