ARCHEOLOGIE / ARCHAEOLOGY

ISLAMIC CERAMICS FROM AL-BALĪD (OMAN), AN INTERNATIONAL TRADING PORT ALONG THE INDIAN OCEAN

 Introduction

            The archaeological site of al-Balīd/al-Baleed, UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, is located in the Dhofar region, southern Oman, 5 km east of Salalah. It most probably corresponds to the ancient city port Ẓafār and played a major role in the Indian Ocean long-distance trade network during the Islamic period (at least from the 13th until the 17th-18th century CE).

            It consists of an impressive walled settlement (1600 x 400 m) on the Ocean littoral; extensive suburbs existed north and west (Fig. 1). The Husn is among the most prominent and important buildings (Fig. 2). It is a large fortified structure, roughly square in plan (ca 60 x 60 m), located in the western part of the walled site, very close to the congregational mosque. It has been interpreted as the residence of the local ruler, his family, and staff. From 2015 new archaeological research work and excavations, led by Dr Alexia Pavan (Omani Office of the Adviser to His Majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs), concentrate on it. The study of the ceramic material so far collected is the focus of the proposed project, started in 2017 with two field campaigns (October-November 2017, March-April 2018). A total amount of 12.605 specimens were already classified and analysed. The research project has a multidisciplinary approach: besides the archaeological study of the pottery corpus, archaeometric analyses and an ethnoarchaeological work are carried out in parallel.

Fusaro fig 1

Fig. 1. The site of al-Balīd in the year 2012 (Newton, Zarins 2014: fig.1), with the location of the Husn.

 

 Methodology

            The work in the field consisted in collecting data through the direct examination and the classification of the ceramic material. The main features of the items were carefully described and reported on forms, specifically created for this project: forms for the macroscopic description of the Fabrics, examined with the naked eye and a 20X magnifying lens; forms for counting and describing sherds within each stratigraphic unit. An inventory of items has been created to represent all the ceramic wares identified within the corpus: they are numbered (“SU,inv.no.”) and described. Non-diagnostic items, i.e., those specimens exclusively belonging to the local wares which do not give sufficient information on form, decoration or surface treatments, are counted for a statistical analysis of the main fabric groups of the local pottery.

            A system of codes providing convenient labels has been developed for the wares and related features (shaping and decorative techniques, colours, coatings, surface treatments); the labels, keywords or abbreviations, are combined to have an almost complete description within a unique code. A parallel system of key names has been improved for the fabrics, offering a simple but precise idea of their main features. Both systems highly simplify the data entry.

            A complete graphic and photographic documentation of all the assemblages, smaller groups and inventoried items has been produced. The drawings on paper are processed and digitalised through the Adobe Illustrator software. The morphological typology is still under construction.

            All the data so far collected will be transferred in an online relational database (see below). A comparative analysis with ceramic corpora from other archaeological sites is ongoing.

 

Archaeological contexts and stratigraphic/chronological sequence

            Several activities occurred in the Husn in the two past centuries – previous archaeological investigations since 1930 (Albright 1982: 59) and related restoration works, the collection and appropriation of building material by local people in modern times –; they had inevitably changed and disturbed the original stratigraphy of some areas. For this reason, a careful selection of archaeological contexts within the fortified structure has been undertaken: the research work has focused on the ceramic material coming from the most reliable areas and rooms which remained untouched, sealed, and whose stratigraphic sequence can be followed deeply.

            The selected contexts are located in many areas throughout the building. In this way, it will be possible to compare the stratigraphic sequences, and the phases of construction, occupation, and transformation of the contexts, in order to recognise different uses of the space and different periods in which areas and rooms were constructed, used and eventually transformed.

            The selected areas are (Fig. 2):

  1. rooms A31-A33, and the larger room underneath, located in the north-western portion of the building; rooms A31 and A33 are divided by a transversal wall.
  2. room A2, located in the south-eastern portion of the building, just behind the large monumental staircase related to the southern entrance; it consists of an upper room whose mortar floor, lying on wooden pillars related to the roof of a lower room, completely collapsed and disappeared in ancient time.
  3. room A5, just behind the south-eastern perimeter wall and the related corner tower
  4. the central-eastern area, which remains untouched by previous activities; SU 83 and 100 are two accumulation layers, just under the top surface, whose abundant ceramic assemblages appear homogeneous and undisturbed.
  5. a trench in the central-southern area, just north of room A47: SU 101 is a layer mainly composed of plaster fragments and pieces of broken bricks and mud bricks; it is covered and sealed by a mortar floor, possibly interpreted as the floor of a central inner courtyard.
  6. a sequence of rooms lean just against the eastern wall of the perimeter of the Husn. The function of the rooms is still unclear; however, a possible use as stables has been proposed. In the northernmost rooms A52 and A57, a longer stratigraphy has been brought to light. An eastern gate probably existed in this part of the perimeter walls.

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Fig. 2. The Husn (© Bill Eisenberger, 2012), with the indication of the areas considered in this project (elaboration A. Fusaro)

            The analysis of the ceramic assemblages within each stratigraphic unit and context and the comparative analysis of the assemblages are allowing establish a comprehensive sequence for the Husn, identifying archaeological phases and proposing chronological attributions.

            The most useful chronological markers are the imported items. Nonetheless, well-defined assemblages of local pottery associated with these imports are being outlined, thus helping to reconstruct the chronological sequence.

            Even if a more in-depth analysis is ongoing, the preliminary pottery study suggests a sequence of at least five archaeological phases, from the 14th until the 17th/18th century (Table 1):

  • room under A31/A33, room A2 and room A5 existed and were occupied before or at least during the 14th-15th century: indeed, the ceramic material from the related fillings (see below) gives a terminus ante quem for the use of these rooms and the movement within the first floor of the palace; an eastern entrance of the palace was still in use at that time, as well as the rooms (stables?) located outside the Husn, along the eastern wall (A52-A57).
  • The larger room under A31/A33, rooms A2 and A5, related to the first floor of the building, were all intentionally filled; moreover, a large opening in the eastern perimeter wall, probably one of the main entrances of the palace, was intentionally closed with a stone wall (M96) obstructing the passage. The study of the ceramic material from the fillings found in each room (SU 43=61, 22=19=18 and 10 respectively) as well as from the filling just below wall M96 (SU 125) suggests a same chronological phase for these important architectural transformation activities. The intentional filling of the rooms, at least in the western and southern parts of the palace, and the obstruction of the eastern entrance were probably made to prevent the movement in the first floor of the palace, to raise the level of the building, and probably to create a more solid defensive system. As the pottery associated is dated to the 14th-15th centuries, this important change occurred not before the 15th century.
  • The fillings SU 106, 105 and 112 (and also possibly the abundant deposit/debris above them, SU 73) excavated in the exterior rooms (stables?) A52 and A57 have very similar ceramic assemblages to those found in the above-mentioned layers. They suggest that the obstruction of these exterior rooms occurred not before the 15th century. As SU 106 and 112 just lay above two good-quality mortar floors (106, 112), they mark the end of these rooms, which were in use probably before or during the 14th-15th century.
  • • Room A33 was probably used for the production of gunpowder and other weapons; the filling layer found inside the room (SU 56) suggests a dating for the use of the room around the 15th-16th century.
  • SU 83, 100, 101: they have very similar ceramic assemblages dated at least to the 17th century and represent the latest occupation phases of the Husn. Especially the stratigraphic context of SU 101 gives several interesting information. First, at least some of the latest structures were built from bricks and mudbricks walls, covered with plaster; these construction technique and materials differ from the most common ones used throughout the Husn, i.e., cut stones; second, also after the collapse of those structures, the area was still occupied, as a mortar floor was made above the debris of the brick walls.
  • The collapses of stone walls (SU 48 and 17=3), excavated in rooms A31/A33 and A2 respectively, testify one of the latest phases of the Husn, probably connected to its abandonment: the related ceramic material suggests a dating after the 17th-18th century.

 Fusaro table 1.2

Table 1. Archaeological contexts and suggested chronological phases based on the pottery study

The pottery corpus: an overview

            The pottery corpus from the Husn analysed in this first year totals 12.605 sherds and more complete items, attributed to a timespan between the 14 th and the 17 th /18 th centuries.

            Most of the items collected during the excavations belong to local productions. We have also found a small number of sherds possibly related to regional manufactures. A considerable amount of imported items has been collected.

 

Local Wares

            The local production is the best represented within the corpus. All specimens are unglazed and hand-made; most of the vessels seem to be fired using an open fire.

            With the label 'local', we suggest that they could have been produced in an area around al-Balīd, possibly the Salalah plain. Indeed, even if no pottery kilns or proper wasters have been found until now, the massive amount of these ceramics leaves no doubt to the existence of production in the area, as also suggested by information collected with the ethnoarchaeological investigation.

            To guarantee continuity with previous preliminary studies on ceramics from al-Balīd (Yule and Muhammed 2006, Franke-Vogt 2002, Zarins and Newton 2012), the terms used by the other scholars for the local pottery have been maintained. In addition, these groups and the related fabrics have been better defined, and associated with specific functional categories; sub-groups have been created according to the quality and thickness of the specimens.

  • Shell temper ware: mainly cooking pots and jars; it comprises two sub-groups. Shell 1: coarser fabric, almost exclusively cooking vessels; Shell 2: finer fabric and thinner body walls than Shell1, it also comprises small storage containers, other kitchenware and tableware.
  • Grit temper ware: Two sub-groups are included. Grit 1: kitchen vessels related to food preparation, cooking, and storage (bowls, pots, a few jars, large thick trays); very coarse fabric, the surfaces are often left unfinished. Grit 2: less coarse fabric, better finished and decorated surfaces; possibly used for preparing and serving food, and for storage (bowls, pots, jars; Fig. 3).
  • Red ware: tableware and small storage jars; fine fabric; bowls and small bowls, dishes, jugs and jars, a few pots; well-finished and frequently decorated surfaces (Figs. 4-5).
  • Dot-and-circle ware: Its name derives from the principal motif stamped or rouletted on the vessels: a dot in a circle. The motif is common in objects of different materials spread in the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf area, and its use is related to a wide time span. Only in Dhofar, the motif started to be used on pottery. The morphology mainly comprises globular pots and inturned bowls, but also small and medium jars (Fig. 6). The preliminary stratigraphic analysis suggests that this ware circulated at al-Balīd until the 14th/15th century. A typology is starting to be outlined, according to the decorative, morphological, surface, and fabric features of the specimens.

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Fig. 3. Local ware. Hemispherical bowl, Grit temper ware 2, inv.no. 105,3; red painted decoration

Fusaro fig4 5

Fig. 4. Local ware. Inturned bowl, Red ware, inv.no. 22,455; red slip, polished surfaces                              Fig. 5. Local ware. Jar, high neck, Red ware, inv.no. 83,8; burnished surfaces, red painted decoration

Fusaro fig 6

Fig. 6. Local ware. Globular pot and jar with handles, Dot-and-Circle ware, inv.nos. 43,59 (a) and 73,48 (b); dot-and-circle motifs, incised lines, shell impressed segments

            From the preliminary stratigraphic analysis, evolution and change in technology, morphology and fashion have been detected for each local group, with at least two main stages within the chronological range considered. Moreover, it emerges that even in the latest stages the local manufacture was still very active, especially in producing fine tableware.

            It is worth noting that a preliminary comparative analysis testifies some similarities between local vessels of the Grit ware and items from Sharma and Yadhghat, southern Yemen (Rougeulle 2007).

 

Regional productions

            A distinct small group of vessels has been recovered: they are interpreted as regional manufactures, possibly produced in Dhofar (Fig. 7). They resemble the local wares in many aspects, thus suggesting similar tradition, but they are made of different fabrics, whose raw materials could come from other supply areas, and whose recipes (mixing and proportion of clay and temper) change.

            The regional productions so far identified are three: the ‘reg-grit’ fabric ware, closely resembling the red ware; the ‘grit-angular’ temper ware, a local or regional manufacture exclusively recovered in the uppermost and latest levels; the mica/steatite temper ware, possibly produced in the Taqah-Mirbat area or alternatively Southern Arabia (Pavan 2017: 30-31).

            The archaeometric and ethnoarchaeological works will lead to specifying their production centres.

Fusaro fig 7

Fig. 7. Regional ware, imported items. Fabrics related to the regional productions: from left, ‘Reg-Grit’ ware, Mica/Steatite temper ware, ‘Grit-angular’ temper ware

 

Imported Items

            A remarkable quantity of imported items was collected in all the layers examined, thus testifying that al-Balīd was a very active port until the 17th-18th centuries. Imports are more abundant in the earlier layers; nonetheless, the presence in the latest levels of painted porcelain from China and fine stonepaste vessels from Iran testifies that the population still demanded high-quality products.

            The imports are associated with 38 fabrics identified so far, along with four whose provenance is still uncertain. According to the preliminary analysis of their most prominent features and a preliminary comparative analysis with other ceramic corpora, it has been possible to suggest the provenance areas for many of them. High-quality items mostly come from China, Iran, and Egypt.

  • Northern Oman?: Bahla/Khunj monochrome green-brown glazed ware, possibly from the centres of Bahla (Oman) or Khunj (Iran); suggested dating for al-Balīd: 15th/16th-18th centuries (Fig. 8).
  • Yemen: A large number of Yemeni imports, of a modest/medium quality, circulated at al-Balīd throughout the timespan considered. They are glazed wares (Yemeni Yellow, Tihama, turquoise monochrome, turquoise and yellow bichrome wares, Haysi coffee cups and pipes, possibly some underglaze painted bowls) but there are also unglazed vessels (some shows close resemblance with pots, jars, and jugs from the Zabid area, Ciuk Keall 1996: pl. 95/12, 14,17, 41) (Fig. 9).

Fusaro fig8 9

Fig. 8. Regional ware. Fragments of monochrome glazed large bowls, Bahla/Khunj ware; SU 100   
Fig. 9. Regional ware. Small pot, inv.no. 73,61; unglazed, white slip, incised decoration; probably from Yemen

  • Arabian Peninsula: two Julfar closed vessels (U.A.E.) from latest layers; a few hand-made coarse vessels with abundant vegetal/chaff temper possibly from southern Arabia (Whitcomb 1988: 186).
  • Gulf area: A few unglazed large pots and jars made of dark red compact coarse fabrics, some showing ribbed surfaces; monochrome green-turquoise glazed conical bowls (Persian blue speckled ware?) (Fig. 10). Some evidence point to a possible Iranian origin for these wares.

Fusaro fig 10

Fig. 10. Regional ware, imported items. Conical bowl, monochrome turquoise ware, inv.no. 18,22; tripod mark on the interior; possibly from the Gulf area, or the Iranian regions

  • Iranian and/or Iraqi regions: Unglazed buff, light grey or white cream fine jugs and pilgrim flasks (Fig. 11); underglaze painted stonepaste bowls (Fig. 12) and dishes, a unique stonepaste piece imitating Chinese celadon, buff earthenware bowls with underglaze black and/or turquoise painting, of the Timurid and Safavid periods; late ‘Red-Yellow’ ware (Kennet 2004: 56, Power 2015: fig. 7).

Fusaro fig 11

Fig. 11. Regional ware, imported items. Jug or pilgrim flask, buff fabric, inv.no. 22,447; unglazed vessel, comb impressed, pierced and incised decoration; probably from Iranian or Iraqi regions

 Fusaro fig12 13

Fig. 12. Imported items. Hemispherical bowl, glazed stonepaste ware, inv.no. 18,2; underglaze blue painted motifs under whitish glaze; Persian production, probably 15th c.
Fig. 13. Imported items, conical bowl, glazed stonepaste ware, inv.no. 22,245; underglaze blue painted motifs under transparent colourless glaze; probably Egyptian production, 14th-15th century

 

  • Egypt: coarse stonepaste bowls and small bowls with underglaze blue painted motifs (Fig. 13), dated to the 14th-15th century (Watson 2004: 418-423); unglazed fine grey jugs with incised decoration, dated to the 17th-18th century (Smiths et al. 2012: 180-181).
  • East Africa?: a unique vessel, the high neck of a large jar, shows similarities with African products (Chittick 1974: type 33, fig. 136 (b), p. 329; Rougeulle 2015: fig. 179.8).
  • Indian Subcontinent: Indian imports are among the most abundant within the pottery corpus. They mainly consist of coarse and medium-coarse red and grey pots and jars (Fig. 14). From a preliminary comparative analysis, a provenance from southern India, as Kerala, and north-western regions, as Gujarat and Sindh, can be suggested. Most of them have soot marks, suggesting their use as cooking vessels. There are a few higher quality unglazed wheel-thrown fine bowls with polished and painted decoration.

Fusaro fig14 15

Fig. 14. Imported items. Carinated pot, inv.no. 61,47; unglazed, red painted decoration; soot marks; imported from the Indian subcontinent
Fig. 15. Imported items. Dish, blue and white porcelain, inv.no. 43,6; Chinese product, probably 15th century

  • China and South-East Asia: The most common Chinese imports circulating at al-Balīd are blue and white porcelain bowls and celadons (Figs. 15, 16). Most are very high-quality products . Some stonewares and earthenwares could come from South-East Asia, as the so-called Martaban jars. The Far Eastern imports are currently studied by Dr Chiara Visconti, from University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, to give them a more precise chronological and geographical attribution.

Fusaro fig 16

Fig. 16. Imported items. Jar, Green glazed celadon, inv.no. 61,31; ribbed decoration; Chinese product, Yuan period

 

The ethnoarchaeological work

            During the past two campaigns, a research on the modern traditional pottery production in Dhofar has been started: interviews to local women and visits to several workshops in Salalah, Taqah, and Mirbat have beeN  conducted, taking information on the whole manufacturing process and documenting it with photographs and videos. Moreover, clay and fired and unfired vessels have been sampled in each workshop. This research allows collecting interesting information on several aspects of the manufacturing process, such as sources of raw materials, timing, tools, motifs, forms, techniques. All the collected data are useful to understand better the ancient local and regional wares, to clarify questions concerning the whole ancient manufacturing process, and finally to examine continuity and changes of the handicraft tradition, as well as the transmission of knowledge, throughout the centuries up to the modern era.

            Two women were thoroughly interviewed: Fatima made pottery in the past, within a household production; Amina is still producing ceramics in the Salalah Handicraft Center, visited in both field campaigns. We also visited the Women Association in Taqah: they actually use gypsum moulds to produce items in an 'industrial' way; nonetheless, we had the chance to talk with the eldest women, thus gathering information on some aspects of the traditional manufacturing process (especially clay sources, traditional pigments used and traditional vessel forms, still preserved in their small collection). Finally, we visited the Omani Women Association of Mirbat: the women added brand new information on the techniques used for producing rouletted and incised motifs.

 

The archaeometric study: starting from the sampling

            During the last field campaign (March-April 2018), the first stage of the archaeometric study has been conducted, with the sampling of ceramic items. An official request was submitted to the Director of the Museum of Frankincense Land Ali al-Kathiri in order to obtain the permission to export the selected samples. The research work will be conducted with the scientific support of Dr. Veronica Martínez Ferreras, researcher member of the ERAAUB team, at the Laboratories of the University of Barcelona (CCiTUB).

            Selected sherds represent different groups according to their stylistic appearance, technological and body features. Specifically, the sampling has concentrated on all the local wares, on the three possible regional productions, and on the glazed Bahla/Khunj ware.

            The main purpose of the study is to give for the first time an exhaustive characterization of the ceramics circulating at al-Balīd, with detailed technological information (clay procurement areas, nature of clay and temper and their processing, shaping techniques, firing process). The study will also lead to propose a more precise provenance for the wares analysed. The latter aim particularly concerns the Bahla/Khunj ware, for whom different manufacturing areas (Northern Oman, southern Iran) have been suggested.

            58 samples have been selected among the pottery collected from the excavations at the Husn, along with 14 samples from other sites and sources, for comparison with the items from al-Balīd:

  • six sherds of the Bahla/Khunj ware found at Salut (Northern Oman, courtesy of IMTO);
  • two sherds of the local unglazed ware from al-Ḥamr al-Sharqiya (Taqah, courtesy of IMTO);
  • six items collected during the ethnoarchaeological investigations, including clay from a procurement area in the Dhofar hinterland behind Taqah, processed clay already mixed with water (ready for the modelling of vessels), from the Salalah pottery workshop, unfired and fired vessels from three different visited workshops (Salalah, Taqah, Mirbat).

 

Analysis of socio-economic aspects

            The collected data and the ongoing research work allow gathering many information concerning economic and social aspects of the site of al-Balīd.

            For example, the study of the imports is leading to a reconstruction of the trade relationships established between al-Balīd and other lands along the Indian Ocean, the Gulf and the Red sea throughout the centuries. It is also clarifying how the city role as a port changes, the trade patterns change in different periods, for which reasons, and which were the most active commercial routes. The analysis of the imports could also give insights into the wealth of the city and more specifically of its ruler and his entourage; this is associated with the purchasing power of high-quality products and is also indirectly related to the political influence of the rulers. Furthermore, the collected data will show how these aspects change over the centuries, also in connection with political and historical reasons.

            Within the social aspects that can be further investigated, the presence and the contribution of the community of people from the Indian subcontinent in the site are among the most interesting ones. This topic was already addressed by Newton and Zarins (2014). The in-depth study of wares coming from the Indian subcontinent will offer fresh new data on further aspects. For example, the variation in quantity and quality of Indian objects could give some insight into the composition of the Indian community and its possible change over the centuries; the provenance of the vessels could suggest the areas from which the people came and settled at al-Balīd or with which this port was in contact.

            Other social aspects are emerging from the examination of the pottery corpus from the Husn, for example concerning the religious communities living at al-Balīd. Indeed, several vessels locally produced bear a cross-motif painted in red (Fig. 5). An examination of the related forms, the different kinds of cross representation and statistical analysis of these specimens throughout the stratigraphic sequence are ongoing, in order to recognise which objects are associated explicitly with this motif, how the latter changes or evolves and the chronological phases of production and circulation of these products. A collection of historical information dealing with this topic, to be matched with archaeological data, will be started. Following the preliminary suggestions by Zarins and Newton (2016), but focusing exclusively on al-Balīd and necessarily revising their proposed chronology, this work could finally lead to recognize and better understand the presence of Christians at al-Balīd during certain historical periods.

Dr. Agnese Fusaro
iERAAUB
Equip de Recerca Arqueològica i Arqueomètrica de la Universitat de Barcelona

 

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