Form Glazes and Firing Processes of Early Islamic Lustre Ware Methodology Chapter

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¶ … Islamic Luster Wear

The area of Central Asia is one that even as we look at it today, we see the richness of design, color, and texture in fabric, architecture, and earthen ware that can be traced to the earliest periods of Islamic society and culture. That large geographical area, consisting of Anatolia, Syria, to the Arabian Peninsula eastward through Iraq and Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan to the Indus Valley in Pakistan and the western boundary of China are places where ancient medieval Islamic luster ware artifacts have been found in abundance. Many of the ingredients that went into producing the clay, paints, and glazes used in the luster ware, as well as the firing techniques, were closely guarded secrets of the artisans that produced them. Today, however, modern technology and academic research through archeology, history, and language have helped us to unlock the secrets of the ancient Islamic artisans.

The modern tools of technology, such as x-ray diffractometers (XRD), optical and electron microscopes (SEM and TEM), and electron microprobes help us to identify the materials used by ancient artisans.

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The natural resources of the different areas in Central Asia were essential to the clay, paints, and the glazes used in the production of the luster ware. Using modern tools and research, we can not only identify the different areas where the works originated from, but we can identify the ingredients of the formulas of the clay, paint, glazes, and even the temperatures that the pieces were fired at.

The Clay

The clay used to throw the different pieces would have varied with the soil and clay consistency from region to region. The basic ingredients of clay are alumina, silica, and water.

The levels of iron and other impurities found in the clay would vary from region to region.

The actual clay particles in what is commonly referred to as "clay," are quite small, flat, and electrically charged, touching on just two sides.

TOPIC: Methodology Chapter on Form Glazes and Firing Processes of Early Islamic Lustre Ware Assignment

The particles of clay react when water is mixed with them, causing an attraction and plasticity that allows the clay to be moldable and worked into the different forms created by the artist.

The various earth elements, such as the salinity of the water mixed with the clay, the levels of granite in the soil, and even the agricultural uses of the land and the animals grazing on the land would each impact the clay that came from the land. It is the soil clay, composition that although impacted by the firing processes, has a significant impact on the end product.

The artists would have acquired their knowledge of the importance and significance of clay composition in pottery gained through their learning under the instruction of skilled and experienced artisans, and, eventually, through their own working experience and experimentation with the different soil clay compounds. They would have used soil clay combinations from the different terrains to create clay recipes; and the most successful of these recipes would have been carefully guarded secrets. They would have learned that the amount of gases in the soil clay compound would determine the amount of bubbling during the firing process, and it would have lent itself to the texture and hardness of the piece created.

"A major difference between clay compositions used for earthenware and stoneware relates to the relative concentration of elements (fluxes) that lower or raise the melting (eutectic) point. Mismatch between firing temperature and flux-rich clays can result in vessel failure with development of excessive glass phases and gas formation ('bloating') causing partial or complete vessel collapse ('slumping')."

Once having put together their clay ingredients, the artists would have added water to the recipe to create the texture and thickness of the clay they wanted to work with to create the specific pieces they were creating. Some of these clay composition recipes would have been hybrids, reflecting the various soil locations that were being used.

Without the clay recipe, and without the benefit of modern technology to analyze the soil clay composition, it would have been almost impossible for other artists to recreate a hybrid piece that might have caused such pieces to be in high demand.

The artists would have kept a detailed description of the source of his clay formula, and would have continually looked for new and better formulas by experimenting with the different natural resources. Having created a recipe, the artist would have tested it: rolling a piece of clay into a single coil, if there were cracks in it, it was a poor recipe; if it did not show cracks, it was a good recipe.

Also, the artisan would have relied a great deal on his own sense of touch. Mixing the clay with his hands, he would have sensed its thickness, its texture, the stickiness of the clay, and its weight. No mechanics of a wheel or other piece of technology can replace the artist's own senses in creating the perfect clay formula.

The Islamic potters were drawn to the Chinese porcelain, which was a well guarded secret of Chinese potters.

To recreate the Chinese porcelain, Islamic potters experimented with the levels of quartz in their clay recipes.

While they did not succeed in recreating Chinese porcelain, they did create something new:

"However, in their efforts to imitate porcelain, they discovered that the addition of tin oxide in amounts of up to fifteen percent makes a glaze opaque and produces a smooth, creamy white skin. It is a perfect background for decoration."

What they created was lusterware, an original Islamic pottery that would become as sought after as was the Chinese porcelain that served as the inspiration for their experimenting ideas.

The Pottery Wheel

Early Islamic potters created their wares on spinning dishes, slabs, and, much later, wheels, and from molds that were original casts. It was, however, the potter's wheel that allowed the artisan to achieve the maximum in product quality and creativity. Staubach (2005) says that experts are at odds with one another in terms of when the first potter wheel was created; but many believe that it was simultaneous with the invention of the cart wheel.

The pottery wheel would have replaced the coil process and the slab-made pottery process.

The speed of the pottery wheel would have allowed the potter to work faster, create more symmetrical designs, and to increase his productivity in the number of pieces he was able to create for sale.

Two types of wheels that were used in ancient Islamic culture have been discovered through archeological finds. They are essentially the same wheel, but perhaps used slightly differently. The first, from a Lachish site, southwest of Jerusalem, where also was found pre-mixed clay and about forty finished pots; is a "kick" or "flywheel" that was set into the floor, in a square pit, and the wheel was just above floor level so that the potter could be seated comfortably at the floor level to operate the wheel.

The wheel was simply, but smartly constructed.

"The wheel might have a socket or cup at the center of its underside, into which a pivot was fitted. The pivot would be stuck into the ground or floor, and the wheel head would be set in motion by hand, or by using a stick set into a turning hole, before the potter began to throw. It could be the reverse, with the pivot extending down from the underside of the wheel head, into a socket. In both cases, the wheel was hand powered and would spin freely. Lubricants, such as animal fat, could be used in the socket."

Sitting comfortably at floor level, the artist could have good control over the spinning of the wheel, which he did by hand. He would throw his clay recipe onto the wheel head. The clay would stick to the wheel head, and the artist would drip a small amount of water onto the clay -- which would have been slightly hardened if it were mixed in advance and stored for several days. The water would quickly make the clay softer, easier to manage. Lightly placing both palms on the clay mound, the artist would apply pressure to give the clay its initial form.

With the wheel in motion, the artist worked the clay, adding drips of water as necessary to keep the clay palpable between his palms. Adding water sparingly, the clay begins to react to the centrifugal motion and the pressure of the artist's palms.

With pressure from the palms pushing the clay inward, and the centrifugal force of the motion, the clay begins to take on a cone shape.

Keeping the clay and his hands moist with water, once the cone shape emerges the artist pushes a thumb or both thumbs, into the center of the spinning cone.

He slowly pulls outward, watching as the walls of the pot thicken, taking the shape of a low cylinder.

One of the keys is the water, keeping the clay workable with moisture, and keeping the hands moist too.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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