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Beauty of medieval Persia displayed in ceramic fragments at the Oriental Institute Museum

May 18, 2007

A trove of pieces of broken pottery has become something of a treasure at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, where the beautiful sherds will be displayed May 15 through October 14 in an exhibit “Daily Life Ornamented: The Medieval Persian City of Rayy” that not only documents daily life and Islamic culture in medieval Persia, but also demonstrates how archaeologists reassemble the past from the broken fragments that they find in such large quantities.

For the exhibition, curators have examined pottery sherds in boxes in the basement of the Oriental Institute that were part of an excavation made just south of Tehran in the city of Rayy, one of the most prominent communities on the Silk Road in the Middle Ages and a major center for Islamic culture and scholarship from the 9th to the 13th centuries.

The pieces will be on display for this exposition in the Marshall and Doris Holleb Family Gallery for Special Exhibits at the museum, 1155 E. 58th St.

The ceramic fragments come from vessels that range from humbly etched cooking pots to brilliantly colored luxury ware.  All reflect a fascination with decoration in many aspects of everyday life and link the patterns of life at Rayy to an Islamic culture that spanned the Middle East. The curators have assembled about 150 of the pieces along with 30 exquisite watercolors made to illustrate whole pots matched with a number of the pieces.

“Before there were color photographs people could bring back from the field, expeditions had to engage watercolorists to record what they had found.  That is why we have so many wonderful watercolors,” said Don Whitcomb, a Research Association at the Oriental Institute and a curator of the exhibition. Those paintings of whole vessels made on the basis of evidence in sherds also illustrate the work of archaeologists, who must use their vast knowledge and detective-like insights to assemble as much as they can to examine long-gone civilizations.

“We want people to be able to see with the eye of an archaeologist and discover themselves how pottery sherds can express Islamic cultural values in cuisine, religion, technology and decoration,” said graduate student Tanya Treptow of the Oriental Institute, who is also a curator of the exhibition.

The exhibition shows how archaeologists have the ability to note connections, such as a chance discovery made by Whitcomb, an archaeologist who has worked in Iran.  Whitcomb looked at a Mongol tapestry on exhibit as part of “Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen,” currently display at the Smart Museum and saw a detail he had seen in one of the pottery fragments he was studying.

“I looked at the tapestry, which portrayed a monarch listening to two men debating religion, and suddenly I recognized something that was similar to one of our pieces,” said Whitcomb, a Research Associate and curator, along with ceramics exhibition. What caught him in the corner of the tapestry was a foot and part of a throne, which looked like one of the fragments he had seen in the Oriental Institute collection. Sure enough, on closer examination, the two matched.  The Oriental Institute exhibition will have a photograph of the tapestry displayed with the pottery fragment to which it is linked artistically.

“What you might imagine is that artists and craftsmen had copy books they took with them which had illustrations of vignettes and from those scenes they illustrated what they were working on,” Whitcomb said.

Archaeologists can expand on what is known about the pieces and discussed by art historians, Whitcomb explained.  In addition to noting decorative connections in images that unite cultures, archaeologists can also relate objects to the places and people who used them, something that is often difficult for art historians, who often deal with pieces purchased on the art market with very few details about their origins.  Archaeology, which documents the locations and relations between artifacts that are found, builds a bridge that links ceramics to patterns of daily life.

The pieces were excavated for the Oriental Institute in the 1930s by Erich Schmidt, who had also worked for the University of Pennsylvania, which now has the whole pots found in the excavation.

“The sherds tell us how much the people who lived in Rayy valued beauty, and also tell us something about the various cultural influences they enjoyed,” said Treptow. “Rayy was very open to cultural exchanges and especially a spreading Islamic culture, because it was located along major highways through Iran, including those that were part of the Silk Road.  Chinese Ceramics were an important import in the Middle East and have been found at Rayy, but local artists also made unique copies of Chinese designs.  In fact, they used distinctive Islamic decorations that were popular in many parts of the Middle East.”

Many of the pots that became the shards were probably manufactured elsewhere at centers for ceramic production in Persia, though the city itself must have had some kind of ceramic production facility, Whitcomb said.  The site has since been covered with residential and industrial development encroaching from Tehran, so further excavation is difficult in what would have been the outskirts of Rayy where the pottery kilns may have been, he said.  Having the ceramic evidence, even as sherds, preserved and documented provides important information for scholars studying the city, he said.

“The challenge we faced in preparing this exhibit is the same challenge that archaeologists face,” said Geoff Emberling, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum. “The sherds tell us about history, technology, trade, and traditions of craft and beauty; we have found ways to make them speak.”

The Oriental Institute Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, l0:00 am-6:00 pm, Wednesday until 8:30 pm, Sunday noon to 6:00 pm, closed on Monday. Suggested donation for admission to the museum is $5.00 for adults and $2.00 for children. Telephone for program information: (773) 702-9514, or

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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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