Artefacts can pop up anywhere in Greece – sometimes even digging up the back garden or snagged on a fishing line. I imagine the same can be said of many countries bordering the Mediterranean. Their earth has experienced the ebb and flow of successive civilisations. Discarded or lost, daily indispensables of yesteryear when resurfaced become mementos of a disconnected past.
Catching up with my widowed grand-aunt many, many years ago she gifted me with the fragment remains of a broken bowl. To remember my grand-uncle by, she had said. It came to him on the bank of the ancient canal in Potidea. He had this great spot there where the fish could be relied on for a meal or two. Occasionally his line brought up curiosities that weren’t edible. Take this one, she said. I thanked her for her wonderful gift and took her word that the fragment was old – αρχαίο and precious.
But how far a throwback is it really? Snagged in a canal built by the Ancient Macedonian King, Cassander; fortified by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (c.482-565CE); reinforced by the then Byzantine overlord of Thessaloniki, John VII Palaioligos in the early 15th Century CE; and finally redug in the 20th Century, my memento’s hiding place has experienced the traverse of many epochs and today graces a lovely beachside town but when is it from? Questions.
What can be gleaned from just looking at it?
So, I’m of the mind that any pre-existing style can be copied by later generations. I needed to find the earliest possible example of its style to limit how old it could be but not forgetting that its style could have been copied as lately as yesterday.
It’s made from a red clay. It has an incised design etched into its surface that is brown among larger planes of highly glazed ochre/mustard. The design is floral displaying rosettes/spirals and leaves arranged in a cross pattern with arcs opening away from the central motif. I suspect that it’s a repeating pattern but the entire motif is lost. Its most striking curiosity is that it’s glazed only on the inside. The outside of the bowl is both undecorated and unglazed.
Its earthy tones remind me of dinnerware from the 1970s – but they were glazed inside and out. The lack of an outside glaze would be frowned upon by a modern day housekeeper. Fine as an ornament for dusting, how many cycles in the dishwasher could it go without cracking or discolouring? And if not the dishwasher – how well would the outside of it clean after being stacked on top of other such bowls with the curried remains of dinner potently leaving their mark? With modern-day obsessions with hygiene and high standards of cleanliness, unless it was made for decoration I think it must be genuinely old.
Beneath the foot there is no,”Made in China” sticker attached with super adherent. Nor is there a country of origin, Greece, Hellas or anywhere else stamped and baked into the ceramic foot. Nor is there any monogram or maker’s mark as are on other byzantine ceramic fragments on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
It doesn’t look Ancient Greek and its patterning isn’t intricate nor colourful enough to bring Ottoman Iznik ceramics to mind. So I targeted Byzantine ceramics for my search. The design looks like sgraffito, a technique used by Byzantine potters but its colour is baffling. The majority of sgraffito Byzantine bowls and plates I found on pinterest had a cream background with splashes of green and yellow pigment.
Finally something caught my eye. The reminiscent but unbroken bowl is owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is described thus on Pinterest:
Red earthenware covered with a white slip with incised decoration of five gyrating bands within a medallion under a yellow glaze. Found in a tomb at Kertch in the Crimea. Byzantine (Probably Crimea) 12th – 13th Century. Museum Number 141-1908
How does a bowl from the Crimea turn up in Northern Greece? Could a trade vessel have gone down the Bosporus through the Dardanelles, the Thracian Sea and thence to Thessaloniki dropping its load or some of it in the canal? But why would a foreign vessel pass so close to the mainland? According to Wikipedia, Russian and Serbian Orthodox Monks/Scribes moved to the nearby holy mountain, Mt Athos, in the 1070s AD – a reason to be carrying Crimean crockery so close to Potidea?
The Victoria and Albert Museum have other examples of Byzanitine sgraffito worked bowls with this colouring that hail from Constantinople in the 12th – 14th centuries. They can be seen here (13th-14th C) and here (12th-13th C). Perhaps it isn’t so old and exotic as the Crimea, 1000 years ago. Perhaps it is only 800 years old and from Constantinople? Looking further across Pinterest I came across this look of ceramic made in Thessaloniki in the 14th century, pinned from the British Museum’s Byzantine Legacy collection.
Where and when and by whom was it made?
I’m satisfied that it’s style is probably Byzantine from sometime between and including the 12th-14th Centuries. Of course it may have been made anytime after that, copying the older style. It looks closest to the Crimean bowl in colour, texture and etching style so although Constantinople and Thessaloniki are closer in proximity to Potidea where it was found, I can’t help thinking of it as Crimean. The fact that it doesn’t bare a monogram hints that it may not have been thrown in a renowned ceramics workshop. It was made for daily use by the Byzantine everyman.
Whether it is just a 70s recreation or truly is a piece of medieval crockery I’m really pleased to have it. When next I’m in Greece, I might have to make the time to go fishing in Potidea. I may just snag myself another mystery – no crock.
My Pinterest enquiry: