Ceramic art

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Pottery decoration was the one field of expression in which the artisans of Nubia consistently surpassed their Egyptian neighbors. Multi-colored and attractively decorated vessels were produced at many periods, but the artistic peaks were undoubtedly achieved in the Late Meroitic (c. 100-350 AD) and in the Classic Christian (c. 850-1100 AD) periods.

Early Christian pottery retained many of the characteristics of the preceding Ballana ("X-Group") period. Vessels had either a red or, less commonly, a white slip (all-over coloring), with simple linear design friezes mainly of arches or festoons. Most red vessels had no painted decoration. By far the most common vessels were plain and footed bowls, many of them inspired by late Roman pottery forms which at this time were still being produced in Egypt.

The Classic Christian period witnessed what can only be called a ceramic revolution, alike in vessel forms, colors and designs. The preferred slip colors were now orange and yellow, with occasional white vessels but almost no red ones. The most common designs were ornate friezes involving intricate, mainly curvilinear figures inspired by medieval manuscript illumination. Animal, bird, fish and floral designs were also common. One of the most common vessel forms was the vase, a form almost unknown in earlier times, though bowls also remained common.

As the Classic evolved into the Late Christian period, designs became increasingly "busy," but lost most of their free-flowing curvilinear quality. Designs were generally geometric and rectilinear, with extensive use of bundled lines. Zoomorphs and floral designs almost completely disappeared. The overwhelmingly preferred slip color was now orange, with red less common, and white rare. Vessel forms were little changed from the Classic period.

In the Terminal Christian period there was a marked simplification. The designs - nearly all geometric - were very much simpler and bolder than in the Late wares. Vessels tended to be large, heavy-walled and bulky, and most lacked a specially formed base. The manufacture of painted pottery disappeared altogether at the end of the Christian period; indeed the potter's wheel itself disappeared, except for the making of undecorated vessels for use with the saqia (ox-driven waterwheel). Nearly all other pottery of the post-medieval period was hand-made.

The pottery of medieval Nubia was superior to that of Egypt only in artistic, not in technical quality. While all of the Nubian wares were made of Nile mud, many of the best Egyptian wares were made of fine lacustrine clays, and were very much harder than anything made in Nubia. Imported Egyptian wares always found a considerable market in Nubia simply because of their durability.

Sources: for the pottery of Nobadia the definitive source is Adams 1986. The pottery of Makouria appears to be closely similar, but has so far not been made the subject of a separate study. Many of the wares from Alodia appear to be quite distinctively different; see Welsby and Daniels 1991, 165-246, and Welsby 1998, 87-177.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)