Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From Iran to Corinth – Pottery research shows Greek city engaged in long distance trade during medieval times

View Corinth's trade in a larger map

This has been identified at the
oldest albarelli jar known to exist.
It was created in the 11th century in
Fustat and subsequently exported to
At the end of ancient times, Corinth, one of the most famous cities in the Greek world, lay partly in ruins.
“The mid 6th century city fell victim first to bubonic plague, with high mortality levels, and subsequently a deep economic recession that lasted, according to the archaeological finds, for 500 years,” write archaeologists from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in an overview on their website. The school has been excavating Corinth since 1896.
The city didn’t recover until well into the Middle Ages. But recover it did – starting in the 9th century it began to expand. The area over what was once a Roman forum turned into a “dense mass of houses, workshops, bathhouse and monasteries,” say the archaeologists.
Trade, production and outside contacts all increased. Once again it was a good time to be a Corinthian. “Corinth at its apogee in the later 11th century and the 12th century may have employed as many as 230 cobblers and 70 potters and assistants in twenty pottery workshops,” writes site excavator Guy Sanders in an article.
During this period of recovery it remained under Byzantine rule – although this was interrupted in 1147 when the Normans, led by Roger II of Sicily, raided the city. The Normans were rivals of the Byzantines, competing with them for power in the Mediterranean.
Trade with the Middle East
Now, thanks in part to research conducted by Robert Mason, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, we know that medieval Corinth was involved in long distance trade throughout the Middle East. These imports include rare and complex ceramics from places as distant as Kashan Iran, more than 2,500 kilometres away.
Mason is an expert in the pottery of the Middle East. By studying the minerals the pots are made out of, and the decorations on their surface, he is able to determine where and when they were created.
Last summer he was in Corinth carrying out his work and last week he presented his findings at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America.
He said that the Corinthians started this long distance trade almost as soon as they got back on their feet. In the 9th and 10th centuries, as Corinth was beginning its expansion, the city imported pieces from Basra, a centre of pottery production located in southern Iraq, near the Persian Gulf.
“How it (pottery from Basra) got there is hard to say,” said Mason. “There’s like one or two in the 9th century (then) a whole bunch in the 10th century.” These examples include lusterware plates that may have been used for church services. Mason described them as “beautiful shining pots, very different from the stuff they would have had locally.” They “might have been gifts,” he said, perhaps from a bishop in the Middle East.
He emphasized that Corinth wasn’t the only city importing goods made in Basra, far from it. “The trading networks of some of these pottery production centres are quite colossal,” he said. “Basra, for instance, covers the full extent of the Old World as found in China, in Spain, South Africa.”
Basra’s pottery was in demand for a good reason. Mason explained that they used a complex technique to create them. “You have a finished vessel and you paint it with this metallic paint which then fuses to the surface in another firing.” However “if you don’t fire it properly the second time you’ll end up with a complete mess.”
Basra wasn’t the only Middle East city that Corinth imported from. All together from AD 800 to AD 1200 the people also brought in ceramics from Damascus, Fustat (in present day Old Cairo) and Kashan.
The focus of this trade moved around. The 9th and 10th century ceramics tended to be from Basra. On other hand the 12th century saw Corinth take in imports from Damascus as well as a small number from Iran.  
Mason was surprised to find that in the 11th century the Corinthians imported albarelli, a type of apothecary (medicinal) jar with a concave waist. They were brought in from Fustat in Egypt.
“We know that albarelli come from the Middle East,” he said. But the examples at Corinth are “the earliest albarelli that exist,” he said, emphasizing that he has never seen one this early anywhere in the world.
Contact suddenly ends
Mason’s work also brought up a mystery. After AD 1200 he could not find a single piece of pottery from the Middle East at Corinth. For some unknown reason the Corinthians appear to have stopped importing ceramics from the region altogether.
“After 1200 there’s nothing there and I don’t know why – it’s not like there’s something unpleasant going on,” said Mason. Trade continued between the Middle East and other places in Europe. “You have pottery from Damascus in places like England and Norway,” he said.
“It’s not like the end of the crusades or anything like that.”
Mason and the other Corinth researchers are trying to find out what might have stopped this trade. A look through the history books reveals that while Corinth certainly didn’t collapse in AD 1200, there certainly were political changes happening at that time.
The Byzantine Empire, which had overseen the revival of Corinth, was in a state of upheaval. “Soon after the death of Manuel Komnenos in 1180, the Byzantine court degenerated into a farcical display of court intrigue, murder and palace coups,” writes modern day historian Nicholas Doumanis in his book on Greek history.
This internal strife weakened Byzantium, allowing it to be sacked by a group of Crusaders in 1204. They did it with the excuse that they wanted to get a debt repaid.  
“The Peloponnese, now under the authority of the ‘Prince of Achaea’, was subdivided into fiefdoms that controlled each locality from a series of fortresses,” writes Doumanis. It would be decades until Byzantium managed to take back territory in the area.  
Whether these events could have led to Corinth cutting ties between itself and the Middle East is unknown, however, the timing seems to make it possible.


  1. Photo has a reference scalar but no indication of units, so the scale is lost. Are they millimeters, centimeters, inches, etc.?

  2. Thank you, you raise a good question! I've forwarded it to the research team in Corinth. As soon as the answer comes back I'll post what they say.

  3. Hello again - the scale is in centimeters