Ceramic studies of the Near East (Roman to Abbasid periods)

This research programme on Near Eastern ceramics from the Roman to the Abbasid period has developed along three main lines: the study of the production and distribution of Brittle Ware in Syria from Roman to Abbasid times, the exchange networks and the evolution of ceramics between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of Islam in northern Syria and the study of material culture on the western frontier between Byzantium and the Muslim world. Each of these research axes is conducted by combining typological analyses, the study of the archaeological context and archaeometric analyses.

1. Production and distribution of Brittle Ware in Syria

Cooking wares from ancient Syria are usually referred to as Brittle Ware (Fig. 1).

This category of material, which has been distributed over a vast territory since Roman times, had not yet been the subject of a synthesis study. The examination of a large ceramic corpus (Apamea, Andarin, Qal'at Sem'an, Aleppo, Hadir, Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, Dibsi Faraj, Antioch, Tarsus and Hisn al-Tinat) was the result of a crossover approach integrating archaeometry and typological analysis. It was demonstrated that rigorous microscopic examination of the corpus produced results consistent with the chemical analyses. A number of Brittle Ware “workshops” could be identified from the study of the material from consumption sites. In addition to the establishment of a typo-chronological reference, the study revealed the existence, until the end of Antiquity, of a real monopoly with no other competitive productions throughout ancient Syria; a monopoly held by three main workshops (Workshops 1, 3 and 4) that shared a common technical know-how and supplied several sites. One could suggest the existence of peri-urban workshops, probably specialised, located in the region of Antioch (Workshop 1), the Euphrates (Workshop 3) and Apamea (Workshop 4). The wide distribution of Brittle Ware in northern Syria during Antiquity probably benefited from the supply circuits of the military garrisons on the Euphrates. It will cover an even wider area after the Arab-Muslim conquest (see below, Tarsus).

2. Ceramic evolution and exchange networks between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of Islam in western Syria

This project focused on several ceramic categories: amphorae, African Red Slip Ware (ARS) and calcareous common wares from the sites of Antioch and Apamea, former capitals of Syria Prima and Syria Secunda from the 5th century onwards. The study of Antioch's material focused on the analysis of a selection of ceramics from the Franco-American excavation preceding the Second World War, as part of a pilot project conducted at the University of Princeton (coordinator A. Eger, University of North Carolina, Greensboro), while the study of the material from Apamea included a selection of material from the recent excavations of the Mission archéologique belge à Apamée de Syrie.

The study of imported amphorae and ARS showed that Apamea, despite its inland location, was characterised by a facies of imports almost as diverse as that of a coastal city like Beirut. A similar corpus could be observed in Antioch. Extending the study to the examination of publications from inner and eastern Syria, it appears that only a number of key-shape forms (ARS Hayes 67, 91, 99, 104, 105, 107 and 109, LRA 1, LRA 3, Palestinian amphorae and Sinope) reached these regions during Late Antiquity. This phenomenon corresponds to the observations made on the distribution of Brittle Ware, whose repertoire becomes simpler as we move away from the workshops. The study of common wares indicates production and exchange systems limited to a regional scale, despite the existence of a community of forms shared throughout North Syria.

A second component of the research focused more specifically on the study of ceramics from the transition between the end of Antiquity and the Early Islamic period in Apamea. Ceramic analysis confirmed that the 7th century is still strongly rooted in the Byzantine tradition. The last imports of ARS Hayes forms 107 and 109 and LRD Hayes 9 were still reaching Syria at the time of the islamic conquest. At the same time, research carried out in Apamea and Antioch has also revealed the existence of local fine wares imitating the latest forms of ARS and LRD, illustrating the development of local production strategies countering the decline of fine wares imports.

3. Material culture and exchanges at the Byzantine-Abbasid border

This project concerns the study of material culture and exchanges on the border between Byzantium and Islam and more precisely on the site of Tarsus, a garrison town located in the Cilician plain in Turkey (excavation led by A. Özyar, Bogaziçi University). The excavation of an Abbasid residential area established on the Bronze Age tell revealed rich ceramic assemblages from the 9th- 10th centuries, coming mainly from pits surrounding the domestic structures (Tarsus excavation). This corpus, which is mainly related to the Samarra Horizon, is also characterised by a significant presence of Polychrome Painted Glazed Ware, of the Yellow Glazes family (Fig. 2). This category differs from other productions known in northern Syria by the richness and diversity of its decorative repertoire, suggesting a local origin, a hypothesis that has yet to be confirmed by geochemical analyses. In addition, the study of culinary ceramics yielded interesting results concerning the circulation of cooking wares and the evolution of cultural spheres between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of Islam. Indeed, it appears that in Roman times the cooking ware repertoire was strongly rooted in Cilican local traditions. It is not comparable, for example, to the Syrian Brittle Ware. On the other hand, the productions of the Abbasid period are quite identical to those of Syria (Fig. 3). The preliminary results of the Brittle Ware fabrics reveal the presence of Workshop 1 (Antioch region) but also of groups of Cilician origin, indicating the establishment of regional workshops imitating the Syrian Abbasid types. Excavations have also uncovered a number of culinary ceramics imitating stone vessels also used for cooking (Fig. 3). The appearance, at the beginning of the Islamic period, of stone vessels and the imitation phenomena it generates are indicative of an evolution of the trade networks and of new connections with the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, apart from the presence of a wine (?) amphora from the Crimean region, Tarsus has no Byzantine ceramics. The ceramics imported from Iraq (lustrewares, white opaque wares), belonging to the Abbasid koinè, shed light on the exchanges between the heart of the Caliphate and the periphery of the border. 


Fig 1 : Brittle Ware, Apamea (6th- 9th centuries)


Fig. 2 : Abbasid Yellow Glazes from Tarsus Gözlükule 


Fig. 3 : Abbasid cooking wares from Tarsus Gözlükule : Brittle Ware and softstone imitation



  • A. Vokaer, The Abbasid Domestic Wares from Tarsus Gözlükule (Recent Excavations), dans D. Karakaya and T. Glenn Little (eds), XIth Congress AIECM3 on Medieval and Modern Period Mediterranean Ceramics Proceedings, Antalya 14 -19 Octobre 2015 , Ankara, 2018, p. 459-463.
  • A. Özyar, E. Ünlü, O. Pancaroglu et A. Vokaer, Recent Fieldwork at Tarsus-Gözlükule: the Medieval Levels, dans S. R. Steadman et G. McMahon (eds), The Archaeology of Anatolia Volume II: Recent Discoveries (2015-2016), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, 2017, p. 197-226.
  • A. Vokaer, Late Roman Amphorae from Apamea in Syria, dans D. Dixneuf, LRCW 5-2. Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean. Archaeology and Archaeometry (Études Alexandrines 43), Alexandrie, 2017, p. 779-803.
  • A. Vokaer, A 3rd to 4th century AD pottery assemblage from Apamea and some further considerations on pottery production and distribution in Roman Syria, dans B. Fischer-Genz, Y. Gerber et H. Hamel (eds.), Roman Pottery in the Near-East : local Production and regional Trade. Proceedings of the round table held in Berlin, 19-20 February 2010 (Archaeopress Series/ Roman and Late Antique Mediterranean Pottery 3), Oxford, 2014, p. 37-51.
  • A. Vokaer, Continuity and changes in ceramic production and exchange in Syria during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods (5th – 8th c. A.D.), dans A. Kralidis et A. Gkoutzioukostas (eds), Proceedings of the International Symposium Byzantium and the Arab World: Encounter of Civilizations (Thessaloniki, 16-18 December 2011), Thessalonique, 2013, p. 517-544.
  • A. Vokaer, Byzantine cooking ware imports in Syria: the “Workshop X”, in Berytus 53-54 (2011-2012), 2013, p. 213-232.
  • A. Vokaer, Pottery production and exchange in Late Antique Syria, dans L. Lavan (éd.), Local Economies? Production and Exchange of Inland Regions in Late Antiquity" (Late Antique Archaeology 10), Brill, Leiden, 2013, p. 567-606.
  • A. Vokaer, La Brittle Ware d’al-Hadir. Analyse de pâte, dans M.-O. Rousset (éd.), Al-Hadir. Etude archéologique d’un hameau de Qinnasrin (Syrie du Nord, VIIe-XIIe siècles). Qinnasrin I (Travaux de la Maison de l’Orient, 59), 2012, p. 119-128 et planche 15.
  • A. Vokaer, La Brittle Ware en Syrie. Production et diffusion d’une céramique culinaire de l’époque hellénistique à l’époque omeyyade (Fouilles d’Apamée de Syrie, 2, Mémoires de la Classe des Lettres in 4°, tome III, Académie royale de Belgique), Bruxelles, 2011.
  • A. Vokaer, Cooking wares in ancient Syria (first to 10th centuries A.D.) : Reconstructing the production contexts from the consumption sites, Archaeometry 52, 4, 2010, p. 605-627.
  • D. Genequand, R. Ali, M. Hadelmann, J. Studer et A. Vokaer, Rapport préliminaire des campagnes 2008 et 2009 de la mission archéologique syro-suisse de Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi, SLSA Jahresbericht 2009, 2010, p. 177-219.
  • A. Vokaer, Cooking in a perfect pot. Shapes, fabric and function of cooking ware in Late antique Syria, dans S. Menchelli, S. Santoro, M. Pasquinucci et G. Guiducci (eds), LRCW3. Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean. Archaeology and Archaeometry. Comparison between western and eastern Mediterranean (BAR International Series 2185, 1), Archaeopress, Oxford, 2010, p. 115-129.
  • A. Vokaer, La Brittle Ware byzantine et omeyyade en Syrie du nord dans M. Bonifay et J.-C. Tréglia (eds.), LRCW2. Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean. Archaeology and Archaeometry (BAR International Series 1662, 2), Archaeopress, Oxford, 2007, p. 701-714.
  • G. Schneider, A. Vokaer, K. Bartl et M. Daszkiewicz, Some new results of archaeometric analysis of Brittle Wares, dans M. Bonifay et J.-C. Tréglia (eds.), LRCW2. Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean. Archaeology and Archaeometry (BAR International Series 1662, 2), Archaeopress, Oxford, 2007, p. 715-730.



Agnès Vokaer