There are a number of pieces of glazed relief ware decorated in fashions similar to that seen in the present flask, which most authorities write about as a relatively coherent group. They are known unglazed, or glazed as here in a monochrome green lead glaze. There are a few related pieces which are glazed either in another colour or with more than one colour on the same vessel. Vessels and fragments have been found in a number of Early Islamic sites, including Samarra, Susa, Rosen-Ayalon, Hira, al-Mina Nishapur and Tarsus. The idea of monochrome, usually green, glazed moulded pottery vessels is one that is well known from the Roman period; an example is illustrated by Arthur Lane (Early Islamic Pottery, London, 1947, pl.4A).
Origins for very similar pieces have been suggested as being Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Oliver Watson, writing on the pieces in the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait, attributes them to different centres, but with those that he places in the Eastern Iranian world he seems at least partly reliant on their reputed immediate provenance which was Afghanistan. On similar but slightly firmer grounds a related dish now in the Freer gallery, Washington, was said to have bene found at Susa and has thus been catalogued as from Iraq/Mesopotamia (Lane, op.cit., pl.5B; Esin Atil, Ceramics from the World of Islam, Washington D.C., 1973, no.2, pp.16-17). Seen overall there does however appear to be some pattern to the attributions, which enable a few pointers to be put in place to help identify the origins of further examples.
A number of vessels with related decoration and technique were excavated at Nishapur (Charles K. Wilkinson, Nishapur Potttery from the Early Islamic Period, New York, 1974, esp.nos.53, 54, 62, 64, pp.241-2 and ill.p.253 (all glazed); also nos.137-189, pp.326-333, ill.pp.355-358). There are a number among these that Wilkinson suggests are unusual for Nishapur and thus suggests that they are imported. Sometimes he mentions a specific suggested site of origin, and sometimes not. Leaving out those that he suggests might be imports, it appears that one of the main Iranian characteristics is the use of a dotted ground. This is a feature that continues through to pieces that demonstrably date from the 12th and 13th century, leading Wilkinson to suggest that most of the pieces he discusses are of that period, when a number seem to belong to groups that most authorities date earlier. There are a couple of features that he specifically does not recognise as Iranian, the strong hatching used as the background filler within piped outlines (no.164, pp.330 and 358) and the beaded bands that are "very much like some of the gold-lustered ware with green splashes found at Samarra (excavations at Samarra 1936-1939, II, pls.LXXXIX, no.8, XC, top; Sarre, Die Keramik von Samarra, pls.X, XI). Probably imported from Iraq (Wilkinson, op. cit, no.53, p.241).
This use of the dotted motifs within the strapwork bands, rather than as a background to the rest of the decoration, seems to be a consistent indicator for a Western rather than Eastern Islamic origin. It is very obvious in the Freer dish noted above, and it is also very prominent on a dish of very similar profile, with the main design similarly formed by interlaced beaded strapwork that is in the Khalili Collection (Ernst J. Grube, Cobalt and Lustre, London, 1994, no.15, pp.23-4). Unlike that Freer dish which is covered with a yellow-ish glaze, this is covered with a plain green glaze.
The present ewer shares many features with the Khalili dish. Here can be found the beaded bands, although here they go around the lobed motifs on the shoulder rather than interlacing around the body. Here too is no dotted background. The most notable similarity however is that use of raised leaf-motifs filled with chevron hatching. In the Khalili dish these are arranged in groups of four, forming quatrefoils within the strapwork. Here they appear, considerably larger, as the pronounced elements on the shoulder of the ewer, again within the dotted strapwork. The scrolling palmette forms, as on both the Khalili and Freer dishes, are filled with diagonal hatching, left against a ground that has been left plain.
The present jug does show some similarities with a fragmentary jug in the Khalili Collection (Grube, op. cit., no.13, p.19). The meandering vine over the shoulder of the Khalili vessel is also very similar but slightly tighter than that on a jug sold in these Rooms 12 October 1999, lot 281. Both however have the filler decoration in the background, leaving the decorative elements blank, rather than the other way around, as here. Another jug of the same technique but different decoration was sold in these Rooms, 13 October 1998, lot 286.
The present jug is the largest published piece from this period to have survived. While it has been broken and joined together, virtually all the pieces of the original vessel are present, giving it a monumentality rarely seen in vessels dating from this very early period of Islam. It is a remarkable survival.