Small bronze cylindrical mortar with everted
flattened rim, engraved with dotted circles all
An outstanding encrusted patina throughout the
surface of the mortar and pestle.
Bronze mortars were unknown to the cultures of
the Mediterranean area and the Middle East in
pre-Islamic times and were probably developed
in Persia in the 10th century as copies of cruder
Mortars were used for pounding small amounts
of food, such as spices or herbs in cookery, and
were also an important item of alchemical and
pharmaceutical equipment.The small size of this
beautiful mortar would seem to indicate a
pharmaceutical use, rather than cookery.
Mortars during the Seljuks were often made of
quarternary alloy consisting of copper and lead
with some tin and zinc, known in medieval Persia
as shabah mufragh. The high content of lead
(acting as a flux) allowed an easier casting but
gave the objects a softness whose effects are to
be seen in the many surviving examples which
are mis-shapen though heavy pestle work.
Indeed they must have also been a rather sinister
source of lead poisoning.
Our example is indeed made of bronze with a
minimal content of lead, judging by the hardness
of the alloy and its minimal decoration.Dotted
circles were a trademark of Khurasan and Central
Asia, or what is now known as western
Afghanistan, during the ninth to the eleven
centuries. They were frequently used on
metalwork, pottery and wood carving.
It might have been produced prior to the
emergence of the quarternary alloy. This would
explain its simple yet refined profile, betraying
an elegance beyond time.
For a discussion on early Islamic mortars see:
Hayward Gallery, The Arts of Islam, 1976: pp.