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    One he said was from the Umm an Nar period - some 5000 years ago. It was a very fine thin piece of pottery with a slight flare and a beautifully finished rounded  edge. I marveled that people could produce something as fine as that so long ago. Another shard that was possibly 1000 years younger was decorated with  colored stripes. It was also very thin, made of fine clay. The third piece my friend showed me was much thicker but still made with the same fine clay as the previous one. It was from a much later period when people seemed to have lost some of the art of making fine pottery.

    During my many desert walks I have come across other areas that are liberally sprinkled with potshards. Many of the pottery pieces are discoloured with the soot of ancient fires, lit by the desert inhabitants of thousands of years ago to cook the local equivalent of bouillabaise.

    The oldest pottery found in our region dates from the ‘Ubaid period – a culture that flourished in southern Mesopotamia from the 7th to the 4th millennium BC. This was when men still hunted with flint arrowheads and scraped the hides of the animals they trapped and killed with small stone scrapers. This type of pottery was often decorated and has been found in several areas of the UAE, from off-shore islands in Abu Dhabi to Ras al Khaimah. It was not made here, but imported from Mesopotamia.

    On Dalma island in Abu Dhabi emirate a type of white vessels, that had been unknown till the early 1990’s, was found side by side with ‘Ubaid pottery. This pottery appears to have been locally made, by grinding gypsum to a powder and making it into a paste, from which the vessels constructed layer by layer. From the material published on this type of stoneware, it is not clear if firing was used to create the pots, but they do seem to have been used for cooking.

    The people who traded the ‘Ubaid pottery may have been instrumental in teaching local people how to mould clay and how to fire it to make durable pottery. The oldest fired pot, known from the UAE, was found on Merawah island during the Abu Dhabi Islands Archeological Survey (ADIAS) in 1998. It happened to be a complete pot, and has been dated to 3700-3400 BC. These dates are truly remarkable because they are from the middle of the Fourth millennium, an era about which very little is known till now.

    Local pot-making really took off in the early Third millennium – many potshards from this period were found in the Hili 8 site near Al Ain, during the work of Serge Cleuziou in that region. They correspond in type to pottery imported from Mesopotamia and found in Hafit-type graves – local imitations, so to say.

    To make clay pots you need clay and this is not present in abundance in the desert. It needs streams or creeks and an area with gentle currents that allow depositing of silt. These conditions occurred in certain areas along the coastline in those early days. Since that coastline is now quite far inland, most clay found today in the UAE comes from deposits inland from the coast of Dubai and Ajman. I myself have found a very fine grey clay along the top end of Dubai creek and at al Jadaf, but this occurred only in very small quantities and contained a lot of salt that would make it unsuitable for firing.

    Some of the first locally made pottery is quite fine and simply decorated as described above. The shards I saw recently were no more than 3 mm thick. In the Wadi Suq-period (around 700 AD) the pottery is much more coarse, with potsherds of large pots up to 15 mm thick and very grainy. Around the 18th Century AD people seemed to have regained the former skills for pottery from Julfar (near present day Ras al Khaimah) was beautifully made, fine pottery. Local pottery was not glazed until Islamic times.

    In later times pottery and even porcelain was imported by sea from as far away as China, but these were luxury items.

    The large storage pots for grains, that we can still find in the courtyards of mountain farms and the round-bottomed water jars – these were (and still are) locally made. The water jars with their round bottoms cannot stand on the ground, but are hung from a tree, so that the wind can evaporate the water that has soaked into the porous clay. This causes the water to cool down, so that even on a hot summer day a cool drink is always available.

     A centre of pottery production was located in the sandy plain of wadi Haqeel near Ras al Khaimah. Suitable clay was found nearby in the runoffs of mountain wadis.

    With the demand for household pottery having disappeared with the arrival of plastic, the pottery skills have not been passed on to a new generation and few local people now know how to mould a pot or fire a kiln.

    The underground kilns that were still in use twenty years ago have fallen into disrepair as have the stone houses of the erstwhile potters.

    Present day potteries are all operated by Indian expatriates and are mainly located in the neighbourhood of Siji and Masafi. Picking one at random, I visited a medium-sized operation just off-road in Thoban. At the entrance to the compound sat a pottery chicken on a pedestal, covering his ear with his wings like a chicken-version of the hear-no-evil monkey. A friendly young man named Vijay came out to greet me and when I commented on the chicken he said, grinning: “Just a joke!”

    Vijay told me that the clay he uses is mainly imported from Iran and India, but some fine clay comes from Dubai and Ajman. The designs used to make the various pots and ornaments are often of Indian origin, although Vijay can make any design you may want. Witness to that were five meter-high terracotta angels, ordered by someone for Christmas and never collected.

    In the dim concrete shed several men were turning pots at their wheels. One was moistening the clay in a small electric mixer and another was sculpting details on a replica of a Dubai coffeepot. Vijay mentioned that one worker can make up to a hundred small bowls or ornaments, but large pots can take up to 2 or 3 days to finish. Rows upon rows of pots, figurines and bowls were set out to dry – a process that takes several days. The Indian influence showed in a battery of elephants in one corner, while in the middle of the floor large herds of camels stood all facing the same way.

    In another corner stood some rough straight vessels, still unfinished. Vijay showed me how they are shaped by the potter holding a round stone on the inside of the vessel while beating the outside with a wooden club.

    We went outside to look at the kilns. The old wood-burning kiln had been abandoned in favour of one that runs on diesel.

    “I can get a much better quality now”, said Vijay, “With the old wooden furnace you were never sure of the outcome, because the temperature was not the same in every part of the kiln. The pots at the bottom would be well fired, while the ones on top would not be done yet and would break easily. The diesel kiln can reach a temperature of 900 to 1000 degrees centigrade and the result is a good strong pot”. He picked up a giant incense burner from the piles standing around and tapped it with his knuckles. A clear sound rang out, as if from a bell. Vijay smiled: “That is the sound of well-fired pot!”

    How long does the pot stay in the kiln?

    “It takes twenty four hours to fire the pots and then another twenty four hours for the kiln to cool down.”

    Vijay and his workers provide pots for the local markets and for some shops in the cities. Also recently there have been occasional exports to the United States. 

    When I asked about the turnover in this particular pottery, he said that only the six winter months have good results, while in the summer months sales are low.

    The largest pots in the compound – huge vessels that reached as high as my chest - came to 200 dhs, I was told. I remarked that a while ago I had bought some large pots as planters, but that a few weeks of watering the plants had made the pots dissolve. “That won’t happen with these pots”, Vijay said, not without pride – and proceeded to sell me two smaller pots as garden planters. At 10 dhs a piece I could take the risk of a short life! My next stop was at the Friday market near Masafi, where several stalls carry the pots of many different potteries. Here very few pots still had their natural colour. White, green and sometimes multi-coloured paint had been applied with abandon. Besides pots, there were also fairy castles with onion-domed turrets and cute houses that looked as if they could have been made out of gingerbread. The least attractive were the black-and-gold pots that were spray-painted as I watched.

    I asked for the price of some pots that were similar in size and appearance to the ones I had just bought, to see what the mark-up would be. “Twenty dirhams, madam” – and when I turned away without buying, I heard: “….for you a discount!”

    It does not seem like a gold mine to me, this pottery business – at least not for the potters and the stall holders at the market.

    As I walk back to the car my eye is drawn to a row of clay feet displayed on the ground. This is amazing kitsch – unless it is again a joke…


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