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  • Date:

    1125-1175 (made)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Incised slipware, or "sgraffito/sgraffiato"

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 10

This ceramic bowl is a functional everyday vessel used for serving or eating food and as such is a reflection of Byzantine popular taste. The shape imitates a metal form and it is a type of fine incised slipware, which was especially popular during the 12th century. The evidence found in shipwrecks has shown that these objects were exported and traded widely.

Incised slipware ceramics were popular throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages. Many production centres in the Near East and the islands of the Aegean made such ceramics and highlighted them with coloured glazes thus producing a much more colourful ware. Ceramics like the bowl here with an uncoloured simple but finely executed design seem to be more characteristic of the Greek areas in and around Constantinople, Corinth and Thessalonika.

Depictions of wading water birds was common in the Eastern Mediterranean and is part of a shared iconography between Christian and Islamic ceramic producers and users.

Physical description

Byzantine bowl of incised slipware. This is a shallow circular bowl with an almost vertical rim and a low wide foot. The exterior of the bowl is unglazed, revealing the red pottery body. There are some areas of dark discolouration and a line of slip around the outside of the top edge, but none on the rim of the bowl. The interior has been covered in an off-white slip. A fine tool, a stylus, has been used to incise a design through the white slip to expose the red surface of the clay. The motif incised inside the bowl is of a large waterbird, a crane or a heron. The bird is in profile. Its head points upwards and its feet are set apart as if it is walking. It has plumage across its body drawn in lines and dashes, long legs and large feet. The twofalconer's lures at each side, together with the central bird, occupy the whole floor of the bowl's interior. The branches are palmette-like leaf-scrolls. There is no visible glaze on this dish (the museum registers state it had been burned off).


1125-1175 (made)

Materials and Techniques

Incised slipware, or "sgraffito/sgraffiato"


Diameter: 20.5 cm, Height: 4.5 cm, Diameter: 10.5 cm of foot, Height: 0.4 cm of foot, Weight: 0.46 kg

Object history note

This bowl is a secular object made for popular use, not for the court or the church. The evidence of shipwrecks shows that these dishes were sometimes exported and traded. In the museum registers it records that dishes of this type coming onto the market around the time this was acquired are alleged to have come from a burned shipwreck in the Eastern Mediterranean. A further note in the registers states that in 1980 the museum was offered another similar dish with an engraved bird which they judged by deposits on the reverse to be from the same shipwreck as this example, and that this was said to be from a wreck off the coast of Izmir on the Turkish coast.

Historical context note

This type of ceramic is a reflection of Byzantine popular taste. It is a functional everyday vessel for food. This fine incised slipware was especially popular during the 12th century and was widely diffused. The vessel would have been shaped in wet clay first, left to dry and then a white slip added to the interior and part of the exterior, by dipping or pouring. Then incisions were made through the slip to reveal the red body of the clay underneath. The striking effect achieved by the contrast of the red and white is the end result of refinements that had been made to this technique which had been used to decorate pottery from very early times. By the 12th century engraved slipware was at its high-point.

The subjects depicted on this type of 12th century incised vessel often relate to the social status and wellbeing of their owner. Waterbirds are a common motif in Roman, Byzantine and Islamic iconography.

Descriptive line

Bowl of red earthenware covered with a white slip, only partly on the exterior. Incised with a fine stylus through the slip with an image of a wading bird. Said to have come from a shipwreck. Byzantine, possibly Thessalonika, 12th century.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Bibliography: Armstrong, `Byzantine Glazed Ceramic Tableware in the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts', Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 71, 1/2 (1997), pp. 4-15. This paper deals with similar bowls from same ship wreck

Production Note

Byzantine Empire


Earthenware; Slip



Subjects depicted

Crane (bird); Heron


Food vessels & Tableware; Ceramics


Ceramics Collection

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