At the Ashmolean museum this week, looking through a collection of largely surface pottery from the Maldives.
This collection was made in 1974 in Malé by J Carswell, who was working on Chinese porcelain from Syria and who, through the literature on trade routes and a conversation with a Maldivian student in Beirut, resolved to investigate the role of the Maldives’ role in the trade of Chinese ceramics. He donated his archives to the Ashmolean where they can now be visited; an annotated photo ledger shows who has been on the trail of this material before us.
From the Chinese side, there were greenwares and various blue on white ceramics, made in China in the thirteenth century.
The relevance to Africa, you might ask? Similar Chinese wares occur on the East African coast and up the Red Sea; based on his analysis, Carswell suggested that the Maldives archipelago might be one of the entrepôts for East Africa. Chinese pottery was among the goods which were entering the medieval Maldives, at that time already famous as a producer of cowrie shells, which served as currency and adornment.
We also saw a set of pottery that was coarser, possible handmade. The fabric was coarser, and there was no glaze. Shapes were often sharply carinated, and there were some distinctive overhanging rims. Carswell notes that some of this resembles material which he excavated in northwest Sri Lanka (the Maldivians had no local source of clay, so all their pottery was imported).
This visit took part in the context of my ongoing project on cowrie shells. The group consisted of Shiura J, who is doing her PhD with us on the medieval archaeology of the Maldives, Annalisa C, who has just joined the project team as postdoctoral researcher, and I.
On a related note, thank you to those who have requested a return of the ‘Potsherd of the Day’ feature. It’s true, it’s been a while – but we have been powering through that material from Benin and should soon have some quite impressive numbers to crunch.