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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Aramaic Incantation Bowls : Terracotta Incantation Bowl
Terracotta Incantation Bowl - LO.785
Origin: Mesopotamia
Circa: 500 AD to 800 AD
Dimensions: 2.1" (5.3cm) high x 6.6" (16.8cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Medium: Terracotta


Location: Great Britain
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Produced in the Middle East during the Late Antiquity from 6th to 8th century AD, particularly in the region of Upper Mesopotamia and in Syria, incantation bowls were inscribed with magic texts usually in a spiral, beginning from the rim and moving towards the center, and were used to ward off evil spirits and protect family and property. The greatest majority of them has been inscribed in the Aramaic languages. The bowls were buried face down and were thus meant to capture demons. They were commonly placed under the threshold of a house, buried in courtyards, positioned in the corner of the homes of persons recently deceased and in necropolis. Unearthed among the highest strata of excavations, they were very much neglected by the 19th century pioneers of Mesopotamian archaeology who were more interested in discovering palaces and large-scale sculptures. In more recent years however their importance has been recognised and they have been studied in-depth. The incantations were written in a variety of Aramaic dialects including Jewish Aramaic, Mandaic and Syriac. There are also examples written in pseudo-script, presumably by less literate scribes. Although the texts are not dated they are generally assigned to the late Sassanian/early Islamic period (6th-8th century A.D.). Their main function was to trap evil spirits and they were often placed upside down at the corners of rooms, or built into foundations or cemeteries. The texts sometimes instruct to have four different examples placed at the four corners of a room, for extra protection. The names of the clients for whom the bowls were made can be divided into two main categories, Semitic and Persian. However this is not always a reliable guide to their ethnicity, as there is a pronounced Jewish influence in the Aramaic incantations. Many of the scribes may have been Jewish or trained by Jews, and the Hebrew Bible is frequently quoted. The adversaries are rarely named but they are sometimes depicted in rudimentary drawings onto the surface of the clay with a reed pen and black ink. These demons are often depicted fettered in chains with splayed legs and long dishevelled hair. Men and women are both portrayed although the sex is frequently ambiguous. The bowls themselves are all wheel- made and their form derives from the repertoire of Sassanian household vessels. However they were not recycled from older household bowls but made specifically to receive these incantations as they do not present any signs of daily wear and tear. The shape was also an important factor, as they had to be of an open form in order to receive the maximum amount of text over a relatively smooth surface. The patterns created by the writing are remarkable; the most common arrangement was in concentric spirals, radiating outwards from the centre, but there were many other varieties. On rare instances the text continued onto the exterior of the bowl as well. These bowls are fascinating for the insight they provide into popular magic and belief. To date only around 2000 incantation bowls have been registered as archaeological finds, but since they are widely dug up in the Middle East, there may be tens of thousands in the hands of private collectors and traders. Aramaic incantation bowls from Sasanian Mesopotamia are an important source for studying the everyday beliefs of Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians and pagans on the eve of the Muslim conquests. In addition to the heartland of ancient Mesopotamia they have been discovered in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and even Egypt and Uzbekistan- attesting to their widespread popularity. Ink drawings and inscriptions rarely survive from such an early date, in consequence these bowls also offer a rare glimpse into the work of ancient scribes. - (LO.785)


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