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 size of this
beautiful mortar would seem to indicate a
domestic use, rather than pharmaceutical.
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.
The cylindrical body presents four flanges on the
sides, a played foot and en everted flattened rim.
This type of spartan decor was employed in
Persia during the 11th and 12th centuries AD and
was apparently exported through to Spain,
attested by the famous mortar in the Villanueva
y Geltru' Museum in Barcelona.
Reference: for a discussion on early Islamic
mortars, Hayward Gallery, The Arts of Islam,
1976: pp. 157-171, pl.174 for the Barcelona
LO.1083. Mortar and pestle, cast bronze.
body resting on a flat base with slanting sides,
lower part of the body is thinner and becomes
right up to the everted slanting rim. The body is
decorated with tall and thin almond-shapes in
relief. There is a pestle attached to it.
Iran or Central Asia, 10th – 11th century.
Prof. Geoffrey King