History of the utilization of White Bronze in Iranian Metalwork
Scarce written material exists about the antecedents of White Bronze manufacture in Iran. Abolqssem Kashani has spoken of it in his “Arayes-aj-Jawaher va Lata’ef-al-Ata’eb”. About the origins of this alloy, Kashani writes: “As eating or drinking in silver or gold vessels was prohibited under Hojjaj, savants and artisans made vessels of White Bronze”. These were not actually made of gold or silver, but their appearance was just as resplendent.
Specimens obtained in different regions show that the manufacture of this alloy, was well known in Iran since most ancient times.
On the basis of existing archaeological documents, the manufacture of these objects was well-known and currently practiced before the reign of Hojjaj, 700AD, by AbdolMalek Marvan to supervise the affairs of Araqain, Hejaz, Khorassan, Fars and the surrounding territories.
For example, White Bronze alloy vessels manufactured using both casting and hammering techniques, have been found in Lorestan. These include plain and decorated types.
Another early specimen of White Bronze is a bowl dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, unearthed during the excavations carried out in Marlik. It presents all the apparent characteristics of White Bronze: A simple (hemispherical) shape, cracked rim, and wart-like patina, which covers the entire surface of the object. Other items made of this alloy have also been discovered on the archaeological site of Arjan.
Although it has not yet come across examples of White Bronze from Achaemenid period, it is most probable that this alloy was in use at the time. A number of White Bronze vessels dating back to the late Parthian period and early Sassanid era were discovered in Deilaman.
On the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (Guilan and seaside Eastern Mazandaran), several White Bronze objects dating back to 7th-8th century AD (late Sassanid period) have been identified to the present. This was an era, when the local rulers of these regions strived at emulating the majesty and grandeur of the Sassanid court, while retaining their independence. But due to financial limitations, they seldom could afford gold or silver dishware, and so substituted these with vessels made of White Bronze.
Beside its attractive golden and silvery appearance, this alloy is quite cheap to manufacture, and the production of White Bronze vessels emulating Sassanid silverware was actively pursued all along the first three centuries after the Hegira.
Although they display varied shapes and serve different purposes, White Bronze vessels discovered on Southern shores of Caspian Sea are conspicuously simple in form. They include plain and ornamented bowls, boat-shaped vessels, long-necked started pitchers, footed and simple plates, large trays, ladles, etc.
Manufacturing White Bronze objects continued throughout Islamic era, until Safavid period, when such decorative devices as metal inlay (particularly silver inlay) were added to the current incising and carving techniques. The artful metal workers of this period have left behind very handsome White Bronze vessels.
As these pieces of evidence attest, White Bronze was already used in large quantities during the early centuries of Islamic era, and its popularity further increased between 10th-13th centuries AD.
After the Mongol Invasion, when the artisans of Khorassan migrated westward in the aftermath of the large-scale destruction of their cities and artistic centers, the manufacture of White Bronze artifacts continued in Western Iran. In Timurid era, the manufacture of White Bronze objects resumed in the revived metal workshops of Khorassan and it appears from extant documents that this art was more or less pursued until Safavid era.
Generally speaking, White Bronze vessels, produced during Islamic period, present various shapes and decoration types, but more often include hemispherical bowls, trays, plates, footed vases, spoons, skimmers…
Brief History of Islamic Art