Robert B. J. Mason

Near and Middle-Eastern Civilizations (NMC)
University of Toronto

University of Toronto - Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations - Mason Home - Unnofficial Mason - Royal Ontario Museum

My research interests cover art, technology, trade, and industry from the beginnings of time to the industrial revolution, with a special interest in the medieval period. Although my research covers the globe, my primary area of interest is the Middle East, while my current field work is in Syria.

I received a doctorate in archaeological science from the University of Oxford (1994), and a bachelor's degree in anthropology and geology from the University of Toronto.

My biggest area of research has been in the glazed pottery made in the Islamic world between about AD 600-1500. While Europe was in a dark age, and would only recover from it because of knowledge passed on from the Middle East, the Islamic world region excelled in all the pursuits of mankind, especially in art and science. The pottery of this region encompassed both arenas, being both high technology and significant art.

My approach to this pottery I multidisciplinary. I have taken an archaeologist's view of the typology and dating of the wares and combined it with analytical techniques to find out where it was made and how it was made. This multidisciplinary approach has provided a new view of this pottery, a view which has disturbed decades-old assumptions about where, when and how these wares were produced.

A particular type of scientific analysis I practice is petrographic analysis. In this a slice of the pottery is taken, precisely 0.03 mm thick, and is studied with a microscope that has special features that allows identification of rocks and minerals. This is what allows me to identify where pottery is made, by characterising the mineralogical "fingerprint" of different kiln sites. One of my more important findings was revealing the importance of Basra, in Iraq, as the most important pottery production centre in the Middle East in the late 8th to 10th centuries AD. Pottery from this site was identified by my analyses in sites as far away as South Africa and East Asia, covering the mythical journeys of that native of Basra, Sindbad. Apart from the work on pottery from the Islamic world, I have studied pottery in this manner from various sites around the Middle East going back to the Neolithic period, while my students have used my facilities to study pottery from the New World.

Apart from pottery from all periods, I am generally interested in scientific analysis of archaeological finds; ancient industries technology and trade; and military architecture, particularly castles.


Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi
Fieldwork and museum-building at a Syrian monastry

Middle Eastern Pottery in Italy and Europe
Trade pottery from the Islamic world

Syrian Ceramics
Trade, industry and technology in Medieval Syria

Lustre-ware Ceramics
High art and high tech from the Medieval Middle East
Ceramic Petrology Facility
How to find out where your pot comes from

Tigris-Euphrates Ceramics
Trade, industry and technology in ancient Mesopotamia


In the field, Iran 1996
In the field, Iran 1996

Excavating at Tell al-Acharneh, 2002 (photography by Karina Gerlach, courtesy Michel Fortin)

My favourite object, click it to find out all about it.

University of Toronto - Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations - Mason Home - Unnofficial Mason - Royal Ontario Museum