Levantine Ceramics
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BibArch Home Up Footnotes

Basic Concepts of Levantine Ceramic Ware

by Rodrigo Silva

Archaeology is a combination of science and art with the purpose of learning about certain people or peoples through the careful analysis of remains. The dating of artifacts, which may lead to a general dating of a specific period of any given culture, is among the main objectives of archaeological research.F1

Archaeologists struggle to obtain absolute dates instead of those based on relative chronology.F2 They developed several methodologies for archaeological research routinely utilized in undertaking archaeological research in the Holy Land (i.e. Syro-Palestinian archaeology). Some of these methods, to mention a few, are architectural traits of a certain periodF3, numismaticsF4, the Carbon 14 methodF5, and dendrochronology (or the reading of tree rings in artifacts made out of wood)F6. The advent of these techniques has allowed new ways of dating but its acceptance is not yet complete.F7

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This clay jug, still in situ, has sufficient identifying elements for its dating and thereby providing hard evidence for establishing a date for the locus in which it was found. A BibArch™ Photo.  

Undoubtedly, archaeology has gained much with technology, however, more than one hundred years ago, the British excavator Sir Flinders Petrie introduced a method that, by far, is the most common in the archaeology of the Levant.F8 The innovation was first used at the excavation of Tell el-HësiF9 (some 25 km. from the city of Gaza in southern Palestine) and consisted in the usage of pottery as a dating method. Such introduction changed the nature of the next century's archaeological research in Palestine.F10

Any effective artifactual dating method must fulfill three requisites: first, the object must be used by many people in many places; second, such object must have been fairly abundant; third, it mush have had notorious taxonomical or stylistic changes. Ceramic ware fulfills all these requisites and it has done it from very early in human history.F11 The intrinsic human need for producing tools and clay have been allies for many millennia.F12

Another way to state this is that archaeologists use samplingF13 of ceramic ware for three reasons:

  1. Ancient pottery is widely distributed throughout Palestine.F14

  2. Correlative dating is made possible by notorious morphological changes.

  3. Terracotta (baked clay) is virtually indestructible.F15

The use of clay seems to have been independently developed by different peoples in different places. In Syro-Palestine (which encompasses the modern state of Israel and portions of Jordan, Syria and Egypt) clay is very accessible.F16 Also, the fact that the region is a natural bridge between Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia should be added to the pottery equation (i.e., the land would be naturally influenced by foreign elements).

How did ancient man discover the connection between clay and pyro-technologyF17, i.e. that dried clay subjected to red heat (about 600 degrees Celsius) becomes hard without disintegrating in the presence of water? There are two main theories that try to explain such discovery: The earth theory states that holes lined with clay were made in the ground in order to keep the hard-to-create fire which was vital for human existence. That fire would turn the clay into a crude vessel which maybe gave humans a hint for pottery manufacturing.

The second theory is that potters would line baskets with clay to render them waterproof. Then, in due time, as the clay dried out and contracted the potters would have simple pots which could hold fire or which the potters could place into fire. Alternatively, potters could burn such clay-lined baskets in fire leaving a simple fired pot behind. The problem with this theory is that it presupposes the existence of basketry.F18

How were the vessels made before the introduction of the revolutionary wheel at the end of the MB I?F19

  1. Pinch pots were made in the hand by squeezing and manipulating clay between the fingers.

  2. Coil or ring pots were made by placing rings of clay on top of each other, joining them together and smoothing them over. This enabled the making of much larger pots.

  3. Molded pots, which required some sort of model, were formed either over natural forms such as gourds, or man-made forms such as baskets; or over molds made especially from clay. Clay was smeared on the inside of a mould such as basket or on the outside in the case of solid molds such as stones.

  4. Pots could also be made by painting out clay from a lump using an outside paddle and an inner support. These tools are known respectively as the paddle and anvil and were also used in the Indus Valley to complete the form of a pot thrown on the wheel.

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The Hazor Excavations. These squares were rich in pottery fragments. Such pottery remnants, usually sherds but some times artifacts surviving intact, are the primary basis for dating loci and structures.  A BibArch™ Photo. 

The introduction of the slow wheel (see footnote 19) enabled pots to be made much more quickly. The wheel was either pushed or kicked round and the impetus of the stone wheel was sufficient to enable pots to be made. Since the wheel rotated, both the decoration and the morphology of the ware would undergo profound and lasting changes (i.e., their shape had to be round and the easiest way to decorate them was by painted or indented horizontal bands).

Another important element in the manufacturing of vessels is their impermeability. Since the introduction of glaze in the modern sense of the word took place much later, ancient potters had to look for alternative methods in order to strengthen their vesselsF20 and make them impervious.F21

Amnon Ben-Tor, director of the Hazor excavations, provided several points during the 1992 season regarding the reading of Palestinian pottery. He defined the archaeologist's concern in ceramic ware as the study of changes.F22 Ancient pottery (as any product of human creativity) was not foreign to different styles in decoration and shapes. These stylistic changes, promoted by the easy replacement of vessels (i.e. inherently cheap), equals to more data for chronological dating (despite the fact that it loads slowly please see Levantine Pottery Chart). For the standard ceramic study, see Ruth Amiran's Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (Amiran 1970).

There are three factors connected with one's ability to analyzeF23, classify and interpretF24 Palestinian ware (and, for that matter, any kind of ceramic ware):

  1. Basic study - memorization of basic patterns (shapes, decorations, styles, etc.).

  2. Experience - an endless process of practice.

  3. Feeling - call it a "gift" if you wish, but it is real.

Never forget that all ancient pottery is hand-made, consequently, do not expect to find two identical vessels. Rather than looking for identicalness look for similarities.F25 Those similarities can be summarized as:

I ShapeF26: (1) Profiles--elongated, short, carinated (slight or pronounced S shape), and the like and (2) Elements--shape of rim, of handle, of base (and of spouts at times).F27

II Finishing: The kind of clay, the making of the vessel, its firing, burnishing, decoration, and the like. 

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The black buckets in this photo are for debris removal and the setting apart of pottery sherds and other small artifacts for analysis. Supervisors label each pottery bucket so that its contents will be matched with the locus of its origin. A BibArch™ Photo.

The five most common types of vessels are:

  1. Bowls. Among the first to be manufactured, some have conical omphalos or may be decorated, but their main characteristic is that they are openF28

  2. Kraters. Large deep bowls with wide mouths (they can be either open or closed). Their main usage, as inferred from the tombs excavated at Jericho, was to serve and mix drinks. Some kraters were equipped with their own built-in tripodal support which reveals that the floors on which they were placed were uneven. Their typical diameter was around forty centimeters.

  3. Storage Jars. There are two kinds of them: The pithos (large jar) which at certain places could store up to sixty liters, and the regular jar with a capacity of about twenty-five liters. The capacity is their only difference since their shape is identical and eminently suited to their storing function.F29 They not only stored liquids (as clearly seen by the unmistakable marks of evaporation), but also grainF30. Their pointed bases indicated that, rather than standing by themselves, they were half interred.

  4. Cooking-Pots. These are easily identified by the smoke-blackened, gritty "fireproof" clay with which they were manufactured. These are, by far and for obvious reasons, the most common type of vessel found in PalestineF31. Another characteristic that identifies cooking-pots is that all of them are closed.

  5. Jugs & Juglets. These vessels, invariably connected with other drinking ones, are a one-handle decanting vessel of medium or small capacity, respectively. Usually, they have a narrow neck and sometimes are provided with a pinched rim which is convenient for pouring. Once excavated and out of context, the border line between a juglet and a jug is somewhat obscure and subject to free interpretation, however, if found in a tomb, for example, a juglet may usually be found inside a jug.F32

We always need to remember that pottery is "a very sensitive product of human inventive power. Although it forms part of life, it reflects changes, political events and artistic trends in the progress of humanity" (Amiran 1957:187). In other words, there is an intrinsic risk in the study of ceramic ware: Do not get caught in its study per se. Try to learn about the people that used the pot rather than master its composition, shape and date. A big mistake that archaeologists have committed in the past is the virtual exclusion of the people, the common folk who inhabited the land.F33

Finally, two aspects about Palestinian ceramic ware are to be considered:

  1. The material culture of this region is poorer than that of the two great civilizations of Mesopotamia to the north, and the Nile Valley to the south.

  2. In spite of this fact -- and to some extent due to it -- no long static periods can be observed here. On the contrary, the process of development of the material culture both local and influenced from outside, is often rapid, due to the bridge nature of the region. All these processes are minutely reflected in ceramics (Amiran 1957:187).F34


Page last edited: 01/25/06 07:15 PM


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