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Holman Bible Dictionary

Pottery in Bible Times

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Everyday household utensils whose remains form the basis for modern dating of ancient archaeological remains. Relatively few Bible texts refer to the methods and products of the potter even though the industry formed a vital part of the economic structure of the ancient world. The few statements about the preparation of the clay, “the potter treads clay” (Isaiah 41:25 ), and the potter's failure and success on the wheel (Jeremiah 18:3-4 ) hardly hint at the importance and abundance in antiquity of “earthen vessels” (Leviticus 6:21 ; Numbers 5:17 ; Jeremiah 32:14 ), the common collective term for pottery in the Bible. However, the work of the potter in shaping the worthless clay provided the imagery the biblical writers and prophets used in describing God's creative relationship to human beings (Job 10:8-9 ; Isaiah 45:9 ).

The pottery sherds (Job 2:8 ), those indestructible remnants of the potters' skill, are recovered in abundance at every archaeological site. They have not only clarified the pottery industries but have also shed light on the migration of peoples, their trade and commerce. They have become the key to establishing a firmer chronological framework for other cultural data, especially in those periods for which few or no written remains are available. This begins in the Neolithic period, before 5000 B.C. when pottery first appeared. See Archaeology; Vessels.

The Bible specifically identifies only two vessels as pottery: earthen pitchers (Lamentations 4:2 ) and earthen bottles (Jeremiah 19:1 ), but an additional series of vessels probably came from the potter's workshop: “jar” for water (Genesis 24:14 NRSV); “pot” ( Exodus 16:3 ); “bowl” (Numbers 7:85 ); “bowl” (Judges 6:38 ); “vial” (1 Samuel 10:1 ); “cruse” for oil and “jar” for flour (1 Kings 17:14 NRSV); another type of “jar” ( 2 Kings 4:2 NRSV); “bowl” and “cup” (Song of Song of Solomon 7:2 ; Isaiah 22:24 ); “cup” (Isaiah 51:17 ,Isaiah 51:17,51:22 ); and “cup” and “pitcher” (Jeremiah 35:5 NRSV). Similar English words represent different Hebrew terms.

Pottery Production Two factors appear to have contributed to the late appearance of fired pottery: (1) early nomads found pottery too cumbersome to transport and (2) a lengthy trial-and-error process in discovering and understanding the firing process.

Clay for the production of pottery may be divided into two types: pure aluminum silicate (“clean” clay) not found in Israel, and aluminum silicate mixed with iron oxides, carbon compounds, and other ingredients (sometimes referred to as “rich” clay). The potter prepared the dry clay by sifting and removing foreign matter, and letting it stand in water to achieve uniform granules. Having achieved the desired texture, the potter mixed it by treading on it or hand-kneading it. Then the potter was ready to shape the vessel.

The earliest pottery from the Neolithic period was handmade. Clay was coiled into the desired shape on a base or stand. These earliest efforts of the potter's trade were coarse and badly fired. Other vessels were hand-shaped from a clay ball. Innovations soon led to refinement of method and technique. During the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze periods (5000-2000 B.C.), turning boards or stones (“tournettes”) formed the prototypes of the potter's wheel. A refinement of the wheel came with the production of two horizontal stone disks with corresponding cone and fitting socket lubricated with water or oil. While the lower stone with the socket served as a stationary base, the upper stone allowed for easy, smooth rotation to enhance the quality and productivity of the potter. Extensive use of the wheel came during the Middle Bronze age (about 1900-1550 B.C.), though a few examples have been identified belonging to the Early Bronze age.

The potter rotated the wheel and used both hands to “draw” the moist clay from base to rim into the shape of desired curvature, diameter, and height. The vessel was set aside to dry to a leatherhard consistency. At this point the vessel received its distinctive modifications such as base, handles, projecting decorations, and spout adjustment. Coloration and ornamentation followed with a variety of options such as slips and paint, burnishing, incisions, impressions, and reliefs. A second drying period further reduced water content to about three percent. Then the vessel was fired in an open or closed kiln at temperatures between 450-950 degrees Celsius.

The best wares obviously were achieved at the highest and most consistent temperatures, a result determined by the nature of the kiln. Firing may have begun by accident when people noticed the quality of clay vessels left near or in a fireplace or recovered after a building or town burned. First combustible materials were burned over the pottery in open pits. Later, the pottery appears to have been stacked above the firebox. Ultimately, the need to equalize the distribution of heat led to the closed kiln. The introduction of bellows and forced air firing provided the desirable higher temperatures.

Importance of Pottery Analysis for Historical Studies Each culture produced its own distinctive, durable pottery. That distinctiveness has enabled archaeologists to trace each culture's “fingerprints” through time. The archaeologist can describe the movement of a race from one place to another, the influence of new people in a particular region or area, and the commercial activity of the people. Archaeologists have used changes in pottery forms, shapes, decorations, and materials from one period to the next to establish a relative chronological framework for dating purposes. The type pottery in an excavated layer or strata provides the key for dating, at least in a relative way, all other cultural artifacts and architectural remains within the strata.

Developments in Pottery Production in Palestine The significance of pottery analysis may be highlighted in a general way by recognizing the major developments of pottery production in Palestine throughout biblical history period by period.

1. Neolithic Period (7000-5000 B.C.) Neolithic pottery, the earliest attempts at this important industry, were poorly handmade and badly fired, although some types including bowls and storage jars were decorated elaborately with red slip, burnished, painted (triangular and zigzag lines, herringbone design), and incised (herringbone). Jericho, Shagr19/|! ar ha-Golan and other sites in the Jordan Valley have provided the best examples of these early cultural developments.

2. Chalcolithic Period (5000-3000 B.C.) The Ghassulian (in the Jordan Valley) and Beersheba (in the Negev) cultures have provided the best assemblages for this period of pottery advancement. Rope ornamentation on this handmade pottery clearly suggests the practical strengthening of the clay vessels with various rope netting or binding. A wide variety of shapes and sizes suggests the proliferation of household and commercial uses for storage and transport of both dry and liquid products and merchandise.

3. Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 B.C.) This period has been divided into three and possibly four distinct cultural periods on the basis of the distinctive pottery. The first period (EB I) is characterized by grey burnished ware, band-slip ware, and burnished red-slip ware. The second period (EB II) is identified with “Abydos” ware (pitchers and storage jars with burnished red-slips on the lower half and brown-and-black-painted triangles and dots on the upper half), first found in Egyptian royal tombs of the First Dynasty at Abydos in Upper Egypt and most important in the chronological correlation of Egyptian and Palestinian history. The third period (EB III) includes kraters (large storage or mixing bowls), bowls, pitchers, and stands, first identified at khirbet Kerak (Beth Yerak) at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee, which has a distinctive combination of highly burnished red and black slip. This culture appears to have originated in eastern Anatolia. The fourth period (EB IV) with innovations may be a cultural continuation of the previous period.

4. Middle Bronze Age (about 2000-1500 B.C.) A transitional phase (first identified MB I, and now mostly EB-MB) resulted from nomadic or seminomadic tribes who destroyed the final phase of EB culture. They produced a distinctive pottery with gobular and cylindrical shapes. These combined hand-shaped bodies and wheel-made necks and out-flared rims. The period introduced the pinching of the rim of a small bowl to produce a four-wicked lamp. The patriarchal period usually is identified with the next period (MB Iia). The pottery reflects the arrival of a highly developed culture that results in a prosperous, urbanized, sedentary population with rich cultural ties to the upper Euphrates region from which Abraham migrated, according to the biblical text. The pottery exhibits excellent workmanship, and in many instances suggests metal prototypes. Possibly the earliest Semitic wheel-made vessels were the beautiful carinated bowls and vessels of this period. Skilled potters, with the advent of the new fast wheel were able to produce elegant new shapes with wide bodies, narrow bases, and flaring rims, all with refined details. During the MB IIb, an unusual group of juglets indicate pottery exchange with Egypt which during this period was politically joined to Syria-Palestine.

5. Late Bronze Age (about 1550-1200 B.C.) This period generally coincides with the vibrant New Kingdom period in Egypt when Palestine primarily was under Egyptian control, a rule that became more concentrated and demanding toward the end of the period. Canaan also maintained extensive trade connections with Aegean and northeastern Mediterranean powers. Cypriot pitchers called “bilbils” and shaped as poppyseed heads (upside-down), were among the most popular Palestinian imports. They may have been used to transport opium in wine or water from Cyprus to other Mediterranean sites.

Clear pottery distinctives again suggest a three period division. The Late Bronze I (about 1550-1400) reflects a continuation of the vitality of the earlier Middle Bronze culture. The pottery of the Late Bronze IIa (about 1400-1300) shows a deterioration of forms and quality during a period of political instability associated with the el-Amarna Period. That deterioration becomes more evident during the Late Bronze IIb (about 1300-1200) as Egypt's Nineteenth Dynasty established a firmer control over the affairs of the economy and urban centers of Canaan. An abundance of Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery throughout the country would seem to suggest a growing commercial interest in the Levant for export and trade.

6. Iron Age (about 1200-587/6 B.C.) The Iron Age basically runs from the conquest of Canaan to the demise of the Judean Kingdom and usually is divided into two distinct periods. The distinguishing elements in pottery and other cultural elements for making the archaeological divisions of this period are not overly clear. Iron Age I (1200-925) pottery from the settlement to the division of the kingdom begins with a continuation of Late Bronze traditions, as Israel borrowed industrial techniques from the local Canaanite population.

The arrival of the Philistines after 1200 B.C. brought a distinctively decorated pottery with Mycenaean shapes and motifs. The deterioration of the quality and design of this pottery tends to reflect the eclectic nature of these “Sea Peoples.” By 1000 B.C. the distinctive nature of the pottery in the Philistine plain had basically disappeared.

During the Iron II period (925-587/6), from the division of the United Monarchy to the fall of the Judean Kingdom to the Babylonians, the political separation produced clear distinctions in the regional pottery types, generally known as “Samaria” and “Judean” ware. During most of this period the northern pottery exhibits the higher standard of workmanship. Most prominent in imported ware up to 700 B.C. is the Cypro-Phoenician ware. From 700 to 500 B.C. imports of Assyrian origin resulted in local potters copying Assyrian prototypes.

7. Persian Period (586-330 B.C.) The deterioration of the pottery with inferior clay, firing, and general workmanship appears to reflect the general economy disruption throughout the region, a situation that seems to prevail throughout the Near East. In Palestine a growing number of Greek imports appeared, especially toward the end of the period.

8. Hellenistic Period (330-63 B.C.) While the local pottery was basically crude and uninspired, imported wares include a wide range of luxury items from molded Megarian bowls to impressed and roulette decorated black-glazed and red-glazed ware. The maritime trade connections further are evident, for example, in widespread appearance of Rhodian amorphae.

9. Roman Period (63 B.C.-A.D. 325) Only Herodian pottery is of particular interest for an understanding of the biblical period. Local pottery basically followed earlier traditions with the dominant innovation a ribbing of many vessel surfaces. The most common imported ware is both eastern and western red-glazed terra sigillata, noted for its outstanding finish and general workmanship. The Nabataeans who controlled the trade routes of the Negev/Sinai and the Transjordan produced the finest local varieties, emulating the skills and export products of the Roman potters of the period.

George L. Kelm


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Pottery in Bible Times'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?n=5079. 1991.

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