Potter; Pottery

pot'-er, pot'-er-i:

1. Historical Development

2. Forms

3. Methods of Production

4. Uses

5. Biblical Terms

6. Archaeological Significance


1. Historical Development:

(1) Prehistoric.

The making of pottery ranks among the very oldest of the crafts. On the rocky plateaus of Upper Egypt, overlooking the Nile valley, are found the polished red earthenware pots of the prehistoric Egyptians. These are buried in shallow oval graves along with the cramped-up bodies of the dead and their chipped flint weapons and tools. These jars are the oldest examples of the potter's article It is inconceivable that in the country of Babel, Egypt's great rival in civilization, the ceramic arts were less developed at the same period, but the difference in the nature of the country where the first Mesopotamian settlement probably existed makes it unlikely that relics of the prehistoric dwellers of that country will ever be recovered from under the debris of demolished cities and the underlying deposits of clay and silt.

(2) Babylonia.

The oldest examples of Babylonian ceramics date from the historical period, and consist of baked clay record tablets, bricks, drainage pipes, household shrines, as well as vessels for holding liquids, fruits and other stores. (See Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Chaldea and Assyria, I, figures 159, 160,II , figures 163, 168.) Examples of pottery of this early period are shown in the accompanying figures. By the 9th to the 7th century BC the shaping of vessels of clay had become well developed. Fragments of pottery bearing the name of Esarhaddon establish the above dates.

(3) Egypt.

With the close of the neolithic period in Egypt and the beginning of the historical or dynastic period (4500-4000 BC) there was a decline in the pottery article The workmanship and forms both became bad, and not until the IVth Dynasty was there any improvement. In the meantime the process of glazing had been discovered and the art of making beautiful glazed faience became one of the most noted of the ancient Egyptian crafts. The potter's wheel too was probably an invention of this date.

(4) Palestine.

The making of pottery in the land which later became the home of the children of Israel began long before this people possessed the land and even before the Phoenicians of the coast cities had extended their trade inland and brought the earthenware vessels of the Tyrian or Sidonian potters. As in Egypt and Babylonia, the first examples were hand-made without the aid of the wheel.

It is probable that Jewish potters learned their art from the Phoenicians. They at least copied Phoenician and Mycenaean forms. During their wanderings the children of Israel were not likely to make much use of earthenware vessels, any more than the Arabs do today. Skins, gourds, wooden and metal vessels were less easily broken.

To illustrate this, a party, of which the writer was a member, took on a desert trip the earthenware water jars specially made for travel, preferring them to the skin bottles such as the Arab guides carried, for the bottles taint the water. At the end of six days only one out of eight earthenware jars was left. One accident or another had broken all the others.

When the Israelites became settled in their new surroundings they were probably not slow in adopting earthenware vessels, because of their advantages, and their pottery gradually developed distinctive though decadent types known as Jewish.

Toward the close of the Hebrew monarchy the pottery of the land again showed the effect of outside influences. The red and black figured ware of the Greeks was introduced, and still later the less artistic Roman types, and following these by several centuries came the crude glazed vessels of the Arabic or Saracenic period--forms which still persist.

2. Forms:

It is not within the limits of this article to describe in detail the characteristics of the pottery of the various periods. The accompanying illustrations taken from photographs of pottery in the Archaeological Museum of the Syrian Protestant College, Beirut, give a general idea of the forms. Any attempt at classification of Palestinian pottery must be considered more or less provisional, due to the uncertainty of origin of many forms. The classification of pre-Roman pottery here used is that adopted by Bliss and Macalister and based upon Dr. Petrie's studies.

(1) Early Pre-Israelite, Called also "Amorite" (before 1500 BC).

Most of the vessels of this period are handmade and often irregular in shape. A coarse clay, turning red or black when burned, characterizes many specimens. Some are brick red. Specimens with a polished or burnished surface are also found.

(2) Late Pre-Israelite or Phoenician (1500-1000 BC).

From this period on, the pottery is all wheel-turned. The clay is of a finer quality and burned to a brown or red. The ware is thin and light. Water jars with pointed instead of fiat bases appear. Some are decorated with bands or lines of different colored meshes. Cypriote ware with its incised decorations was a like development of the period.

(3) Jewish (1000-300 BC).

Foreign influence is lost. The types which survive degenerate. New forms are introduced. Ordinary coarse clay burning red is used. Cooking pots are most characteristic. Many examples bear Hebrew stamps, the exact meaning of which is uncertain.

(4) Seleucidan.

Foreign influence again appears. Greek and other types are imported and copied. Ribbed surfaces are introduced. The old type of burnishing disappears.

(5) Roman and Saracenic.

Degenerate forms persisting till the present time.

(6) Present-day Pottery.

3. Methods of Production:

The clay as found in the ground is not suitable for use. It is dug out and brought to the vicinity of the pottery (the "potter's field," Mt 27:7) and allowed to weather for weeks. The dry material is then dumped into a cement-lined tank or wooden trough and covered with water. When the lumps have softened they are stirred in the water until all have disintegrated and a thin slimy mud or "slip" has been formed. In coast cities-the potteries are all near the sea, as the sea-water is considered better for the "slipping" process. The slip is drawn off into settling tanks. All stones and lumps remain behind. When the clay has settled, the water is drawn off and the plastic material is worked by treading with the feet (compare Isa 41:25; The Wisdom of Solomon 15:7). The clay used on the Syrian coast is usually a mixture of several earths, which the potters have learned by experience gives the right consistency. The prepared clay is finally packed away and allowed to stand another six months before using, during which time the quality, especially the plasticity, is believed to improve.

Before the invention of the potter's wheel the clay was shaped into vessels by hand. In all of the countries previously mentioned the specimens representing the oldest work are all hand-made. Chopped straw was usually added to the clay of these early specimens. This material is omitted in the wheel-shaped objects. In a Mt. Lebanon village which is noted for its pottery the jars are still made by hand. Throughout the country the clay stoves are shaped by hand out of clay mixed with straw.

The shaping of vessels is now done on wheels, the use of which dates back to earliest history. Probably the Egyptians were the first to use such a machine (IVth Dynasty). In their original form they were stone disks arranged to be turned by hand on a vertical axis. The wheel stood only a few inches above the ground, and the potter sat or squatted down on the ground before it as he shaped his object (see Wilkinson, Ancient Egypt,II , figure 397). The wheels used in Palestine and Syria today probably differ in no respect from those used in the potter's house visited by Jeremiah (Jer 18:1-6). The wheel or, to be more exact, wheels (compare Jer 18:3) are fitted on a square wooden or iron shaft about 3 ft. long. The lower disk is about 20 inches in diameter, and the upper one 8 inches or 12 inches. The lower end of the shaft is pointed and fits into a stone socket or bearing in which it rotates. A second bearing just below the upper disk is so arranged that the shaft inclines slightly away from the potter. The potter leans against a slanting seat, bracing himself with one foot so that he will not slide off, and with the sole of his other foot he kicks the upper face of the lower wheel, thus making the whole machine rotate. The lower wheel is often of stone to give greater momentum. With a marvelous dexterity, which a novice tries in vain to imitate, he gives the pieces of clay any shape he desires.

After the vessel is shaped it is dried and finally fired in a furnace or kiln. The ancient Egyptian kiln was much smaller than the one used today (Wilkhinson, II, 192). Most of the kilns are of the crudest form of the "up-draught" variety, i.e. a large chamber with perforated bottom and a fireplace beneath. The fire passes up through the holes, around the jars packed in tiers in the chamber, and goes out at the top. An interesting survival of an early Greek form is still used in Rachiyet-el-Fakhar in Syria. In this same village the potters also use the lead dross, which comes from the parting of silver, for glazing their jars (compare Pr 26:23).

In firing pottery there are always some jars which come out imperfect. In unpacking the kiln and storing the product others get broken. As a consequence the ground in the vicinity of a pottery is always strewn with potsherds (see also separate article). The ancient potteries can frequently be located by these sherds. The potter's field mentioned in Mt 27:7,10 was probably a field near a pottery strewn with potsherds, thus making it useless for cultivation although useful to the potter as a place in which to weather his clay or to dry his pots before firing.

4. Uses:

Pottery was used in ancient times for storing liquids, such as wine or oil, fruits, grains, etc. The blackened bottoms of pots of the Jewish period show that they were used for cooking. Earthenware dishes were also used for boiling clothes. Every one of these uses still continues. To one living in Bible lands today it seems inconceivable that the Hebrews did not readily adopt, as some writers disclaim, the porous earthen water jars which they found already in use in their new country. Such jars were used for carrying live coals to start a fire, and not only for drawing water, as they are today, but for cooling it (Isa 30:14). The evaporation of the water which oozes through the porous material cools down the contents of a jar, whereas a metal or leathern vessel would leave it tepid or tainted. They were also used for holding shoemaker's glue or wax; for filling up the cracks of a wall before plastering; ground up they are used as sand in mortar.

5. Biblical Terms:

Only a few of the Hebrew words for vessels of different sorts, which in all probability were made of pottery, have been translated by terms which indicate that fact (For cheres, and yatsar, see EARTHEN VESSELS; OSTRACA.) kadh, is translated "pitcher" in Ge 24:14 ff; Jg 7:16 ff; Ec 12:6 (compare keramion, Mr 14:13; Lu 22:10); "jar" in 1Ki 17:12 (compare hudria, Joh 4:28). The kadh corresponded in size and use to the Arabic jarrah (compare English derivative "jar"). The jarrah is used for drawing and storing water and less frequently for holding other liquids or solids. It is used as an proximate standard of measure. For example, a man estimates the capacity of a cistern in jirar (plural of jarrah). baqbuq, "a bottle," usually leathern, but in Jer 19:1,10 of pottery. This may have been like the Arabic ibriq, which causes a gurgling sound when liquid is turned from it. Baqbuq is rendered "cruse" in 1Ki 14:3.

keli "vessel," was of wood, metal or earthen-ware in Le 6:28; Ps 2:9; 31:12; Isa 30:14; Jer 19:11, etc.; compare ostrakinos, 2Co 4:7, etc.

pakh, is translated "vial" in 1Sa 10:1; 2Ki 9:1; see so-called pilgrim bottles.

koc also qasah "cup" or "bowl," translated "cup" in many passages, like Arabic ka's, which was formerly used for drinking instead of modern cups.

gabhia, translated "bowl" in Jer 35:5.

parur, translated "pots" in Nu 11:8; compare Jg 6:19; 1Sa 2:14; compare chutra, which is similar to Arabic.

kidr, commonly used for cooking today.

'etsebh, "pot," Jer 22:28 the American Revised Version margin.

6. Archaeological Significance:

The chemical changes wrought in clay by weathering and firing render it practically indestructible when exposed to the weather and to the action of moisture and the gaseous and solid compounds found in the soil. When the sun-baked brick walls of a Palestinian city crumbled, they buried, often intact, the earthenware vessels of the period. In the course of time, perhaps after decades or centuries, another city was built on the debris of the former. The brick walls required no digging for foundations, and so the substrata were left undisturbed. After long periods of time the destruction, by conquering armies or by neglect, of succeeding cities, produced mounds rising above the surrounding country, sometimes to a height of 60 or 100 ft. A typical example of such a mound is Tell el-Chesy (? Lachish). Dr. Flinders Petrie, as a result of the study of the various strata of this mound, has formed the basis of a classification of Palestinian pottery (see 2, above). With a knowledge of the forms of pottery of each period, the excavator has a guide, though not infallible, to the date of the ruins he finds.

See also CRAFTS,II , 4.

Figurative: The shaping of clay into pottery typified the molding of the characters of individuals or nations by a master mind (Jer 18:1-6; Isa 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Ro 9:20 ff); commonplace (La 4:2; 2Ti 2:20); frailness (Ps 2:9; Isa 30:14; Jer 19:11; Da 2:41; 2Co 4:7; Re 2:27).


Publications of PEF, especially Bliss and Macalister, Excavations in Palestine; Excavations of Gezer; Bliss, A Mound of Many Cities; Flinders Petrie, Tell el-Ghesy; Bliss and Dickie, Excavations at Jerusalem; Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art (i) in Chaldea and Assyria, (ii) Sardinia and Judea, (iii) Cyprus and Phoenicia, (iv) Egypt; King and Hall, Egypt and Western Asia in Light of Modern Discoveries; S. Birch, History of Ancient Pottery; Wilkinson, The Ancient Egyptians; PEFQ; EB; HDB.

James A. Patch

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