Pottery—A Boon to Archeologists

Pottery is to the archeologist what bones are to the paleontologist and books are to the preacher. Here an archeologist gives real-life examples of how he uses this important tool of his trade.

Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., is professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Manila, Philippines.


If you were to travel to the Bible lands today and walk over the mound of debris containing the ruins of an ancient Biblical city, you would observe hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of broken pieces of pottery, the shattered remains of ancient ceramic vessels used in the everyday life of the average citizen of Bible times. During the 1,500 years of Biblical history stretching from Moses to John, potters were making vessels daily by the scores. Children and housewives were accidentally breaking or losing them almost as fast, thus creating the potsherds found so easily today. An average-size excavation team collects roughly 10,000 pieces of broken pottery every day. Because a normal site may need a thousand to 1,500 days of work to be adequately excavated by such a team (a site is never completely excavated, however), the amount of pottery to be found in an ancient city is clearly mind-boggling.

But why have potsherds been preserved in such numbers for archeologists to find today? There are actually several reasons. First, while today we use cooking, eating, and storage vessels made of metal and plastic, the ancients used metal only very rarely and ceramic vessels for just about everything. At any one time an average household may have contained fifty to a hundred or more vessels of all types. Second, a fired pottery vessel is very easy to break, like any piece of china in a modern kitchen. Third, because they were made from clay, a raw material easily obtained, and because labor was very cheap, the vessels were so inexpensive that the people simply replaced the broken vessel with a new one. The broken pieces were used as children's toys, loom weights, and writing surfaces for short notes, or simply cast into refuse pits. And fourth, broken sherds were virtually impossible to destroy. The ancient firing techniques used with pottery effectively turned the clay into stone so that pottery several thousand years old can look like pottery made just a few years ago to the modern observer. Burial also preserves its features. Thus, unless broken pottery was collected systematically and ground into a sandlike binder for bricks or other pottery (as was done only very rarely), the broken sherds from every vessel made in antiquity are still present today, needing only to be found by the archeologist's attentive eye.

This accounts for the awesome quantities of sherds found by archeological expeditions today, but it does not account for their importance. Although their vast numbers tend to cheapen potsherds as artifacts when compared to much rarer finds, such as statues or inscriptions, they are nevertheless extremely valuable to the specialist in two major ways: (1) as cultural inferences and (2) as chronological indicators. These material products ("artifacts" to the archeologist) reflect the values inherent within the culture and specific to the times. If a person is conversant with the times and the culture, therefore, he can recognize the values behind the artifacts.

For example, in certain times and places pottery vessels were highly decorated. This would suggest that the society was prosperous enough to dedicate leisure time to the devotion of the arts. Ruggedly made pottery, on the other hand, reflects a lack of concern with the fineries of life, implying that the people were poor and more concerned with subsistence than with leisure.

Of course, at no single time and place will the values of all the people be identical. But this diversity will also be recognizable in the diversity of the pottery. Cultural value tendencies can be suggested by statistical studies. For example, the proportion of decorated pottery to undecorated pottery, or the proportion of crudely made vessels to finely made ones can suggest the proportion of rich to poor or the proportion of people with leisure time to those with out. Such study is aided by the huge numbers in which potsherds are found. With massive quantities to sample, the resulting generalizations should reflect the culture more accurately.

In addition to their use in determining culture, the large numbers of potsherds also serve as chronological indicators. Because pottery is made by humans, it changes or develops through time. Someone who knows pottery well can date the vessels in the same way that someone who knows automobiles can date cars. But pottery developed much more slowly in antiquity than automobiles do today. This means that the dates given the pottery by an archeologist must be in terms of centuries or half centuries, not single years or decades, as one can do with cars.

Because pottery is easily broken, relatively few complete vessels are re covered by archeologists. Most of the dating process in archeology must be accomplished with the use of small broken potsherds. How do archeologists overcome this problem and ascribe the potsherds to specific chronological periods?

Pottery that was made on a wheel is always circular in shape. Furthermore, the wheel enabled the potter to make many vessels rapidly that were almost identical. Even when pottery was hand made, without the aid of the wheel, the individual pieces tended to look very much alike. Today, if a person knows the construction of an automobile well, he can actually determine the make and year of a car simply by examining a single part. So from a single piece'a pottery expert can often reconstruct the way the complete vessel looked because he recognizes certain unique features. These features are few in number, but because the vessel was originally circular, they usually appear continuously around the complete vessel. They thus have a good chance of appearing on the potsherd under study.

But, like pieces from a car, some potsherds are more diagnostic than others. The best potsherds for dating purposes include at least a small portion of the rim or lip of the vessel. Of secondary importance are the base, handle (if present), and any decorative features. Unless decorated or made with a distinctive ware, body sherds from the sides of the pottery offer very few distinctive diagnostic features, just as a small piece of metal from the side of a car could not offer much information about the make or year of the car.

One can glean much information from the rim of the vessel. Because pottery was made on a wheel, the opening of the vessel normally is a circle. The diameter of the mouth can thus be projected from the curving arc of a single potsherd. When complete, the mouth of the vessel should also have been parallel to the ground. By rotating the potsherd so that the rim is again parallel with the ground, one can determine the "stance," or position, of the potsherd in the original vessel. In this way one can tell whether the vessel was open (the mouth being wider than the base) or closed (the mouth being narrower than the base). From the thickness of the potsherd it is often possible to tell whether the original vessel was large or small.

Also, certain pottery forms are indicative of characteristic uses. For example, cooking pots designed to be used over an open fire were made of a crude, highly porous clay that contained a relatively large proportion of sand so that the pot could expand and contract in the heat of the fire without breaking. Likewise, some forms were characteristically decorated, while others were not. For example, bowls for holding soupy sub stances were often coated with a thin layer of wet clay that, after it dried, was polished into a hard, waterproof layer, making the bowls less absorbent as well as easier to clean.

Knowing the original form of the vessel is extremely important because of this value in providing dates, just as today men's and women's clothing styles are constantly changing, so ancient vessels evolved at different rates and in different ways. Because the ceramic expert knows what each type of vessel looked like at various periods and thus understands its individual rate of change, he can place the theoretical vessel, reconstructed in his mind from the single potsherd in his hand, into that progression of pottery types, and from it he can establish a date.

As an example, let us consider a single sherd that you have found (Fig. 1A). With the practiced eye of a ceramic expert you notice that it includes the rim and a portion of the upper body. From the arc of the rim you can tell that the diameter was roughly 30 centimeters, or 12 inches. If you move the sherd so that the top of the rim is horizontal, as it is in the illustration, you will see that it forms a crude S-shape and that the body will probably extend downward and to the left so that the mouth will be larger than the base.

From the shape of the ware and the black smoke stains you can see immediately that the sherd once belonged to the cooking-pot type. The lack of decoration, such as paint, molding, or burnish (polish) also fits in with the cooking pot determination. Because cooking pots were intended to be placed on top of the coals of an open fire, most of them had no base, their bottoms being round. You, therefore, reconstruct a round bottom to your sherd and, together with the estimated diameter of the rim, can visualize the size and appearance of the complete pot as it was in antiquity, based on a comparison with other complete cooking pots.

Although artifacts change through time, they almost never change abruptly. Appearance and function are so interrelated in a housewife's mind that she would tend not to buy vessels that looked different from what she expected. Because of this, pottery styles evolved slowly through time, each change along the way being minor. With this slow evolution in mind, you place your reconstructed cooking pot into the over all evolution of the type, looking for the closest parallel to your particular form.

You know that in the Early Bronze Age, near the end of which Abraham probably lived, there was no cooking-pot ware such as this, so your mind does not even think about that period as you analyze the potsherd. You know that during the Middle Bronze Age, the time of the late patriarchs and the sojourn, in Egypt, cooking pots looked very much like the original form behind your potsherd (Fig. IB). Looking closely at your potsherd, however, you see that the rim is triangular in shape. But Middle Bronze cooking-pot rims were plain, not triangular.

You also know that cooking-pot rims in the Iron I period (Fig. 1C), the time of the judges, had a long flange, and the body tended to bend sharply instead of curving in a gentle S-shape. The rim also tended to point straight up, whereas your potsherd has the rim everted. During the Iron II period, the time of the divided monarchy of Israel, the flange degenerated into a bump near the top of the rim (Fig. ID), and the rim was inverted.

Because change is slow but continuous in pottery styles, the stance of the rims in all these examples should tell you in general where to place your sherd. It is everted and in an S-shape like the Middle Bronze form, whereas the Iron Age forms were first vertical and then inverted. This suggests that the progression went from everted to vertical to inverted between the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron Age. On the basis of this progression you suspect that your potsherd should be placed prior to the Iron Age and near the Middle Bronze Age.

Looking now more specifically at the rims of the cooking pots (Fig. 1), you notice that in the Middle Bronze Age the rim was plain, but by the Iron I period there was a very pronounced flange, which gradually disappeared through the Iron II period into a slight bump. If you suspect that the triangular head on the rim of your potsherd represents the beginning of the -Iron I flange, you are correct. This means that you can again place your potsherd prior to the Iron I period, but now you can also say that it definitely dates after the Middle Bronze Age.

You therefore date your potsherd to the Late Bronze Age. Because you know that most Late Bronze cooking pots had an everted-rim stance, a gentle S-shaped curve to the upper body, and a triangular rim section, you are correct in placing your humble potsherd in the Late Bronze Age, the time of the Israelite conquest and early settlement. Joshua may have crushed that pot as the Israelites invaded the land.

While cooking pots were very conservative in their development through time, thus making it difficult to be more precise in one's dating than general time periods of up to 200 .to 300 years, other forms such as the potsherd in Figure 2A developed much more rapidly, allowing the ceramic expert to date them more precisely. As you pick up this potsherd and rotate its stance to the correct position you notice that the ware is not like that of a cooking pot but is of a uniform white color and looks fairly fine. You notice no decoration except for a crude coating of a light-colored clay, a little darker than the ware itself. The rim is plain, but there is a jog outward in the lower body.

Because its diameter is roughly 15 centimeters, or 6 inches, you are able to determine that the vessel type was originally a small bowl with its mouth wider than its base. You quickly recognize this bowl as a form belonging to a specific tradition of Middle and Late Bronze Age bowls, so that you can reconstruct it with a small, slightly elevated base.

Your mind quickly runs through the evolution of this form. In the Middle Bronze IIA period, perhaps the time of Israel's entry into Egypt, the form had a very high everted rim with a slight outturn at the tip, and the outward jog in the lower body was actually a tightly shaped curve (Fig. 2B). The base was a simple disc placed at the bottom of the bowl. Later, in the Middle Bronze IIB and C periods, the time of Israel's sojourn in Egypt, the top of the rim lost its slight outturn, the jog on the lower body was less defined, and the base rose up almost to a pedestal (Fig. 2C).

In the Late Bronze I period (Fig. 2D), perhaps the time of the Exodus and conquest, the ware became thicker and was not nearly as well made as in the Middle Bronze Age. The jog degenerated from an elegantly defined curve of earlier ages to a simple angular jog, and the base came back down to a ring base. In the Late Bronze II period, when the Israelites began their settlement in the land, this process of degeneration continued (Fig. 2E). The ware was still thick and sloppy, the jog became a simple rounded angular corner, and the overall shape of the bowl was uneven, a sorry descendant of an extremely elegant ancestor.

The thickness of your potsherd suggests that it should be placed in the Late Bronze Age rather than among the elegantly thin forms of the Middle Bronze Age. The degenerated jog on the body would further limit it correctly to the Late Bronze II period, though it is not as badly shaped as the example in Fig. 2E.

This second example, the bowl, exhibits a relatively rapidly changing form, but still our analysis could not date the individual piece any narrower than a century at best. How can archeologists date materials to tighter periods, as many of them do?

Within each period of time there were several different types of vessels, each following its own rate of change. Together these make up a corpus of forms, which is called a horizon when dating to a specific point in time. But as time progressed, each form within the corpus changed at variable rates. Because the archeologist finds hundreds of sherds, he is able to compare the evolution of hundreds of forms caught in the single horizon of his archeological deposit. One sherd may be near the end of this development, while another may be near the beginning. Thus the deposit must date to the time when the one form stopped and the other began. In this manner the deposit can be more narrowly dated, sometimes to within a generation.

It is thus the complete corpus of pottery is assembled from a single horizon and is used in determining the archeological dates reported to you in this column of MINISTRY.

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Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., is professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Manila, Philippines.

July 1984

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