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Ancient pottery

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Pottery found at Qumran - where the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have been transcribed.

Ancient pottery is arguably the most significant archaeological evidence of a society, civilization, and how people lived. In addition to coins and written material, pottery helps to establish a relative and an absolute chronological framework for a particular culture. All archaeologists rely on pottery as way of identifying inhabitants and assigning a date to occupational layers. Potteries usefulness is due to the fact that it is relatively indestructible and plentiful at archaeological sites. It provides clues to many aspects of ancient cultures including economic status, technological advances, religion, and often served as a record of noteworthy events.[1]

In the latter half of the 19th century, pottery’s existence was attributed to ancient peoples and their culture. It was used for documentation of events in history as well as developing new theories about the past. Pottery was synonymous with people. In the 1960’s, pottery took on a new role as describing what the people used in everyday life and economical situations. And in the Post-Processualist archaeology stage, researchers began looking for symbols, belief systems, and stories. They tried looking deeper for the meaning. [1]


In the 7th millennium BC, an art form known today as pottery painting began to emerge on the scene. Its designs were simple at best, using geometric shapes and animalistic designs to adorn these clay jars. Nearing the 3rd and 4th millennium BC however, a new style took up root. Started by the Mesopotamians and the Elamites, this art consisted of pictures and figures drawn to tell a story, event, or symbolize a particular theme evident in the image. What changed? Well, there was a period in time where pottery painting seemed to vanish from history completely. This was called the proto-literate period which spanned from 3500 BC to 2900 BC. During this time began the earliest form of writing. Now that writing was invented, it produced the birth of narrative scenes in early pottery painting. [2]

Early Dynastic Period

During this period, pottery painting made its return to the art world. Instead of creating vessels for luxury and show, artisans began using it as a way to store a record of events and to tell a story within a painting. The invention of writing helped develop this art form. The beginning of writing started with counting, then moved on to cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, which was done by measuring the amount of grain in relation to the size of a wedge on a clay tablet. From there, the Mesopotamians and the Elamites came up with sounds and symbols for remembering all the accounting and goods that they stored up. Rows of lines and the size and shape of symbols started this historic foundation of writing, which we know now to embody all forms of communication throughout the world. [2]

Pottery painting and its designs were arranged in much the same as early writing. A jar discovered to be from Khafaje in Iraq, is a good example of this. It’s dated back to the 3rd millennium BC. The painting is divided into four sections featuring a band playing percussion instruments, someone listening to singing and a harp, a banquet for two, and a chariot race. This painting is interpreted to be one about different events in a festival. “Reading” the stories on these clay pots can be difficult seeing as how they were from another era, but the main theme can still be obtained. This is because the painters of these designs desired to put as much detail and information on their pottery as much as possible. The best ones elaborated more. Also the use of linear art changed from the start of the proto-literate period till the beginning of the early dynastic period. Before, lines were used to separate one picture from another. Now, artists added them in to bring together the whole painting, not just as mandatory dividers, but as equals with the images. The intent is not to provide visual beauty for the public anymore. Instead, every potter wished to extract themselves from the usual and come up with a style that allowed the public to admire pottery for its creativity and hidden meanings. In this way, the development of writing brought about the standards for interpreting paintings of pottery. [2]


Paintings of animals on jar

Pottery shards are very durable and for that reason they have a very important position in archaeology and its research. Different views on pottery have been expanded on to get a better understanding of the environment people lived in. All types of pottery provide good archaeological evidence and design, but ordinary pots made from artisans of lower classes seem to be the most desired over jars made for style and fashion. They offer more information for research. An archaeologist gets a good sense of the pottery’s origins by the way it was made. Each culture, ethnicity, and people group has their own way of constructing pots and jars. It makes it easier for the archaeologist to identify the individual pattern, depending on things like the kind of clay used, if it was hand-made or with a wheel, and if it had any designs on it or not. These “fingerprints” of other people groups help connect the dots to form the bigger picture. It definitely draws people into the amazing qualities behind these vessels. Imagine how the pot would look if it were preserved just the way it was when it was first made. [1]

Dating Techniques

In a study called the ‘‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’’, British researchers have discovered a new way to date the age of ancient pottery. In contrast to other ways of dating pottery, this method takes advantage of a new effect like the rewinding of a clock back to its original state. It relies on the rate of change that the clay goes through when it reabsorbs water molecules in the air. The clay is reheated at a specific temperature to get rid of leftover hydroxyl ions like the kind in water so that it resembles the way it was back when it was first made. Then the weight of the clay is subtracted from the weight the pottery had when it was discovered with its hydroxyl ions. The rate of reabsorption has also been taken into account. Certain limitations though have created some possible setbacks to this discovery. For example, the rate of reabsorption depends on the temperature of that time and since there are only speculations over the climate back then, the best thing to do is study the weather conditions with as much evidence as possible. This has been called rehydroxylation dating. Test runs with this new technique seem to correspond well with other known pottery ages. If anything, this dating technique provides scientists and archaeologists with a useful tool in the future to uncover the ages of pottery within a 2000 year span. [3]


These vessels should be seen as artifacts. Excavating them and interpreting their meaning is all part of the process. Before starting on a dig site, archaeologists have to decide on a course of action, make a goal for the team, choose which method to use when coming across shards of pottery, and more. Variables like how much of a budget the team has to work with and the allotted time given can influence which direction to go in. An excavation brings up many questions that, whether they are answered or not, are always intriguing. Questions like, what brought about this design for a jug? What do the symbols represent? Archaeologists must always be careful to watch for artifacts of extreme importance. [1]

Dig site in Beth Shemesh, Israel

Artifacts of this nature have to researched thoroughly, especially if the intent is to prove and defend the Bible’s credibility. In 2008, a 3000 year-old pottery shard was discovered by an Israeli professor with written inscriptions on it in Hebrew. It was found 18 miles west of Jerusalem and is one of the earliest writings found of ancient Hebrew. This shard of clay is an important part of the Bible’s history. It refutes statements by many researchers and scientists saying that the Bible dates back long after many of its events claimed to have happened. The shard dates back to the 10th century BC. The issue has also been argued that the amount of authors who wrote the Bible is unlikely because the Hebrew language supposedly didn’t exist during that time. Now with new evidence to support the Bible’s genuine background, it’s given more credit. This goes to show how far some people will go to eradicate certain ideas and suggestions from discussion. Science is no longer measured by logic and proof, but is also dictated by a humanistic worldview. Most scientists deny the Bible’s antiquity because of their own conflictions. [4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Archaeological Views: Going to Pot: The Love-Hate Relationship of an Archaeologist and Her Pottery by Nava Panitz-Cohen. Biblical Archaeology Review. May/June 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Schmandt-Besserat,Denise. "Birth of Narrative Art". Archaeology Odyssey. Volume 7 No. 5. Pg. 36-43, 54-55. September/October 2004.
  3. New Way to Find Age of Ancient Pottery by Brian Thomas, M.S. Institute of Creation Research. Posted July 29, 2009.
  4. New Artifact Supports Antiquity of Bible by Brian Thomas, M.S. Institute of Creation Research. Posted January 18, 2010.

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