Knowledge about ancient Egyptian pottery has derived from various sources, ancient and modern. Scattered tomb and temple representations, tomb models, stelae, ostraca, and some texts have provided valuable contemporary testimony on ancient Egyptian ceramic production, technology, terminology, end-products, and functions. Occasional potmarks, incised before or after firing or painted on a vessel, indicate vessel capacity, the potter or workshop that produced the pot, or ownership of the pot. Archaeological remains of potters' workshops, kilns, and equipment afford further insights into production methods. The most copious source of data, however, is the ancient ceramics. Vast amounts of mostly broken pottery—potsherds—comprise the single largest category of material culture recovered from most Egyptian sites. Archaeologists may process literally millions of potsherds during field investigations. Town sites and living contexts yield mainly sherd material; whole pots occur most often in mortuary contexts. The modern scientific study of ancient ceramics helps illuminate raw material sources, production methods and technologies, dates of manufacture, pot functions, stylistic changes, and distribution and trade networks. Ethnoarchaeological research into modern traditional potters, and experimental archaeological investigations such as reconstructing potters' wheels and kilns or using cookpots, furnish additional data for understanding ancient ceramics in context.

Enormous quantities of pottery were used for countless activities by all classes of Egyptian society, which therefore supported large numbers of professional potters. Such potters were men according to tomb scenes, texts, and models and they generally ranked low on the Egyptian social scale. The craft was passed from father to son, although family members probably assisted with production. Where potting was a household rather than a workshop industry, or possibly where pottery was hand made, women may have predominated as potters. Some artisans doubtless worked alone, but most potters were likely organized into individual or nucleated workshops of varying size. Small villages or hamlets probably had a single potter at most; larger villages one or more; and towns and cities would have had potters and workshops in considerable numbers. Palaces, temples, and private and public estates likely had their own potters and workshops, established in close proximity to other craftsmen and subordinates such as carpenters, metal craftsmen, bakers, beermakers, and butchers.

Local, regional, or centralized patterns of ceramic production, specialization, or distribution may occasionally be inferred from archaeological remains. The interrelationships among such variables were complex, however, and varied both geographically and temporally. The evidence for their reconstruction is usually limited and problematic, the parameters of discussion are generally under-investigated, and understanding of the issues involved is often inadequate. In a few notable instances, archaeologists can document probable cases of centralized ceramic production. Such centralization likely reflected government monopoly—control or regulation over particular commodities—in this case the pot, its contents, or both. Colin Hope (1987, 1989), for example, has shown that blue painted and polychrome wares were manufactured only in the main palace centers of the New Kingdom, especially Thebes and Amarna. R. F. Friedman (1994) documented a shift from the production of regionally diverse utilitarian wares in the Predynastic period, during Naqada I, to a single, standardized, technologically superior, chaff-tempered “rough ware” during Naqada II. She attributed that shift to a new centralized control of economic necessities based at Hierakonpolis.

Particular potters or workshops may have specialized in specific fabrics or forms, or both. J. Bourriau (1981) suggested an early and ongoing division of potters working exclusively with marl clays. Temple workshops may have concentrated on manufacturing ritual vessels for temple and funerary use; other workshops may have specialized in fine wares, utilitarian wares, or mortuary vessels. Hope (1981, 1989) also made a case for centralized specialization of fabric and form in eighteenth dynasty amphora production; he noted that from the middle to the end of the dynasty, amphorae were made consistently from one basic marl clay type and that they exhibited remarkable uniformity of surface treatment, morphology, and dimensions. As the amphorae were used primarily for storing and transporting wine, and to a lesser extent beer, Hope inferred that they were manufactured for industrial needs in the Nile Delta and in the Faiyum (the centers of viticulture in ancient Egypt), filled with wine, and then distributed throughout Egypt. Once the original contents were gone, the vessels were reused for various commodities, thus complicating the archaeological record.


Pottery was an essential, dominantly utilitarian element in Egyptian society, used copiously in all spheres of Egyptian life at all social levels. It was employed in innumerable domestic and agricultural tasks, especially the processing, preparation, serving, and storage of food and drink for people and animals. Pottery also played a key role in ancient industry and trade: ceramic vessels were used to hold, process, and store commodities, as well as transport them over short and long distances, by land and water. On occasion, the pot rather than the contents was a desired commodity. Public ceremonies, religious and funerary rituals, and magical rites all used ceramics for various purposes. Miniature pottery was made in great quantity for foundation deposits that were placed under the corners of royal buildings. Magic bowls were inscribed with letters to the dead or with execration texts. Pots were “ritually killed,” by piercing a hole through them, usually near the base. Ceramic bowls were used to burn incense; stereotyped hs-vases were used for pouring libations and for purification ceremonies associated with funerary and temple rituals. The “breaking of the pots” was a regular feature of New Kingdom funeral ceremonies, during which several large jars were ritually broken at the tomb entrance.

One of the most archaeologically visible uses of pottery in ancient Egypt was for mortuary purposes. Pottery held offerings to the dead that were presented as part of the funerary cult. Most burials included quantities of ceramics left for use in an afterlife that the Egyptians regarded as an extension of life on earth. The exact burial assemblage changed with time, location, and social status, but might include a variety of fine and utilitarian domestic wares, libation vessels, “soul houses,” miniature pots, canopic jars, and ushabti or shawabti holders. During various periods of Egypt's history, adults or infants were buried in large pots or ceramic basins. Significantly, specialized funerary ceramic forms existed as early as the Neolithic, and certain types of vessels came to be used almost exclusively in tombs, an important distinction for the archaeologist.

Even broken pottery was a useful cultural resource: sherds were recycled for ostraca or for rubbing tools, or they were ground into grog and used as temper (a clay binder) by potters.


Two early ceramic traditions are well documented in Egypt: an older, more southern, sub-Saharan African tradition; and a later, northern tradition, likely derived from the Near East. The earliest Egyptian pottery comes from the eastern Sahara of Upper Egypt and was dated to the mid-tenth to early ninth millennia BP. Along with some contemporaneous ceramics from the Khartoum region, they comprise the earliest known pottery of North Africa. This early African pottery was well made from local clays; its careful forming and firing suggest a prior, undocumented period of development. The simple, but varied, pottery was extensively decorated with an assortment of motifs that were formed by combing, rockerstamp impressions, incisions, and cord-and-wand impressions. The eastern Sahara pottery was rare; and this, along with its high quality, has suggested a cultural role outside of everyday life.

The early southern pottery was apparently associated with semisedentary or nomadic transhumant societies. The eastern Sahara groups were then herding domesticated cattle, but no obvious causal relationship exists between potmaking and cattle domestication. Otherwise, in that region, there appears to be no association of pottery with either plant or animal domestication. In the pristine African context, food production and ceramic technology developed independently—and pottery generally appeared two thousand to three thousand years after the first plant or animal domestication. There does, however, appear to be an association between the quantity of pottery at a site and its inferred degree of sedentism, and it has been suggested that pottery production perhaps stimulated sedentism, rather than vice versa.

The first known pottery in the lower Nile Valley was dated to the seventh millennium BP, when utilitarian pottery appeared in sites of the Faiyum and Delta. The poorly made, generally unaesthetic northern pottery compares poorly to its southern counterparts. It may have entered Egypt from the northeast, since in the second half of the seventh millennium before present, a suite of Near Eastern domesticates appeared in the Faiyum (emmer wheat, flax, sheep/goats). These domesticates were accompanied by ceramic vessels, some found in basin-shaped hearths that were surrounded by fuel and contained fish and other bones.

Raw Materials.

The basic raw materials of ancient Egyptian pottery production were clay, water to make the clay plastic for shaping, aplastic tempering materials to improve clay characteristics and performance, and fuel to fire the shaped clay into a permanently hard and durable object. All four factors were readily available to the potter: water from the Nile; miscellaneous, easily accessible tempers from a variety of sources; fuel from straw, chaff, dung, or other combustibles; and various clays from numerous locations.

Egyptian potters favored two major clay types for ceramic production: Nile alluvial clays and marl clays. Nile alluvial clays were deposited on the river's floodplain and used for ceramic production at all times; they are characterized by significant amounts of silica, finely disseminated hydroxides of iron, mica, and organic matter. Typically fired at temperatures from 600° to 800°C, when oxidized, Nile silts produced clay fabrics in varying shades of red and brown (measuring between 2 and 3 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness). Egyptian marl clays had formed among the calcareous shales, mudstones, and limestones along the river valley, between Esna in the south and Cairo in the north, as well as in the western oases; they contain significant amounts of calcium carbonate (because it reacts with dilute solutions of hydrochloric acid, its presence is easily ascertained by scientists), as well as finely disseminated oxides of iron in smaller quantities than the calcium carbonate and generally less silica than the Nile silt clays. For ceramic production, they were usually fired to higher temperatures (800°–1050°C) for longer periods than the Nile silts and produced harder clay fabrics (measuring between 3 and 4 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness). Oxidized marl fabrics are usually pale red or pale-to-light greenish grey. They were used from Naqada II times onward. Other naturally occurring local clays were exploited less often by Egyptian potters. For example, Egyptian kaolin clays occurred in the Aswan region of the Nile and contained finely disseminated hydroxides of iron but no calcium carbonate; these clays fired to a light red or to red in an oxidizing atmosphere and were used only beginning in the Late period. Pliocene clays, found in spots between Esna and Cairo and in the oases, are not yet known to have been used in antiquity. Some secondary deposits of naturally mixed clays also occurred in various locations along the Nile floodplain, and although unverified, a number of these were likely utilized in antiquity. The Nile silt clays could have been collected from myriad locations, including river banks, canal spoil banks, irrigation ditches, and fields. The other clays would have been mined in more limited and specific locations. Our knowledge of specific ancient clay sources is as yet poor.

All naturally occurring clays contain mineral grains; many also contain rock fragments, organics, or other inclusions. Potters often remove some of the natural inclusions during clay processing; they may also introduce additives to improve the clay's performance. For example, they may render a sticky clay less plastic and more workable, reduce shrinkage during firing, alter porosity, improve resistance to thermal shock, or increase fabric hardness. Aplastic and organic inclusions deliberately added to clay by potters are often called temper; in ancient Egypt, tempers included silica sand, various mineral grains and rock fragments, grog (finely ground or crushed sherds), calcium carbonate (such as shell bits or crushed calcite), ashes, and organics such as bits of straw, chaff, or dung. Purposely added temper sometimes can, and sometimes cannot, be distinguished by archaeologists from natural inclusions in fired fabrics.

Clay Preparation and Vessel Forming.

After collection, raw clay must usually be prepared for use. Impurities must be removed, generally by drying, crushing, sieving, and then slaking the dry clay—placing it in a vat or pit and adding water. After slaking, further water is added for soaking, and the clay-water mixture is thoroughly stirred, to place the clay particles into uniform suspension (thereby creating a slip). A number of Egyptian tomb paintings show this stirring process, accomplished by the potter or an assistant treading the clay-water mixture with his feet. The clean slip is then separated out by sieving, settling, or levigation. The finest clay fractions are obtained through levigation, a process in which the clay slip flows slowly through a long, shallow trough leading to a vat or pit; the coarser and heavier particles sink and are trapped in the trough, by baffles or low walls placed along its bottom, while the finer material rises and travels along into the vat or pit. Once the slip has been sieved, settled, or levigated, temper may be added and the mixture brought to a workable state. The temper may be stirred into the liquid clay slip, which is then drained into beds, pits, or containers, to be rendered solid through evaporation. Alternatively, it may be kneaded into solid clay made appropriately plastic by the addition of water. The resulting clay body may be used immediately or stored; if stored, it must be kneaded again just prior to shaping.

Kneading and wedging remove air bubbles that might cause cracking during firing; this process is the final preparation of the clay body prior to forming and is always done immediately before pots are shaped. Any impurities remaining in the clay can be removed, and additional temper added if desired. At that point, different clay types may have been kneaded together if Egyptian potters wished to mix clays.

The prepared clay body was then ready to be shaped into pots. Shaping was accomplished by one or more of three forming techniques: hand-building, molding, and rotation (centrifugal force). In general, forming technology in Egypt became more sophisticated over time, although improved technology did not necessarily result in higher quality or more aesthetically pleasing pots; for example, some extraordinarily high-quality pottery—Predynastic black-topped red ware and Kerma pottery—was achieved with very simple techniques. The history of Egyptian ceramic technology is one of enlarging the technical repertory, not substituting advanced for simpler methods; and earlier technology remained in use side by side with later advances. Although the general outlines of technical evolution are clear, the details and exact timing often are not, since pictorial testimony is limited and not always clear; archaeological evidence of workshops and equipment is scattered, sporadic, and incomplete; and the inference of technological details and developments from traces left on fired pots is often inconclusive.

Hand-building and centrifugal force were definitely used for shaping by Predynastic potters, as in all probability was a primitive type of molding or pressing. All three processes continued in use throughout Egyptian history. Hand-forming techniques included pinching, drawing, coiling, slab-building or segmental-modeling, and paddle-and-anvil. Molding might have been convex or concave and was accomplished by pressing or paddling the clay over or into some kind of core, hump, mold, or cavity in the ground; this technique was widely practiced throughout dynastic times, especially the ubiquitous bread molds, with their characteristic smooth interiors and rough exteriors. D. Arnold (1993) thought it was also used to form Meydum ware bowl bodies in the fourth and fifth dynasties, although those from the sixth dynasty were wheel made. More advanced concave molding techniques—using carefully fashioned, more sophisticated molds—do not seem to have occurred prior to the New Kingdom; comparable convex molds are known only for the production of Saite marl clay pilgrim flasks. The earliest documented use in Egypt of centrifugal force in potting was dated to Naqada II, and from then onward it becomes of steadily increasing importance in Egyptian ceramic technology.

The initial recognition of the existence of centrifugal force and its value for pottery production in the Predynastic was a major breakthrough for Egyptian potters. From that time on, manipulation of centrifugal force developed along an increasingly effective and sophisticated technical continuum that harnessed increasing amounts of force over longer periods of time and culminated in the most efficient potter's wheel known to the ancient Egyptians: the kick wheel. The kick wheel is first attested in the temple of Hibis at the time of Darius I of the twenty-seventh dynasty (First Persian Occupation), and was called a “true” potters wheel by Rice (1987) that “combines rotary motion and pivoting with centrifugal force, producing more-or-less continuous high-speed rotation.” The kick wheel is a heavy and fairly complex mechanism, generally associated with large-scale workshop production.

Exactly when and how the initial Egyptian discovery of the value of centrifugal force for potting took place is unknown, but it likely occurred as potters experimented with convenient ways to rotate pots for shaping and finishing. Centrifugal force comes into being as soon as an object spins. Many rudimentary turntables produced only disjointed, discontinuous rotation and little centrifugal force. Others, however, such as a curved sherd or bowl, might achieve intermittent spinning, sometimes at quite high speeds. On occasion, the vessel itself might be the source of the centrifugal force, as in the case of a round-bottomed pot spun in a circular depression on a board. These or similar procedures might generate enough centrifugal force or speed to enable the potter's hands to remain stationary for a period of time while shaping the pot as its walls moved. Thus began a long development that went from unpivoted turntables or turning devices, to pivoted tournettes or slow simple wheels, to fast simple wheels, to the kick wheel. Pottery went from partial formation by centrifugal force to complete construction by centrifugal force—the latter are called thrown pots. Our knowledge of that technological journey has been constrained by limited evidence: some sporadic depictions and representations, rare archaeological finds, and surviving traces of manufacturing on the pottery. Depictions and representations must be carefully interpreted. Far more research is needed on both the creation and the temporal and geographic ranges of manufacture marks, especially those on sherds associated with production techniques. Nevertheless, the overall technical direction is clear, so particular methods may be known with reasonable certainty.

The first signs of forceful rotation, most likely achieved with unpivoted turntables, are present on rims and shoulders of Naqada II vessels. Centrifugal force was used from that time on to form the rims, necks, and shoulders of some vessels. Such composite vessels, with handmade bodies and turned rims and necks, continued to be made throughout pharaonic times. The next major development in the harnessing of centrifugal force was the invention of a pivoted tournette or slow simple wheel. Arnold (1981) reserved the term “wheel” for pivoted turning devices. The first known depiction of such a device is in the fifth dynasty tomb of Ti. Several variants of the slow simple wheel are also known; such instruments made it easier for the potters to better control the centrifugal force and keep their pot centered, although the force of rotation was insufficient to keep the wheel spinning independently for any length of time, requiring the potter to work mostly with one hand. Wheelmade pottery increased in the sixth dynasty and spread rapidly, especially in the First Intermediate Period. By the eleventh dynasty and the twelfth, wheelmade pots comprise the majority of all pottery found. An extra-low simple wheel with a very broad wheel head is attested in the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom; it continues in use well into the New Kingdom. In the late Middle Kingdom, another advance was made—a new type of simple wheel with a tall central axis; generating greater centrifugal force, perhaps because it was weighted at the edge of its wide platform, it is called a fast, or powerful, simple wheel. It was used into the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Sometime in the thirteenth dynasty another new wheel construction was developed that permitted the production of pots from Memphite marl C clay, which had previously been considered inappropriate for wheel use. Vessel throwing marks suggest that New Kingdom wheels provided more even rotation than did Middle Kingdom wheels, permitting the application of even greater amounts of centrifugal force. Not until the eighteenth dynasty, however, is there evidence for potters turning wheels with their feet or for an assistant who helped turn the wheel. The introduction of the kick wheel during or prior to the Persian period, with its powerful application of sustained centrifugal force, seems to have resulted in greater vessel angularity and imitation of metal prototypes.

Handmade and, to a lesser extent, mold-made pottery were labor intensive and enormously time consuming. The wheel, especially the fast wheel, enabled the potter to make more pots in less time with less effort. This potential for increased output permitted a primitive form of ceramic mass production that had profound implications for the craft and for those sectors of society—industrial, agricultural, and redistributive—that used large numbers of pots. It may also have been a factor in abetting uniformity of ceramic style.

Drying, Finishing, and Decorating.

After shaping, the pot was dried to a leather-hard stage, when handles and spouts were usually attached. The pot might also be returned to the wheel at this time for secondary shaping or finishing, and several drying phases often occurred in pot production.

Surface modification or finishing of the pot involved manipulating the clay body from which the vessel was made. It changed the texture, altered the surface appearance, and enhanced the esthetic character of the pot, using techniques such as scraping, smoothing, polishing, burnishing, appliqué, incising, impressing, and carving. The shape and proportions of the vessel might be fine tuned by scraping or cutting away some excess clay. Burnishing and polishing were both done at the leather-hard stage, making the vessel less porous and imparting an aesthetically pleasing glossy finish to the clay surface or the slip. Burnishing involved rubbing the surface of the pot with a hard, smooth object, such as a pebble; polishing involved rubbing it with a yielding tool, such as a piece of cloth. Further decorative modifications to the pot might also be undertaken at the leather-hard stage. These included “cutting out” windows or other patterns in the vessel walls, with a knife or its equivalent; adding applied, molded, or modeled elements—ranging from simple knobs or flat buttons to human or animal body parts to Bes or Hathor deity faces; and incising or impressing various decorative or other patterns into the clay. All these techniques were used in Egyptian pottery of particular times, regions, or both, but none is especially common. Incised decoration was used on some of the earliest Egyptian pottery ever produced: Merimde level 1 pottery exhibits incised herringbone patterns and other simple designs. In general, however, incising and impressing were decorative techniques more characteristic of Nubian than Egyptian pottery. Rope impressions often appear on Egyptian vessels. Generally, more utilitarian than decorative, they derived from the potter's practice of tying rope or string around the vessel walls as a support for the unfired pot while it dried. Sometimes such impressions were removed in finishing, sometimes not. When found on small vessels, which would not have required drying support, the rope impressions may be considered decorative.

Another method of finishing and decorating pottery, commonly employed in Egypt, was the application of a coating to all or part of a pot's surface. Such a coating was most often applied before firing at the leather-hard stage, but it might also have been added during or after firing; slips and washes of varying colors were used for this purpose. Slips are pigments plus water plus clay. A wash is sometimes defined as pigment (predominantly red ocher) plus water, but sometimes specifically as a post-firing coating. Wet smoothing helps blur the signs of manufacturing and also applies a thin coat of water and clay, sometimes called a self-slip, on the surface of the pot. Practically speaking, it is very difficult to distinguish prefiring slips from pre-firing washes, or to identify the presence of a self-slip. The application of colored washes and slips to the external surface of a vessel, without additional decoration, was common in every period of Egyptian history and remained basically the same from first dynasty times to the Arab conquest of the seventh century CE. A glaze is a surface coating of glass melted in place and fused onto the vessel surface during firing; glazing does not occur in Egypt prior to very late Roman or even early Arab (Islamic) times.

Lastly, painted patterns and designs of various types and colors were used on pottery in all periods of Egyptian history. Painted decorative motifs were only relatively common, however, during the Predynastic, New Kingdom, and Coptic eras. Painting may be applied either before or after firing. Arnold (1981) identified a total of eight painted styles for Egyptian ceramics. Where analyzed, all paint pigments were based on minerals, with the exception of soot (carbon-black from burned material), sometimes used for black. The most unusual paint used by the ancient Egyptians was a cobalt-based blue used only during the New Kingdom—then lost until the early 1800s.


The most critical stage of pottery production is firing, since it creates a permanent change in the clay's state; it turns it into a stonelike material. Different clays had different firing as well as forming characteristics—attributes about which the ancient Egyptians were well aware. Drying clay loses water, so it shrinks; firing clay continues the process and renders the loss of plasticity irreversible. If heated too rapidly, fired too long, or not long enough, an unuseable or inferior product (e.g., cracked, warped, bubbled surface) resulted. Firing takes place in either an oxidizing atmosphere, containing free oxygen that produces bright, clear colors, or in a reducing atmosphere, containing gases that take free oxygen away from the clay and result in dull or smudged colors, or even completely grey wares. Some black or dark vessels are however created by smoking during or after firing, rather than in a reducing atmosphere. In reality, it is rare for primitive (uncontrolled) firing conditions to achieve a completely oxidizing or reducing atmosphere, although an overall oxidizing atmosphere is most common. Controlled firing is achieved by regulated kilns of various types.

Extensive studies of ancient Egyptian firing technology suggest a tripartite type classification: (1) open, or bonfire firings, where fuel and vessels were intermixed without any associated installations, such as pits or walls; (2) firing structures, incorporating pits or walls or both, but with no separation between fuel and vessels; and (3) updraft kilns, structures where a fire was usually placed directly below the vessels and separated from them by a perforated floor, through which hot gasses passed up and around the vessels, to escape from a vent in the roof or gaps in the material (sherds or tiles) that covered an open top. Type 1, which would leave few if any archaeological traces, was the earliest, followed by type 2, first known from the Predynastic era, then type 3 during the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. All three types coexisted for most of the pharaonic period. Types 2 and 3 are known archaeologically: type 2 has been found at predynastic sites; type 3 at sites ranging widely in date. Type 3 is also known from ceramic tomb models, small-scale sculptures that show various human endeavors. The other major kiln variety, downdraft, is unknown from ancient Egypt.

Arnold (1981) divided true updraft kilns from Egypt into three main types: a simple chimney kiln; a two-story kiln, as known from models; and, most sophisticated of all, a conical or slightly biconical kiln. Most known kilns were circular in plan, although a number of horseshoe-shaped examples are also attested. All were loaded from an open top, with pots stacked on a perforated brick floor that was supported on a central wall or pillar in the middle of the firing chamber. That basic kiln design remained essentially unchanged until after 600 BCE. In Ptolemaic and Roman times, when Egypt became integrated into the Hellenistic world, Egypt's ceramic production became more industrial. More substantial kilns were introduced, along with other foreign influences, since Egypt then shared in the general culture of the entire eastern Mediterranean.

Scientific Study.

Once largely ignored or relegated to secondary importance, since the 1970s the study of ceramics in Egyptian archaeology has gained prominence with the founding of the International Group for the Study of Egyptian Ceramics. Now a recognized and increasingly sophisticated branch of Egyptology, ceramology involves the study, classification, and analysis of ceramics and ceramic attributes from diverse perspectives. The study of archaeological ceramics has progressed through three broad phases: an art-historical phase, focused on admiring the artistry and techniques of individual pots; a typological phase, concentrated on delineating chronological and regional ceramic distributions; and a contextual phase—which extended ceramic studies beyond simple description and classification—characterized mainly by a diverse and rich approach that includes technology studies, ethnoarchaeological and experimental archaeology investigations, as well as examinations of the mechanisms of stylistic change and ceramic contexts.

Traditional ceramic analyses focused on applying arthistorical analytical techniques to painted ceramic motifs (particularly in Predynastic pottery); they used form and ware typologies to develop relative chronologies for archaeological strata, to identify trade and exchange patterns, and to establish pot function and owner status. The Sequence Date System, originated by the pioneering Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, formed the basis of our understanding of the Predynastic: it was based on just such a ceramic typology, one derived from seriation. Relative chronologies have also helped establish which ceramics can function as horizon markers for the archaeologist, those that securely link finds to particular time periods and, sometimes, locations. Such horizon markers include Ripple Ware for the Badarian, Petrie's Decorated Ware for Naqada II, the so-called Meidum bowls for the Old Kingdom, Tell el-Yehudiyyah Ware for the Second Intermediate Period, the blue-painted ware for palace centers in the New Kingdom, mortaria bowls for the Persian and Hellenistic periods, terra sigillata for the Roman era, and so forth. Typologies continue to be important to Egyptological research, and they are both more scientific and more sophisticated than ever before. Shape description and classification of whole pots, for example, are now based on vessel proportions as defined by the vessel index (the relationship of maximum width to maximum height of the body, excluding the neck and foot) and the location of the point of maximum diameter.

The analysis and classification of Egyptian pottery fabrics is now a very active branch of study. A framework for and a working classification of fabrics was drafted at a conference in Vienna in 1980 by Do. Arnold, M. Bietak, J. Bourriau, H. and J. Jacquet, and H.-Å. Nordström. This visual ceramic classification system, named the Vienna System after the city sponsoring the conference, defined the main classes of Egyptian fabrics and suggested subdivisions; it provided a starting point and a nomenclature guide for field descriptions and the classification of ceramic fabrics. As a work in progress, it is intended to be modified according to the dictates of new discoveries, further field testing, and updated analyses. Although archaeologists at many excavations continue to use their own analytical systems for pottery, most relate those classifications to the Vienna System, which provides a commonly understood point of reference for fabric discussion, much as the Wentworth System does for grain size, the Mohs Scale for hardness, and the Munsell Charts for color.

The Vienna System defined fabric as a group designation, that includes all significant physical and chemical properties of the clay and the nonplastic inclusions in a fired ceramic material, as well as all its relevant technological features in a finished product. Diagnostic features identified for Vienna System fabrics included groundmass, aplastic mineral inclusions, crushed-sherd inclusions, organic inclusions, shell inclusions, the colors of both fracture and surface, firing, hardness, transverse strength, and porosity. The basic division in the Vienna System is between the fine ferruginous (iron-rich) Nile silt clays and the calcareous (calcium carbonate-rich) marl clays. Five main subdivisions of silt are distinguished: Nile silt fabrics, A to E, with two subtypes of B; five classes of marl fabrics, A to E, with four subtypes of A and three of C. In addition, the system distinguishes non-Egyptian fabrics, including Nubian, Aegean, Cypriote, and Palestinian. Today, a few mixed clays are also being integrated into the classification.

A number of detailed, often highly sophisticated scientific analyses have become available to illuminate numerous aspects of the ceramic record, with more analyses being developed. Some vessels can be dated by the carbon-14 analysis of organic inclusions in low-fired pottery or by thermoluminescence. Provenience can be established through compositional studies that rely on physical (petrographic), mineralogical (X-ray diffraction), and chemical (X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, instrumental neutron-activation analysis, optical-emission spectroscopy, atomic-absorption spectroscopy, and inductively coupled plasma-emission spectroscopy) analyses. Pot function can be examined through residue analysis, accomplished by gas chromatography or by protein-residue (plant and animal) analysis. Forming technology can be investigated through radiographic or xeroradiographic examination. Firing temperature can be determined through Mössbauer spectroscopy, electron-spin resonance, and X-ray diffraction.

One final note, a caution, must be sounded. The terminology used among ceramologists has yet to become consistent, so some may use different terms for the same thing and the same terms for differing things. For example, wash, may be defined as a pigment and water mixture or as a post-firing coating. Turning may signify either forming on some kind of wheel or trimming using a fast wheel. Temper sometimes refers to material added by the potter and, sometimes, to all inclusions in a clay or fabric. Wheelmade may mean different things to different archaeologists. Care must be taken, therefore, in reading reports to understand how researchers are using terminology and/or defining their terms.

See also VESSELS.


  • Arnold, Do., ed. Studien zur Altägyptischen Keramik. Mainz, 1981. Written before the development of the Vienna System but an important collection of articles on various aspects of Egyptian pottery.
  • Arnold, Do., and J. Bourriau, eds. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Pottery. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, Sonderscrift 17. Mainz, 1993. Includes major work by Arnold on the techniques and traditions of pottery manufacture, as well as the most complete explanation and description to date by Bourriau and Nordström of the Vienna System; has useful appendices by Nicholson on firing and Rose on turning.
  • Bourriau, J. Umm El-Ga'ab: Pottery from the Nile Valley before the Arab Conquest. Cambridge, 1981. An exhibition catalog, presenting material in chronological order, including additional essays on topics such as production technology, decoration, trade, and methods of analysis.
  • Bulletin de Liaison du Groupe International d'Étude de la Céramique Égyptienne 1–20 (1975–1997). This journal series provides rapid publication for the summaries of ceramic finds from current excavation, the results of other ceramic research, and the relevant papers presented at professional conferences; also a listing of recent publications relating to Egyptian pottery.
  • Cahiers de la Céramique Égyptienne 1–5 (1987–1997). Provides a journal forum for publishing detailed and lengthy results of research on ceramics; volumes are sometimes organized around regions (North Sinai) or themes/workshops (Ateliers de Potiers et Productions Céramiques en Égypte).
  • Close, Angela E. “Few and Far Between: Early Ceramics in North Africa.” In The Emergence of Pottery: Technology and Innovation in Ancient Societies, edited by W. K. Barnett and J. W. Hooper, pp. 23–37. Washington, D.C., 1995. Discusses the earliest known appearances of pottery in North Africa.
  • Friedman, R. F. “Predynastic Settlement Ceramics of Upper Egypt: A Comparative Study of the Ceramics of Hierakonpolis, Nagada and Hemamieh.” Ph.D. diss., Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 1994. An extended analysis of the pottery from three Upper Egyptian Predynastic sites and what it can tell us of sociopolitical developments at the time.
  • Holthoer, R. New Kingdom Pharaonic Sites: The Pottery. Lund, 1977 Provides an early but thorough treatment of New Kingdom ceramics and the ancient Egyptian depictions and models of ceramic technology.
  • Hope, Colin A. Egyptian Pottery. Shire Egyptology, 5. Aylesbury, 1987. A good, short, popular introduction to and overview of Egyptian ceramics.
  • Hope, Colin A. Pottery of the Egyptian New Kingdom: Three Studies. Victoria, 1989. Results of research into eighteenth dynasty pottery from Malqata, Ramessid pottery, and New Kingdom amphorae.
  • Rice, Prudence M. Pottery Analysis: A Sourcebook. Chicago, 1987. A masterly, comprehensive volume dealing with all aspects of ceramic production, study, and analysis.
  • Rye, Owen S. Pottery Technology: Principles and Reconstruction. Washington, D.C., 1981. An invaluable manual that outlines processes of ceramic technology, then identifies archaeological features useful for reconstructing that technology.

Carol A. Redmount