[This entry surveys the history of ceramic artifacts with reference to the technologies used to create them, the uses to which they were put, and their overall role in the cultures and societies in which they figure. It comprises seven articles:

The first serves as an overview, providing a discussion of the importance of typology for dating purposes and the development of specific typologies. The remaining articles treat the artifacts of specific periods and regions.]

Typology and Technology

Archaeologists excavating ancient sites find thousands of artifacts that must be described, defined, and interpreted in order to reconstruct the societies responsible for them. Ceramic wares, or pottery, represent one of the most abundant finds throughout the ancient Near East and the eastern Mediterranean. Given the plastic nature of clay, the raw material of pottery, a range of basic shapes can be formed, and when the clay is fired it becomes virtually indestructible. To describe the pots and sherds (broken pieces of pottery) they find, archaeologists have created typologies, or classifications, that group pieces based on stylistic similarities. Today, new technological considerations (how and of what a pot was made) are contributing to the construction of those typologies. The first goal of a typological ordering is to generate types defined by specific attributes and then to discern the meaning or significance of the types. The concept of “type” refers to a group of artifacts that resemble each other and that can be differentiated from other groups. Distinguishing attributes include aspects of form: morphology, or shape, and size; style: surface treatment and decoration; and technology: a pot's materials and method of manufacture. Each typology addresses specific questions and serves a different, specific purpose.

Ceramic Typologies.

Initially, ceramic typologies were devised to address chronology. Because ceramic wares are fragile, the rate of breakage is high; thus, there is a constant need to replace what breaks. As forms are replaced over time, the tendency is to change their shape and surface treatment. It is the periodic changes during replacement that make pottery a chronological marker: sequences can be discerned for the local culture or for the history of a region. Comparative chronological studies focus on the superficial modifications in vessel morphology and surface treatment (decoration)—the most obvious changes over time. Because shape and decoration can change relatively quickly, archaeologists can assign a relative date to each pottery style. Once the pottery is dated, archaeologists can date the deposit in which it is found. Based on ethnoarchaeological studies in Cyprus, the life span of portable jugs used for drinking water is no more than six months to two years before the walls become clogged with rock and mineral deposits (G. London, F. Egoumendiou, and V. Karageorghis in Traditional Pottery in Cyprus, Mainz, 1989, p. 33). In contrast, immobile water storejars could last for more than a century. As a consequence of the differences in their daily use, the former change more rapidly than the latter. However, finding similar pots at two different sites does not mean that the sites were either contemporaneous or similar. The pottery may have been curated or saved from one generation to the next, or types may have reached one site a decade or more later. Such relative ceramic chronologies are important, but they cannot address the complex issues of where, how, and by whom pottery was made. Answers to those questions have important implications for understanding how ancient societies and economies functioned.

The earliest typologies focused on style—on both form and finish (morphology and decoration)—rather than on manufacturing technology. Aspects related to form are body shape and function (bowl, jug, etc.) and the shape of the rim, base, handles, and other accessory elements, such as a spout or a lid. Surface finish involves decoration and various treatments such as adding paint, slip, or clay appliqué; removing clay by incising and carving; texturing by scoring, stamping, impressing, and rouletting; rubbing, polishing, and burnishing with a tool; and treatments created by the firing process, such as mottling. While most stylistic attributes and changes are apparent to the eye, subtleties exist that are sometimes understood subjectively, with experience. In contrast, the technological aspects of manufacture require sophisticated laboratory techniques (mineralogical and chemical analysis, radiography) and an understanding of how pottery is made. A ceramic technologist investigating why a pot looks the way it does (its form and finish) considers its stylistic and technological features. The resulting analysis is therefore more objective than a reliance only on form and finish. For a typology to be useful for making comparisons, each type of pot must be accurately and concisely defined and described, based on objective criteria: the steps that led to its final form and surface finish.

Ceramic Technology.

A technological study involves discovering the potter's choice of clay and nonplastic inclusions; manufacturing technique; surface treatment; and drying and firing. In creating a ceramic typology, the raw materials must be characterized—including the type, frequency, and condition of the nonplastic elements, rather than the clay particles (when fired, plastic clay particles shrink, while aplastic, or nonplastic, rock and mineral tempering materials remain virtually unchanged at low temperatures).

Reconstructing an ancient ceramic technology reveals how each stage of pot creation influences subsequent stages. Thus, the factors that combined to produce the final pot—as well as its range of potential variations—emerge. In particular, clay type influences each of the potter's successive decisions. The clay's texture determines manufacturing technique, surface treatment, drying, and firing. For example, certain clays are best suited for constructing pots using the coiling process. These are known as lean clays, and they contain relatively large quantities (more than 30 percent) of aplastic material (tempering material or inclusions) in the form of rocks, minerals, and organic materials. When a potter works with lean clay, the nature of the surface treatment has already been determined: any tool used to incise patterns into the surface will pull up and drag with it some of the aplastic material protruding from the surface, unless a slip layer is first applied. A slip is a thin coating of very watery clay (with or without the addition of a coloring agent) that covers either all or part of a pot's surface. A slip layer allows the potter greater decorating choices with a pot made of heavily tempered clay than would otherwise be feasible. Paint (slip to which a pigment has been added) is applied in a pattern rather than over an entire surface because paint does not adhere well to a surface from which inclusions protrude. Surfaces to be burnished similarly benefit from an initial application of a slip to coat and cover the inclusions and alleviate “drag” lines. For this reason, intentionally burnished pots are usually slipped. However, primary manufacturing can produce burnishing as well. When pots are made in the process known as turning, the potter first shapes a thick-walled vessel and allows it to dry slightly. When the potter judges the pot ready, it is returned to the turntable and thinned, or “turned down,” to the desired thinness. This process will produce a burnish only if the clay has reached a particular stage of drying and if the pot is fired at a certain temperature. If the clay is too wet when it is turned, burnishing is less likely to occur. It is the clay that largely determines the two final stages of the work, drying and firing. Heavily tempered pots require shorter and less carefully controlled drying and firing. Certain aplastic inclusions, especially of the limestone group, do not tolerate a high temperature unless they have been finely ground before being added to the clay.

By assessing technological features, questions can be addressed about where certain pottery was made and who made it (whether it was local, regional, or arrived at a site via international trade), the continuity and breaks in ceramic traditions, and the organization of the ceramics industry. These issues and others are relevant to understanding ancient societies. Typologies based on style and technology not only address issues about relative chronology, but can also explain why and how some shapes changed through time—some quickly and others barely at all. Numerous revisions are necessary during the initial stages of creating a typology, which can be expanded at any time to include new information. It is, however, difficult to use typologies to address issues for which they were not initially designed. For example, by arranging pottery in terms of what is earlier or later based on shape and decoration, it can be difficult to identify other potential causes for differences in appearance. Pottery that looks different can be the work of two workshops operating at the same time, but in different communities. Differences in the shape of rims or bases, or other diagnostic parts might reflect two distinct pottery production locations rather than chronological differences. By classifying pottery with chronology as the prime consideration, one can overlook evidence of the organization of the pottery industry, or the signatures of individual potters who worked at the same time, but in different villages.

Once the functional pottery (bowls, jars, jugs, etc.) belonging to a single period at a site are collected, typologies can be designed to provide relative chronologies. Two questions are traditionally posed: how does the collection differ or coincide with the assemblages from the periods that precede and follow it; and how similar or different is the collection to contemporaneous material from nearby sites? The results are chronological/functional typologies. Such typologies allow archaeologists to establish relative dating schemes, which are critical for sites and deposits that lack other internal dating evidence, such as inscriptional remains (names or references to kings) and organic material.

Development of Ceramic Typologies.

The first ceramic typology was designed by William Flinders Petrie In 1890, based on pottery he had excavated from Tell el-Ḥesi in southern Israel. There, stream action had cut a vertical section into the tell, providing a roughly stratified chronological sequence at the site. By recognizing pottery similar to the wares he had excavated in Egypt, Petrie could accommodate the Ḥesi material into the system of sequence dating he had developed for Egyptian funerary ceramics and epigraphic data. Pottery at Tell el-Ḥesi provided a stratified sequence of both plain and decorated wares that enabled Petrie to draw attention to the chronological value of domestic undecorated pottery. Until this development, classical archaeologists had relied exclusively on decorated wares. Nevertheless, undecorated and coarser wares continued to receive far less attention than decorated wares in subsequent pottery studies and typologies. [See Ḥesi, Tell el-; and the biography of Petrie.]

As more sites were excavated and new pottery forms were discovered, an emphasis was placed on improving and completing Petrie's initial chronological typology. J. Garrow Duncan compiled the Corpus of Dated Palestinian Pottery (London, 1930) to provide a system for identifying well-known pottery types and to alleviate the repetitious publication of such pots in future reports. In later excavation reports, pottery was sometimes listed according to Duncan's Corpus identifications, but it soon became outdated. Its emphasis was on whole vessels (sherds belonged only if they bore a special surface treatment). However, increasing reliance on stratigraphic methods of excavation and recording the precise location of sherds and pots, as exemplified by the work at Samaria of George Reisner (see Reisner et al., 1924), resulted in an increased appreciation and use of sherds in the Near East and in the New World. Reisner later influenced his students at Harvard to study sherds. [See the biography of Reisner.]

Chronological typologies enabled archaeologists to compare and cross-date assemblages from different sites, especially in the early days of archaeological research. A cross-cultural study by Henri Frankfort (London, 1924) dealt with pottery from Mesopotamia to Egypt. However, it emphasized chronological questions, ignoring variation within and among local and regional wares. Local cultural uniformity (ceramic similarity) characterized the basis for research with few exceptions. Ceramic typologies continued to revise the functional/chronological typologies over the years. G. E. Wright's important study The Pottery of Palestine from the Earliest Times to the End of the Early Bronze Age (New Haven, 1937) dealt with chronological issues of Early Bronze Age material while noting ceramic analysis's potential to deal with other issues. An unusual typology, based on geometric-shape analysis, by Pinhas Delougaz (1952) for Mesopotamian pottery, and analyses of clays by other researchers, unfortunately has a minimal impact on how ancient pottery was studied and published. [See the biographies of Frankfort and Wright.]

In 1963 Ruth Amiran and her associates published Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land, first in Hebrew and then in an English translation (Jerusalem, 1970). In it, they collected examples of whole pots and some sherds typical of different regions in Israel from the Neolithic period to the Late Iron Age. Little was known then about the pottery of more recent periods, although publications since have helped to construct typologies for them: Ephraim Stern's Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, 532–332 B.C. (Warminster, 1982); and Paul W. Lapp's Palestinian Ceramic Chronology, 200 B.C.–A.D. 70. (New Haven, 1961). Amiran's widely used typology was the guide for all subsequent studies, as local heterogeneity became recognized with the ever-increasing number of sites excavated. Studies of specific types of decorated pottery, from Cyprus to Mesopotamia, are too numerous to mention. Most, but not all, concentrate on stylistic features, with little or no reference to the wares' technological aspects.

Technological Studies.

An exceptional study for its day is the Iron Age pottery from Tell Beit Mirsim excavated by William Foxwell Albright. James L. Kelso and J. Palin Thorley (1943) studied it, addressing various aspects of its manufacturing techniques. Their technological analysis was separate from the functional/chronological typology Albright devised for the assemblage. William F. Badè developed an approach for studying pottery that drove the methodology and techniques he used in his excavation at Tell en-Naṣbeh (A Manual of Excavation in the Near East, Berkeley, Calif, 1934). He advanced the idea of pottery's local and regional heterogeneity, rather than follow the established view of cultural homogeneity in ancient Israel. [See Beit Mirsim, Tell; Naṣbeh, Tell en-; and the biographies of Albright and Badè.]

With the first edition of Anna O. Shepard's Ceramics for the Archaeologist (Washington, D.C., 1956) a text to explain ceramic technology became available. It had considerable impact in New World archaeology but less elsewhere. Frederick R. Matson worked in the Near East with both ancient pots and with contemporary potters using traditional techniques. As the editor of Robert Ehrich's Ceramics and Man (Chicago, 1965), among many other publications, Matson focused on the technology available to the people responsible for making and using ceramic wares. Despite the number of studies that concentrate on nonchronological issues, most ceramic typologies continue to present catalog formats of pottery, used for chronological purposes, that are classified according to stylistic criteria alone.

An important exception accompanied the publication of the excavations at Tell Deir ῾Alla in Jordan. The archaeologist H. J. Franken and the potter Jan Kalsbeek (1969) introduced an approach to ceramic analysis that avoids classification based on stylistic criteria. It considers pottery-making techniques to be critical to the presentation of the material. After examining the clays at Deir ῾Alla from the perspectives of a potter and a geologist, Kalsbeek systematically described and defined the ancient pottery and manufacturing techniques in potters' terminology. The result is a typology based on form and function. It begins by explaining how each form was created. Thus, pots that may appear to be different can be understood to represent a single technique. Knowing how vessel bodies, rims, bases, and handles are made enables an understanding of the ancient potters decisions and the variations in excavated pottery: if the rim is the last part of the body to be made, its length may simply be the result of how much clay remained by the time the potter reached the rim. Variations in rim forms, thus, do not always need to represent chronological differences, and this applies to virtually all of a pot's features, including surface treatment and decoration. [See Deir ῾Alla, Tell.]

In addition, Franken and Kalsbeek redefined the terms archaeologists commonly use to describe pottery: wheel thrown, well levigated, and self-slip, to name a few. The vast majority of ancient wares published as “wheel made” were made on a turntable capable of movement but lacking momentum—consequently, the pots technically were not wheel thrown. Imprecise use of terminology in archaeological reports generally characterizes descriptions of the firing process, as well. Archaeologists tend to describe wares as poor or well fired depending on clay color: if the entire piece has fired one color, the pot is well fired, but if more than one color is present in the cross section the ware is said to be poorly fired. Nevertheless, the end result was a usable pot, made and fired by a potter who may have been conscientious about not wasting precious fuel. Potters could have learned from experience that burnished wares fired too high lost their sheen. As a result, many burnished vessels are not fired red throughout—of little significance to a pot's uselife—but have a darkened core visible only in the profile of a sherd.

The goal is to create a more objective typology based on style and technology, which are inseparable. The ultimate objectives are to find the potter behind the pot, the people who used it, and the society in which they lived. One achievement of technological analyses, which has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent ethnoarchaeological studies of traditional potters, is that more than one tradition and technology can and will coexist; they are not always replaced by a new technique. This discovery has considerable implications for every chronological typology.


  • Delougaz, Pinhas. Pottery from the Diyala Region. Chicago, 1952, Unusual ceramic typology arranged according to geometric-shape analysis.
  • Franken, H. J. “Analysis of Methods of Potmaking in Archaeology.” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971): 227–255. General statement on ceramic technology and its application to ancient pottery.
  • Franken, H. J., with contributions by Jan Kalsbeek. Excavations at Tell Deir ῾Allā, vol. 1, A Stratigraphical and Analytical Study of the Early Iron Age Pottery. Leiden, 1969. Pioneering excavation report using ceramic technology to construct typologies; offers a new way to analyze, describe, and present ancient pottery.
  • Franken, H. J., and Jan Kalsbeek. Potters of the Medieval Village in the Jordan Valley: Excavations at Tell Deir ῾Alla, a Medieval Tell, Tell Abu Gourdan, Jordan. New York, 1975. Application of ceramic analysis to medieval pottery with an explanation of many ceramic terms for archaeologists.
  • Frankfort, Henri. Studies in the Early Pottery of the Near East, vol. 1, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt and Their Earliest Interrelations. London, 1924. Early cross-cultural analysis.
  • Kelso, James L., and J. Palin Thorley. “The Potter's Technique at Tell Beit Mirsim, Particularly in Stratum A.” In The Excavations of Tell Beit Mirsim, vol. 3, The Iron Age, edited by William Foxwell Albright, pp. 86–142. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 21/22. New Haven, 1943. Albright's typological study of Iron Age pottery; separate chapter on technology by Kelso and Thorley.
  • London, Gloria A. “Decoding Designs: The Late Third Millennium B.C. Pottery from Jebel Qa῾aqir.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 1985. History of ceramic analysis in the ancient Near East, with an emphasis on Israel. Available from Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Tell el Hesy (Lachish). London, 1891. Pioneering study in ceramic typology that influenced archaeological research worldwide.
  • Reisner, George A., et al. Harvard Excavations at Samaria, 1908–1910. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1924. Oversized format, difficult to obtain.
  • Rice, Prudence M. Pottery Analysis: A Sourcebook. Chicago, 1987. Most recent and comprehensive text describing techniques available for ceramic analysis.

Gloria Anne London

Mesopotamian Ceramics of the Neolithic through Neo-Babylonian Periods

A group of crude, low-fired clay containers found at the Syrian site of Mureybet and dating to about 8000 BCE is the earliest known in the Near East. [See Mureybet.] During the latter half of the eighth millennium, the inhabitants of Ganj Dareh in west-central Iran also began making vessels of fired clay, but another half-millennium would pass before pottery came into more general use across the Near East.

Proto-Hassuna through Halaf Periods.

In lowland northern Mesopotamia, the first ceramics were produced early in the seventh millennium. They represent the earliest phase of the Hassuna sequence, known as the proto-Hassuna. Like the type-site of Hassuna, located near the Tigris River south of Mosul, sites with proto-Hassuna and/or Hassuna levels have, for the most part, been found within the dry-farming region of northern Iraq. The best-known proto-Hassuna site, Umm Dabaghiyeh, was located well beyond the southern edge of the rainfall zone, however. [See Hassuna; Tigris.]

The characteristic proto-Hassuna pottery, consisting of low-fired vessels formed by hand from heavily vegetable-tempered clay, belongs to what is known as the Coarse group. Jars in this group typically had a low carination separating a convex upper body profile from a lower body that frequently had a concave profile. Small lumps of clay, sometimes shaped to represent animal heads or human faces, were often added to a vessel's surface. Among the most elaborate of these applied designs were whole animals (onagers) and the upper bodies of women. Simple painted designs—dots, circles, lines, and squiggles—appeared in early levels at Umm Dabaghiyeh.

Pottery from the small site of Ginnig in northwestern Iraq may represent the earliest stage in the evolution of Mesopotamian ceramics because typologically and technologically it is the simplest assemblage of Coarse ceramics. Confirmation of this, however, must await further excavation (Campbell and Baird, 1990). Sherds of a thin, well-fired shell- or sand-tempered ware with a burnished red or gray slip have been found alongside typical proto-Hassuna ceramics. This pottery, which represents a separate, more advanced ceramic tradition, may have been imported from Syrian and Anatolian sites to the west.

The pottery of the Standard Hassuna group, the principal assemblage for the Hassuna period proper, represents a technological advance over the Coarse ceramics of the proto-Hassuna. Domed, two-chambered kilns, examples of which have been excavated in Hassuna levels at Yarim Tepe I, permitted higher firing temperatures, which produced less porous, more durable vessels (Merpert and Munchaev, 1973). The use of such relatively sophisticated kilns indicates that pottery making was becoming a specialized craft at a very early date. The Standard Hassuna assemblage has been divided into incised, painted, and painted-and-incised groups. The most common was the incised group, with vessels typically coated with a thick, light-colored slip and incised with simple geometric designs like cross-hatching, chevrons, and sprigs.

Archaic Painted Ware, a separate pottery group, characterized by highly burnished surfaces and glossy red-painted decoration, was first produced in later proto-Hassuna levels and continued into the Hassuna, thus linking the ceramic assemblages for the two periods. The distinctive “husking tray,” an oval basin with a corrugated bottom, chronologically overlapped the proto-Hassuna and Hassuna as well.

Painted Samarra Ware appeared in northern Mesopotamia toward the end of the seventh millennium. Although it has been found together with Standard Hassuna pottery on sites in the Hassuna heartland, the Samarra, with its geometric and naturalistic designs in fugitive brown or gray paint, stemmed from a ceramic tradition that originated in the region to the south and southeast, at sites like Samarra, Tell es-Sawwan, and Chogha Mami. [See Samarra, article on Chalcolithic Period.] Characteristic of Samarra designs were horizontal bands filled with a variety of geometric patterns,some of which may have been taken from textiles. [See Textiles, article on Textiles of the Neolithic through Iron Ages.] Among other typical motifs is the centrifugal arrangement of horned animals around the bottom of large, shallow bowls.


CERAMICS: Mesopotamian. Painted Samarra bowl from Tell Hassuna. (After S. Lloyd and F. Safar, “Tell Hassuna: Excavations by the Iraq Government Directorate General of Antiquities in 1943 and 1944, with Prefatory Remarks by Robert J. Braidwood,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 4 [1945]: fig. 1)

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The latest Samarra pottery from Chogha Mami showed technological improvements both in terms of its firing and in the quality of its paint. However, it was still similar to the classic Samarra in shape and decoration, although naturalistic designs had largely disappeared. Dubbed Chogha Mami Transitional, this last stage in the evolution of the Samarra had close affinities with pottery from both Chogha Sefid in Iranian Khuzistan and Tell el-᾽Oueili in southern Iraq. [See ᾽Oueili, Tell el-.]

The Halaf culture, named for the site in northeastern Syria where its distinctive pottery was first discovered, succeeded the Hassuna in the northern rainfall zone. [See Halaf, Tell.] It has frequently been interpreted as intrusive, but work in northern Mesopotamia and Syria suggests that it may have developed indigenously out of local cultures, including the Hassuna, during the early part of the sixth millennium (Campbell, 1992). The lustrous painted pottery of the Halaf period represents a high point in the history of Mesopotamian pottery in terms of both technical and aesthetic achievement. As the potters achieved mastery over their medium of expression, their geometric designs became increasingly elaborate. Animals occasionally appear on early Halaf vessels, while stylized bucrania are a common element in later designs. The surpassing skill of the Halaf potters is best represented by a group of intricately decorated polychrome plates from the latest Halaf level at Tell Arpachiyah, a site near Mosul. This was clearly a luxury ware produced for trade and export by highly skilled artisans. Neutron activation analysis of potsherds has identified major regional centers of production at Arpachiyah and at Chaghar Bazar in northeastern Syria. These centers dominated the local pottery trade and apparently exported ceramics to locations as far as 200 km (124 mi.) away (Davidson and McKerrell, 1976, 1980).

In the latter part of the sixth millennium, locally made pottery bearing designs characteristic of the Ubaid 3 culture of southern Mesopotamia began to appear alongside the Halaf in northern Mesopotamia. After a transitional period during which ceramics of both types were produced, the Halaf was finally completely supplanted by the Ubaid.


The Ubaid culture, which has been traced back as far as the early sixth millennium, takes its name from the small site near Ur where its distinctive ceramics (belonging to the phases now called Ubaid 3 and 4) were originally recognized. [See Ubaid.] Ubaid pottery was characterized generally by geometric decoration in dark paint (black, brown, red) on a light-colored surface. Changes over time in the designs on the pottery have been used to divide the period variously into five or six phases.

Tell el-᾽Oueili, near the ancient city of Larsa in southern Iraq, has yielded the earliest known phase of the Ubaid sequence, sometimes referred to as the ᾽Oueili phase of the Ubaid. More frequently, however, it is called Ubaid 0, because the pottery assemblage found at ᾽Oueili was both earlier than and developmentally related to the Ubaid 1. Until the mid-1980s, Ubaid 1 had been believed to be the earliest pottery in southern Mesopotamia. The lowest levels at ᾽Oueili have not yet been reached, and the presence of Neolithic-looking sherds out of context in higher levels make it almost certain that still-earlier phases will have to be added to the southern Mesopotamian ceramic sequence (Huot, 1992).

Ubaid 0 vessels were decorated with simple geometric designs—zigzags, crosses, and parallel vertical lines—in a dull, powdery black paint. Sherds belonging to this phase have thus far been identified at only a few sites in a relatively small area in southern Mesopotamia. However, affinities with ceramics from Chogha Mami east of Baghdad and Chogha Sefid in Khuzistan (see above) indicate that the geographic range of Ubaid 0 ceramics must have been significantly larger.

Ubaid 1 (Eridu phase) pottery was first identified in the lowest levels at the site of Eridu, where archaeologists were able to excavate a stratigraphic sequence containing all the post-Ubaid 0 phases. [See Eridu.] Ubaid 1 decoration included elaborate geometric designs (particularly on the interiors of open forms) delicately rendered with a shiny, strongly adhering dark-brown paint. By this phase, Ubaid material culture had definitely spread across southern Mesopotamia and into the western foothills of the southern Zagros Mountains.

Ubaid 2 (Hajji Mohammed phase) ceramics were discovered at Hajji Mohammed, a small site near ancient Uruk. The site had been completely buried by several meters of alluvial deposits but had been cut through by an arm of the Euphrates River, so that it was visible in the riverbank only when the water was low. [See Euphrates.] Because of heavy alluviation, only a fraction of the earliest sites in southern Mesopotamia have been located. In Ubaid 2 there was a marked change in pottery decoration. In contrast to the delicate designs of Ubaid 1, surfaces were typically almost completely covered by purplish-black paint, creating a reserve pattern of numerous small, pale areas. Ubaid 2 vessels manufactured in southern Mesopotamia have been found along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps indicating the activities of Ubaid traders or fishermen.

In the latter phases of the period (Ubaid 3–4, Terminal Ubaid) the Ubaid cultural tradition extended across both southern and northern Mesopotamia and into northern Syria. Though they display some regional differences, northern and southern ceramics were closely related duringthe later phases of the Ubaid. For example, a vessel of unusual shape, the so-called tortoise jar, was a part of both the southern and northern assemblages. The designs on the later Ubaid pottery—lines, scallops, chevrons, and triangles—became simpler and more horizontally oriented. The use of more intricate decoration was abandoned in the face of an evolving technology for the mass production of pottery. Instead of being painstakingly applied stroke by stroke, later Ubaid designs were frequently created simply by holding the brush to the surface of a vessel that was turned slowly in front of the potter. Toward the end of the Ubaid period in the south, the quality of the painted designs deteriorated markedly as vessel painting in general became increasingly rare. Ubaid pottery from Mesopotamia continued to be used at sites along the Arabian coast, though no other elements of Ubaid material culture have been found there. Affinities in ceramic decoration indicate that there were links with Khuzistan as well (Oates, 1983, 1987).


CERAMICS: Mesopotamian. Polychrome Halaf plate from Arpachiyah. (After M. E. L. Mallowan and J. Cruikshank Rose, “Excavations at Tall Arpachiyah, 1933,” Iraq 2 [1935]: pl. 13)

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CERAMICS: Mesopotamian. Late Ubaid bowl from Eridu. (After F. Safar, M. A. Mustafa, and S. Lloyd, Eridu, Baghdad, 1981, fig. 84)

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Uruk-Early Dynastic I.

The similarity of material culture that characterized southern and northern Mesopotamia during the latter part of the Ubaid period did not endure as southern Mesopotamia began to outpace the north in terms of both political and technological development. The introduction of the fast wheel during the latter half of the fifth millennium vastly increased the speed and scale of pottery production in the south in order to meet the growing demands of a newly urbanized population. The widespread adoption of the fast wheel, together with the not-unrelated demise of painted decoration, heralded the advent of the Uruk period. The period is named for the ancient Sumerian city where the trend toward urbanized life manifested itself most spectacularly. [See Uruk-Warka.] It is the only site where the entire Early, Middle, and Late Uruk sequence has been excavated stratigraphically. Paradoxically, the most frequently encountered and most readily recognizable component of the Uruk ceramic repertory was not thrown on a potter's wheel; it was shaped by pressing coarsely mixed, chaff-tempered clay into a mold. This was the beveled-rim bowl, tens of thousands of which have been found across the Near East from southern Iran to southeastern Anatolia. Its discovery attests to the economic penetration of neighboring regions by the new cities of southern Mesopotamia.

The reappearance of monochrome and polychrome ceramic decoration toward the end of the fourth millennium marked the transition to the Jemdet Nasr period, itself a short-lived transitional period between the Late Uruk and Early Dynastic periods (Wilson, 1986). These and other Jemdet Nasr characteristics disappeared early in the third millennium with the emergence of new ceramic features that are diagnostic for the Early Dynastic I: fenestrated stands, solid-footed goblets, and, in the Diyala River valley and areas to the east, Scarlet Ware, with its geometric and naturalistic designs (plants, fish, birds, quadrupeds, humans) in red and black paint (Delougaz, 1952). [See Jemdet Nasr; Diyala.]

Post-Ubaid Developments.

In the north, the period that followed the end of the Ubaid is sometimes referred to as the Gawra period. It is named for the site with the longest excavated sequence of Ubaid and post-Ubaid levels, Tepe Gawra. [See Tepe Gawra.] However, the Gawra assemblage is not typical for the north as a whole; indeed, each site excavated thus far appears to have unique ceramic characteristics (Roaf and Killick, 1987). Adding to an already complicated situation, there is ample ceramic evidence from sites along rivers and other trade routes attesting to the presence of people from southern Mesopotamia in the north toward the end of the Gawra period (the Late Uruk in southern terms). The presence of Late Uruk pottery influenced ceramic development in the north, but the post-Ubaid northern tradition remained distinct from that of the south and followed its own evolutionary trajectory. The fast wheel began to be used in the north much later than it had been in the south. Wheelmade pots first appeared at Tepe Gawra and elsewhere during the fourth millennium, contemporary with the Late Uruk period in the south, when connections between south and north were at their closest.


CERAMICS: Mesopotamian. Scarlet-ware jar (Early Dynastic I) from Tell Agrab in the Diyala. (From P. Delougaz, Pottery from the Diyala Region, Chicago, 1952, pl. 11; courtesy Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

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The next northern cultural assemblage, Ninevite 5, was named for stratum 5 of the Prehistoric Pit at Nineveh, in which several styles of decorated pottery were identified—although their chronological relationships could not be established. [See Nineveh.] More recent work has shown that the painted style was the earliest, apparently having developed from a painted northern variant of Late Uruk pottery at about the beginning of the third millennium (Roaf and Killick, 1987). Painted Ninevite 5 vessels were decorated with all-over geometric designs, as well as birds and horned animals, in red or brown paint. Ceramics with incised and excised decoration, divided into early and late subgroups, appeared only later in the sequence. They continued to be produced until the middle of the third millennium, after the painted pottery had gone out of use.

Historical Periods.

Several factors combine to make it more difficult to present a period-by-period ceramic survey for the historical periods than it is for the prehistoric. First, the later ceramic sequences—post-Early Dynastic I in the south and post-Ninevite 5 in the north—are inadequately documented and poorly understood, especially in the case of northern Mesopotamia. One of the most crucial tasks confronting the field of Mesopotamian archaeology is to remedy this situation. Although progress is being made, the present state of affairs will persist until additional multiperiod stratigraphic sequences are excavated and published.

Second, the historical periods, in contrast to the prehistoric periods surveyed here, are not defined by their ceramic assemblages but by political events. Ceramics were, of course, sometimes indirectly affected by such events—as, for example, when the unification of a region resulted in an increasing homogenization of its pottery. However, even when certain ceramic features happened to be characteristic for a particular historical period, the temporal range of such features was only coincidentally coterminous with the events that defined that period.

Finally, the pottery of the historical periods, with several notable exceptions, consisted of undecorated, mass-produced vessels in plain wares. Their shapes evolved only gradually, creating, at least in the south, what appears to be a continuous sequence that extended well beyond the final political eclipse of Babylonia in the sixth century BCE. Aesthetically, the nadir in southern Mesopotamian pottery production was reached in the Kassite period, during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. [See Kassites.] At this time the ceramic corpus was reduced to a regionwide homogenized assemblage of only six principal forms, none of them decorated and all of them indifferently, and sometimes even crudely, manufactured (Ayoub, 1982; Armstrong, 1993).

Although a thorough presentation of the ceramic sequence for the historical periods is beyond the scope of this discussion, developments in the ongoing evolution of ceramic technology can be highlighted. From finds at Nuzi, a Hurrian city in northern Mesopotamia, it is clear that, by the fourteenth century BCE, at the same time the potter's craft in southern Mesopotamia was reaching its low point, northern potters had mastered the ability to throw vessels with walls of near-eggshell thinness. [See Nuzi; Hurrians.] Having such thin walls, these vessels could not be removed from the wheel without being dimpled, so the potter would add more indentations to create a pattern. In the early first millennium BCE, elegant dimpled cups continued to be produced for use by the wealthy classes of the Late Assyrian Empire; examples of these cups have been found at sites stretching from the border of Egypt to southern Mesopotamia (Oates, 1959). [See Assyrians.]

Glazed ceramic objects began to appear at Nuzi in the fourteenth century BCE, concurrently with the emergence of a substantial glass industry in northern Mesopotamia. [See Glass.] Glaze technology at that time seems to have been at an early experimental stage, not fully under the potter's control. Moreover, the pale blue-green glaze developed was used at Nuzi only on items associated with the religious cult, including numerous ceramic wall decorations (nails, plaques), several small statues, other sculptural items, and an offering table, but surprisingly few vessels (Vandiver, 1982.


CERAMICS: Mesopotamian. Glazed bottles from Nippur (c. 600 BCE). (Courtesy J. Armstrong)

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However, it was soon recognized that glazed pottery vessels, because their walls were completely sealed against transpiration, were a relatively inexpensive alternative to stone or glass vessels for storing valuable liquids like perfumes and oils. By the early first millennium BCE, both Assyrian and Babylonian potters were producing large numbers of glazed vessels, especially small bottles and jars. [See Babylonians.] Decoration in both the north and the south consisted mainly of geometric designs in white, yellow, blue, green, and brown. On larger Assyrian vessels, stylized flowers and even animals sometimes appeared. After the end of the Neo-Babylonian period in the sixth century BCE, the polychrome geometric designs in Babylonia were replaced by solid-color glazes of blue-green, green, and gray during the Achaemenid (Persian) period.

[See also Mesopotamia, articles on Prehistoric Mesopotamia and Ancient Mesopotamia.]


  • Armstrong, James L. “Pottery.” In Nippur III: Kassite Buildings in Area WC-1, edited by Richard L. Zettler, pp. 67–80. Oriental Institute Publications, III. Chicago, 1993. Offers a ceramic chronology for southern Mesopotamia in the late second millennium BCE.
  • Ayoub, Sa῾ad. Die Keramik in Mesopotamien und in den Nachbargebieten: Von der Ur III-Zeit bis zum Ende der kassitischen Periode. Mittenwald, 1982. Pottery typology for the late third-late second millennium BCE; problematic because the excavations on which it is based frequently lacked sufficient stratigraphic control and because the excavators' attributions of ceramic types to specific periods are adopted uncritically.
  • Campbell, Stuart, and Douglas Baird. “Excavations at Ginnig: The Aceramic to Early Ceramic Neolithic Sequence in North Iraq.” Paléorient 16.2 (1990): 65–78.
  • Campbell, Stuart. “The Halaf Period in Iraq: Old Sites and New.” Biblical Archaeologist 55 (1992): 182–187.
  • Davidson, T. E., and H. McKerrell. “Pottery Analysis and Halaf Period Trade in the Khabur Headwaters Region.” Iraq 38 (1976): 45–56.
  • Davidson, T. E., and H. McKerrell. “The Neutron Activation Analysis of Halaf and ᾽Ubaid Pottery from Tell Arpachiyah and Tepe Gawra.” Iraq 42 (1980): 155–167.
  • Delougaz, Pinhas. Pottery from the Diyala Region. Oriental Institute Publications, 63. Chicago, 1952. Provides the framework for the third millennium BCE ceramic chronology of southern Mesopotamia, updated and corrected in detail by more recent studies.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis. “The First Farmers at ᾽Oueili.” Biblical Archaeologist 55 (1992): 188–195. Popular account of the recent discoveries at ᾽Oueili, which has yielded the earliest ceramics in southern Mesopotamia.
  • Merpert, N., and R. Munchaev. “Early Agricultural Settlements in the Sinjar Plain, Northern Iraq.” Iraq 35 (1973): 93–113.
  • Oates, Joan. “Late Assyrian Pottery from Fort Shalmaneser.” Iraq 21 (1959): 130–146.
  • Oates, Joan. “Ubaid Mesopotamia Reconsidered.” In The Hilly Flanks and Beyond: Essays on the Prehistory of Southwestern Asia, edited by T. Cuyler Young, Jr., et al., pp. 251–281. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 36. Chicago, 1983.
  • Oates, Joan. “Ubaid Chronology.” In Chronologies in the Near East, edited by Olivier Aurenche et al., pp. 473–482. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 379. Oxford, 1987. This and the article above represent recent analyses of the Ubaid by one of the foremost scholars of the prehistoric periods in Mesopotamia.
  • Porada, Edith, et al. “The Chronology of Mesopotamia, ca. 7000–1600 B.C.” In Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, vol. 1, edited by Robert W. Ehrich, pp. 77–121. 3d ed. Chicago, 1992. Essential reference for Mesopotamian archaeology, providing thorough discussions of the ceramic evidence and an extensive bibliography.
  • Roaf, Michael, and R. G. Killick. “A Mysterious Affair of Styles: The Ninevite 5 Pottery of Northern Mesopotamia.” Iraq 49 (1987): 199–230. Convincing new analysis of the relative chronology of Ninevite 5 pottery.
  • Vandiver, Pamela B. “Mid-Second Millennium B.C. Soda-Lime-Silicate Technology at Nuzi (Iraq).” In Early Pyrotechnology: The Evolution of the First Fire-Using Industries, edited by Theodore A. Wertime and Steven F. Wertime, pp. 73–92. Washington, D.C., 1982. Presentation of the evidence for glass technology at Nuzi, including the early glazed ceramics.
  • Wilson, Karen L. “Nippur: The Definition of a Mesopotamian Gamdat Nasr Assemblage.” In Gamdat Nasr: Period or Regional Style?, edited by Uwe Finkbeiner and Wolfgang Röllig, pp. 57–89. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, Reihe B, vol. 62. Wiesbaden, 1986.

James A. Armstrong

Syro-Palestinian Ceramics of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages

This article will treat the pottery of ancient Syria-Palestine with specific reference to the history of its analysis; technology, form, decoration, and typology; and the distinguishing characteristics of archaeological phases from the Neolithic to the Iron Age.

Uses of Pottery in Archaeology.

Archaeologists in many fields, not just Syro-Palestinian archaeologists, seem almost obsessed with pottery, for good reasons. Pottery, once it is invented, is relatively abundant on all archaeological sites; when fired it is virtually indestructible; even broken sherds are diagnostic enough for analysis; and its plastic qualities and almost limitless possibilities for form and decoration are particularly expressive of human ideas, behavior, and even socioeconomic organization. As the well-known archaeologist Robert Ehrich has put it: “Pottery is our most sensitive medium for perceiving shared aesthetic traditions—in the sense that they define ethnic groups—for recognizing culture contact and culture change, and for following migration and trade patterns” (1965, pp. vii, viii).

Brief History of Ceramic Analysis.

Although scattered over the surface of innumerable mounds in what was ancient Palestine, pottery was not appreciated at first by early explorers. Even Edward Robinson, the father of Palestinology, who visited and correctly identified dozens of long-lost biblical sites In 1838, failed to recognize pottery as a clue to the antiquity of places. The great British Survey of Western Palestine (1871–1878) paid no attention to pottery (and did not, in fact, recognize tells, or mounds, for what they were). Not until the brief field trip to Palestine made by the legendary Sir William Flinders Petrie In 1890 did pottery analysis begin to play a role in archaeology.

Petrie had already applied his own inituitive typological instincts to a large corpus of pottery from predynastic tombs in Egypt. He had worked out the fundamental principles of what is now known as seriation (his sequence dating), to yield a reasonably accurate relative ceramic chronology. Noting the abundance of local, undecorated pottery on the multilayered mounds of Palestine, he argued that the systematic and detailed classification of the common pottery could yield a suitable chronology. He argued, furthermore, that such a ceramic typology would be a useful guide in excavating mounds stratigraphically (creating the twin principles of all subsequent archaeological method: typology and stratigraphy). As Petrie put it with characteristic verve: “Pottery is the essential alphabet of archaeology.” To appreciate Petrie's achievement, it must be recalled that before he laid the foundations for ceramic typology, almost nothing from archaeological sites in Palestine could be dated, even within centuries. Nevertheless, Petrie, who did not return to Palestine to excavate until the 1920s, did not follow through on his own original insights. [See the biography of Petrie.]

In their excavations in the Judean Shephelah (1898–1900), Frederick J. Bliss and R. A. S. Macalister developed the first ceramically based scheme of absolute chronology, departing from Petrie's suggested dates, but their idiosyncratic dates were several centuries off. Macalister's own work at Gezer (1902–1909), based on very faulty stratigraphy, represented something of a retrogression. [See the biographies of Bliss and Macalister.]

Little progress in ceramic analysis was made until the work of William Foxwell Albright, who in his excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim (1926–1932) had worked out a ceramic sequence, with suggested terminology and a range of dates. With minor modifications, it still serves as the basic chronological framework for Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages. This brilliant achievement alone would qualify Albright to be regarded as the father of modern Palestinian archaeology. [See the biography of Albright.]

Albright also encouraged others in ceramic analysis. During Albright's tenure as director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s, Clarence S. Fisher followed up Petrie's typical nineteenth-century notion of developing a complete catalog, or corpus, of pottery. This had been attempted in Petrie's own two corpora of Egyptian pottery and in J. Garrow Duncan's corpus, (1930), based on Petrie's later excavations at Tell Jemmeh. Although Fisher's work, “A Corpus of Palestinian Pottery,” was never finished (the manuscript exists at the Smithsonian Institution, however), it had some valuable features, such as classification according to function, and it gave impetus to the ideal of a corpus. [See the biography of Fisher.]

Albright's own protegé, G. E. Wright, worked out the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Early Bronze Age pottery, as it was then known, in his doctoral dissertation (1937). Later, several of Wright's students at Harvard and elsewhere sought to complete this enterprise with dissertations on the Early Bronze IV, Middle Bronze, Iron Age, and Hellenistic periods (based largely on Wright's excavations at Shechem). Only Paul W. Lapp (1961) and Dan P. Cole (1984) ever published, however. [See the biographies of Wright and Lapp.]

Meanwhile, Israeli archaeologists, particularly after the establishment of the State of Israel In 1948 and the flowering of the Israeli national school, were mastering the pottery of ancient Palestine, also in the Albrightian tradition. This research culminated in the only published effort at a complete corpus, Ruth Amiran's handbook Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (1970), but it stops short of the Persian period. Amiran's work remains, however, the indispensable handbook and basis for all future studies. Beyond this general compendium, there are now detailed studies of individual periods and problems, as well as many exhaustive comparative studies that are published in the course of preliminary and final field reports. There also are newer methods supplementing traditional typological approaches, to which we now turn.

Ceramic Typology and Its Application.

Typological principles in general can be applied to pottery, metals, house forms, tombs, and even ideas. “Type” refers to a cluster of essential attributes that occur frequently enough that they serve to characterize an object, enable it to be recognized in other examples, and distinguish it from objects of another class. The attempt to isolate those attributes that capture the “essence” of a thing or category of things often involves the postulation of an ideal “prototype,” either real or imagined, from which all the actual variations can have derived—a kind of theme, on which there are many possible variations. Such a procedure, however, is much debated among archaeologists, who tend to divide themselves on the question of “discovered,” or empirical, types that actually exist; and “designed” types, invented for the convenience of the cataloger, that do not necessarily correspond to actual reality. Archaeologists who hold to the latter view are often skeptical about the value of typological analyses of any sort. They are usually reacting, however, to the excesses of typology, which is always somewhat subjective and can indeed go to absurd extremes. Nevertheless, typology, reasonably utilized and with presuppositions that are clearly spelled out and tested against adequate stratified data, can be a useful tool.

Typological analysis of pottery in Syro-Palestinian archaeology has from the beginning been largely preoccupied with questions of chronology. This is undoubtedly because of the dominance of biblical archaeology, with its overriding interest in “political history,” and the concomitant problem of fixing dates for great public events that could be correlated with biblical history. There are, however, other, more sophisticated aspects of typology that are typical of general archaeology and are increasingly appreciated in the discipline. Following David H. Thomas's Predicting the Past (1974), several uses of typology can be distinguished, depending on the questions being asked.

  • 1. Morphological typology. What is indeed most fundamental in Palestinian pottery is form. Morphological typology is therefore largely descriptive; it is an attempt to define what a thing is, in terms of such basic attributes as shape: an ovoid storejar, flat-based cooking pot, and piriform juglet, for example.
  • 2. Technological typology. The investigation of how a vessel is made and finished reveals its technological typology. It is an attempt to determine ways in which a vessel can be distinguished from other vessels: is the vessel coil made, wheel thrown, or hand burnished? It includes the study of clay types and sources, tempering agents (dégraissant), forming methods, kiln usage, and finishing or decorative techniques. Ceramic technology is a relatively new specialization, aided substantially by sedimentological and petrological studies; kiln refiring experiments; use-wear analysis under a high-powered electron microscope; and especially by neutron activation analysis to “fingerprint” clays and pinpoint their sources.
  • 3. Temporal typology. More familiar in Syro-Palestinian archaeology, temporal typology is an analysis of the evolving shape of ceramic vessels over time, charting the changes along a time line and assuming that the observed evolution of form (and often of decoration) corresponds, more or less, to historical-cultural developments and can help to date these. In practice, the relative chronology that is first established is concerned only with determining which are the earlier and which are the later developments. With multiple tomb groups or other mixed deposits (such as Petrie started with), intuition and/or theoretical principles may be the only recourse. However, stratified materials—preferably from large and representative samples on short-lived living surfaces—yield the only reliable sequences. Then, at some stage of research, an absolute chronology must be developed by fixing as many pegs as possible on which to hang the entire framework. This can be done only by correlating archaeological assemblages (or groups of stratigraphically related and contemporaneous materials) to events known in history through datable texts. In the case of ancient Palestine, the biblical texts are of some value chronologically. These depend in turn on Mesopotamian and Egyptian king lists and the like, which are often dated precisely through ancient astronomical observations. Thus, gradually there is built up an elaborate network of synchronisms that date pottery groups; and the basic types of the repertoire known in these fixed contexts can then yield relatively accurate historical (i.e., calendrical) dates when the same ceramic forms are encountered in different and otherwise undatable contexts. If imported pottery or other artifacts are found that are datable in their country of origin, these can be incorporated into the synchronism. Best of all are written remains found in situ, which can be independently or epigraphically dated, but these are exceedingly rare for ancient Palestine. Radiocarbon-14 dates promise scientific precision, but their range is too broad to improve much on historically determined dates. For most periods, the common pottery of ancient Palestine can now be dated to the century, and often to one half or the other.
  • 4. Functional typology. The attempt to determine how an artifact is used defines functional typology. In the case of pottery vessels, the objective is to catalog separate groups of vessels on the basis of supposed function. Distinguishing some types is largely a matter of observation and common sense—separating cooking pots, storejars, and dipper juglets, for example. The use of some vessels, may remain enigmatic, however, unless they are subjected to laboratory analysis that can identify food or other remains in skims or they are duplicated and actually used experimentally. Of course, many vessels may have had multiple uses. Finally, it should be cautioned that some functional terms are either whimsical (Early Bronze IV “teapots”) or based largely on guesswork. Note that the Cypriot Late Bronze Age bilbil carries an ad hoc onomatopoeic name that duplicates the sound of pouring from the restricted neck of the juglet (although it may in fact have been for opium use). Vessels thought to have been designed for cultic usage are sometimes so designated; but apart from obvious vessels like kernoi (“trick vessels” with deceptive pouring spouts) or censers, cult vessels may be difficult to identify positively. Functional typology is surprisingly undeveloped in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. There is, however, the pioneering effort of James L. Kelso (1948), a biblical scholar, who, under Albright's influence, worked with a professional potter in an attempt to identify excavated Iron Age vessels with terminology in the Hebrew Bible.
  • 5. Cognitive typology. Developing a cognitive typology (getting at the ancient artisan's “mental template”) is the most difficult of the typological challenges. It is usually achieved by extrapolating from all the known individual examples of a presumed type, to arrive at a theoretical prototype on the basis of which all the variations can be explained. This effort, moving beyond description toward explanation, reaches the outer limits of the archaeological inquiry. It asks: Why is a particular vessel made the way it is? What was the intent of the maker? What cultural and aesthetic values does the vessel embody? Ultimately, answers are needed to such questions as: Why was the pottery of Iron Age Palestine “utilitarian,” while that of Cyprus was “exotic”? Do the presence of many vestigial features, as in the pottery of the Early Bronze IV period, suggest that the period in general was one of decline—that is, does ceramic degeneration signal cultural degeneration? As has been seen, some more functionalist investigators are skeptical at this point—perhaps mindful of Lewis R. Binford's oft-stated observation that “archaeologists are poorly equipped to be paleopsychologists.” Clearly, however, artifacts do express human behavior and the thought behind it; and there were cultural norms in ancient Palestine, as in all societies, that governed both. Formidable as the task may seem, the ultimate goal of ceramic typology is precisely to discover what cultural values did lie behind ceramic production, not just to fix the dates of pottery forms.

This leads to a concluding observation on ceramic typology. Attempting to “read” pottery may be compared to mastering the grammar of a language. Children and native speakers may use the language properly without any formal knowledge of the principles of grammar. The latter are worked out inductively by linguists, for their own purposes, in order to analyze the language and compare it with others, as well as to enable non-native speakers to learn it. Thus, even though the ancient potters would have been puzzled by modern attempts to impose order on what appears to be chaos, the effort is legitimate, indeed essential, for an understanding of ceramics. At its best, typology may actually enable the grasping of something of the reality of an extinct social system, its technology, its aesthetic values, and its contacts with other cultures.

Some practical advances in fieldwork, analysis, and publication have been made in recent years, many of them largely mechanical: thin-section microscopic observation of tempers, or ingredients, in the clay, and the neutron activation analysis of clays. Improvements in processing pottery include simple sectioning and profile drawing techniques that speed up preparation for publication, even in the field; more sophisticated descriptive methods, such as the use of the Munsell Soil Color Charts to describe clay and paint colors, and the Moh's Hardness Scale to determine how brittle the ware is; kiln refiring to establish the original temperature at which the vessel was fired; microscopic examination to determine both how a vessel was made and how it may have been used or reused (use-wear analysis); and the use of scanning computers and sophisticated multivariate statistical analyses to produce complete comparative corpora of certain classes of vessels (such as all the Mycenaean wares found in Palestine and their prototypes). Some of these recent attempts to make ceramic study more precise and objective, more “scientific,” actually go back many years, to the simple “punch-card” hand sorting of the 1960s, which anticipated computerization. Notable attempts were made to reduce analysis of form, always somewhat subjective, to mathematical principles as early as 1952 by Pinhas Delougaz in Iran (Pottery from the Diyala Region, Chicago, 1952). Anna O. Shepard (1956) has attempted to work out a comprehensive catalog of virtually all possible ceramic shapes, based on easily recognizable geometric forms.

Pottery from the Neolithic to the Iron Age.

The major ceramic developments for each period in the long archaeological history of Palestine are highlighted here.

Neolithic period (c. 6000–4000 BCE).

Pottery appears almost simultaneously throughout the Levant in about 6000 BCE, at the beginning of what was called by Kathleen M. Kenyon the Pottery Neolithic A (PNA) and by others Neolithic 3 or Developed Neolithic. This is some two to three millennia after the early Neolithic domestication of plants and animals, the beginnings of village life, and the transition from hunting and gathering to a food-producing society and economy. The long delay is surprising, considering the unique utility of ceramic vessels for so many domestic functions, as well as for artistic purposes, cultic and other symbolic uses, and trade. Nevertheless, once introduced, pottery seems to have caught on very quickly throughout the ancient Near East, Cyprus, and Egypt (for the latter two, In c. 5000 BCE); and it developed rapidly, in technology, form, and decoration. Thus, the delicate polychrome wares of the Hassuna, Samarra, and Halaf Neolithic phases in Mesopotamia are astonishingly sophisticated.

The origins of pottery production probably lie in the highly developed pyrotechnic capabilities of the earlier Neolithic, which had already experimented with minerals and clays, as well as with advanced kiln-firing techniques, to produce the period's ubiquitous fine plaster. It was only a step farther to apply this technology of clays to produce ceramic vessels. The actual stages in the experimental process are probably reflected in the vaissals blanches, or “white wares”—unfired plasterlike containers of the Prepottery Neolithic (PPN)—found at several sites in Syria.

The Neolithic pottery of Palestine is relatively crude: handmade, with coarse, low-fired clays; with straw or heavy grit temper; limited to a simple, utilitarian repertoire of shapes; and having decoration that consists of heavy slip applied like paint in geometric patterns, sometimes with incised chevron patterns. Little improvement distinguishes the Pottery Neolithic B (PNB) pottery from that of PNA, except for a slight improvement in wares and the addition of some new forms.

Chalcolithic period (c. 4000–3300 BCE).

The Chalcolithic period in Palestine—the transition between the Stone Age and the fully developed urban Early Bronze Age (overlapping with Kenyon's Proto-Urban phase)—witnesses the flourishing of the ceramic industry. A whole new repertoire of forms is introduced, most of them innovative and not directly related to the Neolithic tradition. These include a large range of pithoi (storejars), with a variety of ledge and loop handles; large kraters of several kinds; holemouth jars, some of them cooking pots; a family of globular and flaring bowls; cornets and other globular chalices; pedestal chalices; churns modeled after goatskins; and even crucibles for copperworking. Decoration includes incision, scalloping, thumb molding, and other plastic devices, as well as quiteexotic geometric patterns in red and/or black paint over a cream-colored ground. Clays are well levigated, especially the kaolin-rich “cream ware” of the Beersheba region; and high kiln temperatures produced some thin, quite metallic wares. Some vessels, like the small flaring bowls with a thinned rim, are finished, if not actually formed, on a rotation device, probably a simple wooden platform or mat that could be rotated. Reed impressions on the bases of some vessels give evidence of the latter.


CERAMICS: Syro-Palestinian. Examples of Palestinian pottery of the Chalcolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages. (1) Late Chalcolithic cornet; (2) EB I painted jug; (3) EB II Abydos-style pitcher; (4) EB III burnished platter bowl; (5) EB IV “teapot”; (6) EB IV corrugated cup; (7) MB I–II “Tell el-Yehudiyeh” juglet; (8) MB III trumpetfooted chalice; (9) LB I bichrome jug; (10) LB II “Canaanite” storejar (half-scale); (11) LB II cooking pot; (12) LB II lamp; (13) Early Iron I “collar-rim” storejar; (14) twelfth-century BCE Philistine bichrome krater; (15) Iron II neckless jar; (16) Iron II decanter; (17) Iron II burnished juglet; (18) Iron II “beerjug”; (19) Iron II Phoenician flask. (After Amiran, 1970)

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A striking phenomenon of the Late Chalcolithic period (c. 3600–3300 BCE) is the development of several regional assemblages that, although they overlap somewhat, have distinctive diagnostic features. These assemblages include, at a minimum (1) the original Ghassulian culture of the Dead Sea area, together with the related complex from the Beersheba valley; (2) a central coastal culture around modern Tel Aviv and somewhat inland; (3) the central hill-country sites, still poorly known; and (4) the Golan Heights group, only recently discerned.

Early Bronze I–III period (c. 3300–2400 BCE).

The Early Bronze Age is conveniently divided into an initial proto-urban EB I phase and then the urban EB II–III phases that are followed by a decline and transition in EB IV (treated separately below). The pottery of EB I (c. 3300–3200/3100 BCE) follows somewhat in the Late Chalcolithic tradition, indicating a basic cultural continuity. There are, however, many new forms that herald the full-fledged EB II–III era, as well as a decorative tradition that signifies several regional cultures—not peoples, and certainly not newcomers, as Kenyon maintained. (1) Red-painted wares with parallel bands of decoration (line-group or multiple-brush techniques) are largely confined to the south and parts of the Jordan Valley, while streaky grain-wash wares dominate in the north; (2) a gray-burnished class of knobbed bowls and footed chalices, possibly a descendant of the earlier widespread dark face-burnished ware, is found at sites around the Jezreel Valley (giving it the name Esdraelon ware, first thought to be Late Chalcolithic); and (3) red-burnished wares occur throughout the country, now widespread for the first time. Among the diagnostic EB I forms are storejars with simple thumb-indented ledge handles; high loop-handled mugs or juglets; omphalos-based bowls; and ear-handled juglets. While wares are less well made than those of the Chalcolithic, the earliest known potter's wheel (i.e., the basalt bearing stone) belongs to this period, found at Beth-Yeraḥ (Khirbet Kerak) on the Sea of Galilee. [See Beth-Yeraḥ.]

The pottery of EB II–III, which can be considered together, develops out of the EB I repertoire in basic form. However, the gray burnish and most of the red geometric paint disappear, while a heavy red burnish predominates on many forms. The latter include, in particular, storejars with wavy and pushed-up/scalloped ledge handles; large shallow platters; small carinated bowls in metallic ware; large holemouth storejars and cooking pots; two-handled amphorae; and footed chalices. Particular mention should be made of a class of graceful handled pitchers and jugs in fine red-burnished ware (sometimes a painted geometric decoration) called Abydos ware because it was first found by Petrie as imported ware in royal tombs of the first dynasty at Abydos in Egypt. It thus gives a valuable synchronism: the first dynasty (c. 3200/3100 BCE onward) equals the floruit of EB II in ancient Palestine. A complete potter's workshop found at Tell el-Far῾ah (North) includes a wheel, burnishing tools, clays and coloring agents, and a kiln.

The EB III phase (c. 2650–2400 BCE) is marked principally by the further development of many forms, such as platters; a few new forms, like spouted jars and flaring goblets; and especially by the brief appearance in the north of exotic red- and black-burnished vessels of Anatolian-Caucasian inspiration and the distinctive Khirbet Kerak ware (named after the site on the Sea of Galilee where it was first distinguished).

Early Bronze IV (c. 2400–2000 BCE).

The pottery of Early Bronze IV (Albright's Middle Bronze I and Kenyon's Intermediate Early Bronze–Middle Bronze), a transitional nonurban interlude that represents a major socioeconomic decline, is of interest chiefly because of its many distinctive features. These include a combination of hand forming and wheel finishing; many unique vestigial features, such as nonfunctional handles and spouts; very strong and consistent regional “families”; and a clear influence from the calciform repertoire (cuplike shapes) of central and southern Syria. Red burnish and paint are rare, except in the north; and many wares are incised and/or band combed, especially in the south. Distinctive EB IV forms include ovoid storejars with vestigial handles; “teapots” and other spouted jars; many kinds of cups, goblets, and chalices; flasks; one-handled flask-pitchers; offset-shoulder bowls; and four-spouted lamps. It has been argued that EB IV pottery has some links with that of the first phase of the Middle Bronze Age; but in fact it represents the last, dying gasp of the long Early Bronze Age tradition.

Middle Bronze I–III period (c. 2000–1500 BCE).

Albright's MB IIA, B, and C are termed here, as increasingly by others, MB I–III (his MB I having become the EB IV here). This is the second urban period in ancient Palestine and represents the zenith of the Canaanite culture. The pottery, which is entirely new in every regard, clearly reflects the wealth, sophistication, and international connections of the country in this period. Although there are recognizable inner divisions (thus the MB I–III phasing), the strong continuity throughout allows the Middle Bronze Age pottery to be treated as a whole. It begins in MB I with a new repertoire of exquisite wheelmade forms (the first use of the fast wheel), many of them related to Syrian styles, as well as fine red-burnished and painted wares. The basic repertoire,which continues until the end of MB III (and even into the Late Bronze Age), consists mainly of large, tapering ovoid storejars; globular cooking pots; large kraters; many styles of graceful jugs and juglets (e.g., dipper, piriform, cylindrical, and Tell el-Yahudiyeh ware), many of them slipped and burnished; platter bowls; globular bowls; sharply carinated bowls (with a shoulder or cyma profile), some footed; and single-spouted saucer lamps. Syrian styles of paint are evident (the North Syrian simple wares); and the first imports from the Mediterranean now occur, principally in Cypriot White-Painted IV–VI styles.


CERAMICS: Syro-Palestinian. Typical development of cooking pots. (1) MB III; (2) LB I; (3) LB II; (4) twelfth-eleventh century BCE; (5) ninth century BCE; (6) eighth century BCE. (After Amiran, 1970)

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The MB II–III phases are marked by general continuity, but also by a certain degeneration in form and finish. Imports from Cyprus increase, however, and in the late MB III a number of new Syrian imports appear, such as Gray Lustrous ware. Cypriot Bichrome (and its local versions), Monochrome, Base-Ring I, and White-Slip I wares accompany the transition to LB I (below), as does a local Chocolate-on-White ware that may be of Cypriot inspiration.

Late Bronze Age (c. 1500–1200 BCE).

The Late Bronze Age represents a final revival of urban Canaanite culture, by then in decline. It extends from the Egyptian destructions in about 1530–1460 BCE until the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE). The pottery, as expected, continues the MB tradition, but it is exhausted by the end of the period. Virtually no new forms appear, except for flasks, kraters, and chalices; but there are imports. The imports are surprisingly numerous, and they include more from Cyprus: White-Painted IV–VI, White-Slip I–II, White-Shaved, and Base-Ring I–II wares; a few from Syria: red-burnished flasks; Mycenaean IIIA-B wares, and even a few Late Minoan vessels; and an occasional vessel from Egypt. The local wares, while rather poorly made, now feature relatively common painted decoration, with both geometric and naturalistic and animal motifs (e.g., a pair of ibexes and the sacred tree; a palm tree and panel).

Iron Age (c. 1200–600 BCE).

The Iron Age witnesses a succession of new, local peoples and cultures, replacing the Bronze Age Canaanite culture, including “Sea Peoples,” or Philistines, and the biblical Israelites. The common Iron I pottery of the twelfth–eleventh centuries BCE is, however, still strongly in the LB tradition. Philistine bichrome ware, a locally made offshoot of Late Mycenaean IIIC:1b ware, with beautiful geometric and bird designs, appears in about 1150, principally along the coast. Diagnostic ceramic forms for the Iron I proto-Israelite settlements now increasingly being brought to light include collar-rim storejars, as well as certain types of flanged-rim cooking pots (neither exclusively Israelite, however).

By the tenth century BCE (styled either Iron IC or Iron IIA), the Israelite state emerges, and with it a standardized ceramic repertoire that has few LB reminiscences and represents the fully developed local Iron Age cultures. Imported wares are now extremely rare, except for several Cypriot fabrics of the tenth century (e.g., Black on Red II, White Painted, Bichrome, Red Slip) and occasional Greek imports, which begin sporadically in the late eighth century. Some Phoenician ware appears along the coast, as early as the tenth century that has locally made derivatives in such luxury wares as the ninth–eighth-century BCE Samaria Ware. Apart from imports, painted decoration is rare in the tenth–seventh centuries BCE. Red slip and burnish, however, characterize much of the repertoire, particularly on bowls; in the tenth century it is done by hand, but in the ninth century wheel burnish takes over, gradually dying out toward the end of the period. The somewhat different repertoires of the Iron II coastal or “Neo-Philistine” culture along the southern coast, as well as the repertoires of the Transjordanian states of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, are now beginning to be better known to researchers.

All in all, the utilitarian pottery of the Iron II period represents the culture of a series of relatively isolated, petty regional states. When the Neo-Assyrians advance in the late eighth century, their presence is felt in Assyrian Palace Ware. By and large, the local pottery continues, even after the Babylonian destructions In 586 BCE (in what might be called an Iron III phase), throughout the 6th century).

Later periods.

The Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman-Byzantine periods see Palestine becoming part of a larger international, imperial world. Thus, the pottery of these periods is both part of the classical tradition in the eastern Mediterranean and a separate study beyond the purview here. For the subsequent Arabic and Turkish periods, from the seventh to the nineteenth century CE, Palestine is part of the Islamic world, and the local pottery reflects that reality.


  • Amiran, Ruth. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (1963). New Brunswick, N.J., 1970.
  • Cole, Dan P. Shechem I: The Middle Bronze IIB Pottery. Winona Lake, Ind., 1984.
  • Dever, William G. “Vestigial Features in MB I: An Illustration of Some Principles of Ceramic Typology.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 200 (December 1970): 19–30.
  • Dever, William G. “New Vistas on the EB IV (‘MB I’) Horizon in Syria-Palestine.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 237 (Winter 1980): 35–64.
  • Dever, William G., and H. Darrell Lance, eds. A Manual of Field Excavation: Handbook for Field Archaeologists. Cincinnati, 1978.
  • Duncan, J. Garrow. Corpus of Dated Palestinian Pottery. London, 1930. Based on Petrie's excavations at Tell Jemmeh.
  • Ehrich, Robert W., ed. Chronologies in Old World Archaeology. Chicago, 1965.
  • Homès-Fredericq, D., and H. J. Franken, eds. Pottery and Potters, Past and Present: 7000 Years of Ceramic Art in Jordan. Tübingen, 1986.
  • Kelso, James L. The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament. New Haven, 1948.
  • Lapp, Paul W. Palestinian Ceramic Chronology, 200 B.C.–A.D. 70. New Haven, 1961.
  • Magness, Jodi. Jerusalem Ceramic Chronology, circa 200–800 CE. Sheffield, 1993.
  • Orton, Clive, Paul Tyers, and Alan Vince. Pottery in Archaeology. Cambridge, 1993.
  • Sauer, James A. Heshbon Pottery, 1971: A Preliminary Report on the Pottery from the 1971 Excavations at Tell Hesban. Berrien Springs, Mich., 1973.
  • Shepard, Anna O. Ceramics for the Archaeologist. Washington, D.C., 1956.
  • Stern, Ephraim. Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, 538–332 B.C. Warminster, 1982.
  • Thomas, David H. Predicting the Past: An Introduction to Anthropological Archaeology. New York, 1974.
  • Wood, Bryant G. The Sociology of Pottery in Ancient Palestine. Sheffield, 1990.
  • Wright, G. Ernest. The Pottery of Palestine from the Earliest Times to the End of the Early Bronze Age. New Haven, 1937.

William G. Dever

Ceramics of the Persian Period

Local Palestinian pottery in the Persian period was made of three different clay compositions, two of which were characteristic of the coastal region, while the third was found mainly in the mountain regions of Judah and Samaria. On the coastal plain the pottery was composed most frequently of a yellowish-green or a reddish clay. The visible differences in the clay (used for pottery in other periods as well) may have been created during firing. This pottery is for the most part crudely made, and the clay is not finely levigated; its most distinctive feature is its very poor firing, which left the clay extremely porous. Most of the pottery from Judah and Samaria, by contrast, is made of a brown-gray clay (a continuation of the material used earlier, in the Iron Age), is well fired, and is pleasing in its shapes.

The pottery types of the Persian period can be divided into three major groups: (1) local pottery that continues the ceramic tradition of the end of the Iron Age; (2) local imitations of imported pottery of “eastern” origin; and (3) local imitations of “western” prototypes.

The first group comprises most of the bowls, cooking pots, hole-mouth jars (an important jar family, especially those jars that continue the tradition of the lamelekh type), flasks, certain types of jugs and juglets, lamps, twin vases, funnels, and stands. Because the production and use of these vessels were generally confined to the areas of Judah and Samaria, the Israelite ceramic traditions persisted longer there than in the other parts of Palestine.

Vessels belonging to the second group, imitations of “eastern” prototypes, exhibit Assyrian, Persian, Phoenician, and Egyptian influences. The Assyrian pottery, especially the Palace Ware from the close of the seventh century BCE, is now well known from the excavations at Nimrud. The original vessels and the Palestinian copies appear almost simultaneously at the end of the Israelite period; by the Persian period they are already a constant feature in the local pottery repertoire. An Assyrian influence is evident mainly in the carinated bowls, in both pottery and metal, as well as in most of the bottles. However, in their crude shapes and especially in their lack of typical painted decoration, the vessels of the Persian period are inferior to both the Assyrian originals and their Iron Age imitations. No attempts were made in Palestine to duplicate the Achaemenid pottery, for its quality was generally very poor and it was not commonly found outside the borders of Persia. Among all the pottery finds in Palestine, only two or three vessels can be designated with any certainty as direct Persian imports. The magnificent Achaemenid metalware, on the other hand, was a significant source of inspiration for Palestinian potters, who imitated it in clay. The most outstanding imitations are the rhytons. It is also possible that the impressed wedge and reed decoration, which appears on a ramified class of Palestinian pottery in the Persian period, is modeled after the decoration on this metalware. Other Palestinian vessels can be attributed to a Phoenician origin by analogy with the earlier Phoenician vessels (from the end of the Iron Age) discovered at Phoenician sites and in tombs. The Phoenician influence is particularly marked in the jugs and juglets, in the face and Bes vases, in several types of jars, and in the lamps. Egyptian influence, on the other hand, can be observed only in the alabastra, which seem to be copies of an alabaster original.

The imported pottery of the period was mainly Greek. The earliest Greek vases found in Palestine are Late Proto-Geometric, which dates to the end of the eighth century BCE. Later Greek vessels came from a variety of regions. In the Babylonian and Early Persian periods, most came from Corinth, which then possessed mastery of the seas. Those vesselswere still rare in Palestine, and only a few have been found. It is only from the sixth century BCE onward that imports from the eastern Greek islands increased: from Rhodes, Kos, Cnidus (Knidos), Chios, Samos, and Lesbos, for example, as well as from the Greek settlements along the northeastern Mediterranean coast, such as Al-Mina. These East Greek vases included bowls with painted bands and horizontal handles, jugs with black-painted decoration or geometric designs on their upper part, and vessels in the Wild Goat style. During the sixth century BCE, especially toward its close, Greek vessels from Athens began to arrive. Although initially they only reached Palestine in small numbers, they were quickly integrated with the vessels in common use.


CERAMICS: Persian Period. Pottery types from Qadum. (a) cooking pot; (b) krater; (c) jug; (d) dipper juglet; (e) five examples of bowls. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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CERAMICS: Persian Period. Pottery types from Qadum. (a) torpedo jars; (b) jugs; (c) storage jar. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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The first Greek vessels to arrive were painted in black on a red background (black figured). Later, the colors were reversed: figures painted in red on a black background (red figured). Last to arrive were plain black-glazed types. The changes in the source of the imported Greek ware and the absolute dominance of the Attic pottery throughout the Persian period in Palestine is conclusively proven by comparable finds in neighboring lands and throughout the Mediterranean area, as well as on the Mediterranean islands.

The influx of Greek goods to coastal sites in the eastern Mediterranean brought with it Greek colonization on the coasts of Phoenicia and Palestine. Clear evidence for this process was recently recovered at Al-Mina, Tell Sukas, Tabat el-Ḥammam, and elsewhere along the Phoenician coast.

There also is evidence for the settlement of Greek merchants in Israel. At Tel Akko, a rich assemblage of Attic-Greek pottery was discovered in a well-planned quarter on the western part of the mound; on the basis of this find, the excavator, Moshe Dothan, proposed that the mound's northwest section had, in the Persian period, contained a quarter of rich merchants, most of them Greek, and that it had been the finest section of the town. In excavations at Jaffa, a large warehouse from the Persian period was found to have close affinities with the plan of the recently published warehouses at Al-Mina. A sizable amount of pottery was found on the floor of one of the rooms. All the vessels were of a single type and all bore similar red-figured decoration. It is very likely that, as at the northern Phoenician port city of Al-Mina, a group of Greek merchants resided in Jaffa during the Persian period and engaged in the wholesale trade of the products of Athenian potteries.

Athenian pottery apparently was also brought to Tell Jemmeh. The discoveries there included about a dozen of the red-figured cups that were evidently painted by the Pithos Painter; although not found on the same site, they may have been purchased at the same time in Athens and carried over on the same vessel to the eastern Mediterranean coast, whence they were distributed to several merchants. The best examples to date of the phenomenon of Greek settlers are perhaps the finds from Tel Dor, Meṣad Ḥashavyahu, and Migdol. At many other sites—Tel Michal, Tell el-Ḥesi, and Ashkelon, among them—also produced rich assemblages of imported Greek pottery, have been unearthed, however.

Undecorated everyday ware from Greece also began to appear in Palestine during the Persian period. It included heavy bowls, cooking pots, and, prominently, wine amphorae from the eastern Greek islands. It seems that even though Palestine produced large quantities of excellent wine, a considerable amount still had to be imported from abroad, undoubtedly for consumption by the increasing numbers of Greeks who had settled there.


CERAMICS: Persian Period. Imported Attic vases from Tel Dor. Dated from fifth to fourth century BCE. (Courtesy E. Stern)

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In the Babylonian-Persian periods, and even before, Greek pottery was plentiful in Palestine, exerting a strong influence on local ceramics. However, while the eastern vessels were for the most part merely imitations, and often very late ones, the western pottery comprised both imported ware and contemporary local copies. This pottery was widely imitated, especially the types of vessels, though the Palestinian potters did not succeed in duplicating the excellent quality and exquisite decoration. The East Greek bowls probably were the original models for the small bowls and kraters with horizontal handles that were widespread in Palestine. The locally produced closed lamps, made of coarse clay without the typical burnish, were certainly patterned after Attic lamps. Juglets found at Tel Megadim bear a close resemblance to the Attic lekythos, and one from Tel Mevorakh imitates the laginos.

In most cases, the difference between the imported ware and the Palestinian imitations can be readily distinguished. It is also possible to detect the source of the copies. There is a large group of vessels whose form is nearly identical to the above-three imported western groups; however, because they lack distinctive decoration, it is impossible to determine whether they are imports or local products. This group includes the “Persian” bowls with a flat base, a large group of straight-shouldered jars, jars with basket handles, and amphorae that were the prototype of the Rhodian amphorae of the Hellenistic period. These vessels were all used in transporting goods by sea and are found widely dispersed along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Only mineralogical and petrographic analyses can provide more exact conclusions as to their place of origin. Nevertheless, even if the majority of these jars, bowls, and amphorae were indeed locally manufactured, their origins are to be sought on the East Greek islands and on Cyprus. Their appearance in the eastern Mediterranean is certainly connected with the early Greek trading colonies: Al-Mina and Tell Sukas in Syria; Meṣad Ḥashavyahu in Palestine; and Migdol, Daphnae, and Naukratis in Egypt.

Cypriot pottery, of which only a small part has been studied, is among the pottery imported from the west. The following survey is based on Einar Gjerstad's summary. It includes only examples that are clearly Cypriot types, with painted decoration. Cypriot vessels were often also found in context with local ware of the Persian period, but their dates are as yet unverified. Some have been attributed, apparently incorrectly, to earlier periods. It seems, however, that most belonged to the White-Painted V group.

Only one vessel among all of the pottery from the Persian period has been interpreted as an Achaemenid import: it is a cup made of a light-greenish clay with high, very thin ribbed sides. Fragments of another cup were found lying next to it in an unstratified context at Samaria. Even though direct imports of Achaemenid ware were nonexistent in the Persian period—the ware was not outstanding either for its quality or beauty—Achaemenian metal vases specifically had an indirect influence on rhyta and several types of local Palestinian pottery (see above). Because Achaemenid pottery was almost uniformly dull, and because the Achaemenids were not colonizers, the advent of the Persians did not change the local styles of pottery in use in the Near East.

[Many of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Boardman, John. The Greeks Overseas. Harmondsworth, 1973. Study of the Greek expansion toward the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Lapp, Paul W. “The Pottery of Palestine in the Persian Period.” In Archaeology und Altes Testament, pp. 179–192. Tübingen, 1970.
  • Stern, Ephraim. Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, 538–332 B.C. Warminster, 1982. Study of local Palestinian pottery in the Persian period. See pages 93–142.
  • Stern, Ephraim. “The Beginning of the Greek Settlement in Palestine in the Light of the Recent Excavations at Tel Dor.” In Recent Excavations in Israel: Studies in Iron Age Archaeology, edited by Seymour Gitin and William G. Dever, pp. 107–124. Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 49. Winona Lake, Ind., 1989.

Ephraim Stern

Ceramics of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

Vast amounts of pottery for the period from about 300 BCE to 300/400 CE (the periods covered in this survey) have been found in Israel/Palestine, but many questions remain unanswered. Numerous preliminary reports, illustrating a few select items, often assigned to unrealistically precise, historically based periods, have been the norm. Synthetic studies of the regional wares by ware and/or shape are few. Finds from Jordan have generally been handled similarly. In other regions (e.g., Syria and Egypt), detailed pottery reports exist on the finds from a few widely separated sites; the reports in local journals are generally of poor quality. A good understanding of the wares in these countries is not close at hand. Throughout the Near East, the care lavished on Bronze and Iron Age wares has not generally been extended to the wares of the later periods. Statistics of frequency are available for relatively few sites, and many excavators have not recorded the bulk of their finds before discard. A lack of excavations on kiln sites impedes our understanding of sources and of production techniques.

In general, the pottery of the region mixes local traditions (seen in coarse and cooking wares and the storage jar series) with Mediterranean Hellenistic and Roman-type fine tablewares and amphorae (transport containers), both locally made and imported from farther west. Eastern (Seleucid, Parthian) wares are generally absent, except on sites on the Roman frontier on the Euphrates River, and at Palmyra, in Syria. The Nabatean region has its own distinctive local wares, generally thin-walled: a series of round-bottomed painted vessels not matched elsewhere, made alongside a series of close copies of Italian Roman vessels (and clay lamps), owing little to Levantine models. A similar coexistence of “native” painted wares and imitation Roman products—in thin, whitish wares—is evidenced in Meroitic Nubia. Egypt, commercially largely isolated during the Roman period, is a special case: there, traditional wares and Ptolemaic derivatives were supplied to a large local market.

During the third century BCE, Greek-derived fineware types appear throughout the region. True Greek black-gloss wares appear as imports (from Athens and, although rarely, from southern Italy, early in the third century BCE, and thereafter from various ill-defined Aegean and Asia Minor sources). The numerous local copies from the Levant, including Cyprus—Jerusalem wares are a notable exception—generally have a dull, darkish slip coating over a buff fabric. Subsequently, the major regional tableware is the red-slipped (red-gloss) Eastern Sigillata A ware (oncetermed Pergamene), from unlocated sources (Lebanon?, southern Syria?), current from about 150 BCE to about 150 CE. This is well studied: a Late Hellenistic phase is typified by platters with very heavy feet and small floral stamps around the center (not unrelated to the black-gloss Campana B platters of Tuscany in Italy). These probably were formed with the aid of molds. Small hemispherical footed cups (not modeled on imports) accompany them. The red gloss surface here appears earlier than on other Mediterranean wares; it is applied by a double dipping process, leaving a darker stripe across the middle of the vessel (seen later on some other eastern fine wares). A Cypriot(?) counterpart (Cypriot sigillata) has a more pinkish- or purplish-red clay and slip coloration; the slip tends toward a metallic luster. Eastern Sigillata A is abundant throughout the Near East, whereas the Cypriot ware is sporadic outside Cyprus (except in the lower Nile Delta and in Israel's Negev desert-—where, dubiously, local production has been claimed).


CERAMICS: Hellenistic and Roman Periods. Hellenistic bottles. Standard bottle is shown at left, spindle bottle is shown at right. Dated c. 100 BCE. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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Between about 10 and 80 CE, the classic Eastern Sigillata A ware shapes are replaced by ones modeled on those of Italian red-gloss terra sigillata ware, perhaps indirectly through the products of Asia Minor (Eastern Sigillata B and Pergamon-region wares). The Asia Minor wares also bearstamps inscribed in Greek—a rather short-lived fashion. Cypriot sigillata shows similar changes. Thereafter, new shapes (mainly flat-based, with decoratives moldings on the interior) seem to owe more to Roman metalware. Some late Eastern Sigillata A ware vessels with a sponged mottled slip treatment (current from about 70 to 120 CE) also attest to these new influences. Similar trends are present throughout Eastern Sigillata B ware (which can be fired black or dark brown).


CERAMICS: Hellenistic and Roman Periods. Terra sigillata juglets. (Courtesy Pictorial Archive)

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Red-gloss (sigillata) tablewares and thin-walled ware imports, mainly from Italian and Aegean sources, are quite common during the first century CE, particularly at coastal sites, but also as far afield as Petra, in Jordan. Some serve to mark the early Red Sea trade links with India (where a few specimens have been found); many are present at Quṣeir el-Qadim, one of the Egyptian departure points. Adaptations of these imported shapes are seen in other local products, from Cilicia and Syria to Egypt (but rarely, if at all, in Mesopotamia).

Some lead-glazed cups, mimicking decorated silverware, were made at Tarsus from about 1 to 100 CE. These match types made in western Asia Minor and are quite distinct from the essentially Parthian alkaline-glazed wares made in Mesopotamia, of which some forerunners are seen in later Hellenistic Antioch. Finds from Dura-Europos in Syria show that the Parthian series, typically rather heavy amphora jars with peaked handles and gouged ornament, lasted beyond 250 CE.

Other fine wares include a series of buff-ware bowls with partial two-tone (red/black) slip and double-bulge horizontal handles below the rim, common in second-century BCE deposits at Paphos and at Shiqmona in Israel and elsewhere. Many versions of the Hellenistic lagynos shape (an angular-bodied, narrow-necked jug with silhouetted floral patterns and horizontal bands painted in brown on a cream slip or surface) appear from about 175 to 50 BCE on Cyprus (probably a major source); Egyptian and other versions are also known. Small figured vessels and lamps made in molds (some depicting heads) were produced in the Nile Delta region (e.g., at Memphis) from about 100 BCE to 100 CE; also found at this time are red-ware painted jars with erotic motifs and busts of favored youths half-hidden on the interiors. Later Egyptian wares bear floral patterns in paint or added raised slip (barbotine); a particular group of shallow beigeware cups depicts silhouetted pygmylike figures in black. Corresponding treatments occur on the Meroitic wares of Nubia.

Recorded Hellenistic to Roman imports include thin carinated bowls from Knidos, later relief-ware bowls from Corinth, and moldmade relief-ware “novelty” figured vases from Knidos (notably a cache in the form of parts of the human body, possibly for medical use, discovered on Paphos). In contrast to the Mediterranean-type wares, Jerusalem products show a range of thin, well-fired plain wares in the tradition of the preceding Persian period.

Thin-walled Greek-influenced cooking vessels in sandy wares appear in Hellenistic times. A large Cypriot series and those from the Nile Delta show typically Greek features such as internally ledged rims (to support lids) and, on the shallower “casseroles,” striplike handles along the exteriors of rims. The typical Palestinian version is fairly shallow, with a sagging bottom and a short neck flanked by small handles; Early Roman examples are particularly thin. Horizontal ribbing is a feature of these and of related round-bottomed jugs and flasks, as from the later second century BCE; the treatment is copied in Egypt, and, much later, in the Aegean region, and is widespread on later Roman/Byzantine wares from the Levant. In about 170–50 BCE, portable braziers set on tall stands, with three internal knobs set obliquely to support a pot, were made in quantity in the Alexandria region and also in the Aegean; some copies of them appear on Cyprus and elsewhere. Their most distinctive feature, the internal knobs, is regularly molded in the form of plaques (sometimes inscribed) bearing Greek-style Silenos masks or bulls' heads.

The traditional Palestinian storage jars with ringlike handles at the shoulder continue unabated, being commonly accompanied by imported wine and oil amphorae—in Hellenistic times mostly from Rhodes and in Roman times from Italy (Campania, Istria, and elsewhere) and even Spain. Enormous numbers of Hellenistic wine amphorae from Aegean sources (identified by the stamps on their handles) are documented at Alexandria. These spawned local imitations, at first along Lake Mareotis and then throughout Egypt. Similar copies appear on Cyprus and elsewhere. These normally have ovoid or long cylindrical bodies and distinctive necks flanked by two long, upright handles; they taper at the base to a solid toe of variable length. A distinctive version of this shape, with ribbing added and the handles reduced to mere loops under the rim, is seen in Egypt in Roman times. Elsewhere, the most common local amphora types in Early Roman times are modeled on the Italian “pseudoKoan” type (copied from an Aegean Hellenistic product), with tall handles formed of two rolls of clay set side by side. In Cilicia, a bulging version of the Palestinian torpedoshaped jar is supplied with handles of this type. Later Roman types, apparently more diverse, are still inadequately studied. Painted commercial “labels” (tituli picti) are seen on both imports and copies; those from Masada in Israel include some labels in Latin, indicating the arrival of Italian wines there by about 20 BCE.

Clay mixing bowls with gritted interiors (mortaria) are present only sporadically: some wide-rimmed Italian imports bearing potters' stamps (first-second centuries CE) are known from Caesarea and Paphos. In the third-fourth centuries, versions of the Italian type, in a distinctive deep-brown ware with volcanic grits, were made on the northern Syrian coast (in the area of Ras el-Bassit). These bear multiple name stamps in Greek (and occasionally in Latin). They, and later unstamped narrow-rimmed versions, circulated widely around the Levantine coastlands.


  • Adan-Bayewitz, David. Common Pottery in Roman Galilee: A Study of Local Trade. Ramat Gan, 1993. Fine all-around study of a regional cooking ware, with clay analyses and ancient textual references.
  • ῾Amr, Khairieh. The Pottery from Petra: A Neutron Activation Analysis Study. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 324. Oxford, 1987. Provides a selection of wares found at Petra and a review of the existing literature.
  • Blakely, Jeffrey A., et al. “Roman Mortaria and Basins from a Sequence at Caesarea: Fabrics and Sources.” In Caesarea Papers: Straton's Tower, Herod's Harbour, and Roman and Byzantine Caesarea, edited by R. Lindley Vann, pp. 194–213. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series, no. 5. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992. Discusses mortaria (Syrian and Italian imports).
  • Cahiers de la Céramique Égyptienne. Cairo, 1987– . Series issued by the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale du Cairo, which includes studies of Ptolemaic and Roman-period wares. Supplemented by Bulletin de Liaison du Groupe International d'Étude de la Céramique Égyptienne, which contains brief reports on current excavation finds.
  • Cotton, Hannah M., and Joseph Geiger. Masada. vol. 2, The Latin and Greek Documents. Jerusalem, 1989. Greek and Latin dipinti.
  • Gunneweg, Jan, et al. The Provenience, Typology, and Chronology of Eastern Terra Sigillata. Qedem, vol. 17. Jerusalem, 1983. Study based on selected clay analyses.
  • Hayes, John W. “Sigillate orientali.” In Enciclopedia dell'arte antica: Atlante delle forme ceramiche romane, vol. 2, pp. 1–96, pls. 1–23. Rome, 1986. Typology of the eastern sigillata wares.
  • Hayes, John W. Paphos, vol. 3, The Hellenistic and Roman Pottery. Nicosia, Cyprus, 1991. Presents a wide range of ware found throughout the region.
  • Herbert, Sharon, et al. Tel Anafa. 2 vols. Ann Arbor, 1994 Covers ceramics from an important Late Hellenistic site in Israel.
  • Negev, Avraham. The Late Hellenistic and Early Roman Pottery of Nabatean Oboda: Final Report. Qedem, vol. 22. Jerusalem, 1986. Discusses local and imported products.
  • Toll, N. P. The Excavations at Dura-Europos, vol. 4.1, fasc. 1, The Green Glazed Pottery. New Haven, 1943. Covers Parthian-style glazed wares.
  • Tushingham, A. D., et al. Excavations in Jerusalem, 1961–1967. Vol. 1. Toronto, 1985. For fine wares, see the contribution by John W. Hayes (pp. 183–194).
  • Vanderhoeven, Michel. Fouilles d'Apamée de Syrie, vol. 9.1, Les terres sigillées, 1966–1972. Brussels, 1989. Covers Eastern Sigillata A and more, with color photos.
  • Vitto, Fanny. “Potters and Pottery Manufacture in Roman Palestine.” Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology (University College, London), no. 23 (1986): 47–64. Discusses Jewish ceramic use (and some later Roman use?).
  • Whitcomb, Donald S., and Janet H. Johnson. Quseir al-Qadim, 1978: Preliminary Report. Cairo, 1979. See W. R. Johnson on Roman pottery (pp. 67–103).


  • Ettlinger, Elisabeth, et al. Conspectus formarum terrae sigillatae Italico modo confectae. Bonn, 1990. New typology.
  • Magness, Jodi. Jerusalem Ceramic Chronology, circa 200–800 CE. Sheffield, 1993.
  • Peacock, D. P. S., and D. F. Williams. Amphorae and the Roman Economy. London and New York, 1986. Contains a partial typology.

John W. Hayes

Ceramics of the Byzantine Period

Pottery of the fourth to seventh century found in the Levant is generally labeled Byzantine; elsewhere in the Mediterranean the same wares are normally designated Late Roman (the term Byzantine being reserved for later, typically leadglazed wares). The modern Levantine usage implies close links with political history. Actual fashions in pottery tend to lag behind political changes, relying on the creation or extinction of markets (which are, in part, affected by major natural disasters such as plagues and earthquakes). Thus, Roman-derived wares continued to be produced through the Umayyad period; the major break in tradition occurred in around 800 ce. Similarly, in Egypt, the religious term Coptic is used to designate pottery of this period, although, in Nubia at least, the same tradition can be traced down to the fourteenth century. Late Roman as a designation should be viewed here in cultural rather than political terms—for much of the period Rome (or its successor, Constantinople) did not directly rule all the areas under consideration. The influence of (Roman) Christianity was generally strong, however, and this influenced pottery decoration.

The universal fine ceramic wares of the period are fine textured and red bodied, with a reddish slip finish (not a glazed treatment). A few major centers of production in North Africa, western Turkey, and (probably) Cyprus led the way, in due course providing models for other, more local wares. This concentration of production in a few major centers may reflect the tendency to centralized control and specialization found in the age of Diocletian and Constantine. While the potters themselves remained free agents, the marketing of their products seems to have become more regulated, with a view to maintaining steady supplies to major urban centers such as Constantinople. Eventually, the monetary economy of imperial Rome shrank, and organizations such as the church and local magnates seem to have assumed more control over the circulation of these cheap everyday products.


CERAMICS: Byzantine Period. Figure 1. African Red-Slip Ware types. Fourth-seventh centuries. (Courtesy J. W. Hayes)

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The various fine wares have attracted the bulk of scholarly attention, mainly from the standpoints of typology and art history. Trade amphorae have also become well known in recent years. The coarser wares are generally more poorly served by the scholarly literature. Statistics of frequency are available for relatively few sites; many excavators have not troubled to record the bulk of their finds before discard. A lack of excavations on kiln sites impedes our knowledge of sources and of production techniques. Chemical and petrological techniques of analysis have not yet been widely used on the wares in question.

Fine Red Wares.

The fine red-gloss (terra sigillata) wares of earlier Roman times, represented in the Levant chiefly by Eastern Sigillata A and Cypriot(?) products, died out during the late second century. A general scarcity of well-dated deposits for the period from 150 to about 300 or so containing fine wares may signal reduced use of such imports. With the fourth century, new trade patterns emerged: African Red-Slip Ware, a medium-to fine-grade tableware with a red slip, made in the region of modern Tunisia, circulated widely in the Levant and also in Egypt (a region previously partly closed to imports, owing to its pre-Diocletianic monetary isolation; see figure 1). Some African wares had already appeared at Dura-Europos (before 256), but their main influx was later. The fourth-century African products (Terra Sigillata africana C and D) are mostly blatant copies of metalware shapes, with analogous decoration, either applied or stamped; these “metallic” types (flat-based dishes and small bowls with wide rims, for example) may generally have been wheel-thrown within molds. Throughout the fourth century floral stamped patterns, mostly based on radiating palm-branch motifs—not derived from metalware—persisted. The stamped patterns of the fifth and sixth centuries, largely Christian in content, more closely match the decor of contemporary silverware.


CERAMICS: Byzantine Period. Figure 2. Examples of Cypriot Red-Slip Ware. (Courtesy J. W. Hayes)

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CERAMICS: Byzantine Period. Figure 3. Examples of Phocean Red-Slip Ware. (Courtesy J. W. Hayes)

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The primacy of the African wares throughout the Mediterranean region is proved by numerous imitations; in the East, these are noted throughout Egypt, in Jordan, and in Athens. Two major fine-ware competitors, widely traded, appeared in around the 360s: Phocean Red-Slip Ware (former name: Late Roman C) from western Asia Minor, and Cypriot Red-Slip Ware (a revival of the earlier Cypriot Sigillata, whose source remains unlocated; see figure 2). The latter ware—current in Cyprus, western Cilicia, the Alexandria region, and parts of Palestine—is first attested in deposits from 365 CE(?) at Kourion on Cyprus and on a contemporary wreck at Yassıada in southwest Turkey. Its principal fifth-century shape mimics an African type. Phocean Red-Slip Ware, at first influenced by the earlier regional (Çandarlı) ware and by the stamped African products, soon developed a characteristic shape—a shallow bowl with an overhanging (often rouletted) rim—along with distinctive stamps (see figure 3). The classic version (c. 450–550) is common on Levantine sites (e.g., at Antioch, in deposits associated with the earthquake In 526, but not in Egypt, where local stamped copies of the African wares predominated. The principal dated contexts for this period are those at Antioch (Turkey), Kourion (Cyprus), Tell Keisan (Israel), Lejjun (Jordan), Kellia and Karanis (Egypt), and Ballana (Nubia); their dates are confirmed by finds from more distant sites such as Athens (the Agora), Constantinople, and Carthage. An alternative dating scheme (for the 350s–380s) has been proposed for Jalame (northern Israel), although exact contexts for the pottery finds there are unspecified. A suspicious absence at Jalame of the African types elsewhere current between 360 and 390, and the frequency of Phocean and other products elsewhere assigned to the early/mid-fifth century, may here point to a need for reassessment. Cypriot Red-Slip Ware of unusual types is common on this site.

Reduced imports of the Phocean ware and a revival of the Cypriot ware (after fifty or more years of decline), accompanied by changes in their vessel forms, occur in the mid-sixth century. The new pattern, already just evident at Lejjun (a probable victim of the 551 earthquake), could be a consequence of the plague of 540–542. Imports of the African ware, at a low ebb for a century, now resume in quantity. All three wares are widespread on numerous Palestinian church sites for the period from about 550 to 625 (cf. also the Beth-She῾arim catacombs). The later Cypriot products, typified by flat-based dishes bearing single cross stamps, are particularly common in and around Alexandria.


CERAMICS: Byzantine Period. Figure 4. Egyptian Red-Slip A (Aswan Ware). (Courtesy J. W. Hayes)

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Renewed imitation of, chiefly, the African wares is seen in various places. In northern Jordan (at Jerash and Pella), dishes in a local thin-walled red-slipped fabric bear painted figures or floral ornaments in two tones (purple and yellow-cream); some early examples have the traditional stamps. In Egypt, the Aswan fine-ware factories continued to produce derivatives of late fifth-/early sixth-century African products (the latest to be imported there) for two centuries or more (see figure 4). These exhibit a flaky pink fabric and a burnished red slip (often obscuring the stamps). Examples were exported to Cyprus and elsewhere in the late seventh century, when the other fine red wares were disappearing. In due course, painted cream-bodied wares supplanted them, particularly in Nubia.

Lead-Glazed Wares.

Until the seventh century leadglazed wares are absent from the eastern Mediterranean. It is then that utilitarian lead-glazed vessels began to be produced in the neighborhood of Constantinople. This functional lead glazing, of uncertain origins (various short-lived wares are noted in Thrace, the Balkans, and the Alpine regions from the fourth century), seems quite distinct from the ornamental tradition of Islamic glazed wares in the period after 775/800. A mid-seventh-century deposit in Istanbul proves medium-scale production (chiefly of internally glazed jars); the earliest closely dated examples of the series come from the Yassıada wreck (c. 625). [See Yassıada Wrecks.] Production en masse, chiefly of white-bodied tablewares, such as dishes, followed in about 700, initiating a conservative tradition of plain or minimally decorated wares that persisted for some four centuries. A few early examples of the Constantinople wares, along with occasional derivatives, are noted from Cyprus and elsewhere on the Mediterranean littoral in the seventh-eighth-century contexts. No comparable wares are yet known from Anatolia.

Plain Wares.

Marked differences between regional traditions blur the picture for plain wares. Painted decoration is not common in the late Roman/Byzantine period, except in parts of Egypt, where lively figural scenes in two colors are known. A ribbed treatment is more common. In Egypt and Palestine, flasks and jugs often feature internal strainers (to keep out flies?), and small spouts on the shoulder; a few have lids attached by a loop set on the handle (a feature later copied in Constantinople). Combed grooving (mostly wavy lines) appears on sixth-seventh-century Aegean wares. By the sixth century, declining standards are evident in many provincial products; simple squat jugs and jars, lacking any decoration, become frequent. Their bases may be hollowed, with a central knob. On the mold-made clay lamps of the period, the ornament becomes more linear and schematic; the Palestinian Syrian series survive into ῾Abbasid times.

Cooking Wares.

Thin-walled cooking vessels, normally with small handles, reflect Roman traditions. The ribbed treatment originating on Palestinian products now becomes universal. A range of typical fifth–sixth-century shapes appears on the Dhiorios kiln site on Cyprus. Deeper vessel types appear in western Asia Minor and the Aegean. Jewish culinary practices are evident in a class of steep-sided casseroles with close-fitting lids—actually thrown by the potter in a single piece and then partly sliced open. The abrupt knife-cut separation of the two elements, found first in Roman times, is seen on “Byzantine” examples from Palestine, Cyprus, and the Nile Delta region until the eighth century. It is possible that Jewish concerns for purity influenced Christian usage also.

Special Types.

Small mold-made clay flasks, “souvenirs” from Christian pilgrim shrines, presumably meant to hold sanctified oil or water, were current from about 450 to 650. These imitate precious versions in silver and other materials and bear crude representations of saints or simple Christian symbols in relief, sometimes with an identifying inscription. Best known are the St. Menas flasks from Egypt, but other Egyptian and Palestinian series exist whose sources are unknown; a series with string holes replacing small handles is native to western Asia Minor. Related in function are some spindly flasks with signet-impressed stamps (origin unknown). Like the Menas flasks, they were widely transported. Their stamps embrace monograms that are Christian and also Gnostic/magical symbols.

Commercial Amphorae.

Within the Mediterranean orbit, large two-handled clay jars remained the preferred transport containers for wine, olive oil, and certain dry goods (often indicated by markings, mostly undeciphered, made in red paint). The Byzantine examples tend to be rather smaller and more round bodied than their predecessors. Cylindrical storage jars bearing two small ring handles on the shoulder remain the standard Palestinian type; the examples from this period are normally finely ribbed. Among the Palestinian storage jars, buff to orange-brown wares predominate, but one widely exported type, from the Beth-Shean region in Galilee, has a hard gray fabric bearing multiple loops painted in white. Both buff- and gray-ware types survived through the Umayyad period. In Egypt, the standard local type is a slender carrot-shaped vessel with irregular ribbing and crude handles, made of coarse dark-brown Nile silt.

During the period from about 380 to 650, a small number of distinctive amphora types of Levantine and Aegean origin circulated widely throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond (e.g., to Constantinople, Nubia, and even distant Britain). The prime types are, in Riley's (1979) Benghazi classification: Late Roman Type 1 (cylindrical, with a sandy buff ware, uneven ridging, and unevenly grooved handles), made in Cilicia and Cyprus; Late Roman 2 (nearly globular, with a cupped mouth, slanted handles, and straight or wavy close-set grooving covering the upper part), from various Aegean sources; the Gaza type (Late Roman 3), a long, bullet-shaped variant of the common Palestinian ring-handled shape, in a dull-brown ware; and Late Roman 10 (small, spindly, and ribbed, in a silky, micaceous brown ware), from western Asia Minor. In addition, some large cylindrical oil amphorae from North Africa (in brick-red wares, often fired buff on the outer surface) appear everywhere. The successors of these amphorae in the seventh and eighth centuries are less widely distributed, documenting a general decline in Mediterranean trade during that period.


  • Adams, William Y. Ceramic Industries of Medieval Nubia. 2 vols. Lexington, Ky., 1986. Conspectus of fifth- to fourteenth-century wares.
  • Catling, H. W. “An Early Byzantine Pottery Factory at Dhiorios in Cyprus.” Levant 4 (1972): 1–82. Dhiorios kiln site.
  • Egloff, Michel. Kellia: La poterie copte. 2 vols. Geneva, 1977. Important for Lower Egypt; datable groups.
  • Emery, Walter B., and L. P. Kirwan. The Royal Tombs of Ballana and Qustul. 2 vols. Cairo, 1938. Classic study for fourth- to sixth-century Nubia (see, especially, vol. 1, pp. 386–405).
  • Hayes, John W. Late Roman Pottery and A Supplement to Late Roman Pottery. London, 1972–1980. Basic classification of fine Red-Slip Wares.
  • Hayes, John W. Excavations at Saraçhane in Istanbul, vol. 2, The Pottery. Princeton, 1992. The Constantinople sequence.
  • Johnson, Barbara. Pottery from Karanis. Ann Arbor, 1981. Egyptian wares to about 500 CE.
  • Johnson, Barbara. “The Pottery.” In Excavations at Jalame: Site of a Glass Factory in Late Roman Palestine, edited by Gladys Davidson Weinberg, pp. 137–226. Columbia, Mo., 1988. Alternative dates for fourth- to fifth-century wares.
  • Landgraf, J. “Keisan's Byzantine Pottery.” In Tell Keisan, 1971–1976, edited by Jacques Briend and Jean-Baptiste Humbert, pp. 51–99. Fribourg, 1980. Study of fifth- to sixth-century wares in northern Israel.
  • Metzger, Catherine. Les ampoules à eulogie du Musée du Louvre. Paris, 1981. Recent survey of pilgrim flasks.
  • Riley, John A. “Pottery from the First Season of Excavation in the Caesarea Hippodrome.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 218 (April 1975): 25–63. Statistical treatment of finds at Caesarea.
  • Riley, John A. “The Coarse Pottery from Berenice.” In Excavations at Sidi Khrebish, Benghazi (Berenice), edited by J. A. Lloyd, vol. 2, pp. 91–467. Libya Antiqua, Supplement 5. Tripoli, 1979. Classification of standard amphora types (see especially pp. 112–236 and appendices, pp. 419–449).
  • Smith, Robert H., and Leslie P. Day. Final Report on the College of Wooster Excavations in Area IX, the Civic Complex, 1979–1985. Pella of the Decapolis, vol. 2. Wooster, Ohio, 1989. Useful for sixth- to eighth-century regional wares in Jordan (especially pp. 100–117).
  • Vitto, Fanny. “Potters and Pottery Manufacture in Roman Palestine.” Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology, London, no. 23 (1986): 47–64. Covers Jewish usages in the Late Roman period.
  • Waagé, Frederick O., ed. Antioch-on-the-Orontes, vol. 4.1, Ceramics and Islamic Coins. Princeton, 1948. The type site for Syria (especially pp. 4, 43–59).
  • Watson, P. M. “Jerash Bowls: Study of a Provincial Group of Byzantine Fine Ware.” In Jerash Archaeological Project, vol. 2, Fouilles de Jérash, 1984–1988, edited by Fawzi Zayadine, pp. 223–261. Paris, 1989. Covers late regional painted wares.

John W. Hayes

Ceramics of the Islamic Period

The seventh to eleventh centuries in the Near East is not a monolithic period in either historical or ceramic terms. In Palestine, these centuries cover the end of Byzantine rule (up to 640), the Umayyad period (c. 640–750), the ῾Abbasid period (c. 750–969, during the latter part of which the country was ruled by the Tulunids and Ikhshidids), and the Fatimid period (c. 969–1099). To date neither comprehensive ceramic sequences covering these centuries in all parts of the Near East nor definitive regional typological distinctions have been established.

The study of Islamic pottery has been plagued by problems of terminology and historical biases. Historically based typological divisions (e.g., Umayyad, ῾Abbasid, Fatimid) are inaccurate because changes in pottery rarely coincide with political events. Though excavations in Israel have demonstrated that the Muslim conquest was not accompanied by widespread destructions, it is still generally held that the transition from Umayyad to ῾Abbasid rule in the mid-eighth century marked the beginning of a dramatic decline in Palestine's prosperity because the capital was transferred from Damascus to Baghdad. In archaeological terms, however, this has been a self-fulfilling prophecy: post-Umayyad remains have not been found because it was assumed that they do not exist. Part of the failure to identify these remains in the archaeological record in Israel has been the misdating of Islamic ceramic types by archaeologists, many of whom have ignored the clearer sequence in Jordan (e.g., Pella, Amman, Ḥesban, ῾Aqaba).

Islamic pottery has traditionally been studied from an art historical perspective, with an emphasis on whole glazed vessels, at the expense of the fragmentary and often unglazed material recovered on excavations. Palestinian sites from which important Islamic ceramic material is published include Ḥesban, Pella, ῾Aqaba, the Amman Citadel, Khirbat al-Mafjar, Abu Ghosh, Capernaum, Ramla, Caesarea, Tiberias, Khirbet Kerak, and Neṣṣana. Key sites outside Palestine include Usais in Syria, Samarra and Susa in Iraq, Fustat in Egypt, Istanbul/Constantinople in Turkey, and Siraf in Iran. This article focuses on the Islamic types characteristic of Palestine. The lack of well-excavated and published material leaves open the question of whether some of the eighth- and ninth-century types described here continued into the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Seventh-Century Types.

Byzantine ceramic types continued without significant changes until the end of the seventh century: Late Roman Red Wares; Fine Byzantine Ware bowls (see below) with incised wavy lines and jars, jugs, and juglets with incised gashes; “Gaza” amphoras, the latest of which have a very short neck and pointed base; and large candlestick lamps, “Persian” (wheelmade) lamps, and Jerash lamps. Painted decoration was rare, except in the case of dark-surfaced, white-painted bag-shaped storejars from Palestine and painted Coptic wares from Egypt and their imitations (e.g., Jerash bowls). Aside from the painted wares, all of these types disappeared sometime between the late seventh and mid-eighth centuries.

Fine Byzantine Ware.

A group of vessels of the mid-sixth–tenth centuries, distinguished in form, fabric, and surface treatment, are known as Fine Byzantine Ware. In the early eighth century, the repertoire of open vessels was expanded to include a wide variety of shallow dishes and plates. The burnishing characteristic of the Byzantine period continued, but painted black, white, and/or red designs were sometimes added, perhaps reflecting Coptic ceramic influence. The walls of the vessels tend to be thinner and more delicate than was usual in the sixth and seventh centuries. Islamic small bowls and cups also differ from Byzantine examples in having rounded, flat, or disk bases, and in lacking the incised wavy-line decoration. Some have deep, hemispherical bodies and eggshell-thin walls. Local variants of these deep cups, with thicker walls and combed bands, are common at Islamic sites in Israel's Negev desert.


CERAMICS: Islamic Period. Figure 1. Islamic pottery types. Black stone bowl (no. 8); red-painted basin fragments (no. 4); and a channel-nozzle oil lamp (no. II). (After P. V. Corbo, Gli scavi di Kh. siyar el-Ghanam (campo dei Pastori) e I Monasteri dei Dintorni, Jerusalem, 1995, fig. 40)

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Black Stone and Ceramic Bowls.

One of the characteristic bowl types of the eighth and ninth centuries is the black bowl with a broad, flat base and straight walls (see figure 1). Many have ledge handles and are decorated on the exterior with incised linear designs. The material is either a hard, dark-colored stone described as steatite, or soap-stone, or a dark, burnished, handmade ceramic. A related and contemporary group of bowls that seems to have been used as cooking vessels is distinguished by its lack of decoration, large size, and blackened exterior. The type may have its origins in the northwest Hijaz, where similar unfinished bowls have been found in association with ῾Abbasid pottery at steatite mines.


CERAMICS: Islamic Period. Figure 2. Islamic pottery types. Examples of painted Islamic variants of Fine Byzantine ware bowls (nos. 8–16, 19); red-painted bowls (1–3); and Kerbschnitt bowls (nos. 20–25). (After Baramki, 1944, fig. 6)

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Kerbschnitt Bowls.

Kerbschnitt, which means “cutware,” describes a group of thick-walled, handmade bowls decorated with deeply cut patterns (see figure 2). The decorative technique seems to be inspired by woodcarving, while the form is clearly related to the contemporary black bowls described above. The cut patterns became cruder during the course of the ῾Abbasid period.

Red-Painted Ware.

Red-painted jars and basins made of a thick, buff fabric were common in northern Israel, Jordan, and Syria during the eighth and ninth centuries (see figure 1). Their painted designs often consist of spirals, wavy lines, and branch or tree motifs. Bowls are also found decorated with red-painted designs, though they usuallyhave thinner, hard-fired walls and more elaborate painted motifs. Some have the same flat-based, straight-walled form as the black bowls and kerbschnitt bowls described above (see figure 2). The designs on this group also recall the latter's cut patterns and the incisions on the former.


CERAMICS: Islamic Period. Figure 3. “Mefjer Ware.” (After de Vaux and Steve, 1950, pl. C)

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Buff Ware.

Sometime in the second half of the eighth century, a new group of vessels made of a porous buff, cream, or greenish-white fabric appeared in Palestine. Archaeologists in Israel use the term Mefjer ware to describe jars and jugs made of this fabric, which often have molded, impressed, incised, and/or applied decoration (see figure 3). The ware takes its name from the site Khirbat al-Mafjar, where it was found by D. C. Baramki (who did not use the term). According to Myriam Rosen-Ayalon and Avraham Eitan (1969), both glazed pottery and Mefjer ware were present in the earliest levels at Ramla, which was founded by the Ummayads in the first half of the eighth century. However, these “earliest levels” at Ramla probably represent an expansion of the site in the ῾Abbasid period because neither Mefjer ware nor glazed pottery has been found in Umayyad levels at sites in Jordan, such as Pella, Amman, and Ḥesban. Even at Khirbat al-Mafjar, the earliest glazed pottery and Mefjer ware were assigned by Baramki to the ῾Abbasid period (Baramki, 1994).

This type of buff ware was probably introduced into Palestine from ancient Mesopotamia (areas of modern Iran and Iraq), where it is found in seventh–eighth-century contexts. It continued to be produced through the Mamluk period, as indicated by its presence at Samarra in the ῾Abbasid period and at Hama in contexts dating to the twelfth-fourteenth centuries. Though no typology of Mefjer ware exists, changes can be distinguished over time. The carinated shapes of the ῾Abbasid jars and jugs are clearly inspired by metallic prototypes, as are the protruding knobs on the tops of their handles and their incised or impressed decoration. The jars and jugs of the twelfth-fourteenth centuries have rounded bodies and elaborate, barbotine decoration that combines incised and molded designs and applied and impressed clay strips.

Though the term Mefjer ware is sometimes used by archaeologists in Israel to describe any Islamic vessel made of a light-colored fabric, it properly refers only to the decorated jars and jugs described above. Mahesh ware, which was identified by Donald S. Whitcomb at ῾Aqaba, represents another group of light-colored Islamic vessels (Whitcomb, 1989b). Like Mefjer ware, Mahesh ware is characterized by its light-colored fabric. However, it includes such open shapes as cups, bowls, and basins and has simple decoration consisting of occasional comb-incised bands. Mahesh ware dates to the ῾Abbasid period and has been found at many of the eighth-ninth-century settlements in the southern Negev.

Glazed Pottery.

Aside from an occasional piece of Parthian glazed ware and the seventh-century lead-glazed wares from the area of Constantinople, glazed pottery is rarely found outside Iran and Iraq before the eighth century. Glazing is usually applied to the interiors of bowls, though it also occurs on the exteriors of jars, jugs, and oil lamps. [See Lamps.] In the eighth and early ninth centuries, Coptic glazed ware was produced in Egypt. It is decorated with brown and black painted designs on a white slip, with or without a transparent glaze, and covered with a green or brown glaze. The earliest locally produced glazed pottery in Palestine has a monochrome green or yellow glaze or is decorated with polychrome splash glaze (including any combination of brown, yellow, white, green, purple, and black).


CERAMICS: Islamic Period. Figure 4. Polychrome splash-glazed ware. (After de Vaux and Steve, 1950, pl. A)

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Monochrome and splash glazes made their first appearance in Palestine during the ῾Abbasid period, perhaps in the early ninth century. Whitcomb (1989a) has noted that similar polychrome splash-glazed wares were produced elsewhere during the ninth and tenth centuries. One of these is Egyptian Faiyumi ware, which is characterized by its bold, radiating stripes of color (see figure 4). Another is Hijazi ware, which, as its name suggests, seems to have been produced in Arabia. Its dark, red-orange fabric is decorated with bold polychrome spirals and cross-hatched designs. The Red Splash wares common at ῾Aqaba, which also fall into this category, include examples decorated with incised (sgraffito) designs. The ceramic types characteristic of Samarra in this period include white-glazed wares, and blue-green glazed barbotine storage jars, which may have served as specialized containers for dibs, or “date honey.” The Samarran wares, which are common at sites like Siraf, may derive from Sasanian prototypes. [See Sasanians.] During he Fatimid period, luster ware (glazed) was a popular luxury item, with local variants produced in Egypt and around he Near East. It derives its name from its shiny metallic gold designs on a white background. During the ninth and tenth centuries, glazed cooking wares appeared in Palestine.They are represented by globular cooking pots and open casseroles made of a brittle, dark, red-brown ware with a dark-brown or dark-purple glaze on the interior.

Oil Lamps.

Mold-made “channel-nozzle” oil lamps were common in Palestine during the Islamic period (see figure 1). The name refers to a channel that connects the filling hole and the wick hole. Though these lamps vary from region to region within Palestine, general morphological changes can be distinguished during the course of the period. The lamps of the seventh and early eighth centuries still have the low circular ring base and elongated, oval body of their Byzantine predecessors. They have a small knob handle and are sometimes decorated with a Greek or an Arabic inscription, in the Byzantine tradition. During the course of the eighth-tenth centuries, the body became taller and shorter, and the nozzle became more pointed. The handle grew larger and became tongue shaped. The low ring base, which often contains delicate relief patterns, mirrored the outline of the pointed oval body. The relief decoration on the upper half of the body usually consists of floral or geometric motifs, such as the grapevine (Arndt, 1987). By the ninth and tenth centuries, these lamps were sometimes covered with a monochrome green glaze.


Many of the changes that occurred in the ceramic repertoires of the seventh–eleventh centuries should be understood in light of the reorientation of trade away from the Mediterranean world to the Near and Far East. The fine red-slipped pottery of the Roman world was superceded by Egyptian-inspired painted wares and glazed pottery influenced by Sasanian wares and Chinese imports. By the eleventh century, the subtle interplay of these changes had transformed the pottery of the Near East, especially in the western areas, where contacts with the Mediterranean world had formerly been strongest.

[Many of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Arndt, M. B. “Lucerne arabe con decorazione ‘a vite’ dallo scavo della Probatica.” Studium Biblicum Franciscanum/Liber Annuus 37 (1987): 241–289. Survey of Islamic channel-nozzle oil lamps decorated with the grapevine motif.
  • Baramki, Dimitri C. “The Pottery from Kh. el Mefjer.” Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine 10 (1944): 65–103. This site provides the most important published corpus of Islamic pottery in Palestine.
  • Hodges, Richard, and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis. Ithaca, N.Y., 1983. Reevaluation of the evidence for contacts between the Mediterranean world and the Near East after the Muslim conquest, with a description of the excavations at Siraf.
  • Magness, Jodi. Jerusalem Ceramic Chronology, circa 200–800 CE. Sheffield, 1993. Typology of the late Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic pottery of Jerusalem.
  • Magness, Jodi. “The Dating of the Black Ceramic Bowl with a Depiction of the Torah Shrine from Nabratein.” Levant 26 (1994): 199–206. The starting point for a reevaluation of the dating of Islamic pottery.
  • Rosen-Ayalon, Myriam, and Avraham Eitan. Ramla Excavations: Finds from the VIIIth Century C.E. Jerusalem, 1969. Catalog of an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the only publication to date of the finds from the Ramla excavations.
  • Sarre, Friedrich P. T. Ausgrabungen von Samarra, vol. 2, Die Keramik von Samarra. Berlin, 1925. The capital of the ῾Abbasid Empire from 836–882 CE, Samarra thus provides a fixed point for the pottery (especially the glazed wares) found there. Still the basic publication.
  • Sauer, James A. “The Pottery of Jordan in the Early Islamic Period.” In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, vol. 1, edited by Adnan Hadidi, pp. 329–337. Amman, 1982. Synthetic overview of the pottery types of Jordan from the Umayyad to Fatimid periods.
  • Vaux, Roland de, and A.-M. Stève. Fouilles à Qaryet el-῾Enab, Abū Gôsh, Palestine. Paris, 1950. Abu Ghosh is still the type-site for ῾Abbasid pottery in Israel.
  • Walmsley, Alan. “The Umayyad Pottery and Its Antecedents.” In Pella in Jordan 1: An Interim Report on the Joint University of Sydney and the College of Wooster Excavations at Pella, 1979–1981, edited by Anthony W. McNicoll et al., pp. 143–157. Canberra, 1982. The excavations at Pella provide one of the most accurately dated corpora of Umayyad pottery.
  • Walmsley, Alan. “Architecture and Artefacts from ῾Abbasid Fihl.” In Bilād al-Shām during the Abbasīd Period: Proceedings of the Fifth Bilād al-Shām Conference, vol. 2, edited by Muhammad Adnan al-Bakhit and Robert Schick, pp. 1–19. Amman, 1991. Up-to-date discussion of eighth- and ninth-century ceramic types, based on the evidence from Pella.
  • Watson, P. M. “Ceramic Evidence for Egyptian Links with Northern Jordan in the Sixth–Eighth Centuries AD.” In Trade, Contact, and the Movement of Peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean: Studies in Honour of J. Basil Hennessy, edited by Stephen Bourke and Jean-Paul Descoeudres, pp. 303–320. Sydney, 1995. Attempt to define and date some of the Early Islamic ceramic types of Egypt and Palestine, including Egyptian Red Slip A, B, and C Wares; Coptic Painted Ware; and bag-shaped storejars.
  • Whitcomb, Donald S. “Khirbet al-Mafjar Reconsidered: The Ceramic Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 271 (1988): 51–67. Reevaluation of the dating of the site's pottery.
  • Whitcomb, Donald S. “Coptic Glazed Ceramics from the Excavations at Aqaba, Jordan.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 26 (1989a): 167–182. Discussion of Coptic glazed ware and related wares.
  • Whitcomb, Donald S. “Mahesh Ware: Evidence of Early Abbasid Occupation from Southern Jordan.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 33 (1989b): 269–285. Defines this category of Islamic pottery on the basis of evidence from his excavations at ῾Aqaba.

James A. Sauer and Jodi Magness