Ceramic containers of all shapes and sizes manufactured from local clays in the Levant are normally the most abundant find at excavations. Pottery broke easily then, as now, and as a result was replaced by new pots. The rapid rate of breakage and discard inevitably led to changes in fabric, form, and finish. For more than a century, archaeologists have identified ceramic forms and finishes characteristic of each time period. Specific shapes for rims, bodies, and bases as well as surface treatments typify different regions. Even so, the interface between two archaeological periods can be challenging to recognize because of the continuity of certain ceramic traditions. Pottery-production techniques and surface treatments pass from one period to the next, regardless of political or economic changes. Geographic factors determine the nature of the clay body, which dictate the firing technology and surface treatment. Despite geographic differences, similarities in pottery imply a degree of homogeneity with abundant local variations, some of which are subtle.

Raw Materials.

Since Neolithic times, potters have produced exquisite and utilitarian ceramics from clays primarily derived from sedimentary rocks. Most clay deposits are found at some distance from their parent rock, deposited by water or aeolian action. Clays come mixed with extraneous rocks and organic materials that can be detrimental to pottery, so potters prepared their clays by manually extracting the largest unwanted particles. Sometimes, a second step involved adding inclusions for their beneficial qualities. While the same basic clay bodies were suitable for all pot types, larger pots might have extra organic inclusions to open the thick clay walls, thereby facilitating drying and firing. Grog, or crushed pottery, was, and is to this day, the preferred additive of potters. It appeared first in thin-walled and well-polished Neolithic ceramics shaped as pinch pots. It was suitable for use in molds and for coil-made pottery. Cooking pots often had calcite inclusions intentionally added to the clay body. An enduring feature, calcite predominated until the Iron Age II, when other tempering agents replaced sedimentary rock inclusions. For example, basalt temper was added to cookware in the north; grog, quartz, and other rocks and minerals were also used at different times.

Localization and Trade of Ceramics.

Rather than transport fragile pottery over great distances, in most time periods local workshops likely produced the bulk of wares used in towns and villages. Few pottery-production locations with kilns or workshops have been identified. Certain clay deposits figured prominently in Iron-Age ceramics. Petrographic analysis suggests the use of clay beds in the Jerusalem area during the Bronze and Iron Ages; wares made of Jerusalem clays were then dispersed to locations throughout the southern region.

Certain plain, decorated pottery and cookware were traded; but the widespread distribution of clay and varied topography were not conducive for transporting low-cost, friable pottery, thus fostering local workshops. Painted pottery, especially small and closed vessels, was imported from the Mediterranean; but bowls and large kraters were also imported. The storage transport jar is the local product traded most widely outside the Levant. Sturdy, reusable jars filled with agricultural products were packed onto ships and distributed throughout the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Egyptian pottery was imported, especially to the southern Levant during the Early and Late Bronze Age.

Manufacturing Techniques.

Bronze- and Iron-Age potters employed similar techniques, working as craft specialists and domestic potters. The latter produced pottery largely for use by family and friends. The coiling technique was ideal for local raw materials and always used for some of the large jars and vats. Even when potters learned to throw pots on a fast wheel capable of attaining momentum, older manufacturing traditions persisted, especially in more rural areas and for large, stationary jars and vats.

Post-Neolithic potters often found identical solutions to problems encountered by earlier potters. The basic methods of manufacture practiced in Neolithic times continued throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, although with time there was greater reliance on the use of a mobile work surface to rotate and shape the clay. New developments involved changes in surface treatment and firing technologies, especially reduction firing used to create black and/or red pieces. Molds remained in use for small and large open forms, especially Early Bronze II–III large platters, Early Bronze II–Iron round-bottomed cooking pots, and sharply carinated Middle Bronze–II open forms. The coiling technique best suits the manufacture of the largest open and closed vats and large jars, or pithoi. Certain small pots were usually made in the pinch-pot technique.

Domestic and professional potters often worked on a series of pots simultaneously in an interrupted method of manufacture that had multiple stages of work. Instead of making a pot in its entirety, the potter shaped the first stage for a series of 6, 10, or 20 pots (depending on their size and the quantity of clay available) and then allowed them to dry. Work could not continue on individual pots until they had dried slightly. After a short drying period, the length of which depended on the weather, the next stage of work was successively carried out for all pots. This assembly-line production system was used for coiled, molded, and wheel-thrown pots.

Surface Finish.

Features specific to each archaeological period can be defined, but certain elements of shape, clay body, and surface treatment prevailed throughout the ages. Most pots lacked colorful or decorative surface finish other than red slips, which were often burnished. Little painted pottery is preserved, as a result of problems posed by the local raw materials or simple lack of preservation. Red or black burnished surfaces were suitable alternatives for most eras except for the Late Bronze Age, when potters briefly mastered the art of pot painting.

Surface treatments that repeated throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages include burnish sheen, paint, and incised or molded decorative elements. A favorite practice, given the limitations imposed by the local clays, was burnishing. After a pot was made, it was covered with a slip (a thin layer of watery clay), to which a red, white, or darker coloring agent was added. Slips masked surface imperfections and provided a background for painted patterns. Normally, instead of painting the slipped surface, the potter or an assistant used a tool to rub and compact the slip, thus causing an alignment of surface particles. Shallow, slightly concave impressions of burnish compaction sometimes remain. When fired to a relatively low temperature, burnish sheen results; but if overfired, the sheen vanishes. Sometimes, different examples of the same type of pot would appear with or without burnish sheen. This disparity is likely due to their position in the kiln and/or to the firing temperature: those closest to the heat source lost their sheen.

Burnished surfaces were common for centuries, in part because of the manufacturing technique of first shaping a thick-walled pot. Pots were made initially with thick walls and later thinned by removing excess clay with a scraping tool. The tool inadvertently compacted the surface, resulting in shiny, compacted surfaces. When not fired to high temperature, a sheen was produced. Burnish characterized Bronze- and Iron-Age pottery, until wheel-thrown wares created thin-walled pottery and eliminated the need to thin pot walls. The combination of lean clays with a high salt content resulted in the repeated reemergence of burnished red wares begun in Neolithic times. Variations of burnish techniques include Early Bronze–I crackled ware (a north Jordan Valley phenomenon), Early Bronze–II metallic burnished ware, Early Bronze–III black and red Khirbet Kerak wares, and Iron Age–II black and/or red burnished or plain wares.

Painted surfaces are atypical of Bronze- and Iron-Age ceramics and were highly localized. This reflects the limitations of local clays, especially in contrast to Mediterranean imported wares. Paint does not adhere well to “lean” clays, that is, clays with abundant rock inclusions, characteristic of the Levant. Despite the application of a slip layer to cover rocks and create a smooth surface to absorb the paint, the firing technology and composition of the paint did not favor the success of painted patterns. As pots dried, mineral salts would collect as a “bloom” or “scum” deposit on surfaces, thereby creating a white/gray barrier that prevented paint adhesion or obscured painted patterns. Local markets for painted wares were met by ceramics imported from Cyprus and farther west. Clays available from Mediterranean islands are highly varied and include fine, clean, fatty clays well suited for absorbing painted surfaces. It is likely that more locally made pots were painted than are evident archaeologically.

Painted surfaces characterized certain Late Bronze I–II fabrics and mimicked Mediterranean painted pots. Iron Age–I coastal wares and Iron Age–II wares from southern Jordan were among the most successful painted local traditions. The work required to prepare raw materials, both clay and paint, necessitated an effort not normally demanded by local societies. A unique surface treatment prevailed in the Early Bronze I, known as reserve painting. Iron-Age painted “Philistine” and contemporaneous wares were successful as a result of innovative manufacturing techniques that overcame problems in local raw materials.

Incised or combed decorative elements accommodated the lean clays of the Levant and characterized certain Middle Bronze I–II wares. Short, often linear strokes or punctate patterns incised with a sharp-edged tool avoided the problems encountered when using colored designs. Early Bronze–II combed wares include large jars, a category that normally lacked surface alteration. Bands of molded clay ropes sometimes characterized the largest jars. Molded raised bands, on the shoulders of Bronze- and Iron-Age large jars and pithoi, mimicked the ropes and fibers used as external supports during the early stages of manufacture.

The shift from Bronze- to Iron-Age ceramics is almost imperceptible. Late Bronze–Age pot forms and problems with errant painted patterns persisted until burnished surfaces reappeared, in different guises, in the Iron Age I. Those designated “hand-burnished” exhibit irregular, uneven burnish strokes. Only with the shift to wheel-thrown pottery did burnish disappear from the work of professional craft specialists. Throwing pots on a wheel capable of momentum allowed potters to create thin pots from the start. It also eliminated the need to thin pots by removing excess clay from thick walls. Once potters could use two hands to throw thin-walled pots, burnishing persisted in rural communities or where nonspecialists made pots for domestic use.

Vessel Forms and Features.

Open forms primarily include cups, bowls, kraters, and lamps. Large platters characterize the Early Bronze II–III but are occasionally found in later times. Closed shapes include juglets, jugs, flasks, jars, amphorae, pithoi, cooking pots, and zoomorphic pieces. Certain cookers of the Middle Bronze Age I–II, perhaps better termed “ovens,” have an open form and flat bottom. Also made of clay were stands, fenestrated pedestals or incense burners, figurines, model shrines, rattles, musical instruments, beads, chalices, strainers, bottles, amphoriskoi (small two-handled pots), decanters, votives, and pyxides (small squat boxes). Industrial or utilitarian ceramics include “spinning bowls,” vats, tuyeres (bellows), baths, and coffins. Bronze- and Iron-Age pots usually had round rather than flat bottoms. The latter require more care when drying and are normally found on Early-Bronze holemouth jars, some of which were made at the domestic level, by household potters. Tall, thin Middle Bronze Age–I coil-made jars had flat bottoms. Bases in the form of discs, rings, and pedestals were often modifications of bases initially round in form. Handles tended to be large or small loops, although ledge handles characterize Early-Bronze pots.

Use of Ceramic Containers.

Utilitarian clay pots functioned to cook, store, and prepare foods for immediate use and long-term storage. The advantages of fired ceramic containers over cloth, skins, wood, holes in the ground, or baskets include their longevity and ability to keep out unwanted insects, rodents, dust, moisture, bacteria, and mold. Porous pottery walls retained yeast cultures needed to convert milk into yogurt, which could be dried and stored for later use. Wine was transported in skins, but ceramic jars were preferred for fermentation and for long-distance travel by ship. Porous walls of water jugs filtered the water and kept it cool. Bitter minerals in water would naturally collect on jug interiors, thereby making the water sweeter.

Organization of the Industry.

Kilns for pottery firing are rarely found. Dirty, sooty kilns were likely disassembled once they were no longer in use. Potters require dark, cool spaces in which to work, to prevent pots from drying too quickly. Caves or underground chambers are suitable production locations but are infrequently found with intact pottery workshops. Some workshops made the entire repertoire of forms, large and small, open and closed, that characterize an archaeological era. Alternatively, workshops might specialize in large or small forms, given the different manufacturing techniques required for specific forms. The identification of similar products from multiple workshops suggests the availability of pots from different sources that produced pots nearly identical in form and finish. Itinerant potters who traveled seasonally, going wherever their customers needed them, were responsible for special items, such as oversized containers, as well as for the regular repertoire. The same basic clay bodies were suitable for all pot types, although larger pots might have extra organic inclusions.

Pottery production was not a monolithic operation but involved domestic potters and craft specialists. There were both craft specialists, who produced their pottery in workshops and sold most of their pots, and household courtyard producers, who made pots for sale, barter, or their own use. Local traditions of coiling pottery persisted throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, alongside other production techniques, since coiling techniques were well suited to local clays. At various points in time, women and/or men likely engaged in all aspects of production, from clay mining and preparation to sales and distribution. Family members or apprentices carried out tasks not requiring the skill of a craftsperson; for example, they prepared clay, shaped and added handles or spouts, and painted, burnished, or incised marks in wet clay. Given that clay was freely available and pottery manufacture was an arduous job, it was likely carried out by people lacking other skills, land, or sources of income.

Words in the Bible Related to Pottery.

Biblical terms for different types of pots are difficult to determine. Most biblical writers (and translators) lacked access, familiarity, or expertise regarding the pottery industry or work carried out by women. Food preparation, processing, cooking, serving, and storage were often women’s tasks, performed in kitchens and household courtyards, far removed from biblical scribes. The locations of pottery production, in household courtyards, in rural settings, or on the fringe of urban areas, prevented direct observation by biblical writers. As a result, words connected to individual types of ceramic pots are ambiguous and tenuous. Trade secrets regarding clays and firing procedures were of little concern to biblical writers. Bronze- and Iron-Age pots likely had different names from those mentioned in the Bible. (Biblical terms for specific pots come from various sources, including Kelso [1962] and Scherman [1998]. Some words find parallels in related languages.)

Several words pertaining to the production or use of ceramic containers for household and industrial use had multiple meanings. For example, certain bowls and jugs, such as sîr and mizrachim (Zech 14:20–21) or kiyyôrot and mizracot (1 Kgs 7:38, 40), were made both in metal and in clay. Two terms refer to smoky and sooty heating devices, of which kibšān (Gen 19:28; Exod 9:8, 9:10, 19:18) is more appropriate for describing a kiln for firing pottery. In contrast, the tannûr (Neh 3:11, 12:38) was a stove or oven used to heat and cook food (Lev 2:4, 7:9).

The potter, yôṣtēr (Isa 41:25), worked in the bêt hayyôṣtēr (Jer 18:1–2, 4–5), a pottery-production workshop of undefined size. Unworked clayey material, tît (Jer 38:6), was differentiated from clay trod underfoot (Isa 41:25, Nah 3:14) and suitable for potter’s clay, which was known as hōmer (Isa 29:16, 45:9; Job 33:6). Potters sat while working and rotated the wheel (trochos) with their feet (Sir 38:29–30), which differed from the earlier, less sophisticated, but highly functional turntable, or ʾobnāyim (Jer 18:3), which was not necessarily a thrower’s wheel. The ʾobnāyim comprised two sections, of stone or wood, and was rotated manually. Until the early twenty-first century, traditional potters in Cyprus used one foot to rotate a turntable (trochos), which lacked momentum and was unsuitable for throwing pots.

Kli (pl. kalim) was a generic term for containers, including ceramic jars for wine, dried fruit, or oil (Jer 40:10). Kle heres (Lev 29:33) referred to all types of pottery or earthen vessels. Heres was a broken piece of fired pottery, or a sherd (Isa 45:9). At Potsherd Gate (Jer 19:2) in Jerusalem, sherds may have been deliberately imbedded into the surface to reduce slipping on wet or steep slopes. Similar action was observed in traditional Cypriot villages where pottery was made and sherds were available. Sherds served many purposes. Those that functioned as scrap paper for writing are called ostracon (pl. ostraca). Large pieces of broken pottery were used as chinking material in walls, as animal feeders, to transport hot coals, as tempering material in clay bodies for pottery and bricks, as barriers between pots stacked in a kiln, as protection for young plants and seedlings or fires and candles in cemeteries from the wind, as glue to fix cracked pots, and for other mundane functions.

The generic term for all ceramic pots, sîr (2 Kgs 4:38), was also specific to cooking pots, as in English, Greek, and the Bikol dialect of the Philippines. Sîr, dûd, and salahat are used collectively for containers to boil or stew meat (2 Chr 35:13). Four types of cookware used to cook meat include kiyyôr, dûd, qallaḥat, and parûr (1 Sam 2:13–14). Each may have been reserved for specific types of food, but that information is lost.

Individual names for specific pots are difficult to associate with pots from the archaeological record, unless the text gives some indication of their use. Not all terms were necessarily in use simultaneously. For example, ʾagān was a krater or large bowl for mixing wine and water (Isa 22:24, Song 7:2–3) and a basin for blood (Exod 24:6). Baqbuq was a ceramic decanter, bottle, or elegant jug with one (if any) handle (Jer 19:1, 10). Dûd was one name for a cooking pot used to boil or stew food (Job 41:20), and it was made of metal or clay (1 Sam 2:14, 2 Chr 35:13). Gabîaא was a wine jug (Jer 35:5). Kad was used as a water jar or jug carried on the shoulder to the spring or well (Gen 24:14) or for storing household flour (1 Kgs 17:12, 14, 16). A large, one-handled jug or cooking pot was better suited for hoisting to the shoulder than was a tall jar. A kôs was a drinking cup or bowl, with or without a handle, for wine and other beverages (Jer 35:5).

A maḥăbat may have been a heavy griddle or, perhaps, a baking tray for roasting, toasting, heating, and cooking, made of metal or clay (Lev 2:5, 7:9; Ezek 4:3).

A misאeret was possibly a bread-kneading bowl, in which dough rose and then baked (Exod 12:34; Deut 28:5, 17). A matsref was a ceramic crucible for melted metal (Prov 17:3). A mazrek was a metal or clay bowl for drinking wine (Amos 6:6). A nēbel was a container made of clay, wood, or animal skin, used to store wine, summer fruits, and oil (Jer 48:11–12). A sherd broken from a nōbel was used for hot coals and to scoop water (Isa 30:14). Traditional rural potters in Cyprus started the kiln with coals brought carried in sherds or household incense burners, to assure a successful outcome.

A nēr was a clay lamp (Exod 27:20, Ps 119:105) in the form of a bowl, with one or more pinched spouts for a wick made of string, which burned on a thin layer of oil floating above a reservoir of water. Nērot were candlesticks or lamp stands of gold (1 Kgs 7:49, Exod 25:31). A pak was a small, closed container, such as a juglet, used for precious fluids, oils, perfumes, and medicines (1 Sam 10:1, 2 Kgs 9:3). A parûr was a cooking pot (Num 11:8) for broth (Judg 6:19) or meat (1 Sam 2:14). A qallaḥat was a cauldron or large meat cooker made of metal or clay (1 Sam 2:14). The salahat was the dish or large bowl in which a family cooked and/or ate its meal daily (2 Kgs 21:13; 2 Chr 35:13; Prov 19:24, 26:15). There were no bowls for individual servings.

A salahit was a small ceramic bowl for salt (2 Kgs 2:20). In traditional Cypriot rural homes, a small clay pot with salt hung from the ceiling, thereby keeping the salt dry and available. A ṣappaḥat was a closed container, such as a flask, used to hold water (1 Sam 26:11–12) or a small oil juglet (1 Kgs 17:12, 14, 16). Sēpel described a bowl used to serve dairy products (Judg 5:25) or water (Judg 6:38).



  • Amiran, Ruth, Pirhiya Beck, and Uzza Zevulun. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land. Jerusalem: Massada Press, 1969. Authoritative, illustrated description of pottery types, largely from tombs, according to archaeological period.
  • Homès-Fredericq, Denise, and H. J. Franken, eds. Pottery and Potters, Past and Present: 7000 Years of Ceramic Art in Jordan. Tübingen, Germany: Attempto, 1986. Focus on pottery manufacture at different time periods. Illustrations of pots and methods of fabrication.
  • Honeyman, Alexander Mackie. “The Pottery Vessels of the Old Testament.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 71 (1939): 76–90. Biblical terms for ceramics.
  • Kelso, J. L. “Pottery.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, edited by George Arthur Buttrick, vol. 3, pp. 846–853. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962. Includes biblical terms related to ceramics and illustrations of pottery.
  • London, Gloria A., and Robert D. Shuster. “Hesban Pottery: Ceramic Technology Based on Chemical, Mineralogical, and Morphological Analyses.” In Hesban 11 Ceramic Finds: A Typological and Technological Study of the Pottery Remains from Tell Hesban and Vicinity, edited by J. A. Sauer and L. G. Herr, pp. 597–764. Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University/Institute of Archaeology, 2012. Comprehensive study of Iron-Age pottery regarding mineralogical and chemical testing, manufacturing techniques, and organization of the ceramics industry.
  • Philip, Graham, and Douglas Baird, eds. Ceramics and Change in the Early Bronze Age of the Southern Levant. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. Early Bronze–Age pottery, including chemical and physical analyses.
  • Scherman, Nosson, ed. Tanach: The Torah, Prophets, Writings—The Twenty-Four Books of the Bible, Newly Translated and Annotated. New York: Mesorah Publications, 1998. Biblical terms for pottery.
  • Wood, Bryant. The Sociology of Pottery in Ancient Palestine. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990. Sociological milieu of the Bronze- and Iron-Age ceramics industry and ceramic style.

Gloria Anne London