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Pottery is form of ceramics technology, where wet clays are shaped and then dried or fired to harden them. The term is generally used only for relatively easily constructed utensils such as pots, cups, bowls, etc., and for decorative items but not for complex ceramics like Space Shuttle tiles. Pottery is an ancient technology.

A person who makes pottery is generally known as a potter.

Table of contents
1 Techniques
2 Production stages
3 Prehistory
4 History
5 See also


There are three basic techniques used in pottery - handwork, wheelwork, and slipcasting.

Handwork is the most primitive and individual technique, where pieces are constructed from hand-rolled coils, slabs, ropes and balls of clay, often joined with a liquid clay slurry. No two pieces of handwork will be exactly the same, so it is not suitable for making matched sets of items eg.dinnerware. Doing handwork enables the potter to use their imagination to create one-of-a-kind works of art.

The potter's wheel can be used for mass production, although often it is employed to make individual pieces. A ball of clay is placed in the center of a turntable, called the wheel head, which is turned chiefly using foot power (a kick wheel or treadle wheel) or a variable speed electric motor. The wheel revolves rapidly while the clay is pressed, squeezed and pulled gently into shape. Wheel work takes a lot of technical ability, but a skilled potter can produce many virtually identical plates, vases or bowls in a day. Because of its nature, wheel work can only be used to initially create items with radial symmetry on a vertical axis. These pieces can then be altered by impressing, bulging, carving, fluting, faceting, slicing, and other methods to make them more visually interesting. Often, thrown pieces are further modified by having handles, lids, feet, spouts, and other functional aspects added.

Slipcasting is probably the easiest technique for mass-production. A liquid clay slip is poured into plaster moulds and allowed to harden slightly. Once the plaster has absorbed most of the liquid from the outside layer of clay the remaining slip is poured back into the storage tub, and the item is left to dry. Finally the finished item is removed from the mould, trimmed neatly and allowed to air-dry.

Production stages

All pottery items go through a series of stages during construction.

  1. The raw clay is wedged to make its moisture and other particle distribution homogenous and to remove air bubbles. It is then shaped either by hand or using tools such as a potter's wheel, an extruder, or a slab roller. Water is used to keep the clay flexible during construction and to keep it from cracking.
  2. Work that is thrown on the wheel often needs to be trimmed or turned to make its thickness uniform and/or to form a foot on the piece. This process is done when the piece has dried enough to survive this manipulation.
  3. The piece is allowed to air dry until it is hard and dry to the touch. At this stage it is known as greenware. Items of greenware are very brittle but they can be handled with care. Greenware items are often sanded with fine grade sandpaper to ensure a smooth finish in the completed item.
  4. The greenware is often given a preliminary firing in a kiln. Once it has been fired once it is known as 'biscuit' ware or bisque.
  5. Biscuit ware is normally a plain red, white or brown colour depending on which type of clay is used. This is decorated with glaze and then fired again to a higher temperature.
  6. Some pieces are not bisque-fired before being glazed. These pieces are called once-fired.


Palaeolithic Pottery

Pottery found in the Japanese islands has been dated, by uncalibrated radiocarbon dating, to around the 11th millennium BC, in the Japanese Palaeolithic at the beginning of the Jomon period. This is the oldest known pottery.


A Short History of Pottery in Palestine from its beginnings to 586BC:

Neolithic Pottery (8500-4300)

This period is split into two pre-pottery periods and two pottery ones. The description below is of those things found in the pottery periods. The pre-pottery periods are also of interest to us as we see that, in Jericho (the major Neolithic site in the Land), had plastered floors and white-ware can be found showing that although the strict definition of pottery wasn't discovered as yet, the invention didn't come out of no-where. This is the first time that we find pottery in the Land of the Bible. During the fifth millennia BC, we find a simple and crude type of pottery made on mats. It also was not of the greatest quality, since it was yet being fired at low temperatures (for pottery). Examples of the types of pottery made, which also indicates to us the material culture of the age are bowls, deep craters, storage jars, and smaller jars with lids.

Decoration is always a subject when addressing pottery, and therefore it is interesting to see that even then, the pottery was decorated from its beginnings. The potters of the period would use herringbone, zigzag and triangular patterns/motifs on their creations. They would do these designs using incision or paint to apply their decoration.

Chalcolithic Period (4300-3300)

In this period the quality and technology of the pottery is by far improved from the previous PN's. This millennium also sees the birth of the potter's wheel for the smaller jars, whereas the larger ones still are made on mats. This can be seen best at Nahal Mishmar where part of a mat was found.

This period is divided into two separate parts of the country although it's largely referred to under the name of the most important place of Chalcolithic society: Teleilat Ghassul. The other communities are in Beer Sheba and the Golan Heights (B+G). These societies have common pottery such as large storage jars for crops both in their solid and liquid forms, along with jars. Long narrow cylinder pierced handles are diagnostic to Chalcolithic times.

The Ghassul community have a diagnostic piece of pottery which is a V-shaped cup found all over the bedrock of the particular community. This was very rarely found in the B+G group. This cup seems to be an important factor in the society of the age due to it being found on cultic figures. The B+G group on the other hand seem to have shepherding as a part of their culture due to their diagnostic piece being a churn. This is used to make the milk from the domesticated animals into butter. This too is found on the head of a cultic figure of the period. What is interesting is that both these are found on figures at the same site of Gilat.

Decorations are simple in this period and are found in the Golan Heights to be sometimes made by rope, although throughout the country simple geometric signs and red bands of paint are used.

Early Bronze Age (3300 – 2300)

Again we see in this period, differences between regional types and some relationships through national types of pottery. Despite the difficulty to differentiate between chronological progressions and regional variations, we can identify certain continuations from the Chalcolithic period. The major one would be the “hole mouth” cooking pot, which was constant throughout the age.

Again a handle classifies this period, this time we can begin to diagnose the period with the ledge handle. We can also see a clear difference between the northern and southern patterns. This is done by the decoration. The north used highly burnished red slip, which is rarely used in the south. The northerners would also use reddish brown paint and a rough brush, a technique known as “grain wash”. The inhabitants of the south on the other hand were more familiar with white slip and painting vertical orange lines on it, or using incision techniques.

An important part of describing the pottery of this period is the burial pottery. Much of this pottery consists of small jars and bottles with different types of handles and spouts. Some of these are bottles with narrow necks and lug handles, and cups with a high loop handle.

Middle Bronze Age I (2300-2000)

Although one could write about the Middle Bronze age by itself, I feel it important to distinguish this period from the rest. It is a time that is difficult to understand since civilization seemed to reduce considerably and many graves were found throughout the country.

Three major groups the Transjordan, the northern and the southern can define the pottery of this age. Despite this division of regional practices, there are still common aspects to the pottery as a whole throughout the land. Goblets, amphoriskoi (a small jar with two handles), and the “teapot” jar with the spout that gives it its name. Diagnostic to this period is the four-spout lamp.

The Transjordan grouping is to be found in sites like Bab edh-Dhra. It is marked by the burnished red slip, which barely appears in the other cultures, but is reminiscent of the previous Early Bronze Age.

The northerners are remarked by a pale red slip, and poorly decorated red stripes or circles. These northern sites are mainly in the areas of the Jezreel Valley, and Upper Galilee. They seem to have brought in much of the Early Bronze pottery onwards and still use ledge handles and formed them into the “envelope shape”. The northern family has also been found to be using imported Syrian gray/black ware. This foreign ware is “teapots” and goblets made on the wheel, and can be easily spotted due to the white horizontal/wavy lines.

The southerners of the central hill country, Jordan Valley, Shephelah and other sites are noted by their lack of red slip or painted decoration. They decorate using incision techniques, and a five tooth narrow comb. Apart from the countrywide norm, the south has handless jars with a wheel made flaring neck.

Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550)

This period is divided into three different sub periods: MBII A, B, and C. We shall see that B and C are closer linked than A. This period is diagnosed by the well-burnished red slip so often seen in the corresponding layers at digs. The slip is normally used on the smaller vessels of the period. Other decorating techniques found to be frequent amongst this period's pottery are horizontal sometimes triangular designs in black or red paint.

The second half of this period (B+C) is not seen by the burnished red slip, which all but disappeared during the eighteenth century, replaced by white/creamy slip. The astonishing event of this period is the mastery of the potters over the wheel. The pottery is often quite thinly walled and even kilned at high temperatures. Despite this, there is a progression of techniques from MBII A, which does denote continuity in society from then. Other noticeable traits of the period are a lack of painted design on most types of pottery and then only unicolored. The one color often tends to be stripes or circles with the odd bird making an appearance. These designs appear on ointment juglets.

The ointment juglet is the most important piece of pottery of the period. The fashion of juglets swings gradually from piriform ones to cylindrical. Amongst these vessels we find zoomorphic shapes like animals or human heads. These designs are often accompanied by “puncturing”, which used to be filled by white lime.

Lastly Chocolate on White Ware and Bichrome Ware are important pottery types appearing in the 16th century. The first of the two types consists of a thick white slip being applied followed by a dark brown paint. This type is found in the northern region of the country particularly close to the Jordan Valley. The Bichrome Ware the more important of the two can be found at Tel el-Ajjul and Meggido among others. Its “pendant” lines or stripes that come usually as black on white slip, or more commonly as red on black can help notice this type of pottery. Bichrome was imported from Cyprus.

Late Bronze Age (1550-1200)

Due to the influx of imported types of pottery, the pottery of this period must be divided into four sub groups:

Local Pottery

The local shows that there is a clear evolution of the pottery through the MB to this period. The difference that can be remarked between the two periods is that the juglets that were once of great dispersion go down in popularity and become gray as the Late Bronze age begins. In fact the local pottery is now mass-produced in a rough and cheap manner.

Paint decoration returns to fashion, even though it is simply added to the light buff slip, and sometimes without slip. The paint shows many different geometric shapes, and sometimes inside painted on rectangular panels called metopes a sacred tree flanked by two antelopes can be found.

The Bichrome Group

Again in this period we can see that the majority of this group is red paint on black background. The most common vessels that we find this type in are kraters, jars and jugs. This group, after being tested with neutron activation techniques shows that it was imported from eastern Cyprus. The major controversy is whether the Cypriot market produced Palestinian styles for exporting purposes, or whether Canaanites were producing the pottery for the home consumption in Israel. This pottery was also to be found in Megiddo locally made.

Cypriot Imported Pottery

This is a selection of handmade pottery in different Ware styles. These styles are called: Base Ring, White Slip, Monochrome, White Shaved, White Painted, Bucchero. Of these different kinds, Monochrome, White Slip, and Base Ring were most used. It appears as though this type of pottery was found to be decorative in nature rather than useful.

Mycenaean Imports

This pottery was produced on inland Greece and amongst the Aegean islands. The fabrication technique used was fast-wheel, with fine well-levigated clay. The slip was of a light cream color to give the background to the exquisite decoration normally done in dark-brown color. Vessel types were small and closed flasks or “stirrup jars”.

Iron Age I (1200-1000)

There are really two major types of pottery going on inside two separate societies in the Land of the Bible at this time. These are the Philistines and the Israelites.

Philistine Bichrome Ware

This is the descendant of the imported Mycenaean Ware of the past period, which is known also as Mycenaean IIIC1b. This new style of pottery is made locally. Neutron analysis proves that it could have even been made in the same workshop. It began at approx. 12th century and began to disappear towards the end of the 11th century. The style is slightly influenced by Egypt but mostly by Canaanite. The Mycenaean tradition holds a firm grasp over the shape of the pottery (for example “stirrup jars”), whereas bottles are found to share Cypriot styles (seen by tall and narrow necks). The decoration of this new ware has changed to red and black paints on a whitish slip. Birds and fish are found to be common on Mycenaean IIIC1b but less on the new style, in fact by the second half of the 11th century the bird which was once thought to be sacred disappeared from the pottery.

Israelite Pottery:

This is a lot cheaper and less refined than other pottery at this stage in history. The new Israelite settlers began by using very basic types of Canaanite pottery until they began developing just very simple copies of the purchased pottery so as to meet their needs. The hallmark of this early Israelite style is the pithoi. They are scattered over these sites. Many of the storage jars had The “Collard Rim”, which were most popular to the central part of Israel.

Iron Age II (1000-586)

During the period of the United Kingdom the Israelite pottery improved and showed a remarkable amount of red slip with irregular burnish and applied by hand. At the split, however, of the kingdom began to break off into two separate traditions.

Samaria Ware is a name given to the pottery of Israel (the northern kingdom), even though it is a description of a wide variety. This can be put into two separate groups though. The first is thick walled, with a high foot and red slip (sometimes burnished), which often come as bowls. The second is made of well-levigated clay, and decorated with concentric stripes of red/yellowish color.

Judean pottery is altogether a different story and slowly progresses into more, and more sophisticated types/styles. This although is not taking anything away from this pottery, because by the 8th/7th centuries the Jerusalem pottery was especially good. All over the southern kingdom, a technique known as “wheel burnish” was used describing how the orange/red slip was applied whilst the pot was on the wheel.

See also