Summary: The prevalence of broken pottery at archaeological excavations helps paint a picture of life in biblical times.
And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. – Job 2:8 (ESV)
Insights on Daily Life from Pottery Sherds
Other than soil, the most prevalent material that emerges from an excavation is almost always broken pottery.1 These pieces resting on the surface are usually tell-tale signs that the location was the scene of a settlement—everything else may still be buried with no other features protruding above the surface. The archaeologist or surveyor will then plot the site on a map and report it to the authorities. Eventually, someone may come to investigate further with ground penetrating radar or actual excavation.
The casual observer of an excavation often thinks that archaeologists have an inordinate obsession with these pieces of broken pottery! These sherds, however, can yield very important information about the site and its occupants. This article will survey a few of the implications that sherds can yield.
The Use of Sherds in Ancient Times
One interesting use of broken pottery by people of antiquity was to recycle sherds as construction components. People of the ancient Middle and Near East would often bake their bread in ovens that were constructed of clay and sometimes lined with broken sherds. The sherds would provide some stability especially as the clay component was packed around it. The photo below shows part of this construction technique in an oven that was discovered at Beth-Shemesh.
Broken pottery was sometimes used as writing material. Usually this would not be for more formal composition, but for mundane uses that might not need archiving—sort of a “Post-It-Note” of antiquity. These are referred to as “ostraca” (plural; singular is “ostracon”). The ancient writer would locate a suitable piece of broken ceramic and compose the necessary data on it. These ostraca might serve as receipts for goods received (a collection of these was found from Ahab’s Samaria; cf. Avigad 1304 for photo of two ostraca; see Suriano for translations of several of them), names or lists of names (cf. the “lots” at Masada; cf. Yadin 811-12), or occasional messages to be delivered to some person or destination (see photo below). (See the receipts written on sherds that helped identify Naboth’s vineyard.)
Pottery Sherds Help Establish a Historical Timeline
One of the first practical implications archaeologists came to recognize that sherds could provide was to help establish some framework of chronology. Ceramic pieces morph through time just like general fashion. These changes can help identify the time periods to which to assign the vessel. (See the smashed jars that helped pinpoint Jerusalem’s destruction.)
As one learns the differences in the visual changes of the vessels, it is possible to place the nuanced changes into a relative sequence (a “relative” date determines that something precedes or follows another but cannot necessarily determine the specific span that separated them). During his excavations in Egypt in the late 1800s, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie was a pioneer to identify and articulate such relative sequences. He eventually established the principle with stratified sites when he excavated Tell el-Hesi in Palestine in 1890 (Drower 39-40).
These typological differences along with other evidence—ideally some inscriptional statement—permit one to associate the style of pottery with a specific date, thus yielding an “absolute” date. With an absolute date, the archaeologist can infer that the styles of pottery in the strata above the “absolute” level are later and those that are in the strata below it are earlier. Until more refined information comes to light, these other date determinations will often be relative dates in relation to the absolute dates.
Other features than simply design, however, factor into the evaluation. These features of the pottery would include the degree of technical execution (i.e., clay composition and degree of firing, etc.), since these tend to fluctuate somewhat through time as well (see survey by London).
Because of the brittle nature of ceramics, they tend to break relatively easily. Some forms, however, are prone to more frequent breakage than others. Large storage jars tend to have longer useful lives than cooking pots or smaller vessels designed for mobility. The larger items will usually not be moved as often, whereas a cooking pot will be subject to the physical stresses of heat expansion and contraction (i.e., thermal shock) and vessels designed for mobility (i.e., lamps, jugs, juglets, and jars) will be liable to the hazards of frequent movement. With more frequent breakage, the smaller, more transportable vessels will reflect more rapid design changes than larger, more permanent type vessels (cf. London 450).
The stylistic development of the ceramics for ancient Canaan/Israel/Palestine2 can permit a fairly refined, albeit limited, chronological scheme. William Dever (460) has said: “For most periods, the common pottery of ancient Palestine can now be dated to the century, and often to one half or the other.” The accompanying chart attempts to summarize the chronological implications of ceramic typology.
Determining the Original Use of Broken Pottery
The determination of how people used the vessels is not always immediately apparent and sometimes cannot be determined. Some, such as lamps will indicate their use by the presence of soot stains at the spout of the vessel (photo below). One may infer other uses from depictions in ancient artwork as well as ethnoarchaeological comparisons.
Fortunately, refined chemical residue analysis is beginning to help identify the use of some vessels. One type of vessel, often referred to as a “pilgrim flask” (photo below), has often been identified as a water jar (Kelso and Albright 30). While such use is possible, the fragile and brittle character of ceramics would seem not to be well-suited for a general use as a water canteen.3 (See the messages written on potsherds that impact the debate over when the Bible was written.)
Alternatively, recent residue tests on some pilgrim flasks indicate that some were used to store flavored wines—particularly wines flavored with cinnamon (see Jarus; Serpico; “Traces”).
Pottery Gives Clues about Long-Distance Trade
These science-based studies also permit inferences of long-distance trade connections. Clays, like fingerprints, have unique characteristics. Beds of clay have unique chemical compositions that may permit the investigator to identify the geographic location from which the clays have come and by inference where the vessels were made. Such studies have revealed that the large storage jars (i.e., “pithoi”) at the northern Negeb site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud were actually transported over several hundred miles from the general region of Jerusalem (see Gunneweg, Perlman, and Meshel 280-84; Table 8.1, Reg. No. 16/1 and 144/3).
The presence of these imported vessels, of course, raises questions of why? Were the vessels’ presence incidental to trade or deliberately carried there for other reasons?
One of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud vessels interestingly preserves an inscription in which a person decreed: “I have [b]lessed you to YHWH of Shômrôn (Samaria) and to His asherah” (Ahituv, Eshel, and Meshel 87). This declaration of allegiance to Samaria, along with the area of Jerusalem as the clay source for the jar, implies some kind of international intersection at the site.
Pottery Styles Can Imply Ethnic Associations
There are times when the kind of pottery may imply an ethnic association.4 A ceramic surface decoration that tends to appear in the early Iron Age, especially along the southeastern Mediterranean coast, is often associated with the Sea Peoples and in particular the Philistines. The percentages of ceramic sherds with such multi-colored, elegant designs (see sherds in photo at top of article) tend to correlate with the geographic area that the Philistines settled in the early Iron Age.
This does not mean that every presence of such sherds implies Philistine occupation, nor does it imply that Philistines would not have had other ceramic designs. However, when a convergence of such designs emerge especially with corroborating data, such as the presence or lack of pig bones, designs of loom weights, figurine designs, ritual objects (Manor 133-34), ancient artistic depictions (e.g., from the Egyptians), as well as literary descriptions (e.g., Egyptian sources and the Hebrew Bible), one may infer an ethnic association.
Statistically, there is a distinct break of such “Philistine” ware as one moves from the coastal plain into the interior of ancient Canaan, which also correlates with what we know of the settlements of the Israelites and Philistines respectively. The Bible notes that part of the “border” separating the Philistine territory associated with Ekron was near Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 5:6-6:12; only about 7.5 miles separates the two sites).
Pottery Can Indicate the Function of Buildings
The kind of pottery that appears in a location can also provide insight into how the room and/or building was used. At Tel Beth-Shemesh, we discovered several rooms in a 14th century “palace” that were chocked full of storage vessels (photo above)—some of the vessels preserved burnt grains! These storage rooms surrounded a more central room that appeared to be the focal point of social gathering.
Another, later building at Beth-Shemesh was very sturdily built. All of the sherds found in its ruins were from “high end” vessels designed for liquids of various kinds (the example, in photo above, is the remnant of the junction of a chalice stem to bowl). Given the orientation of the building, its more sturdy construction, the character of some of the stones in the interior of the building (designed clearly for some kind of liquid ritual; see photo below), and in view of the exclusive presence of vessels designed for liquids, we inferred that it was some kind of temple.5
As is often the case, the most mundane items can yield tremendously important information if approached with appropriate questions and methods of analysis. This article has only surveyed aspects of information that the study of sherds can yield in our study of ancient civilizations. It is unconscionable now to imagine any excavation casually disregarding the wealth of information that one can derive from these otherwise seemingly worthless remains. Keep on Thinking!
1 One of my archaeological colleagues at Tel Beth-Shemesh—Rachel Lindemann—calculated the data for our sherd collection over the span of four years (2014-2017). During a typical excavation, we collect soil into buckets, place the sherds in another bucket, and then, after having washed the sherds, examine and evaluate them. We divide the sherds into categories as body sherds, rims, bases, handles, and decorated/distinctive sherds. Over the span of those four seasons (usually excavating only about six squares a season) we collected 40,461 buckets of soil weighing a total of about 535,200 pounds (= 267.6 tons!) and 1090 buckets of pottery, which yielded 178,991 sherds (Lindemann).
2 I use these terms only according to their ancient designations; I am not appropriating them in any modern political sense. The term “Canaan” harks back to at least the early second millennium BC, while “Israel” applies to the area after the Exodus until roughly the time of Israel and Judah’s exile (ca. 586 BC). Herodotus, writing during the fifth century BC, provides our earliest record on hand to refer to the area as Palestine (Herodotus, Histories 1.105 et al.).
3 Animal skins (i.e., goat skins) would be much better suited as water containers for easy transport (see for instance, Genesis 21:14-15, 19).
4 This is not to argue that a pottery design always implies a certain ethnicity, but there are times that it may. For at least a cautionary discussion of such equations, see Parr.
5 Every archaeologist who visited the site also concluded that the building was a temple.
Ahituv, Shmuel; Esther Eshel and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Inscriptions.” Pp. 73-142 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Avigad, Nahman. “Samaria (City).” Pp. 1300-10 in New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 4. Ed. E. Stern. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Dever, William G. “Ceramics: Syro-Palestinian Ceramics of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages.” Pp. 459-65 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Drower, Margaret S. “Petrie, William Matthews Flinders.” Pp. 39-40 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol. 3. Ed. D. B. Redford. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001.
Gunneweg, Jan; Isadore Perlman, and Ze’ev Meshel. “The Origin of the Pottery.” Pp. 279-87 in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Horvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Ed. Z. Meshel. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.
Jarus, Owen, “Evidence of 3,000-Year-Old Cinnamon Trade Found in Israel.” Live Science (20 August 2013). https://www.livescience.com/39011-cinnamon-trade-found-in-israel.html
Kelso, James L., and W. F. Albright. “The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Supplementary Studies, no. 5/6 (1948): 1–48.
Lindemann, Rachel. President of Atlatl Archaeology Ltd.; Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Private communication on 9 December 2020.
London, Gloria Anne. “Ceramics: Typology and Technology.” Pp. 450-53 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 1. Ed. E. M. Meyers. New York: Oxford University, 1997.
Manor, Dale W. “Beth-Shemesh.” Pp. 129-39 in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology, vol. 1. Ed. D. M. Master. New York: Oxford University, 2013.
Pardee, Dennis. “The Mesad Hashavyahu (Yavneh Yam) Ostracon (3.41).” Pp. 77-78 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 3. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2003.
Parr, P. J. “Pottery, People and Politics.” Pp. 202-09 in Archaeology in the Levant: Essays for Kathleen Kenyon. Eds. R. Moorey and P. Parr. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1978.
Serpico, Margaret, “The Canaanite Amphorae Project.” Amarna Project (https://www.amarnaproject.com/pages/recent_projects/material_culture/canaanite.shtml)
Suriano, Matthew. “Samaria Ostraca (4.18).” Pp. 81-85 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 4. Ed. K. L. Lawson, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
“Traces of Cinnamon Found in 3,000-Year-Old Vessels.” Archaeology on-line (22 August 2013). https://www.archaeology.org/news/1237-130822-israel-cinnamon-spice-trade
Yadin, Yigael. “Masada.” Pp. 793-816 in Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2. Eds. M. Avi-Yonah and E. Stern. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
TOP PHOTO: Ceramic sherds with multi-colored and elegant designs, which correlate with the area settled by the Philistines in the early Iron Age. (© Dale Manor)