Handling, carefully

Abu Ali adds the last piece to these ibreeks. Strap handles join the neck and base and make it easier to carry these vessels. Note the stack of handles on the board. For the potter, adding accessories like spouts and handles is all about timing. These jugs are freshly thrown and are still quite soft and pliable. They can still be deformed if not carefully handled (get it? HA!). 

When Abu Ali has built enough inventory to fill the kiln, he'll fire it up. In the meantime, these ibreeks will slowly dry in a cool dark room.

Abu Ali's home industry is located in a refugee camp outside of Jericho.

In formation

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Abu Ali created this set of drinking vessels in a single morning, but there is still work to do. After throwing the body and neck pieces separately, he assembled them on the wheel. Then he placed them here on a shelf in a cool dark room. His son, Azmi, attached a third wheel-thrown piece, the spout, over a small hole in the body (that he pierced with a wire). Now these ibreeks lack just one more piece. As I take this photograph, Abu Ali is pulling the clay to make strap handles.

Tab A goes in Slot B

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When Abu Ali throws thirty or forty vessels at a time, he does so in pieces. On the table are bodies (far right) and necks (center). These parts were thrown independently and stacked near his wheel. The task now is to assemble these two parts on the while the clay is still wet. Necks go on the bodies, the seam is smoothed, and the final shaping of the neck and rim is initiated. 

Abu Ali works out of his home workshop in a Palestinian refugee camp near Jericho. 

Ethnographic correction

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When I was working on a PhD dissertation dealing with the ceramics of ancient Israel/Palestine, I came across an academic article where the author questioned if potters could throw open vessels greater than 50 centimeters in diameter. 

Of course, these kinds of arguments are often constructed in the comfort of one's own office.

Shortly after reading this piece, I visited the potters of al-Khalil (Hebron) and watched them throw vessels approaching twice that size.

Takeaway? Book work is good, but ethnographic experience should not be overlooked!

In charge of the large

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The potters of al-Khalil (Hebron) are as skilled as any I've ever seen. Not only do they throw the delicate stuff, but they spin the clay to unbelievably large shapes. The traditional closed earthenware water jars of Palestine can stand 70 cms or more. The strength required to manipulate this kind of vessel on a wheel is amazing. 

It takes a fine touch

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Abu Ali uses a fine touch to shape a clay body on a fast wheel. While it is difficult to know at this stage of the game what the final shape of the vessel will be, I know from the row of other forms he's thrown today that this will become a ibreek. An ibreek is a spouted water-jar known in the Heartland for its ability to "sweat" and thus keep the water cool on the inside.

We used ibreeks as canteens regularly while digging in the country of Jordan.

Abu Ali's workshop is located in a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Jericho.

Already impressive

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After our interviews with the older members of the family, this young man sits down and demonstrates that he can throw too. He works off the top of a single column of clay, centered and spinning on an electric wheel. In less than a minute he shapes a tiny vessel, perfectly proportioned, lops it off with a wire, and hands it to me for examination. His skill as a craftsman is already impressive.

This production center is located in al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine.

Rotational power

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Hunks of kneaded clay may be shaped into vessels using a variety of methods. Three methods known in antiquity are hand-shaped (or coil-built, remember rolling clay "snakes" as a kid?), mold-made (clay is pressed into a mold, then removed), or wheel-thrown (seen here). Of the three methods, wheel-thrown methods present the most elegant forms. 

Here, traditional Palestinian potters transform lines of rolled clay "blanks" into elaborate symmetrical vessels. Their wheels are powered by electric motors. Of course, in biblical times, the wheel was kicked by the potter to generate the necessary speed. Weighted flywheels helped maintain that speed.

As anyone who has seen this kind a magical artestry at work will tell you, it is mesmerizing to watch.


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Abu Ahmed brings in a small amount of prepared clay from the courtyard. He works it in preparation for the wheel in an activity that potters call "wedging." The clay is rolled, folded, and rolled repeatedly on the low table. He seeks to make the lump homogeneous, to remove any large inclusions, and to pound out air bubbles. His tactic appears to be a modified "spiral wedging" as a way to prepare a larger amount of clay in a single effort.

This is much harder than it looks, both in terms of raw effort and technical skill. Abu Ahmed stands at the table, high above the clay and presses down on it, using his entire upper body to gain the leverage he needs. 

"Go down to the potter's house" (Jer 18:1)

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Yesterday, I posted a shot of a young boy with clay outside a traditional ceramic workshop in Palestine (see here). The day before (here), we saw the "clay bunker" with a corrugated steel cover (on the left in this image). This shot of the courtyard and front door of the shop brings these pieces together. This is a "village" or "household industry" in rural Palestine. Tomorrow I'll take you inside and detail some of the process of "throwing" ceramic vessels.

The process has changed little in thousands of years.

Undercover material

This young man demonstrates for us the quality of the clay that has been retrieved from the yard reservoir at his home in Jeba, Palestine. That clay already represents an amazing amount of work (See the post here to remember the start of the journey.). Today his grandfather will work it soft with his hands and throw it on the wheel. 

In the meantime, it will be covered and protected from the sun and blowing debris.

Clay bunker

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With less resources than the production center of Hebron, the traditional potters of Jeba, Palestine, store their prepared clay in a small reservoir in the courtyard. A cover of corrugated steel helps protect the clay from the sun and keep it moist until it is ready for use. The reservoir is constructed of cut stone and measures about 1.5 by 1.5 meters in size.

Damp storage

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The transformation of crumbly sediments dug out the Judean Ridge into workable clay is a tedious process. In traditional workshops the effort is nearly all done by hand. This clay has been excavated, transported, sifted, cleaned, soaked, mixed, and partially dried in basins under the sun (see previous post here). At last it is it shoveled out of the basins and, in the case of one al-Khalil (Hebron) shop, wheelbarrowed to the basement of a nearby building. Now it is covered in plastic and kept cool and damp until the potter calls for it.

Cooked and ready to go!

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The clay-slurry sits in the sun so that evaporation may run its course. In these basins (compare to the image here) the clay is now ready. It will be scraped up and hauled inside. It will be kept cool and moist until the time comes for the potter to turn it into ceramic vessels.

These basins are part of a ceramic production center found in al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine.

Note the litter of potsherds at the bottom of the image.

Settling in Hebron

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Just as Azmi and Abu Ali prepare clay in open basins outside of their potshop in Aqabat Jebar, Palestine, so too the potters of al-Khalil (Hebron) go about their work. This image illustrates the effort to screen the clay slurry to remove debris and transfer it for settling. Unlike the potters of Aqabat Jebar who use basins constructed from a variety of scrap materials (rocks, car fenders, etc.), these potters of el-Khalil have a more permanent--even industrial-grade--installation.

Dirty jobs

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In this second settlement basin, additives are mixed with the clay-water slurry. Azmi adds more sand. He stirs it in carefully, seeking an even mix.

This work of clay preparation is both laborious and ancient. As I watch it I am reminded of a humorous piece of literature as old as father Abraham. Somewhere in the midst of Middle Kingdom Egypt (2000-1700 BC) a scribe named Dua-Khety ridiculed a variety of "blue collar" jobs in a piece known as The Satire on the Trades. Among those spoofed is the potter: 

"The potter is covered with earth, although his lifetime is still among the living. He burrows in the field like a pig to bake his cooking vessels. His clothes are stiff with mud . . ." 

White collar types can sure be an arrogant lot. Where's Mike Rowe when you need him?

(For more on the Satire, see here.)


Let 'er run!

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With the basin sealed and lined in sand, Azmi pulls the stone that blocks the channel between the first basin and the second. The thin slurry of water and suspended clay floods the prepared area. In this large basin the process of cleaning and mixing the clay will continue. The sun will contribute to the process by removing the water. Depending on the purpose of the job, other ingredients may be added to the soupy mix.

This traditional Palestinian potter's workshop is located in the refugee camp of Aqabat Jebar, south of Jericho.

A multi-generational project

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In the process of preparing clay for use in a traditional workshop, Amzi's boys help him prepare the basin for receiving a slurry of water and suspended clay. The surface of the basin is covered with sand to keep the sticky clay from adhering to the basin itself. Note how the boy on the left uses a box with a screen to sift the sand and help remove unwanted bits of rock and other debris from the sand.

Note also the chute at the end of the basin. Beyond it is a smaller basin where crumbly clay is already soaking in water.

Amzi and his boys live in Aqabat Jebar, a refugee camp near Jericho.

Preparing clay

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The investment of labor required to transform clay dug from the ground into a workable "plastic" medium is significant.

We see this by observing local Palestinian potters who keep the "ancient craft" alive.

In this image, Amzi (the son of Abu Ali who is pictured here) prepares one of several settlement basins beside the family shop in Aqabat Jebar (a refugee camp south of Jericho). He lines the basin with a layer of fine-grained sand. The particles will keep the clay from sticking to the bottom of the basin when it is mixed with water and allowed to settle.