Traditional Palestinian Pottery 2


I'll bet you will never guess what these vessels are used for! Why would you put a handle in the middle of a bowl? Maybe because it's not a handle? Maybe because it is pedestal?

Ok. So why would you put a pedestal inside a bowl? Maybe to support something you wanted to wash . . . like a foot!

That's right. This is a traditional Palestinian footbath.

Think about the task of washing feet in an environment where water is precious. You could get a few washes out of a single bowl here, right?

These vessels are a part of the collection of the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology on the campus of Birzeit University.

Traditional Palestinian Pottery 1

These spouted vessels, water jugs, or ebreeks, used to be standard issue for village life. Note the way in which different potters accomplish the same purpose in a variety of fabrics and shapes. All these closed vessels have long necks with small openings, a spout or nozzle for pouring, loop handles for manipulating, and flat bases for storing.

These jugs are a part of the collection of the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology on the campus of Birzeit University.

Did you ever wonder . . .

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 . . . what a fired ebreek (a traditional Arab water jug) looks like when cut in half? Most folks probably don't. For those who do wonder, well, here you are!

Note the concentric lines that result from the wheel-thrown process. Note how the vessel walls of the body are quite thin, whereas the walls of the neck and the lip of the rim are fairly thick. Note how the color shifts from orange to yellow. Note the slight concavity of the ring base.

The more you look, the more you see!

I found this ebreek section at the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology on the campus of BirZiet University many years ago.

Potshop art, the fireman

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A few days ago I shared one corner of a piece of art crafted by one of our college students. You can see it here. It presented an aspect of a traditional potter's workshop: the settlement basins.

In another corner of the same work we find a cutaway of the potter's kiln. It shows the potter loading (or unloading) the oven through the manhole on top. Someone must be inside, stacking or unstacking the vessels.  Note the opening at the bottom of the kiln. This opens into the firebox, a seperate compartment.

This imaginative scene is based on our visits with the potters of Aqabat Jeber, Palestine.

Potshop art, the throwing room


A few days ago I shared one corner of a piece of art crafted by one of our college students. You can see it here. It presented an aspect of a traditional potter's workshop: the settlement basins.

In another corner of the same work we find a cutaway of the potter's shack. Behind the wall stands a potter at a table. What is he doing? Smoothing a rim? Attaching a loop handle? Applying a slip? Maybe he is marking the vessels with his own potmark or seal?

A variety of jars stand on the cement porch outside. When they are bone-dry they will be taken to the kiln and fired.

But don't look too far left. We'll show you the kilns another day!

This imaginative scene is based on our visits with the potters of Aqabat Jeber, Palestine.

Potshop art, settlement basins


Even after three decades of classroom teaching I find myself amazed by the talents and creativity of our college students. One young lady took on the challenge of illustrating aspects of traditional potmaking in Palestine. Using photographs like the ones recently shared here in our POTD, she began to paint. We talked, she imagined, she painted some more. In the end she presented me with a marvelous piece of art that has hung in my office for many years.

Here is one detail of her work showing a potter mixing clay slurry. Three basins in a series are pictured. These basins look like those of Abu Ali and Azmi in Aqabat Jeber (cf. here). To the right of the basins are piles of raw clay dug from the mountainside (cf. here). Towards the left is a hoe for moving and mixing sediment and sand. 

She is a terrific artist, don't you think?

One last ride

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The family loads the finished ceramic vessels for the market. With imagination (and a review of our previous POTDs!), one can visualize the production process. Just behind the truck and to the left are piles of raw clay dug from the mountain. Beyond and to the right of the truck is a settlement basin and the workshop. Just behind the car is a kiln. Apart from the electric motor used to the spin the wheel, the truck used to transport the clay to the production center, and the truck used to transport the finished product to market, every aspect of pottery production is accomplished by human muscle and simple tools. It is a labor intensive enterprise, to say the least.

Envisioning how this process looked in the biblical period is the challenge. Obviously, some things have changed, but many are exactly the same.

This production facility is located just outside al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine.

Packing for the market

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These fired vessels have been pulled from Abu-Ahmed's kiln. They were sorted by type and are now being packed for their journey to the market. 

Note the beautiful scenery in the heart of Palestine. Not far from here are the ruins of Samaria (Heb. Shomron), a capital of some powerful kings of the Bible known as the Omrides.

Tire soot

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Here is another view to Abu Ali's ceramic kiln in Aqabat Jeber. The firebox is visible enough, the dark hole in the center of the photograph. Soot from tires used as fuel has collected on the stoney face of the kiln. On either side of the opening are the metal bands from the tire remains pulled from the firebox. 

Ceramics are top-loaded through a hole not visible in this shot.

The young man stands on a platform used as a staging area for pots. Compare this view with the image posted here.  The building behind him is the potter's workshop.

Aqabat Jeber is a Palestinian refugee camp located some three kilometers from Jericho. At one time, the population of this camp totaled 30,000 persons. Water shortages, electrical problems, and sewage issues complicate life on this sweltering plain.

Production casualties

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The debris surround a kiln is not limited to ash and firebox residues (as seen here). Even after the hard work of preparing the clay, shaping the forms, drying them, and loading and firing the kiln, thing can go wrong. In the heat of the furnace, vessels can shatter, slump, burn, or warp. Once fired, these "wasters" cannot be reshaped. The potter must wait for the kiln to cool, removed the casualties, and pitch them outside.  It is possible that this debris could be ground up into bits (or "grog") and mixed into a future clay batch. Tiny inclusions of fired pottery can enrich fresh clay and help it expand and contract. They may even prevent some form down the line from suffering the same fate.

Note the deformed ebreek in the center of the shot. It also looks like a plastic successor of this traditional liquid container has found its way into the rubbish pile as well. These too can be recycled in a conscientious world!

This pile of wasters accumulated outside of Abu Ali's kiln in Aqabat Jeber. 

Daniel's fiery furnace?

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Ceramics are fired for several hours inside this kiln near al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine. The fuel used in the yard is wood, although in this case, there is a feeder line that drips oil too. To raise the temperature inside the firebox, an electric fan acts as a bellows and forces air to the flame. By just looking at this picture, it is difficult to imagine the heat. It was hot on my face just taking the picture.

I'm suddenly reminded of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego.

For the word-mongers among us, the term used throughout Daniel 3 is the Aramaic attun, translated as "furnace." It is likely a loan-word from a Mesopotamian dictionary. The Greek kaminas (used in the LXX) is more fully attested. It is used to describe an oven for baking lime, smelting metal, or --are you ready for this -- a kiln for firing pottery!* Greek readers may have pictured a ceramic kiln as they read Daniel 3 (now go back and peer with imagination into the "manhole" pictured on top of the kiln here or here)!

"So the men were bound . . . and they were thrown in the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king's command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men . . . fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire" (Daniel 3:21-23).

*Agathocles is described as a "potter and furnace-man" in Diodorus Siculus (Library of History 20.63, see link here for English translation).

Kiln debris

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Abu Ali's grandson sets unfinished vessels in the sun to dry. Around him is potential fuel and fuel debris from his family kiln (which is just beyond and around the corner). To the left are tires waiting for the fire. In the distance are piles of unburnable metal cords that have been pulled from the firebox. I did not see this kiln fired, nor would I want to. The smoke would be awful. Sadly, for those who live in lean places, environmental concerns take a back seat to the more pressing challenges of subsistence.

This family business is located in a Palestinian camp just outside Jericho.

Fired up!


Driving through the Judean Hills near Hebron (al-Khalil), Palestine, I pass a ceramic kiln in operation. Black smoke chugs out the top. Good eyes will pick up the vessels standing on the driveway and the operator tending the fire. From the look of it, this is new operation. The kiln is unsullied and what may be a future workshop is being constructed nearby. 

Pottery production has always been a dirty business. For this reason, installations seem to be located near, but not in the middle of urban areas. This may explain why finding ancient ancient kilns is a rare occurrence. Of course, there are exceptions . . . 


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So you have a ceramic kiln. You have thrown all your pottery and loaded it into the kiln. How do you fire this furnace up? What do you use for fuel? 

We found one answer to this question while visiting a potter's home near the site of Samaria in Palestine. This fellow fired his kiln using free fuel that was readily available: sheep/goat dung! The white bags stacked behind my friend Nael are full of dried dung pellets. Arabs call it zibble (a good word to throw around at a dinner party). These have been stacked in a room adjacent to the kiln. You can see the firebox to the right of the image. A shovel rests against the wall at the ready when the time comes.

Animal product that have been used as fuel for as long as anybody can remember. It is a "green" alternative, right?

Note: archaeological research has discovered other "natural fuels" used in kilns. A lime-kiln from late antiquity found in Italy was fired with olive pits and almond shells, in addition to firewood. See link here.

Qumran kiln

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One (and possibly two) ceramic kilns were recovered at Khirbet Qumran, Palestine. The mysterious community often associated with the production of the Dead Scrolls (in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ) produced other things as well. A pottery production area is found on the southeastern (and downwind) side of the site. It is tempting to think that the jars used to hold the famous scrolls were thrown and fired here.* In fact, the case has been built that Qumran was not a "scroll factory" at all, but a "ceramic factory." This is not a new idea, but a part of the ongoing debate to unpack these odd ruins. See the views expressed in The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates (Brill, 2006) or the earlier work The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002) by Jodi Magness.

The cylindrical shape of the kiln is visible in this shot, as is the firebox door located at ground level.

*NAA suggests that some of the vessels from Qumran have local clay "fingerprints." Others were made from clay brought down from the Jerusalem area.


Top o' the kiln, to ya laddies!

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The other day I offered you a shot through this ceramic kiln "manhole" (see here). Through it, the brick walls and firebox were visible. Here we see this same manhole, albeit with a topside context. Note the large "collared" opening through which the kiln is loaded. A person can slip into the hole, the vessels to be dried handed down and stacked. When full, a circular sheet of is metal used to close the opening. You can see it just beyond the "manhole." Finally, note a second vent that can be dampered or opened to help hold or release heat.

This kiln is located in Aqabat Jeber, just outside of Jericho, Palestine.

Down the hatch

As you peer straight down into Abu Ali's ceramic kiln you see the firebox at the bottom. The view is deceptive. The distance between the "manhole" at the top of the kiln (where I'm standing) and perforated firebox is about six feet. Bone-dry vessels to be fired are carefully lowered through this hole and stacked inside. Note the few "melted" ceramic fragments on the bottom. A metal lid will seal the "manhole" when the the firing begins. The fire will be controlled through the firebox door on the side.

This traditional installation is located in the refugee camp at Aqabat Jeber, just outside of Jericho, Palestine.

A Byz blaze

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Last week I posted a couple of shots to a contemporary ceramic kiln under construction in Palestinian village near the ruins of Samaria (see here and here). While this image lacks the larger context of those, it does show the the fragments of ceramic kiln firebox from the Late Roman period. Note the perforations in the firebox wall (each is maybe 5 inches in diameter) that allowed the heat to migrate into the oven. Design-wise, little has changed in two thousand years of technology. This installation is constructed according to a classic "hill-climbing" style that adds to the kiln's draw by taking advantage of the slope.

This structure was located in the steep wall of a wadi near of Tel Abil (Abila), Jordan. Most of the kiln had eroded downslope. However, the curve of the outer kiln wall was quite distinct as was a portion of the firebox. And just for fun, there were bucketfuls of fired and unfired sherds scattered in, around, and downslope from the kiln. Most of these appeared to be "combed Byzantine bods" if you are into that sort of thing.

Shout out to Abila excavator Bob Smith for showing this to me!