Ancient Egyptian pottery includes all objects of fired clay from ancient Egypt. First and foremost, ceramics served as household wares for the storage, preparation, transport, and consumption of food, drink, and raw materials. Such items include beer and wine mugs and water jugs, but also bread molds, fire pits, lamps, and stands for holding round vessels, which were all commonly used in the Egyptian household. Other types of pottery served ritual purposes. Ceramics are often found as grave goods.
Specialists in ancient Egyptian pottery draw a fundamental distinction between ceramics made of Nile clay and those made of marl clay, based on chemical and mineralogical composition and ceramic properties. Nile clay is the result of eroded material in the Ethiopian mountains, which was transported into Egypt by the Nile. This clay has deposited on the banks of the Nile in Egypt since the Late Pleistocene by the inundation. Marl clay is a yellow-white stone which occurs in limestone deposits. These deposits were created in the Pleistocene, when the primordial waters of the Nile and its tributaries brought sediment into Egypt and deposited in on what was then the desert edge.
Our understanding of the nature and organisation of ancient Egyptian pottery manufacture is based on tomb paintings, models, and archaeological remains of pottery workshops. A characteristic of the development of Egyptian ceramics is that the new methods of production which were developed over time never entirely replaced older methods, but expanded the repertoire instead, so that eventually, each group of objects had its own manufacturing technique. Egyptian potters employed a wide variety of decoration techniques and motifs, most of which are associated with specific periods of time, such as the creation of unusual shapes, decoration with incisions, various different firing processes, and painting techniques.
Understanding of the raw material is essential for understanding the development, production, and typology of Egyptian ceramics. In Egyptian archaeology the distinction between Nile clay and marl clay is fundamental. Mixtures of the two types of clay can be seen as a third group.
Nile clay is the result of eroded material in the Ethiopian mountains, which was transported into Egypt by the Nile. This clay has deposited on the banks of the Nile in Egypt since the Late Pleistocene by the inundation. As a result, deposits can be found far from the modern floodplain as well as within the level covered by the flood in modern times. Chemically, the clay is characterised by high silicum content and a high level of Iron oxide. Mineralogically, it is micacaeous, illite-rich sediment clay, containing many different sand and stone particles brought from the various contexts through which the Nile flows. The clay turns a red or brown colour when it is fired in an oxygen-rich oven. When unfired, it varies in colour from grey to nearly black.
The marl clay (or 'desert clay') is found along the Nile valley, from Esna to Cairo, in the Oases and at the edges of the Nile Delta. It is a yellow-white stone, which is found in limestone deposits. The deposits were created in the Pleistocene, when the original Nile river and its tributaries deposited this clay in what had previously been desert. Marl clay includes a range of kinds of clay based on their base substance. In general, they have a lower percentage of silicum and significantly higher calcium content. The most important sub-types of marl clay are:
Marl clay is normally cream or white in colour when it is fired in an oxygen-rich oven. Cuts can reveal pink or orange areas. It is rich in mineral salts, so the outer surface often has a thin layer of weathered salt which forms a white surface layer when fired, which can be mistake for a 'glaze' by the unwary. At higher firing temperature (c. 1000 °C), this layer becomes olive-green and resembles a green glaze.
Dry, clay-filled Nile mud, in an area near Karima which is inundated annually.
The selection of material was based on local conditions and the function of the object being manufactured. Nile clay was principally used for household crockery and containers, as well as ceramics for ritual use. Marl clay was principally used for storage and prestige objects like figural vessels.
There is little precise information on how and where Egyptian potters got their raw material, how clay pits were run, how it was transported and how it was assigned to individual potters. In general, it seems that the clay came from three different places: the shore of the Nile or irrigation canals, the desert near the fields, and the hills of the desert itself. A depiction in the tomb of Rekhmire (TT100) shows workers in the process of building up pile of Nile mud with hoes in order to make mudbricks. Clay for pottery production might have been gathered in a similar way. The scene also shows that Nile clay did not absolutely have to be taken from the fields. Piles of Nile clay were built up in the process of digging irrigation canals - as still happens today.
Egyptian tomb paintings often show the preparation of the clay. There are also models which provide some other details. Clear archaeological remains of pottery workships, however, are rare. It is possible that they were very ephemeral structures.
Clay which is exposed to air, dries very quickly. As a result, clay often reached the potter as dry, stony clumps (especially the marl clay from the desert) which first had to be cleaned and mixed with water in order to make it possible to shape it. The raw clay was also dried and crushed in order to remove any large impurities, like stones, by passing it through a sieve. Another possibility was the elutriation of the clay by repeatedly immersing hard clay pellets in water and skimming the fine clay off the top. There is no evidence for such a process in the pottery workshop in Ayn Asil (Dachla), but there is some possible evidence at Hieraconpolis. This elutriation would have to have been carried out in one or more pits or watering holes. Even before these finds, the depictions of potters in the tomb of Kenamun (TT93) had been interpreted as depicting elutriation in a watering hole. At least for the clay used in Meidum-ware in the Old Kingdom and the remarkably homogeneous Nile clay used from the beginning of the 18th dynasty, some kind of refining technology must have been used.
Standard images show one or two men involved in preparing the clay, once they had softened it, by treading it with their feet in order to turn it into a malleable mass. At this stage, the clay might be supplemented with temper, if it was decided that it did not already contain sufficient fine impurities, like sand. It was important that these not be too big or sharp, "excessively large temper can make the walls of pottery vessels unstable, since the clay will not be able to mesh together properly. Sharp particles, like stones, could hurt the potter when kneading the clay and forming the vessels and prevent the creation of a smooth surface." Through the addition of balanced temper, the clay could be made "more malleable and stable during production, and also more porous, which made it easier to dry, bake, and use the finished vessel."
After the clay had been mixed with water it would be full of air bubbles. To prevent cracking during the firing process, the clay had to be kneaded. In this process, two halves of a lump of clay were beaten against one another with significant force. In the tomb paintings, a worker in a bent position is shown working the clay with his hands before handing the kneaded balls directly over to the potter.
There were five different techniques for shaping clay in ancient Egypt:
Characteristic of the development of ceramics is that, although new methods were developed over time, they never entirely replaced older ones. Rather, they expanded the repertoire, so that at the high point in the history of Egyptian pottery, each type of object had its own manufacturing technique.
Free modelling by kneading and pulling at the clay with the hands is the oldest and most enduring technique for shaping clay. It was employed for all vessels in the Faiyum A culture, in the Merimde culture, and probably also in the Badari culture. In the Old Kingdom, it was used for the most important types and it was used for figures and models in all periods. The resulting product had thick walls. The technique is recognisable by pressure marks where individual bits of clay have been pressed together.
In the weaving technique, flat rectangular pieces of clay were woven together. The technique can be recognised by the fact that the broken vessels tend to form rectangular sherds. The technique seems to have come into widespread use in early Egypt, from the time when larger pottery vessels began to be made at the latest. Throughout the whole Pharaonic period and down to Roman times, large basins and tubs were made using this technique.
During the Chalcolithic, the rotating pilaster came into use for the manufacture of ceramics. This may have arisen from the desire to make the body and especially the opening of the vessel being made symmetrical. The technique can be clearly recognised from a horizontal rotation mark in the opening of the vessel. Unlike the potter's wheel, there was no fixed axis around which rotations were centred.
The pilaster used in this technique could by a bowl, plate, basket, mat, textile, or even a pottery sherd. This pilaster was rotated along with the vessel, as the potter shaped it. The rotation technique was used only for the creation of the vessel's shell. The earlier techniques were also used for other parts of the manufacturing process. Thus, on finished vessels, traces of free modelling are found, especially in the lower parts, but the edges were turned after the completion of the whole vessel.
According to Dorothea Arnold, the slow potter's wheel was invented some time during the Fourth dynasty. Eva Christiana Köhler has subsequently argued that this should be corrected to a substantially earlier period, "the invention of the potter's wheel is a development which generally accompanied a certain form of mass-production. It enabled standardisation and the rapid production of finished vessels." According to her, this development can clearly be traced back to the mass-produced conical bowls of the Mesopotamian Uruk culture at Habuba Kabira.
In production, first, a large clay cone was shaped on the disc. The peak of the cone was the actual point of rotation, around which the bowl was to be formed. It was then sliced off with a wire or a cord. The resulting bowls had a relatively thick wall near the base and marks from rotation and pulling on the underside of the base. Christiana Köhler detected such marks on vessels of the predynastic period, which makes it fairly likely that the slow potter's wheel was in use in this period.
Creation of potter with a potter's wheel in Indonesia (c. 1930)
It is assumed that baking pans for conical bread were made with the help of a mold. It is possible that they were shaped around a conical wooden core, which had the shape of the conical bread which would eventually be baked in the pans.
Manufacture on the fast potter's wheel, operated by an assistant or the foot of the potter was a relatively late development, which took place in the New Kingdom at the earliest. The earliest depiction comes from the Tomb of Kenamun from the middle of the Eighteenth dynasty, in which an assistant grips the wheel and thereby helps the potter to use the wheel, while the potter himself uses his foot to stabilise it.
The shaped vessel first had to be dried enough that the walls would be stable for further work. The clay was brought to roughly the consistency of leather, remaining damp enough that it could still be moulded and shaped. At this point paint, glaze and slip could be added if desired. After further drying the vessel was polished. There were two techniques for polishing the vessel's surface:
At this stage, impressions or incisions could also be made in the clay, "when the clay was still damp enough that it would not break in the process, but was dry enough that no raised areas would be left in the incisions." This was done with various tools, including bone or wooden nails, combs made from bone or shellfish, and flint knives.
After an initial drying phase, the round base was finished. This was done by hand until the seventeenth dynasty, using a flat tool to cut and smooth the base. A foot was also cut by hand, or molded from an additional lump of clay. After the beginning of the seventeenth dynasty, the foot was instead made on the potter's wheel from the mass of clay used for the creation of the base of the vessel. At this point, bases and stands increasingly have rotation marks on the outside.
In the drying process, the vessel had to be kept under controlled conditions, such that all parts of the vessel dried equally and no shrinking took place. In this process, a lot of water had to evaporate, since the remaining water would boil at the beginning of the firing process, "which led the water vapour to expand in volume, leading to explosions if it could not escape.
The vessel was left to dry in direct sunlight when the light was weak, in the shade when it was strong, or in a closed room when it was raining or cold. The drying process could take several days, depending on the humidity, the size, wall-thickness, and porosity of the vessel. Even when drying was complete, vessels remained between 3-5% saturated with water, which was only expelled during the firing process.
In order for the transformation of the clay into this final and moisture-less form, it must be heated to a temperature of 550-600 °C. Before this, at around 100 °C, residual moisture escapes into the air and at 300 °C the chemically-bonded water of crystallization also escapes. The supply of oxygen during the firing process is critical, since it is used up as the fuel is burnt. If more is not supplied (e.g. through a vent), an atmosphere rich in carbon monoxide or free carbon will develop and it will create a black or brown-black Iron(II) oxide, which gives the fired pottery a grey or dark brown colour. This is called a reducing firing. In an oxidating firing by contrast, a continuous supply of oxygen is maintained. The iron in the clay absorbs oxygen and becomes the red or red-brown Iron(III) oxide. The resulting pottery has a red-brown colour.
The simplest and earliest firing method is the open fire. The vessel to be fired is covered and filled with flammable material. It is placed on the a flat piece of ground, surrounded by a low wall, or put in a pit. During the firing process, the potter has relatively little control. The vessel is in direct contact with the flames and the fuel, which heats quickly and then cools down again quickly.
Optimisation of the firing process became possible once the pottery was placed inside a chamber with a vent and separated from the fuel of the fire, i.e. a kiln. This technological leap was made in the early Old Kingdom at the latest, but possibly in the early dynastic or late predynastic period.
The simplest form of a kiln was a shaft with no separation of the area where the fuel was burnt from the chamber where the ceramics were placed. This could be loaded through a shaft and then set on fire through an opening on the ground. This opening enabled a continuous supply of oxygen, which could be used to create an oxidising atmosphere. The oven now had to reach a set firing temperature in order to heat the clay in the firing chamber. As a result, the fire lasted longer and burnt more consistently.
The next technological advance was the introduction of a grating, which separated the fuel from the pottery being fired. This prevented smoky flames and carbonised fuel from coming in contact with the ceramics and leaving flecks and smudges on it. The vessels being fired were placed in the upper part, with the opening underneath. The hot air rose up to the vessels and circulated around them, indirectly firing the clay. Shaft ovens of this type, with a grating, are attested in Egyptian art and by archaeology from the Old Kingdom onwards.
Egyptian potters employed a broad range of decorative techniques and motifs, many of which are characteristic of specific periods. There are three points in the manufacturing process in which decoration could be added: before, during, or after the firing process.
Since the predynastic period, potters added decorative elements in the molding stage, creating unusual shapes or imitating other materials, like basketwork, metal, wood or stone. The majority of the 'fancy features' were created during the process of shaping the vessel and smoothing its surfaces, long before it was fired. The elements were either shaped from a piece of clay by hand or impressed into the clay while it was still malleable - often causing fingerprints to be left on the inside of the vessel. In figural vessels, these were often parts of a human or animal body, or the face of the god Bes or the goddess Hathor. It was also common to cut out parts of the vessel in order to imitate another type of material.
Pots fired in a firing pit often have a black upper rim. These black rims were increasingly a decorative feature, which required technical knowledge to produce consistently. In combination with a dark-red colour and polish, this black-topped ware was one of the most fashionable and popular types of pottery. The black colour was a result of carbonisation, created by the introduction of smoke particles to the oven during the firing process for example. Some aspects of this special process are still unclear.
Painted decoration could be added with a brush before or after firing. For specific patters, paint might be sprayed on the surface of a vessel, or it might be dipped in the paint. There are eight major types of painted pottery from ancient Egypt:
In Egyptology, the term 'pottery' is used to refer to all non-figural objects made from fired clay. The majority of pottery vessels surely served as household wares and were used for the storage, preparation, transport and consumption of food and other raw materials. In addition to this, there were other objects frequently used in the household, like bread moulds, fireboxes, lamps and stands for vessels with round bases. Other types of pottery served ritual purposes. Sometimes water pipes were constructed from amphorae laid back-to-back, but actual ceramic water pipes were only introduced in the Roman period. Musical instruments, like rattles, could also be made from ceramics, in the form of bottles filled with pebbles and then sealed before being fired.
Evidence for the function of individual pottery types is given by depictions in tombs, textual descriptions, their shape and design, remains of their contents, and the archaeological context in which they are found. In tombs, pottery is often only sketched out schematically. Nevertheless, in some cases it is possible to identify the function of a vessel based on depictions in tombs. Examples include bread molds, spinning weights, and beer jugs. The shapes of beer jugs make it possible to link them with scenes of beer manufacture, such as the Mastaba of Ti: they are ovoid, round-bodied bottles, often with weakly defined lips, which are generally roughly shaped and are made of clay with a lot of organic matter mixed in.
Inscriptions giving the contents of the vessel are not unusual in the New Kingdom. As a result, wine jugs and fish kettles can be identified, although wine jugs were also used for other raw materials, like oil and honey. One of the largest finds of inscribed wine vessels came from the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62). The inscriptions on the 26 inscribed wine jugs provide more information about the wine they contain than most modern wine labels. The year of the lees was recorded in the king's regnal years. The quality, the origin of the grapes, the owner of the winery, and the name of the vintner who was responsible for the actual product were all recorded. (See also Wine in ancient Egypt).
The vessels themselves provide evidence for their purpose, for example by the type of clay used, the treatment of the outer surface, and the shape of the vessel. Among the significant factors, is whether porosity was desirable or not. Thus, in modern water jugs like zirs and gullas, the water seeps through the walls, so that the contents can be cooled through evaporation. This effect can be best achieved with a bright clay or coating. Thus, Christiana Köhler in her study of the Early dynastic pottery from Buto was able to identify bottles or jugs with a white coating or light, large-grained marl clay, as water containers. An opposite effect could be created with a dark overcoat. By this, the pores of the outer surface were filled and the walls of the vessel were made impermeable to liquids. This made a vessel low-maintenance and hygienic, since no low-grade food residue would sick to the walls of the vessel. This can be seen, since no drink and food trays and plates can be detected.
The place of the ceramic industry in the wider social and economic context of ancient Egyptian society has been treated only cursorily in research to date.
Tomb decorations and pottery models provide only a few pieces of evidence for the context of pottery production. Depictions from the Old Kingdom are closely linked with brewery and bakery scenes (although these are also depicted separately at times). This indicates that pottery production was an independent part of food production. However, the inhabitants of tombs desired food and drink in the afterlife, not empty vessels.
Models of pottery workshops from the First Intermediate period and the Middle Kingdom give only a little indication of where the production took place. In all cases they are depicted in the open air - sometimes in a courtyard. More information is offered by the Middle Kingdom scenes in the tombs at Beni Hasan. Here pottery production is shown taking place alongside other crafts, like carpentry, metal-working, textile production, and the manufacturing of stone vases - and much less frequently with food production. This trend continues in the only depictions we have from the New Kingdom, in the tomb of Kenamun in Thebes.
The models only ever show one or two men at work, which might indicate that production was carried out on a small scale. In almost all depictions, the works are male. There are a few examples from the Old Kingdom of women participating in the production process, e.g. helping to load the kiln. Little is known about the individual workers, but they were surely of low social status. That they were not part of higher society is also indicated by the absence of epigraphic evidence for this vocation. This is also illustrated by the Satire of the Occupations:
The potter is beneath the earth,
although his lifetime is beneath the living.
He rummages in the mud more than pigs,
in order to burn his pots.
His loincloth is stiff from the clay,
his belt is a rag.
The air in his nose,
actually(?) comes from his kiln.— Satire of the Trades
On the other hand, pottery production had an important place in Egyptian culture. As part of everyday life it belonged to a level where perfection did not matter. From that point of view it was less about social stratification than about a stratification of the value which people attach to things. It would therefore be wrong to say that Egyptian potters were despised. There was a strong sense that the process was a creative one. Thus, the word for 'potter' (qd) is the same one used for 'building' walls and structures. Even the activities of creator gods were depicted using the image of the potter. The ram-headed creator god Khnum was shown creating gods, men, animals and plants on the potter's wheel. This suggests high esteem for ceramic production.
Stephan Seidlmayer investigated the social and organisational circumstances of pottery production in the transitional period from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom, asking how the archaeological evidence can be connected to the image of the historical situation which we have built up from other sources. He concludes that the economic situation in the Old Kingdom favoured a centralised, standardised, and specialised production in great quantities, using complicated procedures. The organisational capacity of the state enabled focused production with high-quality pottery suitable for storage and transport in the context of the extensive distribution of goods by a centralised system. In the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate period, the centralised system deteriorated. It was replaced by decentralised production in small quantities for the circulation of goods within relatively small areas. In order to achieve high output, it was necessary to compromise on the quality of the wares. The profound transformation of the archaeological material indicates the extent of the social transformation which affected the whole cultural system at this time.
E. Christiana Köhler has shown that non-industrial system of pottery production, based in individual households, developed in late predynastic Buto in particular, as a result of the unfavourable climatic conditions of the Nile delta. At the same time, specialisation can already be seen in pottery production in the late Naqada I and early Naqada II cultures in Upper Egypt, where the typical pottery found in settlements is a simple, tempered, weak Nile-clay pottery (Rough ware). However, the typical red ware for cemeteries, the Red-polished and Black-topped ware, was made entirely differently: "whereas the rough ware of the settlements was fired at only c. 500-800 °C, temperatures of up to 1000 °C were used for the red wares." Although the red ware had a fine-grained, thick fabric, it was only occasionally tempered and it required a controlled firing process. This situation suggests that two different systems of manufacture already existed: a professional, specialised industry making funerary pottery and household production of rough wares.
The environment of Upper Egypt seems to have been more conducive to specialised pottery production. In densely settled areas like Hierakonpolis and Naqada, there was also heavy demand for pottery. "In the course of Naqada II, a society developed in Upper Egypt which placed significant value in their burials and the grave goods that they included in them, so that the demand for high-value pottery quickly increased." Only for funerary pottery does there seem to have been any demand for professional pottery, since the fine wares are regularly found in graves and very rarely in settlement contexts.
The best archaeological evidence for pottery production is provided by kilns:
Various methods have been developed in archaeology for the classification of Egyptian pottery. The most important is called the Vienna system. This system is based on the following terms:
The 'Vienna System' is a classification system for Egyptian pottery, which was developed by Dorothea Arnold, Manfred Bietak, Janine Bourriau, Helen and Jean Jacquet and Hans-Åke Nordström at a conference in Vienna in 1980. All of them brought sherds from their own excavations which formed the basis for the classification system, with a few exceptions. As a result, the system is mainly based on find spots of the 'classic' periods and regions of Egypt. According to the group who developed it, the system was only intended as a departure point, a guide for the description of pottery. The classification of the various wares is based on the measurement of the size of the organic and non-organic components of the pottery fabric.
The components are divided into three groups according to their size. Mineral particles like sand and limestone are classified as fine (60-250 μm), medium (250-500 μm), and large (larger than 500 μm), while straw is categorised as fine (smaller than 2 mm), medium (2–5 mm), and large (over 5 mm). The meaningfulness of the system is limited somewhat by the caprice of the potter and a degree of accident during manufacture. The system also provides various criteria for the subdivision of Nile clay and marl clay, "thus the marl clay consists of naturally occurring geological groupings, but with Nile clay the different mixtures were created artificially." The system does not take account of surface treatment. The system is only of limited use for predynastic pottery and pottery that post-dates the New Kingdom. This shows the uncertain state of published research on these periods and the large variation in technique, distribution and raw material which occurred in both of these periods.
The fabric consists of a fine, homogeneous clay and a significant proportion of loam. Components are fine sand, a conspicuous amount of medium-grained sand and occasionally large grains of sand. Mica also occurs. Small amounts of tiny straw particles can occur, but they are not typical of this form. The quantity of clay and loam and the fine particles suggests that the sand is a natural component, not an addition for tempering.
Nile clay B is subdivided into B1 and B2:
This material consists of muddy clay with rough or smooth grains of sand which can vary from fine to large and in frequency from seldom to often. Additives like limestone and other minerals, such as mica, crushed sherds of pottery and medium-grained stone particles, can occur. Straw is the dominant additive and is often visible in incisions and on the surface. These straw particles range from fine to large, with a large amount of large particles (over 5 mm). The straw is preserved as charred particles, appearing as white or grey silica and as impressions in the paste. Nile clay C occurs in all periods and regions, and includes a wide variety of variants.
The main sign of Nile clay D is the conspicuous quantity of limestone, which might be either a natural component or a tempering additive. Without this visible limestone component, this type of clay would be classified differently, as Nile clay A (at Tell el-Dab'a), lightly fired Nile clay B (at Dahshur), or as Nile clay B2 - C (at Memphis).
This clay consists of a large amount of rounded sand particles, ranging from fine to large grains, which are clearly visible on the surface and in fractures. Aside from these diagnostic components, the fabric can look characteristic of Nile clay B or Nile clay C. Nile clay E has so far only been identified in a few locations: in the eastern Delta (Tell el-Dab’a and Qantir) and the region of Memphis and the southern Fayyum.
This group is divided into four variants. The shared characteristics of Marl clay A are its compact and homogeneous fabric, the fine mineral components and very low proportion of organic substances.
The fabric is homogeneous and very thick. The diagnostic feature of the fabric is its high sand content, which makes up roughly 40% of the paste and was added as temper. The particles range from angular to vaguely rounded and from fine to large. As in Marl clay A4, limestone additives are visible under magnification, appearing as a calcareous material in the clay's fabric at 45x magnification. Marl clay B was mainly used for large and mid-sized vessels and seems to be very restricted in space and time, to the Second Intermediate period and New Kingdom in Upper Egypt.
This group is divided into three types. The shared feature of all three is the presence of numerous limestone particles, more or less ground down, which range from medium to large in size, and give the material a sparkly appearance. The fabric itself is fine and thick. Fine and medium sand particles, added as temper, are also encountered, as well as light and dark mica.
The fabric is fine and homogeneous. The characteristic feature is the limestone particles, which were probably added as temper. They are smaller than those in Marl clay C and vary from fine to large in size, forming around 25% of the material (which is less than the limestone temper of Marl clay C). Fine and large-grained sand, black mica, and dark stone are also added as temper. Organic additives are very rare. The surface is notably sandy to the touch. This type of clay was very widespread in the Delta and the Memphis-Fayyum region in the 18th and 19th dynasties and seems to appear in the south only as imports from the north.
The combination is similar to that in Marl clay B, with the exception of the visible mid-to-large particles of straw, which were added as temper. Sand was also added (medium to large particles, 20-40% of the mass of the clay), as well as particles of mica. This type of clay is relatively rare, but is known in Memphis and Upper Egypt (Koptos and Deir el-Ballas), during the short period between the Second Intermediate Period and the early 18th dynasty. It was used mainly for thick-walled vessels, often hand-molded bread tablets. This suggests that the intentional addition of straw might have been connected with this special function.
For the predynastic pottery from Buto and Helwan, which only has limited overlap with the Vienna system, E. Christiana Köhler developed a typological code. These five-digit codes are based on various criteria, whereby each digit in the code refers to a particular aspect:
Petrographic analysis has also proven useful as a complementary system of classification and analysis to that based on characteristics that are observable to the naked eye or a microscope. This technique examines thin slices of the ceramic material or of extracted mineral additives, in order to get further information on them. It can identify various mineral and organic additives. The structure and porosity of the ceramic material can be precisely measured. The original firing temperature can be determined. The origin of the clay can be identified. It also makes it possible to work out whether other particles in the clay arrived their naturally or were added as temper.
Pottery seriation has proven useful for constructing an archaeological relative chronology for Egypt. This method was invented in 1899 by Flinders Petrie. In the late twentieth century, there has been an enormous increase in the studies of Egyptian pottery, with respect to the quantity of sherds which have been analysed (from a large number of different excavation sites) and the range of investigative techniques that are in use in order to get information out of pottery remains. As a result, the changes in the pottery types have become ever more accurately understood over time. For example, the shape of bread-molds changed drastically at the end of the Old Kingdom, but it is not clear whether this process resulted from social, economic or technological causes, or just fashion. Thus, there are many causes of the changes observed in material culture and only a few can be linked to political changes which dominate traditional perspectives on Egyptian history.
On the other hand, for example, links can be made between political and cultural changes and the changes in pottery from centralised production in the Old Kingdom to the revival of local pottery types during the politically decentralised First Intermediate period to the new unity in the reunified 12th dynasty. Through the study of pottery, along with other artifacts, it is possible to create a holistic narrative of Egyptian history, in which political developments are understood within the context of a long process of cultural change.
W. M. Flinders Petrie was the first to attempt a pottery seriation (which he called a 'Sequence dating'), focused on the pottery of the Naqada culture. He published his first study of the relative chronology of the Naqada culture in 1899. His first 'predynastic' corpus was based on the excavations of necropoleis at Naqada, Deir el-Ballas, and Hu. Originally, he identified nine classes and over 700 pottery types. For this typology, he selected 900 intact graves containing five or more types, out of the over 4,000 graves that he had excavated. He produced an index card for each of them and attempted to place these index cards in order. He made two important observations:
After Petre had arranged all his index cards, he divided them into 50 groups, each consisting of 18 tombs. He defined SD 30 as the starting point (numbered thus in order to give space for possible earlier cultures which had not then been discovered. He divided the 50 Sequence dates into three groups, which he classified as 'archaeological', 'cultural', and 'chronological', and named them after important find spots: Amratian (SD 30–37), Gerzean (SD 38–60) and Semainean (SD 60–75).
Pietre produced a second corpus of 'protodynastic' pottery, based principally on the finds in the necropolis in Tarchan. In this case, he identified 885 types, but no classes, which made it difficult for him to use this seriation. This second corpus partially overlapped with the earlier, 'predynastic corpus'. He started with SD 76 and continued to SD 86, with SD 83-86 remaining very theoretical, due to the shortage of material from the 2nd dynasty. This time, Petrie based the transition to a new 'sequence date' mainly on typological breaks, which Petrie defined on the basis of the development of the Wavy-handled types. He also linked the sequence dates with the historically dated pottery and objects from the royal graves of the early dynasties at Abydos.
There are some methodological issues with Petrie's classification:
The next person to undertake a relative chronology of the predynastic period was Werner Kaiser. He largely accepted Petrie's typology and used the necropolis 1400-1500 at Armant as his starting point. At the same time, Kaiser also paid attention to the horizontal divisions of the pottery record and if a period was not attested at Armant, he also used pottery from other cemeteries. He identified three broad zones in the cemetery, each of which was dominated by a specific group of pottery: Black-topped, Rough wares, and Late or Wavy-Handled wares. Within each of these periods, he identified subdivisions, which he called "stages" (Stufen). These largely agreed with Petrie's divisions, but not entirely.
The following were the main stages, according to Kaiser:
There were still some problems with this chronology:
Since the mid-1980s, Stan Hendrickx has extended and improved Werner Kaiser's model. He based his work on the principle of studying groups of graves as a unit (thus also respecting divisions of space within an individual cemetery), rather than just studying individual graves and their contents. As a result, he faced a conflict between developing a tight relative chronology of all individual pottery types and defining chronologically indicative assemblages. He could not accept a higher priority being given to either of these criteria.
Toby Wilkinson undertook a seriation of eight predynastic and early dynastic necropoleis, based on 1420 types from Petrie's corpus (out of a total of 1542), which he arranged into 141 groups. There were large problems with the newly defined groups, since they were very heterogeneously defined. For example, the cylindrical vessels with and without incised decoration were placed in the same group, even though Kaiser had considered the presence of incision to be an important chronological indicator.
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