Pottery-making in Bible times (Jeremiah 18)

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Illustration: Pottery in Biblical times

Archaeologists have discovered a great deal of evidence related to pottery-making in ancient Israel, including the remains of workshops, potter’s wheels, tools, unfired vessels, prepared clay and kilns. A large production area was excavated at Late Bronze and Iron Age Megiddo, for example. Production typically followed the method described below:

  • After the clay had been extracted from the ground, it was brought to the workshop and prepared. Foreign objects were removed and water added as a softening agent.
  • The clay was “wedged” (pressed to remove air) by a process of kneading or treading (cf. Isaiah 41:25).
  • Sometimes potters employed levigation, a method of removing impurities by suspension in water.
  • Tempering agents were added to harden the clay or to reduce its propensity to crack. Among thev tempers used at various times were straw, sand, salt, animal dung and grog (ground-up pieces of broken pottery).
  • A formed vessel was air-dried to leather-hard condition. Wherever possible, pottery was dried in caves; the cooler temperature allowed for slow, even drying.
  • A vessel might be decorated with a slip (a thin, coloured coat of watery clay) or an incised pattern.
  • Potts were stacked in a kiln and baked. The kiln had ti be hot enough for the pottery to glow red – about 800 degrees Celsius – a temperature that had to be maintained for twp or three days).

Basic techniques were developed during the Neolithic period. The discovery of pottery-making technology was a major revolution of the ancient world; in fact, researchers differentiate between “pre-pottery” and “pottery” Neolithic phases. Fundamental principles worked out during this time included the selection of appropriate clays, the use of tempering agents and the development of proper firing techniques. There was some significant innovation later on, although many observable differences were simply matters of style.

Early potters understood the importance of turning the clay in order to shape vessels, but an innovation of the Middle Bronze period, the “kick wheel”, allowed potters to create delicate pottery. Since the wheel was turned rapidly by foot, it allowed the potter to use both hands for shaping. Potters could “throw” the clay, shaping a single lump on a wheel with the aid of centrifugal force. They also began to use fine clays that were slippery and plastic or pliable. The finer clays required more controlled drying and firing processes, since vessels made of such clay could more easily shrink or crack.

Toward the end of the Middle Bronze Age potters learned to decorate pots with slips and paint. While clay dries, salts suspended in the water form a layer on the surface. Since this “scum” prevents paints from absorbing properly and distorts their colours, a white foring slip was applied. This would adhere to the vessel so that the red or black painted decorations would not be affected by the scum.

The Late Bronze Age saw a decline in pottery-making skills. Late Bronze potters reverted to using less malleable, coarser clays that were easier to work with; they were less prone to cracking, and attaching handles was easier. Use of these coarser clays resulted in heavier, thicker pottery. The use of the high-speed wheel may have died out; slips, if applied at all, were thinner, and pottery was less likely to be painted.

During the Iron Age the quality of pottery-making improved markedly. The kick wheel came back into use, and techniques were developed for fast production and for making vessels with thin walls but sturdy bases. Potters used string to separate vessels from the remaining clay on the wheel (“string-cutting”); sometimes they partially dried vessels and then shaved them down prior to firing. This allowed for strong but lightweight pottery. Small vessels, like cups, were typically thrown, but larger items were built up using the coil technique.

When Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house (Jeremiah 18:3), he descended from Jerusalem to the Hinnom Valley, on the western and southern sides of the city, where the potter’s quarter was located (19:2). He discovered the potter forming a vessel at a fast kick wheel. When the clay did not form properly, the potter started over, reshaping the lump into another vessel. This provided an object lesson for Jeremiah on the sovereignty of God, who molds and shapes people and events as He wills (18:5-6).

See also The potsherd: Pottery in the Bible under Job 2.


 

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