The potsherd: Pottey in the Bible (Job 2)

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Job, his body covered with boils, sat in an ash heap seeking to relieve his pain through counterirritant – scraping himself with a broken piece of pottery (Job 2:7-8). Earthenware vessels, used for storing, cooking and serving food and for shipping commodities, were the common containers during antiquity. Most lamps and artistic and cult objects were earthenware as well. Since pottery is brittle, vessels often broke into pieces called potsherds. Isaiah alluded to sherds (i.e. fragments) being used for carrying burning coals and for scooping water from a cistern (Isaiah 30:14). Notes and letters were often written on potsherds.

Sir Flinders Petrie, in his examinations at Tell el-Hesi in 1890, recognized the archaeological significance of pottery and began classifying pottery and potsherds. His work was carried forward by others, including William Albright, Kathleen Kenyon and Ruth Amiran. The nature of pottery makes it indispensable for archaeology. Clay vessels were fired rock hard in a kiln, allowing the pieces to survive the ages. Changes through time in the shape, decoration and manufacturing methods of pots can be documented and used for dating purposes. In fact, pottery is the primary means of dating in Palestinian archaeology. Through knowledge of regional and national variations, pottery can also tell the archaeologist something about trade, cultural connections and the movements of people groups. Ancient habitation sites are littered with potsherds, and simply by examining this surface pottery an archaeologist can form a historical picture.

Complete vessels are often recovered from tombs, and sometimes a broken pot can be reconstructed. A trained archaeologist can take pieces of the rim, handle or base (“indicator” or “diagnostic” sherds) and identify the type of vessels from which they came. In recording data about pottery at a dig, precision is critical. It is important to know, for example, exactly where a piece was found. Specialists analyse pottery finds and painstakingly sketch or photograph each piece. Colour is significant too, and a sherd’s hue and chroma (colour saturation) are precisely recorded.

Even though its type may be known, the archaeologist may still be hard pressed to explain a vessel’s use. But tomb paintings from ancient Egypt depict vessels in everyday use. Ethnoarchaeology, which examines the links between a society’s material culture and its social and economic customs, can help, and the Bible itself offer clues. When Rebekah met Abraham’s servant at the well in Nahor, she was carrying a water jar on her shoulder (not, as in many cultures, on her head; Genesis 24:15). 1 Kings 17:14 indicates that flour was kept in a jar but oil in a flask (a tsappahath). Jars were also used to preserve documents (Jeremiah 32:14), a practice well attested at Qumran.

Scholars have developed an extensive inventory of the jars, bowls, cups, decanters, figurines, flasks, urns and lamps discovered from antiquity. Types of pottery from different cultures and areas have distinguishing features, including type of rim or base; presence, absence of type of handles; colouration; and presence of incised or painted decorations. Some vessels have a ribbed texture, while some bowls are carinated (keel shaped). A container’s mouth may be straight or flared, and pottery may have been burnished by rubbing or polishing.

By observing the evolution of styles and techniques, archaeologists can date a piece and from this evidence proceed to date an entire excavation stratum or layer. Carefully documenting stylistic changes, scholars have assembled a fairly complete typology of pottery for the ancient Holy Land. Types and styles have been documented through the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the exilic period, the Persian and Hellenistic periods and the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Pottery analysis is also critically important in Greco-Roman studies. Early Greek pottery (ca. 1050-700 B.C.) featured painted decorations in the form of geometric shapes. Such decoration eventually developed into pottery with highly naturalistic, painted scenes involving people, animals and various objects. Around 720 B.C. black-figure decoration was invented, with silhouettes incised onto vessels and black, red and white paint applied. Around 525 B.C. the red-figure technique was invented, in which the decoration was left in the natural red colour of the clay, with thin painted lines in various colours providing highlighting; the background was painted black. Scholars have learned the names of some of the craftsmen and can describe the distinctive characteristics of their work. For example, Greek artisans often painted small inscriptions, such as “Psiax made me”, on their pottery.


 

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