Administrators' Bread: An Experiment-Based Re-Assessment of the Functional and Cultural Role of the Uruk Bevel-Rim Bowl

By Goulder, Jill | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Administrators' Bread: An Experiment-Based Re-Assessment of the Functional and Cultural Role of the Uruk Bevel-Rim Bowl

Goulder, Jill, Antiquity

The significance of BRBs in the Uruk period

Bevel-rim bowls (BRBs) are distinctive coarse, thick-walled, conical ceramic bowls that first appear in southern Mesopotamia in the early fourth millennium (Table 1), and by the mid-fourth millennium cluster in their thousands throughout Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions, declining to extinction by 3000 BC (except in some peripheral areas of Mesopotamian influence to the north-west). Their trajectory coincides with the Uruk period, one of unprecedented urbanisation and bureaucratic control culminating in the introduction of writing. A better understanding of the function and significance of BRBs could materially assist commentators by shedding light on the extent and nature of central control, distribution and bureaucracy in the late Uruk period, as well as on the dietary and other habits which formed part of the unique and pervasive Uruk culture.

While experimental manufacture and usage of replica artefacts should never form the sole basis for interpretation of past practices, it can assist in reducing the options. My aim in this experimental study was to assist in clearing away some of the accreted assumptions that so often dog discussion of key material tracers such as the BRB.

Manufacturing BRBs

Examination of the BRB manufacturing process has been an underemployed tool for ascertaining drivers for the development of the primary 'BRB system'. BRB fabric features heavy organic temper and probably local clay (see below); the vessels are low-fired and typically show no burnt cores or exterior blackening. I manufactured a total of 28 BRBs, using London clay, chopped hay, dung and sand, and had them fired commercially at 600[degrees]C and 700[degrees]C, producing convincing replicas (Figure 1).

Kalsbeek (1980) takes the fingermarks often found on the exteriors of BRBs to indicate hand-making, but I found from experiment that the fingermarks better reflect manipulation during moulding, and that considerable effort is required to achieve the distinctive straight sides and flat base by hand-making. The majority of commentators agree that BRBs were mould-made, citing the typical crinkled exterior and smooth interior surfaces, the 'frill' of the clay spilling over the mould edge, and the fistmarks inside (Le Brun 1980: 60; Nicholas 1987: 62; McAdam & Mynors 1988: 40). Opinion is divided on whether moulding was in the ground (e.g. Johnson 1973: 130; Beale 1978: 289; Strommenger 1980: 58; Miller 1981:128) or in a freestanding wooden or other mould (e.g. Adams 1972: 99; Balfet 1980: 78; Forest 1987: 3; Charvat 2002: 124; Crawford 2004: 164).

Henry Wright (pers. comm. 2007) has successfully manufactured BRBs through groundmoulding. I experimented with this method, but found that initial forming of the straight sides and flat base of a ground-mould is tricky and time-consuming, even using an existing BRB as employed by Wright, and that a free-standing mould was more convenient for initial smoothing and for bevelling of the rim. Undoubtedly BRBs could be made in the ground, but ground-moulding on a mass scale would be profligate of space and inflexible; in a freestanding mould the clay dries more quickly, freeing the mould for immediate re-use (see Table 2).


Bill Sillar's suggestion (pers. comm. 2007) of an existing BRB as a mould proved strikingly successful in my experiments, the straight flare of the sides and well-defined inner base corners producing 'clones' of very similar dimensions, with the clay rising above the mould walls and falling naturally into the 'frill' or flange typical of BRBs. The ridged inner mould-base obviated sticking, and the heavily-tempered bowls did not shrink during firing.

Why was wheel-throwing not used? The date of the emergence of the fast wheel is debated, but wheel-throwing is not necessarily quicker: a wheel-led production line can only move at the speed of the expert potter, whereas all stages of mould manufacture can be carried out by unskilled workers (Nissen 1988:90 and my experiment).

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Administrators' Bread: An Experiment-Based Re-Assessment of the Functional and Cultural Role of the Uruk Bevel-Rim Bowl


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