'The Changing Face of Clay': Continuity and Change in the Transition from Village to Urban Life in the near East

By Wengrow, David | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

'The Changing Face of Clay': Continuity and Change in the Transition from Village to Urban Life in the near East


Wengrow, David, Antiquity


Writing in 1923, J.L. Myres attributed the 'gulf which separates the study of the Old Stone Age from that of the New' to the appearance of a 'more varied and far more expressive source' of archaeological knowledge than stone, bone or antler. This new source of information was clay and, according to Myres, there are special reasons for its 'eloquence' which we may recount since they form the basis of this study (Cambridge Ancient History 1923:70 [original emphasis]):

First, clay is eminently plastic; unlike stone, wood or fibre, it has no 'grain' or texture of its own; it is therefore fictile, and can be modelled into any form characteristic of the natural 'grain' or texture of any other material; all objects of pottery are therefore literally figments of the potter's will, fictions (to vary the phrase) of his memory and imagination. 'Hath not the potter power over the clay?'. But the potter, and still more those people who will use his pots, are creatures of habit.

The growth of the archaeological record since Myres' day has greatly enlarged the scope of his initial insight. Shaped into figurines and tokens by the first horticultural communities of the Fertile Crescent, clay was soon appropriated in the manufacture of fired and decorated vessels. By the 4th millennium BC, it had become the material upon which seals and written signs, the tools of urban administration, were impressed, and its plastic and thermal qualities provided the moulds which later made possible the casting of sophisticated metal artefacts through the lost-wax technique. A primary construction material from the inception of farming onwards, clay also played an integral part in the development of architectural forms which, through symbolic elaboration, acted as frameworks for the formation of corporate groups and the negotiation of social roles.

More than any other surviving medium of human expression, clay now serves to bridge the gap between late Stone Age prehistory and the first written documents in the archaeological record. It allows us to relate the transition from prehistory to history as a continuous story, rather than focusing upon the postulated revolutions - Neolithic and urban (Childe 1936) - which mark the beginning and end of the process. In following the changing applications of clay, we therefore gain access to the interplay between symbol and practice, meaning and means, in the transition from village to urban life in the Near East.

PPNA-B: The ancestral house and Levi-Strauss

'Exchange, as a total phenomenon, is from the first a total exchange, comprising food, manufactured objects, and that most precious category of goods, women.'

LEVI-STRAUSS The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969: 60-61)

The initiatives of those people who joined the flow of settlement into PPNA Jericho during the 10th millennium BC(1) yielded all unexpected bonus. In addition to providing a habitat in which wild pulses and cereals could produce unprecedented grain surpluses (Sherratt 1980; 1997a), the moist groundwater soils in the vicinity of Ain es-Sultan offered excessive quantities of something else: mud, and, more specifically, clay. At Jericho and contemporary Mureybit (Phases IA-II) this prodigious resource was initially used to supplement wood and stone in the construction of better-insulated and less ephemeral houses, and to provide interior furnishings such as benches, storage bins and hearths. The latter features acted as foci for the generation of social roles relating to food processing and preparation (Cauvin 1977).

During the 9th millennium BC, the firing of clay to produce small ceramic vessels at Mureybit III occurred simultaneously with the modelling of human figurines. The majority depicted women, many with full breasts and hips and protruding stomachs, emphasizing those aspects of the female body associated with reproduction (cf. Cauvin 1977: 34-5; 1985; McAdam 1997). …

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