Did the Potter's Wheel Go out of Use in Late Bronze Age Palestine?

By Magrill, Pamela; Middleton, Andrew | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Did the Potter's Wheel Go out of Use in Late Bronze Age Palestine?


Magrill, Pamela, Middleton, Andrew, Antiquity


Introduction

Throughout the Middle Bronze Age, wheel-thrown pottery(1) was widely produced in ancient Palestine but recently some researchers have suggested that this technique of pottery manufacture went out of use in the region during the Late Bronze Age (see for example Wood 1990: 18; Killebrew 1998: 399). This view is based mainly on the results of two major studies from sites in Jordan, Deir 'Alla (Franken 1969; 1992) and the Baq'ah Valley (Glanzman 1983; Glanzman & Fleming 1986), where there is evidence to suggest that a marked change in pottery technology occurred during the course of the Late Bronze Age. At these sites wheel-thrown pottery gave way gradually to vessels which were largely coil-built and shaped on a tournette; by the 12th century BC, wheel-throwing seems to have ceased altogether. In both studies it was noted that this change in technology was linked to changes in the selection of raw materials, with preference being given to `short', i.e. heavily tempered clay, instead of the finer, more plastic `throwers' clay used earlier. Different inferences have been drawn regarding the causes underlying these changes at the two sites. In the Baq'ah Valley, it was suggested that `a more inclusion-free section of the clay bed had already been worked out ... and the potters were obliged to use a less pure clay.... Under such circumstances, a change-over from wheel-throwing to coil-building of vessels would be understandable. A heavily tempered fabric is better adapted to coiling.' (McGovern et al. 1986: 193). By contrast, at Deir `Alla, Franken (1992: 152) postulated an external cause related to the `general economic situation' and a perceived slow-down in production. Other factors (clay preparation techniques or climatic changes have been suggested as possibilities) might also be considered but full discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article.

Our recent study of material from a Late Bronze Age potter's workshop at the site of Lachish, Israel (FIGURE 1) (Magrill & Middleton 1997; forthcoming; Middleton et al. 2000) suggests that whilst the production of wheel-made pottery may have ceased by the 12th century BC at Deir `Alla and in the Baq'ah Valley, for whatever reasons, it may not be appropriate to apply the observations and inferences drawn from these sites to the whole of ancient Palestine in this period. The Lachish workshop was active between 1200 and 1150 BC, contemporary with Level VI, the final phase of the Late Bronze Age city at the site (see Ussishkin 1985: 219), and also probably earlier, during part of the 13th century BC (Level VII). It was contemporary, at least in part, with the Jordanian sites mentioned above and provides important evidence that the overall picture was more complex, with different pottery-forming methods (including wheel-throwing) in use alongside one another.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Pottery manufacture at Lachish

Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir) is a large tell site located about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Shephelah, a region of foothills between the coastal plain and the Judean Mountains. Major excavations were first carried out there between 1932 and 1938 by a British team led by J.L. Starkey. During the 1937/8 season a large cave (locus 4034) was discovered and identified as the site of a Late Bronze Age potter's workshop. Finds included raw clay, pigments, tools, stone pivots, figurines, large quantities of unfired sherds and about 40 complete fired vessels. Although a brief account of the workshop appeared in Lachish IV (Tufnell 1958: 291-3, plates 8:1-6, 49: 2-15, 92), no comprehensive scientific study of the finds was undertaken. In 1980 a large collection of objects and archives from the 1930s Lachish excavations was acquired by the British Museum from the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. This collection included a good selection of material from Cave 4034 and provided the authors with the opportunity to carry out a wide-ranging study, with the aim of reconstructing the activities of the workshop from raw clay to fired vessel. …

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