ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian pottery: The material, the working techniques, design
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Khnum, the potter creating mankind     I am Khnum, your creator, My arms are around you, to steady your body, to safeguard your limbs. I bestow on you ores with precious stones since antiquity (existing) that were not worked before to build temples, rebuild ruins, sculpt chapels for his master. I am master of creation. I have created myself, the great ocean which came into being in past times, according to whose pleasure the Nile rises.
    For I am the master who makes, I am he who makes himself exalted in Nun, who first came forth, Hapi who hurries at will; fashioner of everybody, guide of each man to their hour. I am Tenen, father of Gods, the great Shou living on the shore.
From the Famine Stele
    The need to store things led to the development of containers, first among them bags of fibre or leather, woven baskets and pottery. But clay lends itself to many other purposes: bricks, tableware, statuettes, funerary offerings, jewellery, toys and games etc. Pottery, the moulding of form out of a formless mass and its becoming imperishable through firing, is the most miraculous kind of creation. Thus Khnum, the great potter, created man.

    The exquisite artefacts made of gold, carved out of hard stone or formed from glass might make us forget that the Egyptians lived with clay and not the expensive alternatives found in royal tombs. They lived in it, drank from it, cooked in it, ate from it, carried liquids in it, played with it, and when they died, the only offerings of any permanence most could afford were made from it.

Material and working techniques

    Most of the pottery manufactured in Egypt was made of reddish brown clay, which was ubiquitous, and is called Nile silt ware. It served everyday purposes and was often left undecorated. The red colour of the fired product was the result of iron compounds oxidizing. The whitish marl on the other hand, a mixture of clay and lime, was found only in a few locations in Upper Egypt, such as at Qena [5][6]. It required higher firing temperatures under better controlled conditions than other clays. For decorative purposes it was preferred to the common Nile silt.
Potters at work
    The oldest pottery technique consisted in hollowing out a lump of clay by hand and pinching it to give it the final form. Later a flat tool was used to press the clay against the other hand. This simple procedure brought forth the elegant and astonishingly thin-walled vessels of the Naqada II period [9] (2nd half of the 4th millennium BCE).
pre-dynastic kiln
Lower part of pre-dynastic kiln with bottom of large jar still in place
Source: John Garstang, Mahasna and Bet Khallaf
    J. Garstang described a pre-dynastic pottery kiln discovered near Mahasna as follows:
A large earthenware pot is apparently in the act of being baked. It is supported upon a bed of clay, which is lined with a thin layer of charred material, probably some kind of herbage. This clay is held in position by a series of fire-bricks arranged vertically, in graduated sizes, at equal distances apart, and so supporting the superimposed weight. These bars are flat on one side and round on the other... The whole rested upon a prepared clay-bed and was surrounded by a wall of fire-brick of ordinary character. It seems probable that the obvious explanation is correct: that the fire was placed between the bars below for the purpose of baking the pot that rested above. Possibly there was a roof to the kiln, but had been destroyed.
John Garstang, Mahasna and Bet Khallaf, p.7
Potter's wheel; After a picture in 'Aegypten' by Irmgard Wolderling     Since the Early Dynastic Period (ca.3000 to 2600 BCE) cores were used to produce bowls, plates, platters and similar completely convex pottery. A sheet of clay was spread over a core of wood or the like, trimmed and let to dry, when the core could be removed. This resulted in an efficient production of crockery; a drawback was that bottles and jugs could not be produced this way. The related technique of using a mould was adopted only during the Second Intermediate Period (18th to 16th century BCE).
    The potter's wheel, which came into use during the Old Kingdom (27th to 22nd century BCE) was rotated by hand, and it was not until two millennia later that the kick wheel was introduced which at last freed both hands.[12] In the beginning potters found turntables convenient to get easier access to all sides of the work piece, still using old methods, such as pinching or coiling. In the end it changed their working techniques: the throwing of pots was mastered, the clay was prepared more carefully achieving better consistency, and the kilns were improved. As a result crockery could be made faster and was more symmetrical.
Faience monkey; New Kingdom     The ancient Egyptians used a number of techniques to improve the look of their pottery:
  • Decorations were incised, painted or stuck on.
  • Black colouring was the result of exposing the vessels to smoke.
  • Slip, an often pigmented mixture of water and clay of the consistency of cream, was applied to smoothen the surface and colour the earthenware.
  • Wash, a mixture of pigment, such as red ochre, and water changed or intensified the colour of the pottery.
  • Glazing of steatite and clay pottery began during the 4th millennium BCE. Egyptian faience, mostly blue or greenish mezzomaiolica, was made of a core consisting of quartzite particles and alkaline or occasionally, towards the demise of pharaonic Egypt, lead based glazing. In Roman times true tin-based faience began to appear.

Form and decoration

Line-drawings with an asterisk in the left bottom corner are swapped with colour images on mouse-over


Black-topped red ware, Naqada II     The red wares were made without a potter's wheel like all pre-dynastic pottery. After giving them their form, which was sometimes unconventional (3), they were dried in the sun, sometimes covered with red ochre, and burnished with a stone. Thus a smooth shiny surface was achieved, which showed off better the native reddish colour of the clay. They were fired either in open fires or very simple kilns.
    The black decorative upper rim and inside of the black-topped pottery possibly stem from smouldering chaff or other organic materials the pots were placed in upside down before or after firing [7].
    During the Badarian and Amratian periods (3800-3400 BCE) they were often left without further decoration. Later on (Naqada II, ca 3300-3000 BCE) line drawings were sometimes scratched into the polished surface (2). These were mostly geometric patterns or hunting scenes.
Marl ceramics     The marl ceramics of the Naqada II period, given the name D-ware by Petrie, were decorated with reddish-brown drawings which developed from the early simple geometric forms to less abstract images. Among these stand out depictions of many-oared boats (1)(2) transporting what has been interpreted by some as deities. There are also constructions reminiscent of the royal standards seen for instance on the Narmer palette.
    Other popular decorations are geometric forms or include people and animals (3) - ibexes and flamingoes and the like. Decorations similar to these were found on the walls of a tomb at Hierakonpolis.
    These vases have sometimes small pierced handles, the holes possibly made for the insertion of string. The rim is often quite wide and flat.
    Naqada pottery was attractive enough to be valued by foreigners. At Seyala in Nubia Egyptian artefacts were found in royal graves, probably brought there as gifts from one ruler to another.
Pre-dynastic bowl, height: 11 cm,  diameter: 19 cm     While the form of the red-burnished bowl on the left is ordinary and its whitish geometrical decorations common-place, the addition of modelled figures, in this case four crocodiles, is rare. They are distributed all around the bowl and separated by painted chevron patterned bands. The interior is also decorated with simple geometric designs.
Bread mould, OK; picture adapted from a photograph on the Petrie Museum website Beer vessel, OK; picture adapted from a photograph on the Petrie Museum website -     Bread and beer were the daily food and drink of the Old Kingdom Egyptian. Bread was sometimes baked in moulds, crudely made and thick walled (1) [9]. Beer vessels (2) for every day use were often primitive and generally undecorated [2].
    Flinders Petrie describes some Middle Kingdom pottery found at Kahun thus:
(1) is a type of vase which is not uncommon here;
(4) is a smooth brown pot, lipless, with a black circle joining a black base and black side lines, on either side, and two red lines down by the handle. It is quite un-Egyptian. All of the above were found in the XIIth dynasty rubbish heaps, and have therefore a strong certificate of age.
Lastly there is the black pottery (2,3,5) the latter piece being whitened by concretions. This pottery is common at Kahun, many pieces having been found last year. It was found also by M. Naville along with scarabs of the XIIth & XIIIth dynasty at Khataneh, deep down in burials which could not have been later disturbed. Its age therefore seems well assured and it closely resembles in colour, form, and decoration the earliest Italian black pottery
W.M.F.Petrie 1891 Illahun, Kahun and Gurob [3]
    Ceramics from many places around the eastern Mediterranean reached Middle Kingdom Egypt, from Crete, the Greek mainland and islands, Asia Minor, Syria, and Canaan.
Pot stand found at Kahun by Petrie     The pots and vases often had very small or rounded bases and had to be placed in pits dug into the floor or on pottery stands. Moreover unglazed pottery is somewhat porous, which is at times exploited for keeping beverages cool through evaporation of some of the water content. The stands also caught any surplus water oozing out and prevented dirt from sticking to the moist outer surface of the pot. [3]
Ceramics found by Petrie at Gurob     Contact with the many peoples of the Levant was even closer during the New Kingdom, and the influence of foreign cultures on Egypt became more pronounced. Petrie defined some of his finds at Gurob as Egyptian type pottery (1,2,5), false necked Aegean vase (3), Syrian type pottery (4), blue glazed pottery (6,7), pilgrim bottle with winged Bes (8) [3].
    Predynastic pottery was ornamented before firing. The iron oxides used resulted in purplish-black or brown decorations. During the New Kingdom pottery was often decorated after firing. The main colours were blue (Egyptian blue frit), red (red ochre) and black (carbon or black iron oxide with manganese oxide).

Idols, funerary offerings, temple deposits

Terra-cotta head; height: 10cm; Merimda culture -     Pre-dynastic inhabitants of the Delta made burnt clay heads of their gods which could be carried in their processions and rituals. This somewhat abstract head is painted and holes were made for attaching hair of the head and a beard.
Offering tray Pottery ushabti; New Kingdom-     The ceramic offering dish (1), dating to the Middle Kingdom, contains a bull's head at the top, a bird, a haunch, and two jars for wine, while below are various flat and conical cakes and the large radishes so well known still in Egypt. The spaces in front are for pouring out the drink offerings [3].
    Ushabtis, the stand-ins for the deceased, were often carved from wood or made of clay, like this New Kingdom ushabti (2) wearing a big wig typical of the age.
Pottery lion figurine; Temple deposit, Old Kingdom-     When temples were founded small pits were excavated inside the temple enclosure and various objects were placed into them. The lion figurine on the left was found at Hierakonpolis. It is a beautiful example of polished red ware and thought to have been made during the Old Kingdom.
(For a larger picture of the lion click here.
Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth)

Other objects

    The poor often made toys for their children from a material they could afford and work with a minimum of expertise and tools - clay: dolls, toy animals, ships and the like, while their games were sometimes played on pottery game boards with clay pieces.
Coop, Kahun     At Kahun Petrie found a
coop which is made of pottery, pierced with air holes, and fitted with a sliding door. It was not intended merely for a trap, as the number of air holes show : it must have been for retaining animals alive ; and it seems very possible that it was for holding eggs in the hatching oven, so that, when the chicks came out they might not stray about, and could be carried away in the warm pottery cage without chilling.
W.M.F.Petrie 1891 Illahun, Kahun and Gurob [3]
It is nowadays thought to have been a rat trap [4].
    People were at times buried in clay coffins, the lids of which had anthropoid features. For babies biggish pottery vessels might be used. The tops were broken off, as the original openings were too narrow for the little corpse.

Differences in the social standing of pottery owners

    Just as in other areas of daily life differences between the quality of ceramics owned by the rich and the poor were significant. Pottery found in the environs of the palaces at Amarna and Malqata and therefore sometimes referred to as "palace ware", was more often than not elaborately decorated or made of beautifully polished marl looking a bit like alabaster, while the crockery in the near-by villages was mostly red earthenware made of Nile mud.[10][11]
[7] Masahiro Baba and Masanori Saito of the Institute of Egyptology at the Waseda University, Tokyo (Japan) tried various methods of firing in order to reproduce black rimmed pottery. The best results were achieved by using a mud-covered bonfire: this method of firing is still widely practiced in Eastern Asia, the so-called Unnan style. The samples were placed on a bed of chaff, around which firewood and straw were leaned, and were entirely covered with a layer of mud. After 85 minutes from ignition, the temperature inside reached 950?C, then after 170 minutes it reduced to 200?C. As the mud-cover was broken after it had cooled down, the firewood turned out to be charred and the chaff had not been burnt off. The samples were adequately fired, around the mouth of which the carbon adsorption was also achieved. Moreover, the silvery luster between the red and black zone was observed as the same as the ancient black-topped pottery. [8].
[12] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson: The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 2003, pp.225f.

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-[2] The Petrie Museum: Pottery in Egypt
-[3] Petrie: Illahun, Kahun and Gurob - The Antiquities of Kahun
-[4] Pottery rat trap
-[5] The Luxor-Farshût Desert Road Project, 1992-93 annual report
-[6] Touregypt: Pottery
-[8] Experimental Studies on the Firing Methods of the Black-topped Pottery in Predynastic Egypt by Masahiro Baba & Masanori Saito, Institute of Egyptology, Waseda University, Tokyo (Japan)
-[9] Study of a Ceramic Ensemble from the End of the Naqada Period and its Socio Economic Context by Nathalie Buchez, Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives, UMR 8555 - Centre d'Anthropologie, Toulouse (France)
-[10] iMalqata: "Pots", accessed 22nd February 2013
-[11] iMalqata: "Upstairs Downstairs", accessed 22nd February 2013
-The Nile silt fabrics on
-Predynastic chronology
-Ceramic Web Page Tutorial
-Badarian pottery
-Naqada pottery

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