The Pottery of Ancient Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews
Pottery was produced by the ancient Egyptians from early a very early period. It represents an important record and source of analysis for understanding vary archaic periods, but until relatively recently, Dynastic period pottery was of less interest to Egyptologists. The study of pottery and shards of pottery have contributed tremendously to the study of all eras of Egyptian history, but particularly the predynastic periods.
Pottery was used by the ancient Egyptians in much the same way we use modern kitchen containers or plastic, and by studying the pottery material, technology and form of ancient pottery, archaeologists have been able to date sites in Egypt where there is little other evidence. Of course, modern radiocarbon dating has been of considerable valuable for fixing absolute dates, but early Egyptologists such as Flinders Petrie were able to develop sequential dates for predynastic periods largely based on pot shards.
The study of pottery has also been very important in studying regional development and trade. We are today finding more and more evidence of Egypt's influence in the region by pot shards. For example, predynastic sites in the Palestinian region have yielded pottery made of Nile mud, and thus we are able to traceEgyptian trade and settlements. In addition, modern archaeological science has provided new tools to analyze the content of pottery, thus giving us insight into the use of various pottery items.
The pottery of predynastic Egypt was often of a surprisingly fine quality. Badarian period pottery was made without the use of a potter's wheel, and it was usually the woman who turned out the pottery. These beautiful pieces were burnished to a lustrous finish and fired leaving a black upper section and lower, deep red section. They were probably fired in either open bonfires or very primitive kilns, but remain some of the most wondrous pottery ever produced in Egypt. From the Naqada period (4,000 - 3,000 BC) until the dynastic period, freehand paintings were added to the pottery depicting animals, patterns, boats and human figures.
Not until the Old Kingdom do we find the invention of the potter's wheel in Egypt. At first this device was a simple turntable, but later evolved into a true potter's wheel, requiring better preparation of the clay and more control during firing. It should be noted that these potter's wheels were hand turned, and that the kick wheel variety was probably not developed until the Persian or Ptolemaic periods, though there is some disagreement among Egyptologists on this matter.. But the potter's wheel also spurred the development of more refined kilns during the Old Kingdom. The Potter's wheel allowed pottery to be made in more abundance, but did not entirely replace all other forms of pottery making. For example, bread moulds continued to be hand made around a core known as a patrix.
The Instruction of Khety advises that the potter trade was not enviable. He tells us that potters (known as kedu) were covered with earth and had to breath through their nose the air that comes out of the oven. Reliefs show that the potters first task was to 'puddle' the clay, spreading it out with their feet so as to break down lumps in the clay. We believe it was at this stage that roughage was added as a bond. After the pottery is formed, either by a potter's wheel or more primitive means, it would have been left to thoroughly dry. If the surface was to be burnished, after drying the pottery would have been polished with pebbles and the painted and perhaps engraved. At this stage, the pottery was finally fired, perhaps in open flames during predynastic times, but thereafter in kilns.
There is an international classification system for classifying Egyptian pottery known as the Vienna System that provides a means for Egyptologists working anywhere in Egypt to understand each other's pottery finds. Basically, Egyptian pottery can be divided into two broad categories dependent on the type of clay that was used. By far the most common is pottery made with Nile clay, and known as Nile silt ware. After being fired, it has a red-brown color. This type of pottery was used for common, utilitarian purposes, though at times it might have been decorated or painted. Blue painted pottery was somewhat common during the New Kingdom (1,550-1,069 BC).
The other major type of pottery was made from 'marl clay', best known from material found around Qena in Upper Egypt. This type of pottery was usually thought superior to the common Nile mud pottery, and so it was often used for decorative and other functions. This type of pottery was often burnished, leaving a shiny surface similar to a glaze. However, true glazed pottery does not appear until Roman times. Further division of pottery involves the analysis of additional material added to the basic pottery fabric, known as filler or temper, as well as natural impurities in the clay.
Finally, it should be noted, particularly for novices visiting Egypt, that early Egyptians used a number of other materials form containers, including stone, particularly alabaster, and glass.