Biblical Archaeology Review 30:2, March/April 2004

Pottery Talks

What Ceramics Tell Us About the Social World of Ancient Israel

By Avraham Faust

So often it seems that pottery is boring. But the little bits of sherds that are ubiquitous on excavations tell us a lot. Thanks to pottery we can date structures such as buildings and the contents within them.

But that’s not all that pottery tells us—even if it’s not always easy to plumb its secrets.

Here I want to examine a particular kind of pottery decoration that I believe not only helps us date the potsherds it adorns, but also tells us a great deal about what was happening in ancient Israel at the time the pottery was in use. It can tell us about the passage from a tribal society to a monarchy, about the differentiation of gender roles—about spaces where woman dominated and those where men held sway—and why, in the end, such decoration was no longer needed.

This decoration is for the most part quite simple. It is called slip and burnish—in this case red slip. Burnishing is simply a finishing technique. The potter uses a hard tool to rub the leather-hard vessel before firing to produce a glossy surface.1 It can be done either by hand or on a wheel. You can tell hand burnish because it has an irregular pattern. Wheel burnish produces a regular pattern.

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