When ancient man first learned to harden clay by firing and turning it into pottery, life in ancient times changed. A new artificial commodity, more flexible and cheaper than other materials, could now be used for art, ritual, storage and household needs. As seen in this exhibit, the durability of pottery and the ease with which it can be transported have allowed us a window into the prehistoric and ancient world.
The Invention of Pottery
With the development of agriculture during the Neolithic period (8,350-4,200 BCE), new tools and materials were needed. Natural materials like stone, wood and bone, which had served humankind during its earlier hunting and food-gathering stage, were no longer adequate. In response to the new demand for storage vessels and containers, pottery, as seen here on display, was created.
Ceramic artifacts are the clue to understanding how pottery was made. The finger marks of the potter are still imprinted on the inside of the hand-made pottery from the ancient Land of Israel - Chalcolithic and Early Canaanite vessels (4th- 3rd centuries BC) - regardless of the technique used to form the vessels: coiling, drawing or building in sections. The mat impressions, visible on the bases of some pottery, indicate that such vessels were built on mats turned in the process of making the pot.
Handmade Pottery from Ancient Cyprus
The exhibit includes ancient Cypriot ceramics (3rd - 2nd centuries BC) that are noteworthy for their intriguing shapes, aesthetics and superior quality. Traditional methods of making pottery by hand, especially fine ware, persisted in Cyprus long after the potter's wheel was introduced in neighboring countries and on the island itself.
Handmade Pottery from Contemporary Village Societies in Africa and Central America
In Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mexico and Guatemala, ceramics created by traditional handwork shed light on ancient pottery methods. Photographs, models and vessels illuminate these modern-day analogies.
Wheel-made Pottery in Ancient Israel
The technological innovation of the potter's wheel brought about a revolution in ceramics in the Chalcolithic period, but did not become widespread until the Middle Bronze Age II. On display are two types of pottery wheels, the Canaanite-Israelite and Byzantine, as well as ceramics from the Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods.
Wheel-made Pottery in Ancient Egypt and Greece
The replication of an Egyptian 12th- dynasty (19th century BC) wall-painting reveals pottery-making using the wheel, and serves as inspiration for reconstruction of this wheel. Vases from the archaic and classical periods (7th- 4th centuries BC) demonstrate the pottery skill in ancient Greece regarding the wheel, knowledge of clay, and perfect control of the firing process. Scenes from pottery workshops depicted on some Greek vases open a window into ancient techniques.
The Use of Pottery in Daily Life
Through the reconstruction of a full-size Israelite house from the monarchy period (10th-7th centuries BC), the varied uses of ceramic vessels are beautifully illustrated. Based on the house excavated at Tel Qasile, which archeologists discovered on the grounds of the museum complex, the model reconstruction gives visitors a sense of both the time and space of ancient Israel.
Pottery in the Study of Archaeology
Due to the discernable changes in the shape, style and manufacture of ceramic vessels from one era to the next, archaeologists use pottery as a key tool in period classification and dating. This section traces the evolution of three basic pottery vessels used in the Land of Israel - the oil lamp, cooking pot and the storage jar.
Clay and Pottery as Writing Materials
In cuneiform writing, signs were created by impression of a reed stylus on damp clay tablets, which were then dried. Among the items on display are a foundation cone and administrative documents of the 3rd-1st centuries BC, including one letter inside its clay envelope. In addition, there are samples of early Hebrew writing on pottery from the First Temple Period, among them a jar with a lamelekh seal from Lachish; a group of jar handles, impressed with a seal before firing; a group of ostraca (broken written potsherds) from the archive at Arad on which administrative letters were written in ink. Magical and incantation texts inscribed on clay figurines and ceramic vessels were found in various periods. Note the Egyptian figurines with 18th-century BC Execration Texts cursing the enemies of pharaoh and a Babylonian Jewish incantation bowl from the 9th-11th century, written in Aramaic.
Art and Cult
Two 13th-century BC outsized anthropoid clay coffins from the Deir el-Balah cemetery greet the visitor to this section. These coffins are representative of Egyptian cultic custom that penetrated Canaan in this period. Further on are clay figurines and statuettes of animals and deities, votive objects as well as incense and libation vessels. Through their outstanding forms and decorations, the spiritual and artistic aspirations of their creators come to life.