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Pottery Attributes and how they Reflect Intentionality in Craft Manufacture/Reproduction
Studies on Old Kingdom Pottery (2009)
  • Sarah L. Sterling, Portland State University

The existence of specialized craftsmen – including; stonemasons, coppersmiths, carpenters, jewelers and potters – in ancient Egypt arise in part from the general industries spawned from the elaborate monumental constructions of the Old Kingdom period (ca2600-2100 BC). Pottery vessels in particular are of the most abundant kinds of artifacts known from ancient Egypt, with functions ranging from formal presentation to baking bread, to storage of grains and olive oil. While not all pottery is associated with monumental architecture, the emergence of specialized or semi-specialized potters is likely due to the same socioeconomic factors that gave rise to monuments such as the pyramids at Giza. As more materials and labor were required to build the cemeteries and monuments of the Old Kingdom, pottery vessels played a role in tasks ranging from copper smelting to baking.

Evidence for pottery production comes in two forms 1) widespread similarity in vessel forms known throughout Egypt (Fig. 1) and 2) artistic representations, examples of which include; the 6th Dynasty (ca 2300-2100 BC) limestone statuette of a potter using a wheel at Giza, several tombs dating from the First Intermediate Period (ca 2100 -2000 BC) and Middle Kingdom (ca 2000-1650 BC) at Beni Hassan, and the 5th Dynasty tomb of Ti (2450-2345 BC) at Saqqara. Illustrations such as these have suggested to scholars that despite overall similarity in pottery types across Egypt, pottery production is organized at the level of household or nome as opposed to being mass produced at one centralized location.

In this study, measurements taken on one particular vessel type, distributed throughout the Nile Valley and Delta, are used to test the hypothesis that pottery production during the Old Kingdom period was implemented through local manufacture as indicated by artistic depictions of potters at work. Digital photography and image analysis software facilitated the assessment of differences between vessels and allowed otherwise costly analysis to be conducted outside an Egyptian field season. The “Meidum” bowl, also known as “Knickrandschale”, a typical component of many Old Kingdom ceramic assemblages, was chosen as a focus of this study because of the distribution of the typethroughout Egypt, and because of the amount of potential variation the vessel exhibits due to the construction of its rim. These objects were first described by Petrie at Meidum, and later by REISNER at Giza. They are now shown to have a distribution from the southernmost regions of Egypt to the Nile Delta.

Standardized ceramic forms are a hallmark of a “complex society”. Often, a socially complex system is characterized as being “centralized,” implying national scale integration on of socioeconomic systems. In the case of Egypt, “national” can be defined as the extent of the Old Kingdom polity from Elephantine to the Delta. Economic integration can be assessed to some extent through ceramic vessel similarities, because in the absence of national scale factors integrating the economy, similarity in vessel manufacture should track spatial proximity, such that the closer one assemblage is to another in space, the more likely they will exhibit similarities. If assemblages vastly separated in space exhibit a relatively high degree of similarity, then the case can be made for socio-economic factors integrating communities at a national scale. This study provides evidence that the determination of standardization should be defined by the spatial scale at which variation is sorted.

Publication Date
Teodozja Rzeuska and Anna Wodzińska
Citation Information
Sarah L. Sterling. "Pottery Attributes and how they Reflect Intentionality in Craft Manufacture/Reproduction" WarsawStudies on Old Kingdom Pottery (2009)
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