You are on page 1of 19
Pottery Making in Upper Egypt: An Ethnoarchaeological Study Author(s): Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson Source: Worldgy, Vol. 17, No. 2, Ethnoarchaeology (Oct., 1985), pp. 222-239 Published b y : Ta y lor & Francis , Ltd. Stable URL: Accessed: 05/11/2010 15:45 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the p ublisher re g ardin g an y further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to World Archaeology. " id="pdf-obj-0-2" src="pdf-obj-0-2.jpg">

Pottery Making in Upper Egypt: An Ethnoarchaeological Study Author(s): Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 2, Ethnoarchaeology (Oct., 1985), pp. 222-239 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Accessed: 05/11/2010 15:45

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless

you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Pottery Making in Upper Egypt: An Ethnoarchaeological Study Author(s): Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson Source: Worldgy, Vol. 17, No. 2, Ethnoarchaeology (Oct., 1985), pp. 222-239 Published b y : Ta y lor & Francis , Ltd. Stable URL: Accessed: 05/11/2010 15:45 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the p ublisher re g ardin g an y further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to World Archaeology. " id="pdf-obj-0-53" src="pdf-obj-0-53.jpg">

Taylor & Francis, Ltd. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to World Archaeology.

Pottery making in Upper Egypt:an ethnoarchaeological study

Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson


This paper deals with the work of the 'BallasPottery Project', an ethnoarchaeologicalexpedi- tion to the potting village of Deir el-Gharbi,Upper Egypt. The villageis situated some 628 kin, south of Cairo, and about 40 km, north of Luxor by road or river,and is on the west bank of

the Nile (Figs. 1 and 2). The site was visited briefly by one of us (P.T.N.) in 1983, while work-


for the British Mission at

Tell el-Amarna(Middle Egypt) and the expedition, which under-

took fieldworkin April 1984,

was a result of that visit.

The industry produces only one type of vessel, which is named after the nearby village of Ballds (hence the expedition name), an amphoralike jar used primarily for carryingwater. These jars (pl. Baldlis) are made from a fme marl clay, extracted from the nearby hills of the

western desert, which has a white surface when fired. This clay source appearsto have been known since antiquity and Pharaonicand Roman vessels, often of formnssimilar to those pro- duced today, were almost certainly made there. A programmeof researchcurrently underway

should throw new light on this question. Although the village of Ballas lies some 5 kms away, the modern village of Deir el-Gharbiencompasses the remains of the ancient Palace site of

Ballas, which was excavated by Reisner in the middle of this century, and there is earlier occupation from the area at the Amratian and Gerzean(or Naqada I and

evidence of II c. 4000-

3000 B.C.) cemetery at Ballds (Petrie and Quibell, 1895). It is even possible that the marl fabrics which began to appearin Gerzeantimes were of a Ballas/Deirel-Gharbi clay (Trigger, 1983, 33). The long established location of the site, along with the relatively simple technology em- ployed by the potters, weremajor factors in our choice of the villageas a study area.In addition, although there have been severalethnographic studies of potteries, (Balfet, 1966; Whitehouse,

1977; Gosden, 1982), these that described here. We felt

have tended to concentrate on smaller or simpler industriesthan that a study of the Ballas industry could offer a valuable insight

into a mode of pottery production which Peacock has defined as 'a ruralnucleated industry'

(Peacock, 1982, 9 and 42-3), comprisingindividual workshops grouped together 'to form a more or less tightly clusteredindustrial complex'. Peacock using ethnographicwork has isolated the main features of such industries,which produce a fairly standardizedrange of high quality, usually more specialized wares and rely heavily on the professional dealer for distribution. These characteristicsare clearly seen in the Ballds industry. However, although Peacock's


Volume 1 7No. 2

? R.K.P. 1985 0043-8243/85/1702-222






Pottery makingin UpperEgypt










  • 7 \ <'~~~~~~~



E3El-Mi nya















showing key towns and cities.







potteries at Deir el-Gharbi.

  • 224 Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson

analysis of production modes is very useful, he fails to discussin any depth how stichcindustries might be reflected in the archaeologicalrecord. Thus our main aims were to recordthe industryin detail, preferablywith a full photographic

record, and to examine its archaeologicalcorrelates (Binford, 1983). Besides an inl;erestin ceramic technology we wante.dto investigate some of the social and economic aspects of the industry, and for this we were fortunate enough to be assisted on two occasions by Mr. Paul

Blank of the University of Austin, Texas, who acted as interpreter.Through our


as well as through informantsat a nearby school, we

learnedthat the industrywas at a turning

point, and was declining rapidly, for reasons which we will examine below. In view of this,

we paid even greaterattention to its recording,not least because the industry has some quite unusualfacets.

In what follows the production process is described in chronological ord-r,

ological correlatesof each stage are discussed.

anid the archae-


One of the more unusual features of the industry at Deir el-Gharbiis thu ronethodof clay extraction, this takes the form of adit mining. The mines enter the hillsides at some little

distance (about

40 minutes on foot) from the village, and are situated on the fringes of the

western lesert. The mine entrances are marked by piles of rubble and occasion ly also by

large piles of clay blocks awaiting transport to the village. The narrowentrance leads into a wide cavern partly filled with spoil and rubble, producinga tunnel'like effect. This branches out, each branchleading off into one or more huge galleries.

It had been hoped that it might be possible to survey one of the galleries,but this proved impossible and it can only be stressedthat they are extremely largei From collapsedexamples it seems that at the very least a small house could be fitted into some of them. The mines are entirely unsupported, no formnof 'pit props' being employed anywhere. They rely purely on the strength of the hard marl clay, for this reason mining is impossible during the winter months (December to mid March)taking place for only nine months of the year, for far of damp causing collapse. It is not unheard of for unexpected collapses to be fatal. The mines are also unlit except by candles, oil or gas lanternsand even these are few in number.This was one of the main obstaclesto any kind of surveying.

Tim4miners themselves told us that

they had long ('for thousandsof years') been a prof ssion

separate from that of the potters. Each group of

miners snuppliedspecific potters bit did not

belong to any particularworkshop, nor did they come from the same families as

the potters.

The miners had a distinct accent, difficult for even our fluent interpreterto follow, and were of a lower statuxsthan the potters. The tools they use are very basic; an iron spike for use as a wedge, a steel mallet, and a pick-

axe. The method


working is not

so much



seams of clay, -for the hills are Iargely

of clay, but to avoid areasof lime includedamong the deposits. A workingface is worked from

top to bottom in step fashion, as blocks a.reloaded on to donkeys,

in some stone quarries,by which can be brought into

breakingoff sizeable blocks. Tfbhe the mine, or camels for transpor

tation. Alternatively,the blocks are taken, by donkey, to the mine entranceand piled outside,

where they are later collected by a tractor

and trailer. This representsone of the few modern

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt 225

inroadsinto this otherwise, fairly traditionalindustry. The tractor is either owned, or borrowed, by only one group of miners and although it takes largerloads than do the animalsit cannot enter the mines, which is inconvenient. To the archaeologist,the mine itself would be obvious, given that it did not completely

collapse, but traces of the miners would be far less evident. Each group of miners have what

few tools they possess

kept in underground camps, along with spare lamps, fuel, and tea-

making accessories.The camps might be detected by traces of the fires, used by some groups

in food preparationrather than a

stove, and by scatters of food debris. It is unlikely that any

tools would remain to be found at the camps. Also, because there are in total so few tools

in the mines, and the area covered by mining is so large, the chances of recovery would again be slim; except for chance finds of lost items, much would depend on how frequent collapses had been over former floor levels. The positions of lamps or candlescan sometimesbe seen by patches of sooting on the sides of the gallerynear the work face. There are no penningfacilities for the donkeys, which serve as a kind of 'pit porny',they are simply hobbled and taken back to the village when not in use. Their only traces are the inevitable dung and small heaps of

foliage broughtin as

fodder and later discarded.

It was extremely difficult to find out how mnuchthe miners received for their labours. However, it appears that for enough clay to make 1,000 medium sized Balalis, they received

about fifty EgyptianPounds (EL 50).

Clay preparation

Once at the village, the clay blocks are piled about fifteen workshopsat Deir el-Gharbiand,

up around the workshop till required.There are althoughindependently owned they are clustered

in groups of three to five around their respectiveclay puddling pits and wells, with the kilns lying off to one side (Plate 1). Pairs of workshops built with one common wall, often with a window linking the two independent units, are quite usual. Each workshop has a work force

comprisinga potter and three assistants,all male. The potter remainsat his wheel throughout the working day, while the three assistantscarry out a variety of tasks. Occasionallysome of the male children are seen to help. Although the women work in the fields, it is unheardof for

a woman to be Before use,

involvedin the potting industry,the work was too hard for them we were told. the large blocks of clay are reduced, by hammering,into smaller roughly fist

sized lumps. They

are then

put into a stone lined soakingpit to be softened. The pits are about


cms deep and

2.5-3 m

in diameter, and are


by channels to a well. Despite its

hard, rock-like appearance,the clay softens quite readily in water. When sufficiently soaked, the clay is trampled for 3 hours by two water buffalo and an assistant from the workshop (Plate 2). The 3 hour period consists of two 1?/2 hour sessions, the water buffalo being hired from the agriculturalistsfor this purpose. Any large pieces of lime which come to the notice of the assistantare removedat this stage. It is common to find one well being sharedby two workshops,and it is often unclearwhich

features of the workshop yard belong to which workshop. This partly reflects the cooperation between groups of workers which exists except when there is good, brisk, business when

competition is more marked. A plan of a workshop and its associated features is given in


  • 226 PaulNicholson and Helen Patterson








I~ ~~I'





  • i- ;Clay







~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ l



Figure 3 Plan of workshops and associated features.

For the archaeologist there would be little difficulty in recognizing that some form of

industrial activity took

place in these yard areas, even though the clay piles would probably

have been removed. The pits and their associated well channels would be sufficient indication. However, determining that this had been a pottery workshop might be more difficult. The workshops are clustered on the edge of the settlement bordering on the desert. Potteries often

have such locations (Peacock, 1982, 38) but so do other antisocial or unpleasant activities, such

as tanneries. These

latter also use pits. The density of broken sherds would be of no help, as

very few are to be found in this area, certainly no more than in a domestic context. The surest

way of determining the use of such yards would be by excavating the associated workshop,

but even these are not unequivocal.

If of course, there could be total excavation the kilns

would be the obvious clue, but these are located even beyond the workshop and would be outside the range of all but the largest, or the problem orientated excavation, especially in times of limited finance.

Indoor clay preparation, and Stage I of vessel forming

Once thoroughly trampled, clay is taken in armfuls, into the workshop (see Fig. 4 for plan of workshop), where it is spread in a roughly circular, low mound on the cobbled floor. During

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt 227

the aftemoon of each day this clay is trampled for about three hours and any remaininglime

particles removed. Tramplingis an exhaustingjob, even for two skilled assistants.There is a set pattern in which the clay is turned and trampled until it is deemed sufficiently well prepared.

At this point it is heaped up againstthe wall of

the workshopwhere it adjoinsthe dryingroom;

any surplusis placed againstthe wall near the entrance.The clay is usually coveredwith damp

sack cloth to prevent it from becoming too hard to work, especially importantwhen overnight.

it is left

The process of vessel forming begins in the afternoon, when the first part of each

vessel is

made. It should be recalledthat while all other operationsare continuing,in

the potter and and, despite its

one assistant are busy producingthe vessels. The industryis primitivenature, efficient.

this case trampling, very well organized

In the first stage, the assistantremoves from the pile of preparedclay a slab about 5 to 10 cm

thick and the length of his arm.This he cuts from the face of the pile using his fingers,the clay

being fairly soft. He takes the slab to the bench where he begins to

it), much as describedby Birks (1975, 13-14). This is

done on the

fold and knead it ('wedge' work bench (mastaba) on

a specially built sloping ramp. Ultimately, it is rolled on this into a tall cone (Plate 3). The ramp

is dusted with chaff or ash to preventthe clay sticking. The cone is then slammedsmartly down

on the flat surfacenext to the


in orderto compact it. The assistantskilfully judges if the

cone is too tall, and if so nips off the surplusfrom the top, throwingit back onto the trampling

floor. Whilst the assistanthas been doing this, the potter has been making the previousvessel

top which he now throws to the assistant who carriesit into the drying room, located behind


potter. The potter sits the cone in the bucket-shapedwheel-head and increasesits speed

by kicking the fly wheel more vigorously. He then begins to open up the cone and shape it

into the shoulders, neck and rim of a vessel (Plate 4). The operation takes

only two to three

minutes, and during this time the next cone has been prepared.The bottom of the prepared vessel upper remains a solid lump of clay, untouched where it has been sitting in the wheel- head. In the dryingroom it stands on this lump. Vessels remainin the long drying room (Plate 5) until the potter has completed about 30. At this point, one of the assistants leaves the trampling floor and accompanied by, in the case studied, an apprenticewho was still at school, takes an armful of preparedclay and a jar of water into the drying room. Here they wet the clay thoroughly and the senior assistantpulls the handles while the young apprentice applies them with considerableskill and rapidity. It is of interest that the potter plays no part in the process, so that studies of handle form and especially their method of fixing could give spurious results. Were one to look for evidence of workshop continuity it would not be found in this case, as the assistant who applied the handleswas likely to go into anotherprofession when he completed his schooling. At the end of the afternoon, at about 5 p.m., the vessels in the drying room, now mostly complete with handles, are covered with sorghumstems to insulate them from the frost. This becomes less necessary later in the season and is probably abandoned.The clay piles are left coveredwith damp cloth to keep them workable.

Vessel forming,Stage II

At 5 a.m. the next morning work is resumed.The potter spendingthe whole day at his wheel,



of the










Deir el-






ground are the

piles of







and soaking pits,




workshops are grouped.






the kilns, denoted

by mounds

of slag and





vessels ready for trans-


Water buffaloes





In the foreground


one of the assistants is

putting unrefined lumps

of clay into a pit, ready




h 4 y a
kneading clay into the cone the nc
cone the

Plate 3

A potter making the upper part of


Ballas vessel. Meanwhile, his assistant is



from which

form the next vessel top.






one of the groups of ii wworkshops 2 " gg at Deir el- ( Gharbi. In
-Px. -.0~~
one of the groups of ii wworkshops 2 " gg at Deir el- ( Gharbi. In

Plate 4 A potter forming the upper part of

a Ballas jar. Note the kickwheel and bucket





Facing the





the fixed features of the workshop

bench; the sloping surface, and two bowls

for dust and slurry.


Plate 5

The top parts of the vessels laid out





drying room.

Handles have

yet to b-e applied on those

on the left'. Note


bales of

sorghum stems to the right of






over the




evening to



in the cool night air.







the bottom

part of

a Ballds jar. Note

the cord placed

around the widest point

of the vessel.












to the wheel head; the lump


clay on which it

stands will be drawn up to

form the base of the vessel.

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt


while the assistants undertake a variety of jobs. The morning's work is, almost literally, the inverse of the previous afternoon's work. The assistant now takes the vessel tops out of the drying room and inverts them on the wheel-head. The wheel-head is bucket-shapedand has slits to receive the handles.Also, there is often a central plug of clay to keep the vessel centred. The upper part is now sufficiently dry to withstand being inverted, but the largelump of clay

at its base (now

uppermost)can still be workedwith a minimumof damping.

The potter proceeds to open this lump of clay as though he were drawingup a tall, slightly

flaring vessel.

However, once he reaches the point of maximum circumferencehe begins to

close the orifice. He then slows his wheel and taking a length of cord passes it around this

widest point. Normal speed is then resumed and the dome-shapedbase of the vessel drawn upward. The hole in the apex of the dome, left by the potter's finger, is then plugged with clay. This is either done as a sharp action, and the base quickly but efficiently smoothed off,

or with a flurry to leave a spiral pattern runningup to and over the plug. The now completed vessel is then removed from the wheel and taken outside, by the assistant, to dry. While the potter completes his vessel the assistanthas alreadybrought in the next top (Plate 6). From an archaeologist'sview point, the workshop itself would leave few indications of its original function, in the archaeologicalrecord. The cobbled floor of the workshop looks very much like that found in cattle, or other animalsheds. The impressionthat these are animal

sheds is reinforcedby the

void left by the removalof the potter's wheel. On the abandonment

of a workshop, the wheel is amongst the first things to be removed. It leaves a mangershaped void in the mastaba inside which one often finds traces of wind-blown or humanly deposited

vegetation. It might be objected that doors of a width designed for humans would at once indicate to the excavator that this could not possibly be a building for the use of animals. Unfortuntely, this is not so. In fact, the primaryuse of a workshop, once abandoned,is as a cattle shed, and animals as large as water buffalo pass through the narrow doorwaywith little difficulty (Plate 7). As shade for the animalspart of the roof is often left on these buildings,

though less commonly on the drying room which is more rarely used for


fodder is brought in for the animals, and its remains,along with the inevitable dung, are the most obvious features of these workshops once they have been abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair.Sherds of pottery are not to be found in most workshops, except in very low numbers,probably slightly less than in domestic contexts. Unfortunately,we were unable to examine, or find, any recently abandonedhouses. However, certain features specific to its potting function are still visible in an abandoned

workshop. On the mastaba, in mud or mud brick, the remains of the sloping ramp for clay wedging, two bowls for dust and slurry, and a flat surface on which to stand completed cones

or the upper part of

the vessel, are still in evidence. Other potential clues, are the position of

the trampling floor, which is always to the potter's left, and that of the drying room usually situated behind the potter (Fig. 4). The use of 'wasters'(misfirings) in the constructionof the

workshops is ambiguous, since they also occur in houses and other buildings in a wide area aroundthe potteries.

The drying rooms are virtually impossible to identify, except in connection with

the work-

shop, and if only a drying room were located in a trench, it would probablybe interpretedas an animal shed. The only striking feature is a hollow path runningdown the centre, on either side of which the pots once stood. However, it seems likely that such a feature may be found in other structures.


Paul Vicholson and Helen Patterson

























~ 2 @>w

h e


l g

















Fig'ure 4

Plan and section of a typical potter's workshop.



workshops are completely

dug out to leave a rectangular void, these could


be identified in terms of size, based on analogy with positively identified structures.


Once -ihe vessels are fully formed and have left the workshop they are invertedon the ground

in an area adjacentto the kilns.

Here they dry in the sun and are eventually stood the fight way

'tp. During drying, the cord put on for support, comes off and is removed for re-use. Its impres-

sito3t1however, remaiis as a permaneent feature of the vessel. One wonders if corded beakerswere

made ifn a similar


the cord being removed before firing (Van der Leeuw, 1974). When

a bout 00-700 vessels aro thoroughly dried, preparationis mad' for firing. Firstly fuel, in the

form of sorghum purchased from the agriculturalists, is brou ght


the kilns. The bales of

sorghum are stacked out in the deser, where many hundreds can be seen. They are transported,

usually two at a time, by camel. About 70 bales are required for each firing.

The kilns are of the updraughttype and are capable of holding approximately500 to 700

vessels at each firing. They are built of mud brick which fires in situ (Plate 8). It can be seen

frornFiglre 5 that the kiln has no tunnel leadingto the fire, merely a stoke hole.

The vexsels are stacked in the

iln inverted, so that they rest on their rims and those nearest

tthe wail slant so as to touch the sides. The vessels are densely packed. Each layer of pots is

sepairatad from the next by a sherd inserted between it and the vessel above. The kln is stackd

to the top, the uppermost layer of So vell-packedare the vessels that

vessels havingtheir bases level with the top of the kiln wall. an assistant is able to squai.on them while he covers them

with a layer of broken sherds. This layer of sherds is the only coveringfor the kiln, except for occasional sprinkdingsof chaff during f iirig. It serves as a further reminder that even quite

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt 231

large, permanent kilns do not require a fixed dome structure.This is something all too clear from much experimental work (e.g. Bryant, 1971), where domes have proved impractical.A

covering of sherds naturally suggestsitself in

an area where there

is a dense concentration of

broken vessels, it is not so obvious on a 'virgin'experimental kiln site. We intended to record the temperatureof a kiln during firing, and eventuallywere allowed to do so. However, because of difficulties in moving equipment, and because this was intended

as a trial study, we had only one thermocouple,of the platinum-rhodiumtype. We were unable to insert this through the wall of the kiln, particularlysince the kilns are built into mounds of ash and sherds, so it was inserted through the kiln top. Firing usually begins at about 5 a.m. and continues for about 31/2to 4 hours, on this occasion, until 8.40 a.m. The thermocouple, though designed to withstand temperaturesin excess of 10000C, failed after 31/2hours having

recorded only 8600C. Nonetheless, the rate of climb of the graph(Fig.

6), indicated a tempera-

ture in the order of 1000?C at peak, that is after 3 hours 40 minutes as no 'soak time' seems

to be allowed. Subsequent re-firing experiments kindly undertaken under the auspices of Dr. P. F. Messer, Sheffield University, Department of Ceramics, Glasses, and Polymers, indicateda firingtemperature of 10000C, and 1 1000Cin the case of an over-firedsherd. During firing, the bales of sorghum are fed in, allowed to bum, then raked to produce maximum heat. Periodically,a jet of flame will shoot through the kiln top and at such times an assistant douses the top with chaff. The densest smoke occurs duringthe feeding of the fire, whereas the peak flame, or ratherheat intensity, occurs duringraking, and it is at this time that chaff and straw are thrown on to the kiln top, especially where flame bursts through. The

potters claimed that they 'just knew' when the temperaturewas correct, though we suspect that they were able to judge by a combination of flame colour and time, certainly the flame colour varied even to the untrainedeye. After a firing,the potters returnto the workshop and

begin productionof the After two days, the

next batch of vessels. The kiln is left for two days

to cool throughly.

kiln is unloaded and the vessels stacked on their sides, awaiting distri-

bution. It is usual to find that 5 to 10%of any firing are wasters. The most common firing

fault is lime spalling, caused by the expansion of lime particlesnot removedduring trampling. Some of these spalls are minor, and the vessel can be sold, whereas others burn right through and a void is left where the limnecracked out. These are unsaleable. Also useless, except as

building material, are those vessels which have bloated through over-firingin the

kiln, or those

which have grossly under-fired,the latter being more rare. Ideally, and in any future study,

'Buller'sRings' would have been used to determinewhere over and under-firingmost commonly occurs in kilns. There is considerablecolour variationin any given firing. Along with the usual

white buff vessels are some pink and some dark olive green vessels. These latter often have a

lustrous glossy surface where excess vitrification has occurred, and though

over-firedare sale-

able. The white surface is the result of the migrationof salts, present in the clay, to the vessel

surface(Matson, 1974, 136-7). In terms of archaeologicaltraces it is to

be expected that the kilns would be the most easily

identified feature, and this is largely true. However, every

few years, between five and ten,

the kilns are demolishedand re-builtor even re-sited.As the industrydeclines so do the number of kilns, and this has resultedin a seriesof bowl-shapedvoids left in the moulds of ash or sherds where the kilns once stood (Plate 9). No trace of the superstructureremains in such cases. However, the kilns are the only area of the production site on which great densities of broken pottery are to be found, and 'slag' that is vitrified material.We observed,out of interest, kilns


WN~ MMVM.Plate .. 4.M. Plate 11 Fired vessels in partially unloaded kiln. Note the way the
MMVM.Plate .. 4.M.
Plate 11 Fired vessels in partially unloaded kiln. Note the way the vessels are stacked, and
Plate 11
Fired vessels in partially unloaded
kiln. Note
the way the vessels are stacked,
and the roundish patch on the base of each
vessel where the
placed to separate one layer from the next.
WN~ MMVM.Plate .. 4.M. Plate 11 Fired vessels in partially unloaded kiln. Note the way the
7 A disusedworkshop now servesas an animal shed. Note the gap in the bench where the
A disusedworkshop now servesas
an animal shed. Note
gap in the bench
where the wheel once stood,
and the large
amount of fodder strewn over the floor
and the workshop bench.

Plate 8

A kiln.

Note the

two long iron rods,


can just

be seen








for raking the

fuel during

a firing.







has been



Very little,

if anything, remains of the

actual kiln.structure.

Plate 10


first stage



decay of


disused kiln, the collapse



kiln wall

above ground level. The second stage is the




centre of the gridded mud

brick kiln floor.

Pottery makingin Upper.Egypt 233

in variousstages of decay. It seems that the upper wall is first to collapse (Plate 10), taking with it the centre of the gridded floor of the firing chamber.This is then followed by parts of the

arch above the

stoke hole, and ultimately other areas of brickwork.It appearshowever, that

kilns are usually repaired or removed before they collapse entirely. Rather perversely, their only secondary use seems to be as latrines,and this is unlikely to complicate any archaeological interpretation.No indication of the vast areas used for fuel storage would be found. These lie at a little distancefrom the village and from the workshops,presumably beyond sparkdistance, out in the desert. Occasionallythere are traces of rows of small stones around the bales, but these are sporadicand ephemeraland could even have been made by local children.

Distributionand marketing

Baedeker(1902, 231) states of Ballds,that 'jarssome of considerablesize, lie on the banks(of the Nile) awaiting shipment'. This is one of the few aspects of pottery manufacturewhich seems to have changed. It appears that the major distributionis now by lorry, we were told that this was quicker, and surprisingly,resulted in fewer breakages.Apart from those people in the vicinity who buy vessels directly from the potters for their own consumption,buyers of

the Ballas jars seem to range from the

small scale trader who hires a lorry for the

day and

collects one lorry load of vessels which he then distributesaround his home area by donkey, to the large-scalemiddleman, by far the largest purchaser,who collects severallorry loads of vessels, sometimes having first called at Qena to purchaseother types of pottery such as the

water cooling zirs, which he then sells to the large markets, mainly in the Delta area. These vessels are distributedthroughout Egypt, from Cairo to Aswan, and until the arrivalof plastics and piped water, were the universalwater carryingvessels. They are to be seen for sale at many ruraland urbanmarkets alongside local pottery. Some middlemen and individual buyers prefer the work of a particularpotter, who may make especially heavy or light vessels. Also there is some preference as to colour, milk or honey are sometimes kept in the underfiredvessels rather than the correctly fired white ones. Decoration is also of some interest in this context. The potters apply decoration either in

slack moments to break the monotony, or when it has

been requested by a particulardealer.

It consists generallyof a horizontal band of combed or wavy lines, such decorated vessels are much less common than plain vessels. It is notoriously difficult to obtain the prices paid for these vessels. One fact does emerge

however, it is the middlemanand/or retailerwho the potters receive about EL 400 for 1000 jars

makes most of the profit. We were told that of medium size, and that whereas five years

ago each jar would have sold for 5 piastres (about 5p), they would now be 75 to 100 piastres

each. These figures should be treated with caution however, and are best regardedas orders of magnitude.

The vessels

The vessels themselves are of considerableinterest and have some lessons to

teach us as archae-

ologists. The first thing to notice on the vessels is that most of those with white surfaceshave a

  • 234 Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson

pink patch on the base (Plate

1 1). This is the result of placing a sherd between

each layer of

vessels in the kiln. The same mark is commonly observed on vessels of a similarfabric found duringexcavations of the ancient palace of Ballas and has been noted on the pottery from the current excavations at Tell el-Amarna. Secondly, we have already spoken of the potential dangers of placing too great an emphasis on handle typologies. In this context, we examined some of the other featuresof the jars from an archaeologist'sstandpoint.







1 m.







Section through

a kiln.





The vessels are produced in three sizes; large, medium and mon and medium by far the most frequent, how would the

small, large being the least com- archaeologistcorrectly arriveat

this conclusion?To this end we measuredthe diametersof the rims of a series of vessels;twenty

for each potter studied on in piles of more than ten).

the small and medium, and ten on the large(which rarelyoccurred

We found from

this that althoughthe mean diametervaried, in each

case the range of diameters for the large and small categories imcludedmany of the vessels which actually belonged to the medium category, in fact by far the most common. It is highly

likely that this would result in only two categories being postulated. However,measurements

of the circumferenceat the widest point

of the vessel again showed that the means would be

different, but, more significantly, there was no overlap in the range of diameters obtained.

Three relatively clear groups emerged. These data are summarizedin Figure 7. As

noted the point

of maximum circumferenceis easily ascertainedby the string line,

has been and so is

measurablefrom sherds. We do not suggestthat this feature is applicableto all other situations,

but we would suggest that those dealingwith vessels of this type, such as globular amphorae, might considermeasuring variables other than rim diametersto see if size classesbecome clearer. We also wished to determinehow individualpotters differentiatedtheir work from that of

their colleagues, given that all produce

similar vessels.

Following on from work begun by

Peter Lacovara(Lacovara, pers. comm.), we questioned the potters on this matter (cf. Hill, 1978), and especially on whether the rim was a significant feature. They said that such a category was too narrow, and implied that they could distinguishthe pots of different work- shops on the basis of the overall appearanceof the vessel, as one potter said 'pots are like

people, each alike yet different from others'. However, we drew the profiles of the rims of vessels produced by four different potters (Fig. 8), and they were clearly shown to be different. Despite the potters' statement, it seems that in a sherd collection they would only be able to

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt

23 5


900 - 800 700 600 500 400 300 200 100 50 Temperature in C 0 I
in C






I_T ___






Figure 6 Graph showing the temperature recorded during a kiln firing.

differentiate their work by rim formn,and there is no doubt that variation here is characteris-tic.

Another feature which we noted on our return, but not at the time, is that the vessels ap ,eC.r

to exhibit a particular kind of fracture at the point where the top and bottom parts of the

vessel meet, that is the point from which the base was drawn up on the second day of produc-

tion. Such fractures are known from other types of vessel and are even illustra-K->I1 on Greek

painted vases (Noble, 1966: 11 and Fig. 252). We did not ascertain how frequerf.; -`hic breaks

were. Lastly, because the vessels are thrown in two parts, one inverted and the other not,

the turning lines on the vessels run in two different directions. We must be wary of irnterpreting

this as indicative of different workshops, one with a wheel rotating anti-clockwise and one

clockwise, if there is only a limited sample of pottery to work on.

The potters and industrial decline

It has frequently been noted that potting is a low status

occupation, but since most st.udies have

  • 236 Paul Nicholson and Helen Patterson

concentrated on smallindustries we decided to question the potters and other membersof their

society about their social standing.The potters told us that they dislikedtheir work, that it was hard and unrewarding,and one potter stressed that he hoped his childrenwould not follow his

trade. They

work twelve hours each day for nine months of the year, duringthe remainingtime

they attend to repairsand do other odd jobs. We were told by them that they had no access to

land and so could not take up agriculture,a life which they said they would prefer.The local

school teachers confirmed the low status of the

potters, especially in relation to clericaljobs,

currently seen as the most readily attained status position. According to the teachers, the

potters were paid more than the clerical workersthough despite this lower status in practice,

we believe, they also earned less. The potters we met were without exception,

illiterate but the

better educated children hoped to leave the industry, and since the draw of Saudi Arabian money is strongit is likely that many may find work there.


  • 0 F



rim diam.













rim diam.























Figure 7 Graphshowing the groupingsof Ballasvessels obtained on the basis of (a) measure-

ments of

the rim diameters of the vessels, (b) measurementsof the maxrnum circumference

of the vessels.

In addition, it must be said, that the industry at Deir ekGharbihas suffered a dramatic decline over the last few years. There are two main reasons for this, firstly, the decline in

Pottery makingin UpperEgypt 237

demand; the increasing number of households with piped water and refrigerators,and the increase in metal and plastic containersis greatly reducingthe need for specializedvessels such as the Ballasjar. Secondly, the decline in the labour force, as mentioned above, the young men no longer wish to work in the pottery industries,preferring to head for Saudi Arabia,where large sums of money can easily be made. It was this decline which led us to ensure that a detailed photographic record was obtained, it remains for others to document more fully the socio-economic aspects of the society. It might be thought that the introductionof modern equipment might help the industry. Although the potters are aware of this technology, they refuse to use it; an electric wheel, accordingto them, did not allow the potter enough control over the tuming of the vessels, a regulated kiln would not work, 'all the pots would break'. The potters' conservativeattitude and determinationto adhere to traditional techniques is a third and possibly the final factor in the decline of the industry. It should be mentioned that

given the erratic nature of the local power be well-founded.

supply, their misgivingswould, perhapsprove to




Figure 8

The characteristicrim shapesof the

vessels of four different potters.


In conclusion it must be said that despite the largesize of the industry,its distinctiveproducts

and their wide distribution, itg traces are more archaeologistto interpret with certainty were he

problematic, and would be difficult for the not to excavate the whole complex. The low

238 PaulNicholsonandHelenPatterson

density of pot wasters are not

sherds in all areas but the kilns is also of interest, as is the fact that reused confined to the workshopbut are found over many miles. Fortunatelyhowever,

some of the features of the workbench (mastaba) are sufficiently durableto allow the correct identificationof the workshop, providedthat the bench itself remains. We hope that this study, though a pilot project for us, has provided a useful and detailed

body of data from which others might profit, or which may at least generate ideas. Certainly our own knowledge of pottery production has been greatly enhanced, as has our knowledge of field techniques. We would emphasizeto other workers the need to take more than one set of readings during kiln firings, something we shall attempt in any future work. We hope also that we have provideda lasting record of an industryon the point of changeor decline, perhaps the end of an industrywhich spansfrom the days of the Pharaonicempire to our own.


We wish to thank the following bodies for their encouragementand fimancialsupport: The Society of Antiquaries of London, The Royal GeographicalSociety, Sigma Xi - the Scientific Research Association, The University of Sheffield Expeditions Fund and the Petrie Watson ExhibitionsCommittee. We also wish to thank our supervisorsat Sheffield University,Dr Richard Hodges and Dr

John Collis for their help and advice. Much assistance in Egypt was provided by Mr Barry


Ms Pamela Rose, Professor Lanny Bell, and Mr Paul Blank

to whose fluency in Arabic

we are

most grateful. Practicalhelp and hospitality were provided in 1983, and furtheradvice

in 1984 by Peter Lacovara,and Ms Janine Bourriaualso provideduseful references. To these and to the potters of Deir el-Gharbiwe are deeply grateful.

28.ii. 1985

Dept. of Archaeology and Prehistory Sheffield University


Baedeker, K. 1902. Egypt. Leipsic: Baedeker.

Balfet, H. 1966.

Ethnographical observations in North Africa and archaeological interpretation.

In Ceramics and Man (ed. F. R. Matson). London: Methuen, 161-77.

Binford, L. R. 1983. In Pursuit of the Past. London: Thames & Hudson.

Birks, T. 1975. Outline Guide to Pottery. Poole: Blandford Press.

Bryant, G. F. 1971. An experimental firing of a replica medieval kiln at Barton-on-Humber,

Lincs. Journal of the Northampton Museums and Art Gallery 9: 77-89.

Gosden, C. H. 1982. The recognition and interpretation of the exchange of pottery in the



1 (2):




preliminary results. Archaeological




Hill, J. N. 1978. Individuals and their artifacts: an experimental study in archaeology. American


43: 245-57.

Pottery making in Upper Egypt 239

Matson, F. R. 1974. Technological studies of Egyptian pottery - modern and ancient. In

Recent Advances in Science and Technology of Materials: Second Cairo Solid State Conference,

1983 (ed. A. Bishay). London, 129-39.

Noble, J. V. 1966. The Techniques of Attic Painted Pottery. London: Faber & Faber.

Peacock, D. P. S. 1982. Pottery in the Roman World. Harlow: Longmans.

Petrie, W. M. F. and Quibell, J. E. 1895. Naqada and Ballas. Quaritch: London.

Trigger, B. G. 1983.

The Rise of Egyptian Civilization. In Ancient

Egypt: A Social History

(eds B. G. Trigger, B. J. Kemp, D. O'Connor and A. B. Lloyd). London: Cambridge University

Press, 1-70.

van der Leeuw, S. E. 1974. Neolithic beakers from the Netherlands: the potters' point of view.

In Glockenbecher Symposium (eds. J. N. Lanting and J. D. van der Waals). Oberried, 81-139.

Whitehouse, D. 1977. Kangan: una fabbrica tradizionale di ceramiche nell'Iran meridionale.

In X Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica, 41-64.


Nicholson, Paul and Patterson,Helen

Pottery makingin Upper Egypt: an ethnoarchaeologicalstudy

Despite the enormous importance of pottery to the archaeologist, detailed ethnoarchaeological

studies of pottery production are rare, and tend to concentrate on the most primitive forms of

pottery production. The study of the potteries and clay mines at Deir el-Gharbi, Upper Egypt

was undertaken with this in mind. The potteries are of a type defined by David Peacock as a

'rural nucleated pottery industry', they produce large amphora-like vessels which are distributed



The study

revealed much




of clay extraction and

pottery production, as well as something of their organization. More significantly, it shed some

new light on how such industries might or might not be reflected in the archaeological record.

A study of the vessels themselves revealed several points of interest for the study of wheel-

turned ceramic assemblages generally.