In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ceramics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Development of Methodology
  • Reference Works
  • The Iron Age Chronology Debate

Biblical Studies Ceramics
S. Rebecca Martin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0107


Ceramics offer insights into human behaviors, technologies, and economies in a way that is currently unmatched by any other class of artifact. The term ceramics, which comes from the Greek adjective κεραμικός or keramikos, meaning “[made] of pottery,” refers to materials made of fired clay. Clay pottery was used in the storing, preparing, cooking, and serving of food and drink. Pots were also used in personal and ritual contexts because of their functional and symbolic properties, from holding perfumes and makeup to performing ritual libations or burials. Wet clay is an elastic material that was worked or molded into a variety of other forms to make decorative tiles, game pieces, or sculpture of various scales. Ceramic was used to facilitate many commercial activities, notably overland and sea trade, and also to make industrial structures, including kilns and other ovens, roofing materials, and water systems. Ceramic had many other practical purposes and was used to make loom weights and lamps. Objects made of fired clay are breakable, but their material is nearly indestructible—they do not, under normal circumstances, decompose, and fired clay is not easily recycled. Therefore, ceramic objects are ubiquitous in archaeological sites that post-date pottery’s invention in the later Neolithic era (from c. 6400 BCE). Pottery especially comprises an important part of the field of Levantine archaeology. Pottery is sorted according to its technological properties, its form (morphology), its function, and its style and decoration, which are sometimes culturally indicative. Careful study of these characteristics has led to increasingly refined typologies (classification of types) of individual vessels, which allow for the understanding of a change in a pot’s appearance, use, or form over space and time. Indeed, one of pottery’s most exploited archaeological functions is chronological. A refined pottery typology can be used to create diagnostic groupings of pots, which are called assemblages or corpora. Assemblages help identify different human activities and, to some extent, different people within specific contexts. Mineral and chemical analyses, including petrography, X-ray fluorescence, and neutron activation analysis, among others, have aided in the sourcing of clays used in a variety of objects. The sourcing of clays contributes to the understanding of local, regional, and long-distance trade in raw clay and finished ceramics. Another emerging field in ceramics is mathematical-form analysis. These different approaches to the study of ceramics contribute invaluable information about everyday life.

General Overviews and Development of Methodology

While many overviews and anthologies treat the subjects of Near Eastern and biblical archaeology, book-length overviews of ceramics are few. Duncan 1930 and Wright 1937 give snapshots of the early systematic study of ceramics analysis championed by the famed Egyptologist Sir William M. Flinders Petrie at Tell Jemmeh (1926–1927), Tell el-Farah (south; 1928–1930), and other sites in southern Palestine. Petrie’s approach used sequence dating, a type of seriation (sequences). He established the relative sequence of pottery assemblages and tied them, so far as it was possible, to historical and biblical events. William F. Albright’s excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim in the 1920s made major leaps forward in stratigraphic excavation. Albright 1932 improved Petrie’s chronologically driven approach. Dame Kathleen Kenyon further refined Albright’s technique with her careful stratigraphic excavation of Jericho (Kenyon and Holland 1960–1983). By the mid-20th century, synthetic studies were not only possible, but also needed. The call was answered with publication of Palestinian Ceramic Chronology (Lapp 1961) and Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land (Amiran 1969 (the English version; the original was published in 1963). Although now out of date, both remain influential. Stern 1982, a study of the Persian period, picks up where Amiran 1969 stopped. Stern 1982 is still the most important overview of this period and includes both pottery vessels and figurines. Tal 2009 offers a recent archaeological overview (in Hebrew) of the Hellenistic period that has been compared to Stern 1982. See also Roman and Later Period Studies and Roman and Later Period Sites. More recent studies indicate the growing interest in the importance of context in pottery study. The trend of publishing archaeologically retrieved assemblages by context—and not only typologically—is now considered very important.

  • Albright, William F. The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim: Vol. 1, The Pottery of the First Three Campaigns. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1932.

    In this first final report from the site of Tell Beit Mirsim in southwestern Judea, Albright employed stratigraphic excavation to produce far more accurate pottery assemblages. Impressive especially for its treatment of Middle Bronze Age ceramics.

  • Amiran, Ruth. Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land. Jerusalem: Massada, 1969.

    The first major—and, to date, only—synthetic study of pottery found in Israel. It covers the Neolithic-Babylonian periods, including some imports.

  • Duncan, John Garrow. Corpus of Dated Palestinian Pottery. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1930.

    Pottery overview from a period when study of the Bible and Palestinian archaeology were closely linked. This study uses the typology of Petrie, which was developed according to (imperfect) morphological criteria. The text is nevertheless informative about the history of ceramic study.

  • Kenyon, Kathleen, and Thomas A. Holland. Excavations at Jericho. Vols. 1–5. London: British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, 1960–1983.

    The stratigraphic excavation of the site of Jericho on the West Bank was of critical importance to the development of modern archaeological technique. Volumes 4 and 5 of the final publication treat pottery.

  • Lapp, Paul W. Palestinian Ceramic Chronology, 200 B.C.–A.D. 70. New Haven, CT: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1961.

    A pioneering study driven by careful attention to pottery in all types of stratigraphic contexts. A useful reference for the Hellenistic and early Roman periods to this day.

  • Stern, Ephraim. Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period, 538–332 B.C.: Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips, 1982.

    The first major study of this period in which Stern developed the typology of Persian pottery according to morphology and, to a lesser extent, stratigraphic sequences. Although Stern remains the authority on this pottery and other ceramics of this period, notably terracotta figurines, his typology awaits refinement.

  • Tal, Oren. The Archaeology of Hellenistic Palestine: Between Tradition and Renewal (הארכיאולוגיה של ארץ-ישראל בתקופה ההלניסטית: בין מסורת לחידוש). Rev. 2d ed. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2009.

    First edition published in 2006. Survey arranged according to topics and regions. Tal is interested in the question of Palestine’s “Hellenization” (Greek acculturation) and concludes that Greco-Macedonian impact was limited. This thesis is not new, but it does challenge traditional perceptions. Tal’s argument is important, if somewhat uneven in its application.

  • Wright, George E. The Pottery of Palestine from the Earliest Times to the End of the Early Bronze Age. New Haven, CT: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1937.

    Another pioneering early study. The excavation of Jericho allowed Wright to refine the Petrie approach, which resulted in separating the Early Bronze age into two clear phases, the Early Bronze I and II.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.