Although BAR readers may be familiar with my work on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much of my research has focused on ancient pottery. In fact, I started out as a ceramics specialist, writing a dissertation on the Late Roman and Byzantine pottery of Jerusalem (a topic, I was warned, that would never get me a job!). Whereas archaeologists who specialize in earlier periods pay a lot of attention to pottery, archaeologists working in the Roman and Byzantine periods tend to focus on more “glamorous” remains such as monumental structures, mosaics and inscriptions.
Recovered by the crate load, potsherds are the most common find on archaeological excavations in Israel, far surpassing other categories of artifacts. Pottery is abundant because it is virtually indestructible; unlike organic materials it does not disintegrate over time, and unlike stones and metal objects, broken pottery cannot be recycled and therefore was discarded (although potsherds were put to secondary use, for example as ostraca—a type of ancient Post-it note). Potsherds are also abundant because everyone in antiquity—rich and poor, rural and urban—owned ceramic dishes.
Because pottery is far more common than other types of finds, archaeologists pay a lot of attention to it. In fact, pottery plays a more central role in our understanding of the past than it did in the lives of the people who used it. Pottery is perhaps the most important dating tool in archaeology. Organic materials can be radiocarbon dated and coins carry their own date, but pottery cannot be dated by laboratory methods and does not have a date on it. Archaeologists date pottery by creating relative typologies based on stratigraphic sequences. This means that archaeologists use the pottery found in successive layers at ancient sites to create a relative sequence of types—pottery types from the lowest layers are earlier than those found in higher levels. After a relative sequence of types has been established, each type is dated on the basis of its association with other objects in the same level that carry their own date (such as coins).
Pottery is used this way as a means of dating the remains we dig up. Archaeologists love destruction because occupation levels affected by catastrophes (such as earthquakes or enemy invasions) often yield whole (usually smashed but restorable) pottery vessels lying where they were left.
Pottery also provides other kinds of information about the past. For example, the pottery vessels used by ancient people can tell us about their diet (and by way of extension their ethnic origin or background) since different types of dishes, pots and utensils are needed for the preparation and consumption of different cuisines (compare, for example, modern Western and Asian kitchens).
I recently published the pottery from the kiln works of the Tenth Roman Legion in Jerusalem. The Tenth Legion played a key role in the suppression of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, participating in the sieges of Jerusalem (70 C.E.) and Masada (73 C.E.). After the fall of Jerusalem the Tenth Legion was stationed in Jerusalem until c. 300 C.E., when it was transferred by the emperor Diocletian to Aila (modern Aqaba). The legion’s kiln works are located at the site of modern Jerusalem’s convention center (Binyanei Ha’uma). The pottery produced in the kiln works is strikingly different from the native types characteristic of ancient Judea. The legionary pottery consists of Roman types that are typical of military sites in the western Empire. These types include glossy red-slipped fine wares for drinking and dining (many pieces of which are decorated with gods, humans, animals and mythological figures) and vessels for cooking and preparing Italian cuisine (frittatas or quiches, polenta and pesto sauces).
The Roman legionary pottery from Binyanei Ha’uma is so different from the native types that it must have been produced by military potters. However, the Roman army did not usually manufacture its own pottery, but instead imported pottery or purchased it from local potters. At most legionary sites in Western Europe, for example, the pottery consists of imported fine wares and imitations of Roman types manufactured by native potters who sold their wares to the soldiers. The Tenth Legion brought military potters to Jerusalem because it was too expensive to import fine wares from Europe and because Judean potters were not trained in the Roman ceramic tradition. The military potters manufactured dishes and utensils necessary for the preparation of Roman cuisine.
My study of the legionary kiln works at Binyanei Ha’uma sheds new light on a relatively obscure episode in Jerusalem’s long history.
Although BAR readers may be familiar with my work on Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, much of my research has focused on ancient pottery. In fact, I started out as a ceramics specialist, writing a dissertation on the Late Roman and Byzantine pottery of Jerusalem (a topic, I was warned, that would never get me a job!). Whereas archaeologists who specialize in earlier periods pay a lot of attention to pottery, archaeologists working in the Roman and Byzantine periods tend to focus on more “glamorous” remains such as monumental structures, mosaics and inscriptions. Recovered by the crate load, […]