Women, teenagers worked as potters in ancient Israel, scholars show

From previous research, it was assumed that pottery manufacturing was mainly carried out by professional potters, proving a certain level of sophistication in the society.

View of Early Bronze Age pottery in Tell es-Safi/Gath (photo credit: PROF. AREN M. MAEIR/THE TELL ES-SAFI/GATH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT/BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)
View of Early Bronze Age pottery in Tell es-Safi/Gath
(photo credit: PROF. AREN M. MAEIR/THE TELL ES-SAFI/GATH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT/BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY)
Over 3,500 years ago, a potter finished shaping a new jug in Gath, a settlement in the Judean foothills overlooking the southern coastal plain of Israel. Before firing the vessel in the kiln, maybe the artisan looked at it, even touched it one last time, perhaps feeling proud of the work, without imagining that a couple of millennia later, a group of researchers would not only find the artifact, but also identify the fingerprints on its surface, reconstructing the age and gender of the jug’s ancient manufacturer.
As explained to The Jerusalem Post by Bar Ilan University archaeologist Aren Maeir, the director of the excavations at the site known as Tell es-Safi/Gath, some 2,000 or 3,000 people probably lived in the settlement during the Early Bronze Age – between 3,000 and 2,500 BCE –, enough to consider it a city.
“It was probably one of the many Canaanite city-states in the region at the time,” he said.
Together with several scholars of the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Canada), Maeir co-authored a paper which was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzing over 100 fingerprints identified on 47 Bronze Age vessels unearthed in the area, in one of the first studies pursuing this venue of research.
“Pottery remains are among the most common findings in excavations because they survive very well through the ages. We studied various aspects of pottery, where it was produced, what was the purpose and how it changed over time. In this particular study we looked at remains of fingerprints left before the vessels were fired in their kilns,” he said.
“Fingerprints allow researchers to understand the gender and the age of those who left them, so this analysis offered new insights on who was working in [the] field of pottery at that time,” he added.
From previous research, it was assumed that pottery manufacturing was mainly carried out by professional potters, proving a certain level of sophistication in the society.
Aerial photo of Tell es-Safi/Gath (Prof. Aren M. Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University)Aerial photo of Tell es-Safi/Gath (Prof. Aren M. Maeir, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project, Bar-Ilan University)
“What came out here is that not only men were involved in the production, but also women and teenagers,” the archaeologist explained. “It is an interesting insight into the social structure of the city.”
Based on the findings, the paper suggests that even though pottery-making was a male dominated craft, women and adolescents participated as well. As pointed out in the study, “multiple hands were normally involved in vessel shaping and adults and teenagers had different roles in manufacture” since “two-thirds of vessels in our sample (n = 31/47, 66%) have two or more prints classified in different age/sex categories.”
One of the hypotheses is that those younger artisans were potters-in-training.
“With clear evidence that older and younger potters of the same sex were involved in the manufacturing of wares during the same manufacturing episodes, it is reasonable to infer that older potters would be instructing younger ones in the craft,” the paper continues.
The study is the first analyzing ancient fingerprints from pottery in sites in Israel, and not much research in this particular field has been carried out also in other parts of the world, Maeir pointed out.
In the future, the hope is to be able to compare the results with research carried out on artifacts from other periods or from other sites.
Meantime, Tel Gath, which is prominently featured in the Bible in events considered to have taken place several centuries later – including as the city of origin of David’s giant foe Goliath – is still being excavated. Due to the coronavirus emergency, the archaeologists will not be able to return to the field this summer, but the goal is to resume work in 2021.