Well, not really all. There are other important things, too, like architecture seen in walls or beaten floors, artifacts that suggest wealth or poverty, carbonized seeds, city planning, and radiocarbon dating — but in the field, if you want to know where you are in time, it’s all about the pottery.
Through painstaking record keeping and comparison of millions of pottery sherds with contexts of a known date, trained archaeologists can often date a site within 100 years or less by taking a careful look at the pottery.
And pottery is everywhere. In the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, even later, cooking pots were not made of metal, but of pottery. There were no glasses to drink from or plastic storage containers: there was pottery. The stuff was ubiquitous, often cheaply made, broke easily, and had to be replaced frequently, so any archaeological site in the Middle East will yield thousands upon thousands of pottery sherds, along with the occasional whole vessel, or one that has enough pieces left to be restored. A few bear rare inscriptions.
On the Fourth Expedition to Lachish, as on any dig, we routinely collect the pottery we find while digging. Any particular concentration of pottery or especially identifiable vessels are carefully isolated. We measure the height of the topmost and lowermost parts of it, for comparison with other finds. We collect each vessel in a different colored bucket, which is tagged with a particular locus and bucket number. Generic pottery found in smaller pieces goes into a more general bucket.
When we come down from the tel, the pottery comes with us. The buckets are filled with water and left to soak for a few hours. In late afternoon, we’re all summoned to wash the pottery using fingernail brushes, a task that usually takes about two hours.
The fragments are transferred to individual baskets or containers, along with the identifying tag and bucket number. They’re then left to dry overnight.
Meanwhile, the experts are “reading” the previous day’s pottery. As they sit at two tables (one speaking English, one Hebrew), square supervisors bring each bucket from their square and explain where it was found. The lead archaeologists examine the collection, setting aside rims, handles, bases, sherds with painted designs, and the like. From careful study and long years of experience, they identify the general time period from which the pottery came. Was it turned on a wheel or made from coils? How is the rim made? What is the overall shape and style? What type of clay is used? Does the pottery have a colored slip or burnishing? All of these are clues to the date of the pottery.
Thus, we know that our square is digging in a level dated to the Late Bronze Age, sometime during the 12th century BCE. Another group on the hill is digging in an Iron Age layer with pottery typical of the sixth or seventh century BCE. Radiocarbon dating of seeds and charcoal will provide a more precise date later on.
Some of the large storage jars bear marks that probably indicate some administrative function. Early examples have thumb prints on a jar handle, while later ones bear what is called a “lamelek” stamp, usually including a two or four-winged scarab, the inscription lmlk (“belonging to the king”), and often a smaller inscription indicating if it was manufactured in Hebron or one of three other towns.
Altogether, it’s a tedious process, but one that can be exciting — and archaeology in Israel can hardly be done without it.
Long live crockery!
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.