How To

Pottery and its Meanings

While the towering basalt remains of Umm el-Jimal will quickly catch the eye of any visitor, a glance down to the sand reveals smaller but more plentiful remnants of civilization: fragments of pottery, known as potsherds, or simply sherds for short. Large or small, of varying color, thick or thin, made by wheel, hand or mold, from the 1st or the 13th century AD, all these sherds are like little books filled with information, which is perhaps why they are said to be 'read' by ceramists.

Understanding the chronological development of sherds is critical, as this in turn helps to date features or deposits from the site: such as a layer of soil, the foundation for a wall, the plaster coating on a cistern, or a flagstone or dirt-packed floor. Sherds can be dated by their specific form (i.e. a cooking pot with a grooved lip), but also by their fabric, which is the clay and its natural or added inclusions. Knowledge of ceramic development is ever-evolving, as new stratigraphic information is collected and new research avenues pursued.

Yet pottery is not merely a chronological tool. The types of vessels found can help highlight activities taking place in certain parts of the site. For example, finding many fragments of cooking pots in one room can indicate a food preparation area; or discovering concentrated sherds from thick, sturdy jars and other large containers points to a storage function for the space. In addition, pottery can be scientifically analyzed for traces of organic material, which when considering cooking pots can reveal what types of meat, grains, spices and other products were being used and consumed.

Finally, pottery must be understood as part of the economy of its time, which is especially important since ceramic material is highly durable in comparison to other goods—such as foodstuffs, cloth, barrels, baskets and skins—which rarely survive. Some types of pottery, such as amphorae or bag-shaped jars, were containers for oil, wine and other food products, and thus through the sherds left behind we can get a glimpse of what foods were being brought to the site during which periods. In addition, studying where sherds were produced during different periods and in what quantities they are are found helps to illuminate Umm el-Jimal's connections with other sites and regions over its long lifespan.

Thus, these discarded fragments are key to understanding the chronological development of Umm el-Jimal and its inner social workings, but also illuminate the site's commercial connections to places far and near over the centuries of occupation.

Umm el-Jimal's Ceramic Corpus

The bulk of ceramic material from the site spans the Nabataean/Early Roman (c. mid-/late 1st century AD) to Early Islamic (mid-/late 8th century) period, but includes a smaller amount of material from the Middle and Late Islamic periods and perhaps a little beyond (c. 12th–early 20th century). Current ceramic knowledge of the second phase does not yet allow for the separation of pottery by smaller periods, save for the rare glazed wares.

Watch the slideshow above to see examples of pottery found at Umm el-Jimal. Period boundaries are not strict, as pottery forms and wares did not necessarily change as empires shifted; indeed, for Umm el-Jimal there are no great upheavals or abrupt breaks with tradition to be found during political, social or religious transitions.

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House XVIII doorway

Other Photo Content

Discover more slideshow galleries about other major fieldwork topics in Architecture and Inscriptions. Or, check out the interactive photo walls in Artifacts, Images, and Drawings for selections of recovered objects as well as sample project photographs, maps, and plans.