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  • Petrie Pottery Project Guest Blog: Reinventing the (Potter’s) Wheel

    By Alice E Stevenson, on 10 June 2014

    Guest blog by Sarah Doherty

    In the seventh in our series of thoughts about the Petrie pottery collction, Dr. Sarah K. Doherty, Ceramicist & Archaeologist for the Gurob Harem Palace Project, Fayoum and Gebel el Silsila Epigraphic Project, near Kom Ombo, Egypt, discusses some dinky little pots dating to the time of the earliest true Egyptian pyramids.

    After you step through the doorway from the UCL’s Science Library into the Petrie Museum you would be forgiven for missing the little pots that I am going to tell you about in this blog. However, bear with me, pots UC17625, 17630, 17632, and 17631 in pottery case P16 may not look like much, but they hold the secret for a new technological revolution that was going on during Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c.2600 B.C.). Each of these miniature vessels is made of Nile Silt, they date to the 4th dynasty (2600-2450 B.C.) and come from the Old Kingdom pyramid site of Meydum (c. 100km south of Cairo). In fact, some of these vessels were part of the foundation deposit of the pyramid temple of Sneferu at Meydum; others are from similar deposits in the mastabas of his courtiers.

    Left to right: UC17630, UC17625, UC17631. Photos: S. Doherty © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

    Left to right: UC17630, UC17625, UC17631. Photos: S. Doherty © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

    The foundation deposit of Pharaoh Sneferu’s mortuary temple at Meydum, uncovered by Petrie in 1890, was found to contain several of these wonky little pots. Petrie was the first to uncover the mortuary pyramid temple, the causeway leading up to the temple and an unfinished causeway known as “the Approach,” which runs by the edge of the southern side of the causeway stone foundations and contains the remains of a retaining wall. By this wall, two foundation deposits of 21 items of pottery, pottery and basalt stands, stone vessels and a corn grinder were uncovered dating to the late 3rd and the early 4th dynasty. The foundation vessels comprised of miniature pottery bowls and stone model vessels or Meydum vessels, some spouted. No other pottery types were found within the foundation deposit, highlighting the very great significance that these little vessels had within the ritual.

    The Meydum Pyramid foundation deposit, containing miniature vessels (nos 20-24), examples of Meydum bowls   (e.g. no. 42) and basalt stands (36 & 37) within a sealed 4th dynasty context. Petrie, Mackay, & Wainwright, 1910, p. 2 pl XXV

    The Meydum Pyramid foundation deposit, containing miniature vessels (nos 20-24), examples of Meydum bowls (e.g. no. 42) and basalt stands (36 & 37) within a sealed 4th dynasty context. Petrie, Mackay, & Wainwright, 1910, p. 2 pl XXV

    Everyone knows about the Great Pyramid at Giza belonging to Khufu , but what of his predecessor (his father?) Sneferu who started the fanaticism for pyramidology? Sneferu was the first Pharaoh of the 4th dynasty (2600-2450 B.C.) and is credited with building at least 4, possibly 5, pyramids throughout Egypt, including the first “true” pyramid at Dashur. On the Palermo stone he is mentioned for attacking Nubians and for harvesting copper in Maghareh in the Sinai. In the Middle Kingdom he was even deified and many Egyptians named their sons “wee Sneferu.” In Egyptian literature he is known as having a net-dress fixation for his ladies of the court.  I hope he would have approved of his foundation deposit being located in the Petrie Museum around the corner from (UC17743) just such a dress….

    Old Kingdom Bead net dress from Qau UC17743 © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

    Old Kingdom Bead net dress from Qau UC17743 © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

     

    The potter’s wheel was not an Egyptian invention. The earliest (so far) uncovered potter’s wheels date to around 4000-3500 B.C. from sites across the Levant and Mesopotamia, but they were not fully brought into Egypt until the 4th dynasty. These pots are rather special. Unlike other contemporary vessels in Egypt and the Near East, these tiny vessels have been completely thrown on a potter’s wheel (and inducing centrifugal force) rather than being coiled or pinched by hand first. Known as miniature vessels in the literature, they are small (usually max 7.5cm tall), crudely finished and lopsided, indicating that the potters had perhaps yet to master the intricacies of centring before forming the vessel. However, they also contain fine continuous striations and grooves, sticky finger marks on the sides of the vessel, s-shaped cracks, torsion wells, string cut bases and evidence of scraping; all of which are indications of wheel-throwing. It is speculated by the author that such vessels may represent the first wheel-thrown vessels, likely the earliest known in the Near East, made by potters learning to utilise their new technology. Previously, Near Eastern potters were using the potter’s wheel to finish coil-built pots rather than throwing. The Egyptians took the next step and used the wheel for throwing.

    Left: Top of UC17632 where you can see the finger well where the potter first placed their finger when beginning to open out the vessel and the s-shaped crack indicating very wet clay. Right: Underside of UC17632 where you can see the string cut marks indicative of wheel-thrown pottery. Photos: S. Doherty © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

    Left: Top of UC17632 where you can see the finger well where the potter first placed their finger when beginning to open out the vessel and the s-shaped crack indicating very wet clay. Right: Underside of UC17632 where you can see the string cut marks indicative of wheel-thrown pottery. Photos: S. Doherty © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

    These vessels were created to serve and nourish the ka of deceased royal and private individuals with a token offering of food and drink. They were shaped to look like miniature plates, beer jars and unguent pots. The potter’s wheel, i.e. the use of a machine, signified a major change within the craft and industries of Egypt, when previously the potter’s hands alone were thought to suffice. As is often the case with Flinders Petrie, he thought to gather even the smallest, seemingly innocuous items which in modern times have proved to hold quite an interesting secret and insight into an ancient industrial revolution. I hope in a small way in this blog to have shown that there was more to Pharaoh Sneferu than building pyramids and enjoying ladies in bead net dresses, however pretty. Not bad for a very small humble pot!

    Questions? Tweet me: @sherd_nerd

    Gebel Silsila blog: http://gebelelsilsilaepigraphicsurveyproject.blogspot.co.uk/

    Gurob: http://www.gurob.org.uk/

    A more detailed version of this blog post is soon to be published as “The Adoption and Utilisation of the Potter’s Wheel during the reign of Pharaoh Sneferu” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations (2014)

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