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Amarna Pottery

A potter is under (i.e. carries) clay. His lifetime is like that of an animal. Dirt besmears him more than a pig….His clothes are stiff from dry clay, his loin-cloth is like a rag.  

Satire of the Trades’ Papyrus Sallier II quoted in Bourriau, 1981 

This Middle Kingdom text shows the scribes attitude to the potter. While some potters owned land and houses, it appears that they were low on the Egyptian social scale. Most of those depicted manufacturing pottery are men though sometimes children are shown lending a hand. 

The Egypt Centre has over 60 items of pottery in its collection, which we believe come from Amarna. However, a number of these are single pottery sherds! Others are not pottery vessels but artefacts such as EC538, a pottery head described in the CoA II as a ‘foreigner’s head from the dump’; W345 a pottery stool listed in CoA II p48. This sheet concentrates on the pottery vessels. 

In pottery manufacture, not only of the Amarna Period, the potter’s first task was to ‘puddle’ the clay, spreading it out with their feet so as to break down lumps in the clay.  At this stage additives are sometimes added to the clay to make sure it bonds. The pot would then be shaped on a wheel. It would then have been left to dry, where necessary painted and then fired in a kiln. Both wheels (Powell 1995) and kilns have been found at Amarna. Experimental work by Powell (1995) suggests the wheel would require the potter to have an assistant to ensure that it continued turning. Several kilns have been identified in residential areas (Nicholson 1989), both in industrial and private estates.  

Paul Nicholson has carried out a series of experimental firings of pottery based on  modern Egyptian potters, excavated examples and iconographic evidence (Nicholson 1995). The experiments helped explain the reasons for some of the ways kilns are depicted in Egyptian iconography. They also showed the ease with which large quantities of pottery could have been produced at Amarna. 

Most of the Amarna pottery in the Egypt Centre is the reddish Nile silt ware, however there are some marl pieces. Petrie also discovered imported Mycenian sherds at Amarna, (http://www.digitalegypt.ucl.ac.uk/amarna/myc.html) though we have none of these in the Centre. 

Many of our pottery sherds are decorated with blue paint. Blue painted pottery is sometimes called ‘Malqata wear’ from the place where it was first found. Arnold and Bourriau (1993, 100) suggest the blue painted wares originated in Memphis. Such pottery generally dates from the mid 18th the late 20th Dynasty.

Blue painted ware seems only to have been made at royal residences or palaces and apparently by a small number of craftsmen in a few workshops. However, see Bourriau et al. (2000, 140) which states that at Amarna blue painted pottery was also found in poorer areas. The main difference in pottery between rich and poor areas appears to be in the quality of decoration.  It was used in the house, in religious activities and in tombs and traded in its own right rather than as a container. 

It is believed that such pots were decorated before firing. The blue paint is cobalt blue. Red and black derived from oxides of iron (ochre) and manganese. Cobalt may have derived from the deposits of alum which occur in the Kharga and Dakhleh oasis. The decorative elements appear to imitate floral garlands which were placed around vessels (Freed et al. 1982, 38). Some (though we have none in the Centre) also show animals or gods such as Bes. The garlands, it has been suggested, were perhaps to cool or maybe simply provided an aesthetic experience. It has also been suggested that the predominance of the lotus may be related to the possibility that wine contained within such vessels was infused with lotus. Other floral motifs show the white lotus, the cornflower, poppy, mandrake and chrysanthemum (Freed et al. 1982, 38). 

The shape of many of the vessels in the Egypt Centre, e.g. W193, is that of a biconical jar.  

The Centre also has a wine jar, W960, which is on display in the upstairs gallery. Wine labels are inscriptions painted on the shoulder of Amphora giving the year in which wine was made, by whom and where. Ours has an inscription written in hieratic stating that the wine comes from the western Delta and was bottled in the 12th year of the reign of Akhenaten. Wine labels were not only found in the main city but also in the Workmen’s Village. Leahy (1985, 66) believes that this does not mean the inhabitants could afford wine but that perhaps the jars were reused.

We even have a pottery stool (W345) made in imitation of a wooden one with rush cover.

EC538 is a pottery head of a Nubian. 

Further reading and references 

Arnold, D. and Bourriau, J. eds. 1993. An Introduction to ancient Egyptian pottery. Philipp von Zabern: Mainz. 

Bourriau, J.D., Nicholson, P.T. and Rose, P.J., 2000. Pottery. In Nicholson, P.T. and Shaw, I. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 121-147. 

Freed, R.E., Haynes, J.L, Markowitz, Y.J., 1982. Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 BC. Museum of Fine Art Boston: Boston. 

Hope 1991. Colin A. Hope. Blue-painted and Polychrome Decorated Pottery from Amarna: a Preliminary Corpus. Cahiers de la céramique égyptienne 2 (1991), 17-93.Hope, C.A. “Blue-Painted and Polychrome Decorated Pottery from Amarna”, Cahiers de la céramique égyptienne  2 (1991), 105-118.

Hulin, L.C. 1984. Pottery cult vessels from the Workmen’s Village.In Kemp, B.J., ed. Amarna Reports I. Occasional Publications 1. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 165-177.

Leahy, M.A. 1985. The hieratic labels. In Kemp, B.J. Amarna Reports II, Exploration Society. 65-109. Nicholson, P.T. 1989 The pottery kilns in building Q48.4. In Kemp, B.J., ed., Amarna Reports V. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 64-81.

Nicholson, P.T. 1995a. Kiln excavations at P47.20 (house of Ramose complex). In Kemp, B.J. ed. Amarna Reports VI, London: Egypt Exploration Society, 226-238.  

Nicolson, P.T. 1995b. Construction and firing of an experimental updraught kiln, In Kemp, B.J. Amarna Reports VI, London: Egypt Exploration Society, 239-278. 

Nicholson, P.T. 1995b. The potters of Deir Mawas, an ethnoarchaeological study, In Kemp, B.J. Amarna Reports VI, London: Egypt Exploration Society, 279-308.

Nicholson, P.T. 2007. Brilliant Things for Akhenaten. The Production of glass, vitreous materials and pottery at Amarna site 045.1. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Nicholson, P.T and Rose, P. 1985. Pottery fabrics and ware groups at el-Amarna. In Kemp, B.J., ed. Amarna Reports II. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 133-174.

Powell, C. 1995. The nature and use of ancient Egyptian potter’s wheels, In Kemp, B.J. Amarna Reports VI, London: Egypt Exploration, 309-335.

Rose, P.J. 1984. The pottery distribution analysis. In Kemp, B.J., ed. Amarna Reports I. Occasional Publications 1. London: Egypt Exploration Society,135-153.

Rose, O. 1986. Pottery from the Main Chapel In Kemp, B.J., ed. Amarna Reports III. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 99-117. 

Rose, P.J. 1987 The Pottery from Gate Street. In Kemp, B.J ed. Amarna Reports IV. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 132-143.

Rose, P.J., 1989. The evidence for pottery making at Q48.4 In Kemp, B.J. ed. Amarna Reports V. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 82-101. 

Rose, P.J. 1995. House P46.33: the pottery. In Kemp, B.J. ed. Amarna Reports VI. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 137-145.

Rose, P.J. 2007. The Eighteenth Dynasty Pottery Corpus from Amarna. London: Egypt Exploration Society.