Masada VII

The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963–1965, Final Reports, The Pottery of Masada

by Rachel Bar-Nathan

Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006, 7 color plates, 425 pp.

$92 (hardback)

Reviewed by Hershel Shanks




Judea at the time of Herod, Jesus and the Jewish defenders of Masada made use of a pottery corpus different from its neighbors and different from what went before or after. That is the conclusion of Rachel Bar-Nathan, author of Volume VII of the final report of the excavations carried out at Masada between 1963 and 1965 under the direction of Israel’s most illustrious archaeologist, Yigael Yadin. Bar-Nathan calls this distinctive ceramic repertoire “Judean Pottery.”

It is now more than 40 years since the excavation ended. Joseph Aviram, Yadin’s colleague and close friend who continues to lead the Israel Exploration Society with such distinction, tells me that this volume has been 20 years in the making. It follows six other heavy folio volumes covering ostraca (inscribed potsherds), Greek and Latin documents, coins, architecture, mosaics and wall paintings, among other subjects. Two more volumes are planned, covering textiles, weapons, stone vessels and botanical remains. All in all, a fitting tribute to a great archaeologist who died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1984 at age 67.

Overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judean desert, Masada is a diamond-shaped mesa where Herod the Great built a palace/fortress. Contemporaneous Herodian sites in the area indicate that Hasmonean occupation of the site must have preceded the Herodian occupation, but Yadin did not find it. In 1995–1997 Ehud Netzer and Guy Stiebel returned for short seasons to look for the Hasmonean levels, but they, too, were unsuccessful. “The history of Masada during the Hasmonean period (c. 100–37 B.C.E.),” Bar-Nathan tells us, “remains an open question.”

During the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–73/74 C.E.) the site was occupied by Jewish rebels identified by Josephus as Sicarii, a particularly violent group of Jewish rebels. Yadin, however, referred to the occupants of Masada at this time as Zealots, a term scholars use to cover a number of so-called “war parties.” So Bar-Nathan continues to use Yadin’s term (as have other scholars) for this occupation. Most of the pottery from Yadin’s excavation comes from this Zealot occupation. The Zealots fled to Masada with their families, where they maintained a religiously observant, family-oriented community.

Paradoxically, Bar-Nathan’s ceramic analysis has benefited from the long delay: For comparative purposes, she now has a large corpus of pottery from other Judean sites since excavated, enabling her “to view a far broader picture and distribution, and from different vantage points.”




Most of the volume is taken up with the catalog. To an outsider, the variety of pottery is astounding, including both domestic and palatial ware: storage jars, cooking pots, casseroles, jugs, juglets, kraters, bowls, plates, cups, mugs, frying pans, funnels, ladles, more than 500 unguentaria (for perfumes and perhaps medicine and kohl for the eyes) and over a thousand lamps. Each has its specific varieties of forms that make up “Judean Pottery.” Altogether, more than 6,000 pottery vessels were recovered by Yadin.

I was particularly fascinated with several earth and dung vessels found at Masada. According to the earliest Rabbinic code, the Mishnah, “[unfired] dung, earth and stone vessels do not acquire impurity.” On the other hand, ceramic vessels could acquire impurity in a number of ways and would then have to be destroyed. Cups, other kitchen ware and storage jars made of stone are well known and help to identify specifically Jewish sites. But stone vessels were available only to the relatively affluent. Among the less well-to-do who observed the purity laws, vessels made of earth and dung (mostly cattle dung) were often used to store dry goods such as grain, corn and pulses. Earth and dung vessels differ from ceramic vessels fired in a kiln, because they are made of natural materials. Incidentally, Bar-Nathan tells us that earth and dung vessels “are still being used in Arab villages” in the West Bank.

Going from one extreme to the other, the Masada finds also include some lovely pottery known as Jerusalem painted ware. Because it is very thin and delicate, no intact exemplars survived. Reconstruction drawings of the bowls, with the extant fragments in bold, give us some idea of the charming elegance that once characterized this pottery. The one shown here features a typical concentric composition with a central rosette encircled by a garland of reversed lilies and palmettes interspersed with dotted circles and framed by a wreath. One can easily imagine a palatial royal banquet hosted by King Herod.

In contrast, consider the Zealot occupation. According to Josephus, the Zealots committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. They “preferred death to slavery.” The Zealots, Josephus tells us, intentionally left food exposed to show the Romans that they did not lack a food supply. Bar-Nathan identifies groups of vessels left by the Zealots, apparently for this purpose.

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