What fingerprints on ancient pottery reveal about their creators
“Pottery-making was not a solitary affair; it was not limited to adults or highly experienced potters,” remarks Kent D. Fowler, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba, who has been involved in the study of ceramics from Tell es-Safi, the biblical city of Gath (see Joshua 13:3).
In his article “Making an Impression: How Fingerprints Can Identify Ancient Potters,” published in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Fowler presents what he has learned from some 150 fingerprints on pottery vessels from Tell es-Safi. The corpus comes from a residential neighborhood of the ancient city and dates to about 2700–2600 B.C.E. (Early Bronze Age III).
Experts examined these impressions to understand both their placement on individual vessels and the identity of their creators. To gain insights about the organization of pottery production, they specifically looked at ridge breadth (width of one ridge) and ridge density (number of ridges in a given area) in collected fingerprints. Because ridge breadth grows with age until adulthood, the scientists are able to determine whether a fingerprint belongs to a child, an adolescent, or an adult. And because women generally have higher ridge density, the number of ridges in a single print or its segment can be used to suggest the sex of the creator.
Put together, the fingerprint analyses allow scientists to draw some general conclusions that help establish a demographic profile of the ancient potters at Gath. “The presence of prints made by younger and older individuals on the same vessels leads us to think that younger, less experienced potters were being instructed in the craft,” writes Fowler. He adds, “We suggest that a greater proportion of teenage boys learned to be potters and practiced the craft with adults, while fewer teenage girls continued to make pottery into adulthood.”
To learn the nitty-gritty of the science behind these observations and to explore the social implications of how ancient pottery work was organized, read Kent D. Fowler’s article “Making an Impression: How Fingerprints Can Identify Ancient Potters,” published in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Subscribers: Read the full article “Making an Impression: How Fingerprints Can Identify Ancient Potters,” by Kent D. Fowler, in the Summer 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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