BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Archaeological Forensics

What fingerprints on ancient pottery reveal about their creators

Age and sex of people involved in production of pottery can be determined from their fingerprints. These two prints on a pottery fragment from biblical Gath belong to an adult male who lived some 4,700 years ago. Photo courtesy Tell es-Safi/Gath archaeological project.

“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).

Ancient potter's fingerprint

Right fingerprint

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.”


Interested in modern archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring 21st-century research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

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.

 

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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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