top of page

What's to love about ancient pottery from the Near East?

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

Here's why we love these fantastic objects from the earliest civilisations!


The Fertile Crescent

The term Ancient Near East originated from British Empire days to refer to a vast area of South West Asia from modern day Turkey to Iran to Sudan, including Israel and Palestine, also known as the Holy Land or Bible Lands. Cutting across this region was what is sometimes called the Fertile Crescent or the Cradle of Civilisation, so named for its rich soils and relatively abundant access to water. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals allowed the earliest civilisations to emerge in a few parts of the world in the fourth millennium BC.

Pottery - a new invention

Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, however, its production and use accelerated greatly in line with the growth of these centres of civilisation; as grave goods to accompany the dead in the afterlife, as a result of the growth in cultural affluence, as well as to store grains and for general household use.

Amongst the earliest of civilisations to flourish in the Bible lands, the peoples of the Early Bronze Age who built the first cities produced pottery, without knowledge of the wheel, which was beautifully and simply crafted and is one of our major sources of information about this period which started towards the end of the fourth millennium BC.

Age or beauty?

What is the attraction of these ancient vessels? For some, it lies in contemplation of the original makers and users, or simply the wonder of their survival intact! For others, there is appreciation for the beauty in the simplicity of form and decoration of these ancient pots, which belies the skill and technology used in their production. They were clearly often more than practical objects and were a vehicle for artistic expression and characteristic styles.

There are few who are offered the opportunity to own and handle items some 5000 years of age from such ancient cultures, but for those who do, it is a true privilege.


Let's focus - some key features


This fine example is from Early Bronze Age Palestine, circa 3100-2900 BC. It is a substantial size with spherical body, a wide mouth and two ledge handles decorated with a gently crimped appearance to the edges and stands on a flat base. Most of the vessel, both inside and out, is covered in a thin layer of lime-plaster making it heavier than usual.

With the emergence of urban culture in the southern Levant, new types of pottery and ceramic techniques appeared, among them pottery coated with a white material. A selection of sherds from Early Bronze Age strata was studied in an attempt to analyse this material. Using microscopy and various other methods, it was determined that the white material was a lime-plaster applied to the vessels after firing. The most likely reason for applying the lime-plaster was functional, that is to decrease permeability and protect the contents of the vessels. *


The ledge handle

Close up of a ledge handle from ancient Holy Land pottery
Ledge handle

The ledge handle is important because of its prevalence throughout the Early Bronze Age period and because of the important role it played in Palestinian archaeology. Examples have been found in Pre-dynastic Egypt but this points towards the evidence of trade between the two regions, rather than local manufacture. There appear to be five main types of ledge handle depending on chronology or region.

Example of a pie-crust ledge handle on an Early Bronze Age pot
Ledge handle pie-crust type


Not all vessels are decorated but where they are, they provide an interesting feature. Of the vessels we currently have on offer, we can see a few different types.

Close up of prick dot decoration on an ancient pot
Prick-dot decoration
Example of raised dot decoration on a Holy Land pot
Raised-dot decoration
Close up of raised dot decoration on an Early Bronze Age pot
Raised-dot decoration
Example of a painted decorated Holy Land bowl
Painted decoration



References & further information

* See Early Bronze Age Pottery Covered with Lime-Plaster: Technological Observations: Adi Eliyahu-Behar, Itzhaq Shai, Lior Regev, David Ben-Shlomo, Shira Albaz, Aren M. Maeir & Haskel J. Greenfield (2016) Early Bronze Age Pottery Covered with Lime-Plaster: Technological Observations, Tel Aviv, 43:1, 27-42, DOI: 10.1080/03344355.2016.1161373


The British Museum has a number of vessels related to those in our collection from excavations at Bab ed-Dhra, an Early Bronze Age city a little south of The Dead Sea.

See under ‘Related objects’

Dr David E Graves

A good display of Early Bronze Age pottery with similar decoration may be seen at The Art & History Museum, Brussels.

Other examples can be found in the New York Metropolitan Museum:

For best reference literature:

Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land, Ruth Amiran, Rutgers Uni Press 1970, ISBN 10: 0813506344 ISBN 13: 9780813506340

Der Konigs Weg; 9000 Jahre Kunst und Kultur, Koln 1987, ISBN 10: 3805309600 ISBN 13: 9783805309608


Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Crispina Coins
Crispina Coins
Nov 08, 2021

Very interesting and informative. Thanks!

bottom of page