A detailed study of pottery production and industrial facilities in Meroitic Nubia

January 16th, 2018

The largest number of 'Meroitic' kilns is dated to the post-Meroitic (medieval) period (Adams, 1986a). Welsby (2002, 190) suggests that the typical medieval kiln used for firing wheel-made vessels was a two-chambered cylindrical structure, with the fuel chamber dug about 1m below the ground and facing away from the north winds. The actual furnace chamber was usually 1.35m high and its floor was pierced, allowing the heat to enter the chamber and circulate around the pots. The upper part of the kiln was open to allow the heat to exit the chamber, and as far as we know, it was never vaulted. Presumably it was covered with some organic material such as cow dung, which is still used today in Egyptian pottery kilns. By the use of experimental methods it has been determined that these kilns could fire up to 850ºC and they possibly used local timber (tamarisk and acacia) as fuel (Welsby, 2002, 190-191). Török (1997, 174) suggests that this type of kiln can be closely paralleled with the Kushite kilns of previous periods.

Two pottery kilns dated between the transitional and the Early Christian period (c. AD 550 to c. AD 850) have been discovered by Godlewski in site R1 at Old Dongola during the Polish excavations of 1986-1987. The kilns have been recorded and studied by Pluskota (1991; 1994). Pottery fragments from the local area were also dated to the same period. The first pottery kiln consisted of two chambers and it resembled other cylindrical updraft kilns from other sites in Nubia, described and published by Adams (1986a, 32-33). The construction was made out of mudbricks and the furnace chamber’s diameter was 3m. The second kiln adjoined the first one and several important elements, such as the supporting arch, were recorded despite their poor conditions. It was postulated that these two kilns belonged to a large pottery workshop that is still covered by the modern settlement. It is interesting that inside a basin that was dug a short distance away from the second kiln, a big plate fragment of Aswani origin was discovered. This sherd dates back to the fifth to sixth centuries AD and it seems to have been used as a mixing tool for clay or paint (Pluskota, 1991, 34-35).

Six kilns dated to the Ballana period (or X-Group period, dated between c. AD 400 and c. AD 550) were located by Adams at Debeira East during the 1960-1963 survey of the West Bank area from Faras to Gemai. In most of these cases, only the lower parts of the lower firing chambers survived over time. However, it is clear that these had been typical cylindrical updraught kilns found also at other local sites, which are still in use at Qena and other Egyptian pottery production centres today (Adams, 2005, 112). These kilns were tied to the production of classic X-Group wares during their first phase of operation, while during their last phase, production moved to Transitional wares and a few Early Christian red wares (Adams, 2005, 112-113).

Two Meroitic kilns (c. 350 BC-c. AD 400) were located by Adams during the same survey of the West Bank area from Faras to Gemai. Adams (2005, 4-5) suggests that during the Meroitic period this specific area was able to support pottery production along with agricultural activities because of the alluvial resources in the area, which were a lot more abundant than at the rocky territory of Batn al-Hajjar to the south. The first possible kiln structure (6-B-17) was discovered in Argin (Adams, 1962, 64). It was a circular brick construction, 1.3m in internal diameter. The diameter was similar to that of other known pottery kilns discovered in Faras (24-E-21), Serra (24-N-3) and Debeira (24-R-23), but this specific structure was built entirely above the ground with vertical walls. The second pottery kiln (5-0-19) was discovered at Abdel Qadir. This was a typical cylindrical double-chambered kiln made out of mudbricks. The structure of the kiln was similar to the kiln at Argin, built entirely above the ground. Elements such as the interior arches that supported the firing chamber and the stoke hole were also identifiable (Adams, 2005, 46-47). According to Adams (2005, 47) the wares found near these kilns were possibly Meroitic, or else earlier, but definitely not of X-Group or Christian times.

The 1997 excavations at Musawwarat es Sufra by Edwards (1999) revealed a pottery production site which could provide interesting information related to Meroitic pottery production. Large concentrations of Meriotic pottery, including both painted and stamped finewares, were found at the north-east corner of courtyard 224 or the Great Enclosure. According to Edwards (1999, 7) “such fine materials have probably not been found on any settlement site in recent times”, while the only substantial collection of finewares before that came from Meroe during the 1910-1914 excavations by Garstang (Edwards, 1999, 7). At Musawwarat es Sufra three cylindrical potter’s stamps were recovered, which have no parallels in Meroitic contexts. On the contrary, these stamps match Roman manufacturing traditions. One of them carries a leaf motif and another one carries a linear motif (Edwards, 1999, 12). Other connections with technologies employed in the Romano-Egyptian production have been identified in relation to a potter’s wheel from the same site. Similar Egyptian examples have been discussed by Powell (1955, 309) and comparisons can be made with a number of stone 'extra-low' pottery wheels discussed by Hope (1991). A similar wheel comes from Tell el-Daba in the Eastern Delta region in North Egypt, which is described by Arnold and Bourriau (1993, fig.87A).

Comparison of the Musawwarat finewares with material from graves from Meroe suggests that the production at Musawwarat es Sufra began probably in the first half of the first century AD, extending to the end of the same century (Edwards, 1999, 40). Other ceramic evidence indicates that Meroitic fineware production possibly took place in various production centres (Edwards, 1999, Hintze, 1971); a similar conclusion is suggested by Smith (1996) after examining the distribution of Meroitic finewares in the same area. It is unlikely that Musawwarat es Sufra was a major production centre (Edwards, 1999, 40). Even though its location would have been suitable to provide the necessary raw materials for pottery production (clay, water, fuel), Hintze (1973, 298) suggests that the place operated primarily as a pilgrimage centre. Edwards (1999, 40) suggests that the “apparent abundance of finewares may be explained by their use in religious and/or royal ceremonies”.

More recent works by Edwards and Salih revealed a Meroitic kiln within the settlement of Kedurma, north of the Third Cataract, and it has been suggested that a workshop may lie in the vicinity (Edwards & Salih, 1992; Edwards, 1995). Even though this kiln has not been excavated, it appears similar to kilns of the Roman period from Egypt (e.g. from Dakhla Oasis) (Edwards et al., 1987; Hope, 1993).

A series of well-preserved kilns were excavated at the northern edge of the city of Meroe by Garstang during the 1910-14 excavations (Garstang, 1912, 46). These excavations revealed a major production centre of Meroitic fineware and produced a large collection of Meroitic fineware sherds. The kilns were first published by Török (1997, 174, pl.140-143). The connections between Meroitic kilns from Meroe and Roman kilns from Egypt have been discussed by Edwards (1999, 40), who generally suggests that the standard Meroitic kilns used by the first century AD can be characterised as Roman-type kilns. Finally, the oldest Nubian kiln, dated to the Napatan period (between the second half of the sixth century BC and the end of the fifth century BC), has been discovered by Ahmed in a potter’s workshop in Kerma (Ahmed, 1992).

In conclusion, the majority of well-preserved pottery kilns related to the ceramic production of Nubia come from the post-Meroitic period. These kilns are generally circular, updraught and divided into two chambers. It is most likely that similar types of kilns were used during the Meroitic period, which also resembled the Egyptian kilns of Roman and medieval times; therefore, it can be postulated that the Meroites and the Egyptians employed similar firing technologies, which could be attributed to the diffusion of relevant technological ideas. Furthermore, the recovery of a potter’s wheel and three potter’s stamps in Musawwarat es Sufra indicate connections with Romano-Egyptian production.

Finally, the distribution of kilns and production sites that have been excavated to date indicates the existence of two main regions of Meroitic ceramic production. The first one was located in the North of Kush in the area between the Third Cataract and the Batn al-Hajar region (Argin, Debeira East, Faras, Abdel Qadir, Kedurma). Of these kiln sites, Argin and Abdel Qadir exhibit close proximity to the Qasr Ibrim market and they appear to have operated during the period examined, of the Romano-Meroitic conflicts. The second production area was located to the South of Kush, close to the capital region. More specifically, Meroe and Musawwarat es Sufra appear to have been large production areas that also functioned during the Meroitic period. All the production sites examined are located in areas close to the River Nile, where the proximity to clay sources and water would have played a major role.