Pottery production was one of the many activities undertaken in predynastic Hierakonpolis, however, recent research is showing that much of it took place in conjunction with beer making (see wadi breweries) and features we once considered to be pottery kilns we now know are actually for beer or food production. Case in point is the feature at HK11C (square 6.5N-21W) discovered by Fred Harlan in 1978, which was originally considered to be an up-draught kiln, but is now clearly part of the brewery at HK11C Operation A. 

Rather than using an updraught kiln, recent excavations at HK11C Operation B in conjunction with some experimental archaeology suggests that a more likely method of firing the utilitarian straw tempered pottery at least, was in pit kilns with the pots arranged in several layers and then covered over with mud and potsherds to retain the heat. This has been shown to be remarkably effective and such a method may also have been used by the potter of the Burnt House (HK29). For more information on such kilns and the detective work that went into determining the process see Baba 2009:  http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_journals/bmsaes/issue_13/baba.aspx

pot production experiment

pot production experimentsuccess

pottery production kiln reconstruction

Whether the same method was also used for the finer pottery is unclear. Evidence for the production of the fine polished wares of the predynastic period is found in small side gullies among the low cliffs flanking the Wadi Abul Suffian. The localities designated as HK67, 39, 40, 59 and 59A appear as scatters of sherds near rock overhangs and between boulders some 24-28m above the wadi floor. These sites are considered production areas because of the large numbers of wasters (overfired, bloated, warped, burned and vitrified sherds and clay slag) found within these sherd scatters. There were, however, no fire cracked stones or evidence of burning other than the wasters themselves. Nevertheless, an interpretation of the scatters as kiln refuse best explains their unique position. They probably represent the original location of kilns specifically situated to take advantage of the prevailing northerly wind that was funneled down the gullies perhaps to facilitate hotter kiln fires. 

Pot production HK67

Pot production wasters

pot production melted sherds

These kilns were used to produce fine untempered red polished pottery, most of which were made with clay mined in the wadi terrace (mainly silts of the so-called Masmas formation). Found among the scatters are fragments of well-made hemispherical bowls with a lustrous ruby-red coating and some even have additional white painted geometric decoration (C ware). There are also fragments of exceedingly thin and well-formed, red coated jars and beakers in shapes that are more commonly found in Black-topped red ware—a fine red pottery with a blackened rim and arguably some of the finest pottery Egypt ever produced. 

pottery production btop

This pottery was clearly not easy to make. First the clay had to be refined, then the pot was formed entirely by hand. Because the clay was so fine and dense, the slow drying of the pot had to be carefully regulated to prevent warping or cracking. Once dried the vessel was then covered with a coating of red ochre (iron oxide) and polished with a smooth pebble to create a fine sheen. Only now was it ready to be placed in the kiln. The large amount of misfired vessels at the kiln sites shows that firing the pots was also a difficult job. Although almost all of the sherds are entirely red slipped on the exterior, an important aspect of these kilns sites is what they can tell us about how the black top, so popular during this period, was achieved. This has been an enduring question over the years and has engendered much discussion.

Some have argued that Black-topped red ware was produced by firing a red slipped and polished vessel rim down in ash within the kiln. In this way the blackened rim is produced by a combination of soot impregnation and reduction (oxygen starvation) of the red iron rich coating which turned it black. Others have argued that such a method would have allowed for only a very small number of black-topped vessels in each firing, and instead suggest a two-step method in which a red pot was first fired and later placed rim down in hot smoldering ashes to produce the blackened rim. Experiments with both methods show that both would have worked, however, the evidence from the Hierakonpolis wadi kilns suggests the second method was preferred, at least here, and that the black-topping was a secondary, post-kiln, process. The paucity of black-topped sherds at the kiln sites suggests that the two-step process was frozen after the first step. Since the vessels from which these sherds originated had been ruined in the first firing, they were not subjected to the secondary black-top treatment.

Other explanations are possible, but in whichever way this attractive, but labor intensive, pottery was made, it was clearly done by specialists. It was used as fine table ware by the living, and was placed in the graves to be used by the dead.

The amount of pottery covering the desert site of Hierakonpolis, and the number of sites originally believed to be pottery kilns, led Hoffman to suggest that Hierakonpolis rose to prominence because of its pottery industry and that its first leaders were pottery barons. However, it is now clear that pottery was just one of the many things being produced at this vast site by specialists for use by the elite as well as the population at large.


For more information see: 

Nekhen News 17, 2005. (Understanding the HK Potters and Moments in Mud).

Nekhen News 20, 2008. (Not just any old clay)


Baba, M., 2009. Pottery production at Hierakonpolis during the Naqada II period: Toward a reconstruction of the firing technique, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 13: 1–23.


Baba, M. and Saito, M., 2004 “Experimental Studies on the Firing Methods of the Black-topped Pottery in Predynastic Egypt”, S.Hendrickx, R.F.Friedman, K.M.Cialowicz and M.Chlodnicki (eds.), Egypt at its Origin. Studies in Memory of Barbara Adams, Leuven, pp.575-589. 

Hendrickx, S. R. Friedman and F. Loyens. 2000.Experimental Archaeology concerning Black-topped Pottery from Ancient Egypt and the Sudan. Cahiers de la Ceramique Egyptienne 6: 171-185.
Geller, J.R. 1984. The Predynastic Ceramics Industry at Hierakonpolis, Egypt. M.A. Thesis. Washington University, Saint Louis, Missouri. University Microfilms International
Friedman, R. 1994. Predynastic Settlement Ceramics of Upper Egypt:A Comparative Study of the Ceramics of Hemamieh, Naqada and Hierakonpolis. Ph.D Dissertation. University of California, Berkeley. University Microfilms International




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