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Beveled Rim Bowls and Ceramics of Mesopotamia
By: Megan Donoghue
The ceramics of Mesopotamia are unique, unusual, and serve distinct purposes; whether that may be visual or functional.
Ceramics tell more than just an idea of production, it can describe a culture in a new way.
A Brief History of The Uruk Period in Mesopotamia
The Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia was from CA. 4000 to 3000 BC. It was named "Uruk" after the Sumerian city. This was a period of urban life and the creation of governmental organization. The beveled-rim bowl (aka BRB) was a clear indicator of this. There were around 10,000-20,000 people in the area during this time period. This was a clear shift to a civilization. Mesopotamia is greatly known for many of ancient civilization "firsts". Writing,
,bullae and tokens,
__and__ cylinder seals
. The list goes on.
A Brief History of Ancient Ceramics
The use of ceramics goes back all the way to the stone age (go figure!). All the way back to 500,000 BC to 100,000 BC. Much of it began as things being scraped into clay. Most of the time, figures of war and the animals existing around them. But, it doesn't end with carvings. Figurines were also very popular way back when. Human figures were created out of materials such as stone, or clay. The discovery of ceramics didn't happen at one time in one area. It was happening all over the world: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and in the Pacific.
In Mesopotamia specifically, other then the mass produced BRB's, Clay pots were created with magnificent drawings of bull's head and other symbols. Simplistic yet artistic, this was a movement in ceramics and pottery that held meaning and symbolism.
The Beveled Rim Bowl
These were from the late 4th millennium BCE. They were pieces of pottery that was easy to hold an had a side where the rim was "beveled". They were made in large numbers, probably because they were cheap to make and very durable. They were so prevalent that they constituted for
three-fourths of the total ceramic assemblage in sites of the period.
They were seen as so unique because so many were made. Most likely they were made from molds, although how they were made is still up for question. Another fascinating thing about beveled rim bowls is that they are all very close in size. These were not made to hold liquid.
They came from Uruk, and is a real sign of their Uruk's culture.
The discovery of these bowls raise questions in the realm of anthropology. Did these people are factory-like processes going on? How are so many so similar in size? Is this a sign of production for more than one person way back then? Is this a sign of urbanism?
Maybe at this time, work turned into specialized labor. That is how there are so many of these sturdy bowls and such similar sizes. These bowls were found everywhere from thrown on the ground to garbage pits. They were just thrown away showing its ease of replacement and inexpensive mass production.
*One thought of what these bowls were used for is grain rationing. In Mesopotamia at this time, grain was very significant to the people. It was seen to be used as payment and perhaps maybe even in trade. It is one thought that these bowls were specifically measured and used for rationing grain. This would be one explanation as to why they do not hold liquids.
How to Make Beveled Rim Bowls and Logistics
These bowls, although they seem rather useless, provide us with information that tells us a lot about the civilization's urbanization and growth.
They are not meant to hold water. During the firing process, the clay becomes porous and holes are created through the walls of the bowls, allowing water to seep out.
The process of manufacturing is rather simple:
After the clay and its temper are mixed together, it was put into a mold and fired. Since the clay was so thick, it tended to overlap the edges. The would rid of the excess clay by pinching and creating a beveled rim.
The general sizes for these bowls were 450 ml, 650 ml, and 900 ml.
Like I mentioned early, these sizes lend a thought to they idea that they were used for measurement.
One piece to note, is that no molds have actually ever been found. A lot of times archaeologists find clues that lead to assumed answers. We assume that the BRB's were created from molds because of their reoccurring shape that is so closely copied in each and every bowl. The mold could have been made from the ground, or something that does not preserve.
The information on beveled rim bowls on Wikipedia describes them as being prevalent during the Uruk period. It says that the early city-states had strong signs of government organizations (even though social stratification wasn't clear till later). They say that this is evident though the beveled rim bowls. They describe them a cheap, mass produced bowls that were made and discarded.
Ceramics were not only used to make bowls. According to this site, clay tablets have been found at Uruk with Sumerian and pictorial inscriptions that are thought to be some of the earliest recorded writing, dating to approximately 3300 BC. These were told to have on them the Sumerian King List, a record of the kinds of the Sumerian civilization.
Here are some articles relating to BRB's
Beveled Rim Bowls and Their Implications for Change and Economic Organization in the Later Fourth Millennium B.
Thomas Wight Beale
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1978), pp. 289-313
There is a lot of evidence for BRB's. They are found in high numbers and were clearly creative for a purpose. In this article it discusses how one theory is that there are specific made sizes of the bowls, this is just a theory though. It is of the late 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia and is just a manufactured, undecorated piece of pottery. This was unusual because usual their pottery was elaborately designed. These were made from a mold and were cheap to make. These bowls were not made to hold liquids, but some kind of ration. After searching for more information on beveled rim bowls, I expanded my topic to Mesopotamian ceramics because it was difficult finding unique information on the topic.
Article from Annual Review of Anthropology
The Bevelled-Rim Bowls: Their Purpose and Significance
Author(s): A. R. Millard
Source: Iraq, Vol. 50, (1988), pp. 49-57
British Institute for the Study of Iraq
A Technological Study of North-Mesopotamian Stone Ware
World Archaeology, Vol. 21, No. 1, Ceramic Technology (Jun., 1989), pp. 30-50
(article consists of 21 pages)
Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
This is a comparison of ceramics from ancient Mesopotamia and current. It talks about how "North-Mesopotamian Stone Ware in unusual, dense and hard Early Bronze Age pottery, made for the most part from very special noncalcareous clays which were not used for any other ancient Mesopotamian ceramics." It then goes on to discuss how they obtained the different clay colors. They did this by using chemical analysis. It seems to be that there were two main areas of where they were manufactured, but they found them from 41 sites.
Production and Exchange of Ceramics on the Oman Peninsula from the Perspective of Hili
M. James Blackman, Sophie Mery and Rita P. Wright
Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 61-77
(article consists of 17 pages)
This is a site that discusses the trade an exchange of ceramics and includes Mesopotamia. There was extensive trade going on between Magan and Mesopotamia.
Ceramic Ring Scrapers : An Uruk Period Pottery Production Tool
Alden J. R.
Year 1988 Volume 14
ceramic ring scraper
This article is about these ceramic scrapers used in the Uruk period. According to the article it was an indication of a change in ceramic production. They are open rings that range from their outside being 8-12 cm and their inside being 4-9. They said that they can see the wear on the products that were found, whether they be nicked or chipped. The article continues to discuss about their use and the techniques that worked. I found this article to be interesting in that it was a rather specific topic on ceramics during this time period. The information was relevant but there wasn't that much of it and it took me a little bit to understand it completely. It is hard because ceramics are often broken up when found which makes it difficult to identify them. For example, cuts and chips on the tools could be something that happened after they were used.
The Uses Of Pottery
Iraq, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 63-68
(article consists of 6 pages)
British Institute for the Study of Iraq
This is information from an article from
The Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology
According to the site, there has been a change in ceramic culture that separates the Uruk period from the Ubain cultures. They described beveled rim bowls as a "mass production of undecorated and utilitarian ceramics". They also note that wheel-made plain ware was introduced and the fast potter's wheel (see below). Tall spotted bottles and large jars were also noted along with vessels with a reserved slip. The website described many findings as undecorated, and looked like they were made from molds. As many of the other sites also noted.
In this article, beveled rim bowls and their function are discussed- "Function: several scholars argue that it is for rationing of barley to people dependent on public institutions like the temple and the palace. This is supported by the idea that the Sumerian logogram NINDA for ration looks like a beveled rim bowl. Based on Egyptian parallel, some scholars argued that they are for baking bread which could also be rationed and distributed with the container."
These are opposing thoughts compared to grain or food.
*After reading much of the information on beveled rim bowls of Mesopotamia, it came clear that the information told similar stories. These bowls were definitely important and made for a specific purpose, but what that purpose was is still being looked over. So many of these hunks of ceramic are found scattered on the ancient floor.
What were they really used for?
We do know one thing. We know that BRB's played a significant role in the distribution and organization of Mesopotamian people. It created order and class and an idea of stratified labor. It shows the growth of urbanization and the creation of a civilization.
JSTOR Article 10/15
The International Journal of African Historical Studies
First sentence: "The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilization."
Source: “Kerma: The Rise of an African Civilization,” Bruce G. Trigger,
The International Journal of African Historical Studies
, Vol. 9, No. 1. (1976), pp. 1-21.
This article is about the high yield farming in Mesopotamia. It talks about the productive capabilities and forms of organization through time. Factors such as people, rainfall, and irrigation all play a role in the farming of Mesopotamia. The beveled rim bowls come into play with the production and processes of these things. The growth of Mesopotamia and the people that organize to create productivity.
PALÉORIENT, vol. 9/2-1983
EXCAVATIONS AT TELL LEILAN AND THE ORIGINS OF NORTH MESOPOTAMIAN CITIES IN THE THIRD MILLENNIUM B.C.
I find the past intriguing because it is a platform for what we know today. Seeing how people lived back then is what interests me the most. Finding artifacts that say something about the people and their way of life. My favorite area to study is the Maya. I feel like there is a lot of hype about them involving the mysteries the culture holds. I enjoy reading up on them and discovery the real story of the Maya culture.
1952 Pottery from the Diyala Region. Oriental Institute Publications, vol. 63. Chicago.
Sumer and the Sumerians, by Harriet E. W. Crawford, p 69,75
1993 The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization. Chicago.
1988 The Early History of the Ancient Near East. Chicago.
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