This pilot study investigates the potential for direct radiocarbon (14C) dating of straw-tempered Egyptian and Egyptian-style pottery that was locally produced or imported into the southern Levant during the Early and Late Bronze Ages. Since pottery is a dominant relative dating tool in the Near East and worldwide, the ability to directly date it would open the way for more secure comparisons and integration of traditional and scientific dating schemes.

Pottery has long served as the dominant tool for establishing and propagating chronologies in the Mediterranean, Egypt and Near East during the Bronze and Iron Ages. While the relative ordering of typological sequences may be robust, reliably tying them to the calendar using traditional methods can be difficult due to the rarity of suitable anchors – for example, precisely dated Egyptian objects. While past decades have rightly seen a strong push to develop 14C chronologies based on short-lived organic materials, direct dating of pottery offers unique advantages.

Firstly, the absolute date of material culture is of interest in its own right, and dates obtained directly from ceramic objects are more secure and informative than those from loosely-associated organic material. Given the narrow range of materials currently targeted routinely for radiocarbon dating – chiefly short-lived materials in archaeological debris – the ability to date pottery would significantly augment the radiocarbon chronologist’s toolkit and facilitate dating of contexts that otherwise lack organic materials. It would further open possibilities to date sites excavated 50–100 years ago, when botanical samples were rarely collected.

Pottery continues to be the most ever-present, well-preserved and readily-dateable material (using typology) in many archaeological settings and allows chronological assessments to be made by simple visual inspection in the field at low cost. Whereas budgets cannot allow 14C dating of every context, pottery is routinely examined across a much broader range of contexts. Therefore, possessing firm 14C-based dates for specific pottery styles would allow absolute chronologies to be more reliably propagated to sites that lack 14C data. Chronological debates in which traditional pottery-based dating appears to conflict with independent 14C sequences – such as the 80–100 year discrepancy at Tell el-Dabʿa – might also be better mediated and resolved if (at least some) relevant pottery styles were directly 14C dated.

Direct dating of pottery, investigated sporadically since the 1960s, can target various organic components: food crusts or residues, soot from fuel and organics mixed into the ceramic fabric either accidently or deliberately. Challenges to obtaining reliable dates include ›old wood‹ effects of fuel, marine or freshwater reservoir effects of food residues, and residual organics from clay sources. Isolating and dating specific compounds from food residues is a promising avenue but requires complex and expensive laboratory procedures. Organic temper is arguably one of the best targets for direct dating of pottery, given its clear temporal relationship with vessel manufacture and the fact that small remnants of charred and uncharred temper are often preserved, particularly under lower temperature firing conditions. Progress in AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) 14C dating, which now allows remarkably tiny samples (e.g. a few milligrams) to be dated with high precision, calls for new efforts to date organic-tempered vessels.

Surprisingly few attempts to radiocarbon date organic temper have been made world-wide, and none have been devoted to Egyptian pottery, despite it being frequently tempered with straw. This pilot study will explore extraction methods and test the reliability of measurements obtained.

 

 

Principal investigator

    Cooperations

    • ETH Zürich
    • University of Groningen

    Duration

    04/2022–03/2023

    Funding

    OeAW Post-Doc Track