Craft production as evidence for mobility in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Mesopotamia

The craft production discussed here is the high-quality pottery known as North Mesopotamian Metallic Ware (NMMW) (Kühne 1976, Schneider 1989, Pruß 2000, Falb 2009, Falb et al. 2014). Made from especially pure clays, this wheel-finished pottery was fired at high temperature (around 1100 °C), resulting in a remarkably hard and dense texture. The firing process often involved alternate use of oxidising and reducing atmospheres in order to produce colours ranging from red to black on the same vessel (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 : Beaker and jar in NMMW (source: ARCANE online database, with kind permission from S. Valentini).

The distribution of NMMW covers an area from the Malatya region of southeastern Turkey to the Syrian Jezirah, extending as far south as the middle Euphrates valley (Fig. 2). It first appears in the second quarter of the 3rd millennium BC, as shown by stratigraphic evidence from Tell Chuera, Tell Beydar and Tell Atij in the Jezirah (Hempelmann 2013, Lebeau 2000, Boileau 2002) and Norşuntepe in the Turkish Upper Euphrates (Hauptmann 2000). These contexts broadly correspond to stage 2 of the Early Jezirah chronology (EJZ 2). According to recent assessments, NMMW reaches its highest frequency in EJZ 3, in the third quarter of the 3rd millennium, before becoming much more rare in EJZ 4 and disappearing in EJ 5 (Rova 2011, Falb et al. 2014). The main period of production and use of NMMW thus spans at least four centuries.

Archaeometric studies undertaken from the 1980s onwards on NMMW sherds, mostly from Syrian sites but also from Turkish sites, revealed significant variation in their chemical composition (Klenk 1987, Kühne & Schneider 1988, Daszkiewicz & Smogorzewska 2000, Schneider & Daszkiewicz 2001, Broekmans et al. 2006, Galimberti et al. 2015). Notably, the calcium content ranged from under 2 % in some sherds to as much as 22 % in others. On the basis of these results, it is generally accepted that NMMW can be divided into two groups, termed calcareous and non-calcareous. Apart from the calcium content, several other chemical characteristics also contribute to the distinction between the two groups. For example, the non-calcareous group displays relatively high values for aluminium oxide and relatively low concentrations of magnesium oxide, strontium and chromium. These archaeometric investigations naturally raise questions about the provenance of the clays used to make NMMW. While the chemical composition of the calcareous group corresponds to clays that are available in the Jezirah, this is not the case for the non-calcareous group. The source (or sources) of clay for the latter group must therefore lie outside the region.

More recently, archaeometric work by M. Kibaroğlu on NMMW sherds as well as geological clay samples from both Syria and southeastern Turkey has provided solid evidence for the provenance of the non-calcareous clay (Kibaroğlu 2005, Kibaroğlu et al. 2008, Kibaroğlu & Falb 2013, Kibaroğlu et al. 2017). Clay samples were taken over a wide geographical area, from the Jezirah in the south to the Upper Euphrates and Upper Tigris in the north (Kibaroğlu & Falb 2013: fig. 1). The clay samples that offer the best compositional match with non-calcareous NMMW come from the Pütürge Massif, part of the Taurus range crossed by the Upper Euphrates (Kibaroğlu et al. 2017: fig. 5). It thus seems highly probable that the clay sources exploited for making non-calcareous NMMW were located in this region, lying on the northern edge of the NMMW distribution area and 100-200 km distant from the majority of major settlements in the Jezirah (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 : Distribution of NMMW (grey dotted line) and some major EBA sites. The red dotted circles indicate distances of 50, 100 and 200 km from an arbitrary central point in the Pütürge Massif (background map: M. Sauvage)

It is worth discussing briefly the archaeological implications of this discovery, notably in relation to the first appearance of NMMW and the factors underlying its initial diffusion.

The NMMW appears in a context marked by the emergence of urbanization and the development of bronze metallurgy. It is interesting to note that bronze metallurgy developed first in the Turkish Euphrates (Verardi 2008), the region where the source of clay with a low calcareous content that characterizes NMMW is found. Furthermore, E. Friedman (2000: 174-175) has underlined the probable influence at this time of metallurgical techniques on innovations in the field of ceramics and this suggestion is particularly relevant for NMMW. Its manufacture required a full mastery of oven temperatures and firing atmospheres, as is the case with smelting metal ores. Bronze metallurgy also involved the use of clay crucibles. Thus one can suppose an exchange of information between potters and metallurgists relating to aspects such as reduction firing and choice of suitable clays. For this reason, it can be plausibly suggested that NMMW first emerged in the Turkish Euphrates region, through transfer of techniques between metallurgists and potters. One then has to explain how NMMW subsequently spread southwards into the Jezirah.

An obvious scenario is that the NMMW pots were simply traded southwards, along preexisting routes. However, there is currently no evidence from sites in or near the Pütürge Massif for workshops that were specialised in the production of this high-quality pottery and were exclusively exploiting the local non-calcareous clays. Another possible scenario for the initial diffusion of NMMW is the actual movement of specialist potters from southeastern Anatolia southwards into the Jezirah. The driving force behind this mobility could have been an increased demand from urban elites in the south for exotic new vessels. The travelling specialists could also have taught local potters the new techniques that would have been tried out using local clay resources in the Jezirah. These local clays had a higher calcareous content and were less suitable for high-temperature firing. As NMMW only represents a very small proportion of pottery production, it is conceivable that the travelling potters actually transported the special non-calcareous clay as well. In fact a similar situation involving long-distance transport of special clay has been documented in the Bronze Age of the southern Levant. Here the source of the clay used for making jars was located well over 100 km from the production zone (Roux 2016).

At the same time as the diffusion of NMMW southwards, or soon after, metallurgy itself spread to the Syrian Jezirah, as shown for example by the workshop evidence at Tell Beydar (Tonussi 2008, Dibo 2010). The metal worked here most probably came from ores extracted in eastern Anatolia and further trade connections between this region and the Jezirah are documented by other items of material culture, such as the Syro-Mesopotamian Plain Simple Ware found in Anatolian sites like Arslantepe and Norsuntepe (Marro 2004). Metal vessels were also manufactured at this time. It has been suggested that some NMMW pots represent an attempt to imitate the shape and appearance of metal vessels. Indeed, some metal vessels have quite close counterparts in pottery (Rova 2011: plate.9, 9 and 10, Bianchi et al. 2011: 229).


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Sawssan Alachkar is a post-doctoral researcher (pensionnaire) in Oriental antiquities at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), Paris.

Pour citer ce billet : Sawssan Alachkar. Craft production as evidence for mobility in the Early Bronze Age of Northern Mesopotamia, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 24 mai 2019, [En ligne]

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