Archaeological context within site refers to the specific place in which an item was found, such as on a floor, in a tomb, in a dumped fill, on the ground surface of a site, etc. There are three general categories of archaeological context: primary, secondary, and tertiary. An item in primary context is found in the precise spot where it was left by its last user, such as on a house floor or in a tomb. An item in secondary context is found only one step removed from its last purposeful placement, such as in a fill deposit immediately above a floor. An item in tertiary context is separated from the place of its original use; dumps, fills, and surface finds are all tertiary contexts. On the LCP, the archaeological context is filled out when submitting an example, which means that the person who submits the information decides what to record about it. Archaeological context is meant to be an additional aid when searching or browsing the LCP, to enable the identification of patterns among certain types of vessels within a region, a period, or over time.

Color refers to the visual appearance of a fired vessel’s exterior surface, interior surface, and core. Because color descriptions are subjective and variable, archaeologists often use the standardized designations of the Munsell® Soil Color Chart. Munsell designations consist of two parts – a number/letter code (e.g., 5YR 6/3) and a short verbal description (e.g., light reddish brown) – that together indicate a specific combination of hue (the color itself), value (how light the color is), and chroma (how saturated the color is). Color can help identify a vessel’s petro-fabric and/or ware, but it can also mislead since the firing process often causes the color of the clay to change. When submitting information on the LCP, users are encouraged to record a range of exterior, interior, and core colors as well as to provide additional verbal descriptions since these may help others visualize the appearance of a vessel. 

Date refers to specific years or centuries. All dates on this site are given as BCE or CE. BCE refers to years and centuries Before the Common Era; CE refers to years and centuries within the Common Era. 1 CE (meaning year 1 of the Common Era) is traditionally defined as the year in which Jesus was born (although according to most scholarly reconstructions, Jesus was actually born a few years prior to 1 CE). There was no year zero. Thus the first century BCE refers to the years 99-1 BCE, and the first century CE refers to the years 1-100 CE.

Decoration and Surface Treatment refer to a vessel’s ornamental additions. These can vary widely, from the application of simple slips to elaborately modeled figures. Sometimes decoration and function overlap: for example, a potter may fashion a handle or spout as a figurine, or burnish a vessel’s surface in order to seal its pores and improve its ability to hold liquids. The terminology for decoration and surface treatment is not standardized; it varies according to period and place. On the LCP, this information is filled out when submitting an example, which means that the person who submits the information decides what to record about it. Below is a list of common surface treatments and brief definitions:

  • burnish: the use of a tool on the vessel surface before firing to create a smooth, hard, polished finish.
  • glaze: a wet or dry mixture containing silicates that is applied to the vessel surface before firing, and which becomes vitreous and fuses to the clay during firing.
  • paint: a viscous mixture containing diluted clay and/or additional pigment, generally applied to the vessel surface before firing.
  • pattern burnish: the use of a tool on the vessel surface before firing to create a smooth, hard, polished pattern.
  • slip/self-slip: a thin mixture of potting clay and water applied to the vessel surface before firing.
  • wash: a watery mixture applied to the vessel surface before firing.

Firing consists of heating clay sufficiently that water evaporates and particles fuse together to form a permanent and irreversible bond. Firing transforms clay into pottery (or terracotta, in the case of objects rather than vessels).

  • Firing Description: Two aspects of vessel firing are especially important. The first is whether firing was full or partial. In a fully fired vessel, the interior is a single, consistent color; no core is visible in the break. In a partially fired vessel, an inner core is visible (usually gray in color). The second important aspect is the temperature at which the vessel was fired. A petrographer is often able to estimate firing temperature from thin-section examination.
  • Firing Techniques: Within a manufacturing tradition, many aspects of firing may be standardized; these can include the place in which firing occurs (e.g., in mounds, pits, kilns, etc.), the type of fuel used, the temperature reached, and the decision to allow outside air to flow in during firing. This last aspect is often decisive in a vessel’s final appearance. When outside air flows in, it creates an oxidizing environment; this generally results in vessels turning brown, red, or orange in color. When outside air is prevented from entering, a reducing environment is created; this usually results in vessels turning black or gray. Potters often deliberately adjust firing conditions in order to produce a certain appearance, so color can sometimes offer clues about manufacturing techniques and potters’ intentions.

Functional Category refers to a vessel’s general use, or (more precisely) the way in which archaeologists suppose that it was used. A vessel’s function may be deduced from features such as shape and decoration, as well as from the context in which it was found. On the LCP functional categories are defined according to standard activities, e.g., table service, cooking, storage, etc. Classifying a vessel by functional category does not mean that it was used only in that one manner. As today, in the past people used vessels in many different ways, including ways not originally intended; an example would be using a cooking pot to serve food. Therefore a vessel’s functional category refers to its probable primary use rather than to all possible uses. Functional category is meant to be an additional aid when searching or browsing the LCP, since shape names are often used inconsistently.

Inclusions are solid components that are presumed to occur naturally in clay (as opposed to temper, which a potter adds deliberately to a clay mixture). Inclusions may be so small that a potter could not have removed them easily, such as microscopic fragments of shell, or they may be large enough to see with the naked eye, such as black volcanic sand. By examining a ceramic thin-section, a petrographer can identify specific mineral inclusions and sometimes also distinguish inclusions from temper.

Manufacturing technique refers to the method(s) by which a potter crafts a vessel. The three main manufacturing techniques are by hand, on a wheel, and in a mold. When making pottery by hand, potters build a vessel by forming clay in slabs or coils. When making pottery on a wheel, potters begin with a clay lump and use the centrifugal force of the turning wheel to help draw the clay up into a vessel. For mold-made vessels, potters press clay into a pre-formed mold. Potters may use more than one technique to manufacture a single vessel, e.g., adding a wheel-made rim to a hand-built form, or smoothing out a mold-made vessel by finishing it on a wheel.

Periods refer to a stretch of time that has been defined according to a prevailing technological mode and/or significant political or military events. Archaeologists and historians have divided the long history of the Levant into numerous periods and sub-periods, some relatively brief and/or relevant only to specific zones (e.g., the Hasmonean period) and others quite long and/or common over a wide area (e.g., the Ottoman period). For the earliest periods, the dates are approximate; the “c.” that precedes these dates stands for the Latin word circa, which means “approximately.” Beginning in the mid-1st millennium BCE, periods are defined according to dated historical events and so are linked to specific years (e.g., the year of the Battle of Actium, 31 BCE, is the start of the Roman period in parts of the Levant).

Petro-fabric refers to the type of clay used by the potter. Petro-fabrics are defined by microscopic mineral characteristics, and on the LCP relate to a specific geological ‘parent formation’ and its associated soils. Some geological formations and soils are unique to certain regions and others occur widely (e.g., terra-rossa). For this reason some petro-fabrics may be linked to a specific geographical area while others may not be so precisely situated. The identification of a vessel’s petro-fabric may indicate the original soil type but not the date of the vessel, because the same clay source may have been used over centuries or even millennia. A vessel’s petro-fabric is distinct from its ware, since over time different potters may have used the same clay source to make various ceramic wares for vessels and other objects.

Shape is a broad general category that refers to a vessel’s form and function – but generally not to a vessel’s origin or date. On the LCP it is possible to classify a vessel by shape name, type, and family; these options provide additional space, if needed, for further definition. In addition, on the LCP it is also possible to classify and search for vessels by functional category.

  • Shape name: Many shape names are simple terms still in use today, such as jar, jug, bowl, cup, plate, saucer, etc. Some shape names are derived from ancient languages, most often Greek and Latin; examples are amphora, krater, kantharos, lekythos, mortarium, and unguentarium. Archaeologists often use Greek and Latin shape names whether or not the vessels were made in Greece or Italy. Shape names are not standardized; archaeologists working in different regions and time periods will use different names for vessels of the same function. For instance, in Italy large vessels for food storage are usually termed dolia; in Greece pithoi; and in the Levant store jars (or simply jars).
  • Shape type: Shapes fall into two general types: open and closed. Open shapes are as wide or wider than they are tall, meaning that their diameter equals or exceeds their height; examples are bowls, plates, and pans. Closed shapes are taller than they are wide, meaning that their height equals or exceeds their diameter; examples are jars, jugs, and bottles. Shape type can also be used to designate a specific version of a general shape.
  • Shape family: Sometimes a certain shape will be so broadly popular that multiple producers will manufacture essentially identical versions. Examples in the Levant include Philistine decorated bowls, Roman transport amphoras, and Crusader-era decorated dishes. In such cases, vessels may be further grouped into a single shape family (e.g., LR 1 amphoras).

Site type: A site is a place where people have gathered, for any length of time and for any reason. Sites can be large or small, long-lived or temporary. Archaeologists usually classify sites by size (e.g., city, village, camp) and/or function (e.g., cemetery, sanctuary). A site type may change over time, e.g., a site may begin as a village and grow to become a city. On the LCP, the site type is filled out when submitting an example, which means that the person who submits the information decides what the site type is. In general, the site type listed in conjunction with an example will be relevant to that example’s specific date and period. Site type is meant to be an additional aid when searching or browsing the LCP, to enable the identification of patterns among certain types of sites within a period or over time. Site types on the LCP include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Cemetery
  • City
  • Farmstead
  • Port
  • Sanctuary
  • Shipwreck
  • Temple
  • Town
  • Villa
  • Village

Surface treatment: see Decoration and Surface Treatment

Temper refers to solid components in the clay body that a potter adds deliberately (as opposed to inclusions, which are presumed to occur naturally in the clay body). Depending on the vessel’s intended use, a potter might choose to temper clay with stone, straw, sand or other items. Some tempers may be identified by examining a fresh break with a magnification lens. By examining a ceramic thin-section, a petrographer can identify specific tempers and sometimes also distinguish mineral temper from inclusions.

Wares and Ware Families: When potters working within a single tradition produce vessels with distinctive shared characteristics, such vessels may be considered as belonging to a single ware. Shared characteristics should include at least two of the following: 1) a single petro-fabric, meaning the same clay source; 2) the same manufacturing processes, including preparation, forming, and firing; 3) the same approach to finishing and decoration; and 4) a specific suite of shapes. In such cases, archaeologists may assign a single ware name to a given group of vessels (e.g., Red Polished Ware or Eastern Sigillata A). Potters may manufacture vessels of the same ware for a limited time or over a long period, and even over several centuries. Over the course of a ware’s production, potters may introduce new shapes and stop producing others. For this reason, the date range for a specific shape in a given ware may be shorter than that ware’s overall production dates.

Ware Families occur when potters across a wide area produce vessels in the same or very similar shapes, finishes, and firing techniques, e.g., Khirbet Kerak ware of the Early Bronze Age, or Egyptian Ptolemaic Black Slip vessels. By sight, and without petrographic analysis, it can be difficult or impossible to assign specific examples to particular manufacturers. In such cases, it is helpful to assign vessels to a general ware family. Subsequent analyses may allow sub-groups within a ware family to be distinguished.