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Clay, Pottery, Bricks and Writing in Egypt and the Ancient World


Clay is one of the commonest substances in the Earth’s crust. There are many different types of clay, and they vary in colour from pure white to jet black and everything in between, but they are almost all formed from the silt (mud) left behind by a river or lake.

Clay has been used by Man for at least 10 000 years, for making pots out of, for writing on, and for building with.


Wet clay can be shaped very easily: we can make plates, mugs, pots, bricks, ornaments, statues and many other objects from it. An object made from clay keeps its shape as it dries although it shrinks a little, but once it is dry it is very brittle and the slightest knock will break it, and if it gets wet again it will disintegrate.

If however when it is absolutely dry we heat it to a very high temperature a chemical change takes place in the clay and it becomes much harder and stronger, and will not disintegrate if it gets wet again. This is called the ceramic process, and heating an object so that it undergoes the ceramic process is called firing it. Firing an object involves heating it very slowly to about 800oC, keeping it at this temperature for several hours, and then letting it cool down again very slowly. If it is heated or cooled too quickly it may crack. Firing is usually done in a special type of oven called a kiln. Usually several objects are fired at the same time, so the kiln is fitted with special fireproof shelves to put them all on.

China, porcelain, terra cotta, earthenware, stoneware, etc. are all made from fired clay, but they are all different because they are made from different types of clay and made, decorated and fired in different ways. We often refer to very fine objects made for rich people as ceramics, and much more ordinary objects made to be used by ordinary people as pottery. The rest of this Page is mainly about pottery.

At the time of the Ancient Egyptians there was no stainless steel, aluminium or plastic: if you wanted to store or carry things you had to use pots made of fired clay, baskets woven from small twigs or grasses or other plant material, barrels made from wood, or buckets or bags made from leather (from animal skins). Pottery was therefore very important to the Ancient Egyptians, and also the Greeks and Romans and most other ancient people.

Until about two hundred years ago almost all pottery was made by hand: it still is in many parts of the world. The quickest and most economical way (but by no means the easiest!) to make a pot by hand is on a potter's wheel. Wheel pots must always be round (but you can add handles etc later), and round pots are also the strongest and usually the most useful shape to store things in. But objects made of clay do not have to be round, and there are lots of other ways of making a pot or other object other than on a wheel.

If a pot does not come out the way you want it you do not have to fire it: any unfired pots and any unused clay that has become too dry to use can be recycled: the unfired pot or dry clay is stirred up with lots of water until it has become a slurry, like very muddy water, then the clay particles are allowed to settle to the bottom, and finally the water is squeezed out and the wet clay reused. Once a pot has been fired the clay cannot be recycled but a pot, even a broken pot, can be reused in other ways - this is discussed later on this Page.

Pots and other objects made in this way usually have quite a rough surface. They can be used for many purposes, including the storage of dry foods such as grains and nuts, and herbs and spices etc. But they are very porous, and so cannot be used for storing liquids. A terra-cotta flower-pot is a good example of something made in this way.

Although the Ancient Egyptians could not store beer in containers like this they did serve beer in them: the beer soaked into the jug or beaker and evaporated from the surface so cooling it!

Simple pots like this were being made about nine thousand years ago; by about eight thousand years ago Man had learned how to make glazed pottery. A glaze is a mixture of certain powdered substances stirred up with, but not dissolved in, water. These substances are often metal oxides or other metal compounds. The pot is dipped into the glaze for a short time or the glaze is painted or poured onto it. The unglazed pot is porous so the water soaks into it, leaving the particles of glaze on the surface. The pot is then allowed to dry out again. Now it is fired a second time. The particles in the glaze melt to form a thin layer of liquid all over the surface of the pot. (But before it is fired you normally wipe the glaze off any part of the bottom of the pot which touches the shelf when it is put into the kiln so it does not stick to it when it is fired.) Then as the pot cools this liquid solidifies, covering the whole surface (except the bottom) with a smooth non-porous coating. Almost all the china cups and saucers etc you may have at home are glazed in this way - you can sometimes see where a part of the bottom has not been glazed.

Glazes can be transparent, or white or black or almost any other colour. You can make the pot just one colour, or striped or patterned, even paint pictures with different coloured glazes. Glazes usually change colour when they are fired so getting a pot to look the way you want it is quite a skilled task.

Pots and other objects can be made in different shapes and sizes, depending on what they are going to be used for, and decorated in different ways, for example by putting hieroglyphs or a pattern on the wet clay before it is fired for the first time, or by using different coloured glazes on different parts of the pot, for example painting hieroglyphs, patterns or pictures or other designs onto it. The way pots were made and decorated varied a lot from place to place and time to time, even if they were made for the same purpose, so a pot made in Upper Egypt during the Eighth Dynasty will not be the same as one made in Lower Egypt in the Eighteenth Dynasty, and a Greek pot from 300 BCE is not the same as a Roman pot from 100 CE. The same is true for every time in history and for every place on Earth.

If you have you ever watched an antiques programme on television you will have seen The Expert pick up a ceramic object and just by looking at it say when, and where, and how, and why, even for whom, it was made. And this has always been the case: pottery, even broken pottery, gives archaeologists more information than almost anything else.

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Clay as a writing material

You can make marks on wet clay with almost any pointed object, and for thousands of years this has been the way children have been taught to write - children were still using clay tablets in Victorian England. Once the piece of work has been marked the clay can be smoothed over and reused. In Ancient Egypt hieroglyphs were carved in stone, but the main writing material used by the scribes was papyrus. This was very expensive, so Ancient Egyptian children used clay tablets and other much cheaper materials when learning to write.

But papyrus does not grow in Mesopotamia (the area between the River Tigris and River Euphrates, corresponding approximately to modern Iraq), so in Mesopotamia clay was the usual writing material for everybody and everything. So all the great city states of Mesopotamia, Eridu, Uruk, Akkad, Ur, Nippur, Nineveh and Babylon, used clay tablets, going back more than five thousand years.

When these people first started to write on clay tablets they made the marks by pressing the end of a specially shaped piece of wood into the clay. This produced a wedge-shaped mark, so we call this type of writing cuneiform, from the Greek for wedge-shaped.

Important documents written on clay tablets were fired (or baked) to make them permanent. Many of these baked clay tablets have been found, but after more than two thousand years they are very fragile and only very special people are allowed to handle them.

Clay tablets could be of any size but they were seldom much bigger than about 30 cm by 30 cm, because the bigger they were the more difficult it was to write on them without accidentally pressing on what you had already written. The surface had to be smooth but did not have to be flat. But double-sided tablets were usually flat on one side: you wrote on the flat side first, then you could turn it over and rest it on a flat surface. Like this you did not damage the marks on the first while you wrote the second. This helps archaeologists decide which side was written first.

During the time of the Ancient Egyptians all diplomatic correspondence (letters from the ruler of one country to the ruler of another) was written in this way, so when the King of Egypt sent a letter to the King of Assyria it would be written in cuneiform on clay tablets which were then baked.These tablets were always written by and read by special scribes: they contain sentences such as “My Master says that you are to speak these words to your Master exactly as I have written them.” Archaeologists love finding these diplomatic tablets! - a huge store of them was found in the ruins of Akhenaten’s new city of Akhetaten.

The problem for today’s archaeologists is that these tablets are not flat, unlike documents written on papyrus, and photographing them distorts the characters, and also the characters are the same colour as the clay. So whereas if you discover a new papyrus document it can be scanned at hi-res and put on the Internet in a few minutes you can only really read a tablet if you are actually holding it in your hands.


Archaeologists also love finding pieces of broken pots! At the time of the Ancient Egyptians, if you broke a pot you could not go to your local DIY store to buy a tube of glue to stick it together again: a broken pot stayed broken. But the pieces could still be used for other things, for writing shopping lists on, doing your homework, even act as a voting paper in an election! So bits of broken pot are very valuable to archaeologists because of what might be written on them.

A piece of a broken pot is called an ostrakon (plural ostraka), from an Ancient Greek word meaning (surprise!) a piece of a broken pot. Here is a Challenge for younger Readers of this Page: find out what ostracise (American ostracize) means and where the word comes from. Hint: broken pottery, voting and the Ancient Greeks all come into the answer. Please e-mail me with your answer.

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Many houses and other buildings in Britain and other parts of Europe are built of brick. The bricks used are made of fired clay.Today most bricks are made by machine and have a small indentation in the top; this is called a frog, and is used to help keep the cement or mortar in place when the wall is finished.

The bricks are porous so they will soak up water, from the ground or when it rains and the walls get wet. To keep the house dry we use a damp proof course and cavity walls.

Fired brick house

The damp proof course is made of a thin layer of non-porous material. At one time slate was used, but today Man-made materials are used. If the damp-proof course in an older house has become damaged special resins are injected into the bricks to make a chemical damp proof course.

Cavity walls were introduced into Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century although not until the 1920s were most houses in Britain built with them.

The cavity wall is there to keep the house dry not warm. Since the 1970s most homes in Britain have been built with insulation in the cavity wall, and many older houses have had it put in retrospectively. In theory cavity wall insulation reduces heat loss through the walls but if it is not done properly, or if the insulation becomes damaged, it may allow water across and then the house will be very damp and the insulation worse than useless, so the heat losses will actually be higher than if the insulation were not there.

Cavity walls are, or were, also a very important habitat for many species of bat.

In hot dry places such as Egypt and North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean and Near and Middle East (Israel, Jordan, The Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) for thousands of years Sun-dried but unfired clay bricks, mud bricks, have been used. In these places mud bricks are almost the ideal building material. They are cheap, easy to make, can be made very close to the place where they will be used, and are very easy to use.

The bricks are made without an indentation (a frog) on the top. Then they are left to dry in the Sun for several days.

The straw is needed so they dry more quickly and to make them stronger and less likely to crumble.

Mud brick houses can be built very quickly, everyone in the village joining in to help. The walls can be as thick as you like. A house can be several stories high provided the walls of the lower floors are thick enough. When the house is finished the walls may be plastered, inside or outside or both. Houses have been built like this for at least seven thousand years and are still being built today.

Here is the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, the largest mud-brick building in the World. This building dates from 1907 CE.

In Ancient Egypt even Pharaoh himself lived in a mud brick palace. Stone was used only for the Houses of Eternity, buildings intended to last for ever such as pyramids, temples and tombs. Of course, four thousand years later the mud brick buildings have all crumbled away but the pyramids, temples and tombs are still standing, and this has given many visitors the wrong idea about what life in Ancient Egypt was really like.

Mud brick is an almost ideal building material for places where there are rivers to provide clay and water to make the mud bricks, lots of sunshine to dry the bricks, and very little rain to make the houses built from them wet - not England then, but Afghanistan is OK because there the summers are very hot and dry and in the winter it is very cold and there is lots of snow but no rain. Thick mud brick walls keep the house lovely and cool in the summer and lovely and warm in the winter. Whole villages and towns were built out of mud brick - even the town walls! Some towns have been found with mud brick walls originally more than five metres thick and ten metres high.

Mud brick houses are not the same as mud huts: mud huts are made by building a simple framework out of thin branches woven together and then covering it with mud. They are nothing like as strong or as long lasting (or as luxurious!) as a mud brick house or palace, but you do not have to wait several months for mud bricks to dry. They can also be built in places where the Sun is not hot enough to dry mud bricks properly or where there is a rainy season. They are widely used in villages in African countries south of the Sahara desert and in many parts of Asia and other parts of the world.

A mud brick house needs to be looked after: if you do not look after it it will just crumble away. When it begins to crumble you just knock it down. Then you level the ground and build a new house in the same place.

Most schoolchildren growing up in towns in Europe and North America, and in many other parts of the world, are living in a world in which every time you go shopping you find that something, even a tin of baked beans, is new or improved - or even both. You may have an i-pod in your ear, a mobile phone in your pocket, a laptop in your school bag, satellite navigation in the car which takes you to school, a dvd player in your bedroom and a wide screen HD plasma cable television in your living room. You still have last year's mobile phone? Get real! It is hard to realise that for many other people life has not changed for thousands of years: until the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1970s you could take a boat trip along the River Nile and see villagers wearing linen loincloths, and using wooden ploughs, and oxen, and shadufs, and papyrus boats - scenes straight out of wall paintings from Ancient Egyptian tombs built four thousand years ago. Although in the 1960s all the houses in their village would have been of mud brick, over the past four thousand years the River Nile has changed its course several times, and each time it changed its course the villagers would have to build a new village.

But in other parts of the Near and Middle East there was no need for the villagers to keep moving to another place: some villages of mud brick houses in Iraq, Jordan and Israel go back more than five thousand years. But of course it is not the same mud brick houses: over five thousand years each house will have been knocked down and rebuilt many times. And each time an old house is knocked down a little extra soil is added to the foundations of the new one. So five thousand years ago the village was on flat ground; now it is at the top of a hill (a tel, from the Arabic word for a mound)...

Tel with pottery

The brown mound in the background is the tel; the pottery in the foreground was excavated from this tel, and is discussed later on this web page.

Here is another tel - this one has been more extensively excavated by archaeologists.

Tel Beth Shean

Image from the Beth-Shean Valley Regional Project of the Hebrew University

It is hard to believe, but these mounds are Man-made, the remains of thousands of mud brick houses going back more than a hundred generations - that’s great grandfather but with more that a hundred greats. These village, or even town, mounds cover Iraq and other parts of the Near and Middle East. You can see other tels in the distance in the second photograph. Many of the villages on top of them were still lived in until about fifty years ago, but a mud brick house in a village on the top of a hill with the only road up the hill just wide enough for a donkey is OK for some people, but not if you want mains water and drainage, gas-fired central heating and a power shower, and electricity for your PC and air conditioning and satellite television, and room to park your car. So few of them are inhabited today.

Archaeologists love them: you can see some of the places where archaeologists have been working on the tel in the second photograph.

For reasons given above there are few tels in Egypt; although today the site of Akhenaten's City of the Aten at Akhetaten is called tel el Amarna there is no mound there because the city was abandoned within a few years of it being built, and the site was never built on again. You can read more about this by going to another Page of my web site - to go to it please click here To Tutankhamen's Mum and Dad

A tel is made up of different layers, like the skins of an onion. Each layer is older than the layer above it but younger than the layer below it.

Section through tel

The first stage of excavating a tel is always to dig a shaft straight down the middle. This will expose all the different layers (strata). Lots of pottery and broken pottery will be found; each stratum can be dated by the type of pottery found in it - hence the vital importance of pottery.

Excavated tel

What happens next depends upon what was found out when this shaft was dug, and will vary from tel to tel. But every stage in the excavation needs to be very carefully planned and carried out because each time one stratum is excavated all the strata above it are destroyed. So a proper excavation takes several years and is very expensive, and Governments are very careful about protecting their country’s historical heritage and will not give permission for a tel to be excavated unless they are certain it will be done properly. Hence many tels have never been excavated at all, and many more not beyond the first shaft.
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© Barry Gray March 2022