This research project explores the emergence and distribution of Nabataean fine ceramics in the 2nd century BC – 4th century AD. It is investigated to what extent the typical type of ceramic is to be classified as an identity marker of Nabataean culture and society.
The Nabataeans were originally nomads who, in the course of the Hellenistic period, migrated into the areas of present southern Jordan where, in the form of a tribal society, they developed into an important player in the long-distance trade between South Arabia and the Mediterranean region. With increasing success and international contacts, structures emerged during the Hellenistic period that are described in the Greek and Latin sources as a kingdom, and corresponded to increasing sedentism. With the permanent settlement of at least part of the population, Petra expanded into a central place with a radiating international effect, and an increasing number of typical sedentary trades began to develop, including ceramic production.
Nabataean fine ceramics from the investigated period (2nd century BC – 4th century AD) are unique among the contemporary ceramics of the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. They are manufactured in an eggshell-thin manner on a fast-spinning potter’s wheel and – in the case of the flat drinking bowls – painted. This explains the central production in Petra and the widespread distribution on the one hand, and the local imitations on the other. Nabataean fine ceramics have so far been found only at sites where a Nabataean presence can also be detected, spreading from the region of the actual Nabataean kingdom all the way from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to port cities in Yemen and Oman. Despite their exceptionally high quality, they appear not to have been exported as merchandise (unlike terra sigillata, etc.); rather, it appears to be one of the very rare cases where the expression “pots equal people” truly applies. The main characteristic of these table ceramics appears to be that they conveyed a kind of sense of belonging (“drink to be Nabataean”): Only those who could drink their wine from these ceramics, it seems, could be considered as Nabataean. This consideration can be paralleled with the development of certain types of space for holding symposiums, which apparently had a constitutive and preserving function in the development of loyalties and interdependencies in Nabataean society. Much indicates, therefore, that the Nabataean symposium ceramics were originally the drinking vessels of the dominant members of the clan, whose centre was in and around Petra. Upon the rise of this clan to an actual kingdom, these ceramics quickly spread throughout the entire dominion until, after the Roman conquest, it receded back to the core area.
This main hypothesis seems to be confirmed by scientific analyses of Nabataean fine ware carried out by G. Schneider and M. Daszkiewicz, indicating that indeed, most of the drinking bowls found outside Petra were in fact manufactured there. A further interesting discovery is the observation that a good deal of the fine painted bowls seems to have been realised using models, but exclusively on one side.
First results were published in 2013: Malgorzata Daszkiewicz, Gerwulf Schneider, Stephan G. Schmid and Ewa Bobryk, “Grouping of Nabataean pottery from Petra (Jordan) using pXRF and other techniques”, in: Andreas Hauptmann, O. Mecking and Matthias Prange (Eds.), Archäometrie und Denkmalpflege 2013. Jahrestagung an der Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, 2013, 138–142.