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Prehistoric cooking


One of the main reasons people use ceramic vessels is the preparation of foodstuffs: cooking, baking, stewing, that sort of thing. The undisputed advantages of cooked foods include a significantly better hygiene, a longer shelf life, an increased absorption of vitamins and other nutrients, and - last but not least - the opportunity to prepare culinary masterpieces. Unfortunately, placing a ceramic vessel above a heat source is one of the worst things you can possibly do to it. Because temperatures in the base rise more strongly than in the vessel wall, the pot will crack and break. The food gets spilt and you can throw the vessel away. Worldwide, potters have invented special tricks to create useful, long-lasting 'cooking wares'. To reduce 'thermal stress', potters may use clays strongly tempered with minerals, they often avoid carinated profiles, and they make sure that the wall-thickness is regular. These properties cause the heat to spread quickly through the vessel wall, reducing thermal stress. How did people cook at Late Neolithic Tell Sabi Abyad?

Photo: a traditional cooking pot (tajine) from Morocco. A tajine needs to simmer in the oven for hours. In this case the potter used a clay mixed with crushed sherds ('grog'). This prevents the pot from breaking during use.


The prehistoric ceramic assemblage at Tell Sabi Abyad includes two groups that are classified as 'cooking ware'. These are the Mineral Coarse Ware (MCW) and the Dark-Faced Burnished Ware (DFBW). Both categories were densely tempered with mineral  inclusions, they have wall profiles without sharp carinations and their wall-thickness is regular.  The surfaces were polished. This facilitates cleaning and reduces the porosity of the vessel. Black traces of soot visible on the surface show that both groups were indeed used above fire.  

Photo above: the strong lugs of the Mineral Coarse Ware are often recovered as isolated fragments.

Photo below: example of an typical Mineral Coarse Ware pot (reconstructed from sherds).

The two groups differ strongly in shape, however. The MCW consists of typical cooking pots: closed, hole-mouth shapes, often with strong lugs. The DFBW is much more varied, and includes various types of bowls and jars in various sizes. Noteworthy of the DFBW is the re-use of jars: people removed the neck and transformed the former jar into a typical 'cooking pot' shape.  

Photo above: Dark-Faced Burnished Ware sherds.

Photo below: example of a typical Dark-Faced Burnished Ware pot (reconstructed from sherds).

In a joint effort of the National Museum of Antiquities, Warsaw University of Technology  and the Freie Universität Berlin the functional properties of samples of MCW and DFBW have been investigated. Malgorzata Daszkiewicz (Poland) and Gerwulf Schneider (Berlin) have studied the degree of water porosity and thermal shock  resistance of the two pottery groups.


The method for measuring water porosity is rather time consuming. Small discs of 2 cm in diameter are cut from the pottery sherds, using a drill with a diamond crown bit.  These are first boiled in distilled water in order to remove various sorts of secondary contamination that would influence the results. Using a specially built machine, the amount of time needed for water to permeate the sample is then carefully measured. The 'porosity index' is computed using a statistical formula that incorporates the sherd thickness, the volume of water per square centimetre that penetrates the sample, the total sample surface, the duration of the experiment, and the height of the water volume during the measurement.

Photo: Ewa Bobryk and a collegue measure the porosity of the pottery.


The study confirms that DFBW is ideal for cooking. This is strong pottery. The characteristic, mineral composition of the clay makes it very resistant against thermal and physical stresses. It is also highly impermeable to liquids. Both factors make it excellent cooking ware. We know that DFBW was not locally made at Tell Sabi Abyad. Investigators from the University of Lyon discovered that that the DFBW must have come from a region several hundreds of kilometres away from the site, perhaps from western Syria or southeastern Turkey. The inhabitants of Tell Sabi Abyad and other Late-Neolithic villages in the northern Syrian steppes may have imported their DFBW with the purpose of transforming it locally into cooking vessels.

Photo: a microscopical close-up of the Dark-Faced Burnished Ware clay.



Photo: the water permeability of Dark-Faced Burnished Ware.

The MCW yields a more varied picture. This is fragile pottery, which breaks easily. In spite of the burnished surfaces, most of the samples appeared to be very permeable to  liquid substances. Some of the sherds even fell apart with intense use! Some of the MCW pots may well have been used for preparing soups or stews, but they were less efficient than DFBW cooking pots.

The average time for cooking foodstuffs may have been approximately one hour and a half. Apparently the prehistoric inhabitants of Tell Sabi Abyad knew cooking wares of varying quality. Perhaps they used different types of cooking vessels for different categories of foods, or they may have reserved their best cooking pots for special occasions. Unfortunately, we don't know precisely what they were cooking. We cannot (yet) give a prehistoric 'cookbook'...