A wonderful example of pre-dynastic pottery, with smooth sides, expanding toward the rim and tapering toward a narrower, flat base. Such vessels are commonly called black-topped red pottery or B-ware (as classified by Egyptologist W.M. Flinders Petrie) because of their distinctive blackened rim.
Usually such vessels were built up using the co-called coil construction (see Arnold et al, 1993); in some cases the coils may have been built on a turntable, making the vessel shape more regular. On this beaker the coil construction process is still visible on the inside.
Black-topped vessels were made from Nile silts, the alluvial deposits of the Nile valley, rich in silica and iron, which fired to a reddish or brown colour in an oxidising atmosphere. The exterior was coated with a thin red iron-oxide wash that was polished or burnished with a smooth object like a pebble. This was done after the pot had dried but before it was fired, and it resulted in a lustrous surface.
Egyptologists have long been discussing how the black top was achieved. For an overview of theories see Hendrickx et al, 2000. More or less generally accepted is the view that, since clay turns black when a pot is fired in a reducing atmosphere (without oxygen) whereas it turns red in an oxidising atmosphere, it is likely that the two colours will appear on different parts of the vessel if the atmosphere is different for these parts. Adding soot would also aid the blackening of the vessel.
Pots like this are well known from the Amratian culture, a prehistoric culture that lasted from approximately 4000 to 3500 BCE. It was named after the archaeological site of el-Amra (located circa 120 km south of Badari in Upper Egypt), the first site where the culture was found without influences of the later Gerzean culture. The period is better attested at Naqada, and as a result it is usually referred to as Naqada I (whereas Naqada II is used for the Gerzean culture).
Black-topped pottery no longer occurs after the beginning of the Naqada III period (about 3300 B.C.), with the exception of very few examples which were apparently intended for ritual use only. The disappearance of black-topped vessels in Egypt can be connected with the appearance of pottery made of marl clay, coming from the desert and which can be fired at a higher temperature (850 – 1050 degrees Celsius) than Nile silt, and therefore is less porous.
- Dorothea Arnold - Janine Bourriau (eds.), An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Pottery (Mainz am Rhein, Philipp von Zabern, 1993), p. 33-36;
- Janine D. Bourriau - Paul Nicholson - Pamela J. Rose, “Pottery” in Paul T. Nicholson - Ian Shaw (eds.), Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 121-147, for the black-topped red ware esp. 125, 128;
- Stan Hendrickx - Renée Friedman - Fabienne Loyens, “Experimental archaeology concerning black-topped pottery from ancient Egypt and the Sudan”, Cahiers de la Céramique Égyptienne, 6 (Le Caire, 2000), p. 171-187;
- K. Sowada, "Late Predynastic Egyptian Black-topped Ware. A study in Ceramic Specialisation and Chronology", in C.C. Sorrel - A.J. Ruys (eds.), Proceedings of the International Ceramic Conference: AUSTCERAM 94, 25-27 July 1994, Sydney, Australia (Sydney, Australasian Ceramic Society, 1994), p. 34-39;
- K. Sowada, "Black-topped Ware in Archaic Contexts", in C. Eyre (ed.), Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge 3-9 September 1995, Additional Abstracts (Cambridge, 1995), p. 19.
Circa 3600 - 3500 B.C.
Height circa 16.5 cm.
U.S.A. private collection of Victor Johnson, New York, acquired in the 1960s; then by descent.
Professionally rejoined from a few large pieces, but complete, with no new material; minor cosmetic overpainting over the joints; some minor surface wear, scratches and other damage as shown, with minor losses to the rim that do not detract. Presents very well, a wonderful example.