Decorated Ware – A Landscape in Ceramic

D-Ware (or Decorated Ware) is a classification of Predynastic pottery originating from Flinders Petrie’s seriation of Predynastic material from Diospolis Parva. The characteristics of D-Ware are that it is made from Marl clay and decorated with red pigment, likely made from ochre. The vessels are decorated with numerous designs and motifs, ranging from abstract geometric patterns to depictions of humans, animals and the natural landscape of the Nile Valley. The majority of D-Ware vessels date to the Naqada IIC-IID and Naqada IIIA-IIIB periods, with most found across sites in Upper Egypt (though there is limited distribution through Middle Egypt, Lower Egypt and Nubia).

E.3030

Boats, plants, animals and human are all motifs regularly appearing on D-Ware vessels like this one (E.3030).

Geometric Designs

Certain forms of decoration on D-Ware vessels appear to be abstract – wavy lines, patterns or simple shapes. It is unclear whether these shapes may have communicated an idea or might represent something more concrete, as the vast temporal space between the manufacture of the vessels and their interpretation now prevents our understanding of the meanings behind these abstract shapes.

 

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The decoration on this vessel from Koshtamna consists only of a series of curved lines painted on all sides of the vessel (E.3045).

In some cases, it is possible that these shapes are an imitation of more expensive vessels – it is common, for example, to find Predynastic vessels with swirls, spirals and other decorations intended to imitate the patterning of stone vessels – a material that was less common, harder to procure and much more difficult to work with. Another possibility is that these vessels might still be representing aspects of the natural world – for example, it is not uncommon to find wavy-line decoration on D-Ware vessels reminiscent of the later hieroglyphic sign for the consonant value ‘n’, which represent water. Could this form of decoration be an attempt to depict water, or the River Nile – of central importance to Egyptian society throughout both history and prehistory?

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The swirling patterns on this vessel are an imitation of the patterning on stone vessels from the same time period (E.4762).

Depictions of Natural and Human Geography

A common motif is the inclusion of natural and human features in the landscape. For example, often one sees rows of black triangles taken to represent the desert hills surrounding the Nile Valley. In most cases, these are featured alongside depictions of animals, such as oryx, addax or ibex, and may indicate a spatial relationship between the grazing lands of these animals and the desert hills located nearby. Alternatively, the relationship between the depictions of geographical features and other parts of decoration on the vessel might be an early precursor to the strictly delineated registers of decoration found on later Egyptian material, such as stelae and tomb and temple wall inscriptions.

E.3035

This striking D-Ware pot includes zig-zag banding just below the rim, followed by “registers” of grazing animals, desert hills and river plants (E.3035).

A less common feature of decoration is the potential inclusion of human architectural elements. These ‘architectural elements’ are cross-hatched geometric shapes, in the form of structures tentatively identified as wattle-and-daub or matted constructions (potentially shrines or temples, although this is mostly conjecture). These structures, whatever their intended purpose, may be the origin of the so-called ‘façade’ style decoration found in Predynastic and Early Dynastic motifs and iconography.

More common than actual buildings is the inclusion of boats. The central importance of the Nile River in Egypt cannot be understated, and riverine trade would naturally have been a facet of Egyptian life as far back as the Predynastic period. The ubiquitous representations of boats on D-Ware vessels illustrate how important they were to the Egyptians; moreover, their regular inclusion alongside human figures may be representations of trade and exchange happening along the riverside, a scene that is familiar from later depictions in the Pharaonic Period.

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Boats are one of the most common features of decoration on D-Ware vessels, regularly appearing next to depictions of humans and animals (E.3038).

Depictions of Flora and Fauna

Flora and fauna are commonly depicted on D-Ware vessels; plants and other natural vegetation are regularly included, although identifying specific species of plant is difficult due to the abbreviated nature of the art style. The fauna depicted are usually oryx, ibex and other grazing animals, although ostriches are also very common. It has been suggested that the representation of these animals on D-Ware – particularly if that representation is alongside human figures, which are sometimes represented touching or otherwise in contact with the animals – might be an artistic trope, illustrating the triumph of human order over animalistic chaos. However, this is difficult to prove with any certainty, and while the motifs are abstract enough that it is unlikely that they are historical – referring to a specific hunt or a specific interaction between humans and animals – they may just act as a record of the daily activities of their Predynastic creators.

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Close-up detail of a D-Ware vessel. This is the only known example of D-Ware including the unusual motif of birds in flight (E.6111).

Depictions of Humans

Humans depicted on D-Ware tend to be shown in an abbreviated form that emphasises the general shape of the figure rather than individual details or characteristics, much like anthropomorphic Predynastic figurines. Likewise, there are numerous examples of female human figures depicted with their arms raised over their heads and their legs together, the same pose as is depicted in steatopygous figurines and in rock art in the Western desert. The exact meaning of this pose has been hotly debated. Older theories tended to focus on a divine reasoning, either participation in a mother goddess cult or some form of prayer, but this is generally less accepted now. Modern scholarship relates the pose to being a symbolic assumption of authority through taking on visual characteristics associated with bulls.

The inclusion of human figures in this style on D-Ware vessels might indicate people of importance – they are regularly included in scenes that also include boats, which suggests that those humans depicted in this way may have had a level of social responsibility relating to boats, and by extension, trade. This would match with depictions of similar figures on rock art, which show them surrounded and potentially in control of grazing animals.

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This vessel shows human figures interacting on a boat, with the figure on the left shown with legs together similar to steatopygous figurines. Unfortunately, much of the decoration has been damaged (E.3027).

A Window into Ancient Minds?

The choice of decoration used on this pottery allows archaeologists a glimpse into the meaningful motifs and semiotic communications that were utilised and understood by Predynastic Egyptians, and can assist with the identification of important cultural signifiers relevant to the daily life of these prehistoric people. The absence of textual evidence from the Predynastic necessitates a reliance on the visual themes and designs utilised in Egyptian material culture in order to envision and relate to their world, as they understood it.

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This collage image stitched together from multiple photographs shows off the entirety of the decoration of this D-Ware vessel (E.3030).

Chris Bebbington.

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