Skilled at the Wheel

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Nabataean bowl

Before adopting a settled lifestyle in Petra, the Nabataeans had little interest in fragile goods such as pottery. Instead--like nomadic peoples elsewhere--they satisfied their taste for beauty with textiles and jewelry, which are unbreakable. Yet once pottery production took hold in Petra in the mid-first century BC, an extraordinary ceramic tradition developed with remarkable speed. Within a few decades Nabataean craftsmen were creating wheel-thrown wares rivaling those of older classical civilizations such as Greece and Rome in delicacy and decorative elegance.

Petra continued to produce ceramics after becoming a Roman province in AD 106, but its artisans appear to have lost their gift for innovation in design and technology. They never again achieved the quality of wares made at the height of Nabataean civilization.

Made in Nabataea

Residents of Petra dined and drank from ceramics shaped and fired locally.

For both the ceramics and the slip, artisans used--and further refined--an especially pure red clay from Petra's vicinity.

When the Nabataeans began making ceramics in the mid-first century BC, other Mediterranean cultures had been refining the craft for centuries. The Greeks and Romans, in fact, had already started to abandon painting by hand in favor of stamping or rolling designs onto clay, a decorative shortcut for larger-scale production of ornamented vessels. Following the example of these more experienced potters, Petra's craftsmen eventually began stamping their own wares, though they also continued to develop their characteristic hand-painted floral and geometric patterns.

An elegant table

Ceramics like those displayed--remarkably thin, with decoration that is beautifully painted or impressed--would have been the property of Petra's elite; ordinary people used thicker, plainer pottery. The latter is far more common in the archaeological record of the city, partly because there was more of it made at the time. In addition, thickness makes for durability; none of the fineware plates here was found intact.

The complete ceramic inventory of a well-appointed household would have included plates and wide bowls for eating and serving, as well as covered vessels for pouring and storage. In Petra, as in much of the Mediterranean and ancient Near East, wine was drunk not from cups or beakers but from bowls. The bottoms of these vessels were rounded and fit nicely in the hand, but drinkers would have had to finish what they had been poured before setting the bowls down--a practice that may have resulted in lively banquets!