This January I had the distinct privilege of studying part of Oberlin’s collection of pottery and artifacts from the Ancient Near East and Southern Levant. For those who don’t know, Oberlin provides its students a month long space of time called winter-term which takes place every January. In this time students are required to participate in individual or group research, internships, travel, or really just about anything that they would like to do.

Ever since arriving at school back in August, I’d been very conscious of Winter Term and from the start of the semester, I had been trying to find a project which would be a suitable use of my time. While I had originally envisioned myself participating in an independent study of Near Eastern archaeology or attempting to learn basic 3-d modelling, I knew that these activities wouldn’t be as enriching as working with a professor or doing a guided research project. This led to me trying to find a month-long position at the Penn Museum where I’d worked in the past. Even when I applied I knew that this was unlikely to work out due to January being the start of Penn’s semester and due to my not being a Penn student. Sure enough, I got a negative response back. By this point it was already late October so I figured that there wouldn’t be much of a chance for me to do the kind of work which I really wanted. This all changed when I was sent an email by an archaeology Professor regarding the opportunity to work with Oberlin’s collection of Pottery from the Near East and Levant. Better yet, I found out that the college was bringing in an Oberlin graduate and Levantine archaeologist, Jeff Blakely, in order to oversee this work. Somehow even without trying, I had ended up with what I had really wanted. I registered to participate about a week later.

The project began on January 3rd. The first thing which our group had to do was carry the stored artifacts over into a work space in the library. Around 22 boxes later and several trips later, our group of eight all introduced ourselves to Professor Blakely. From there, he gave us a rough overview of how Oberlin came to acquire its teaching collection of Levantine and Ancient Near Eastern pottery and other artifacts. As it turned out, Oberlin had been a founding member of ASOR back in 1900 and had participated in the effort to identify, survey, and excavate Biblical sites throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. As a result, the college had acquired a small collection of artifacts which were picked up on surveys from sites on both sides of the Jordan, picked up from pottery dumps from  excavations such as the University of Chicago’s at Meggido in the 1920’s, and through the purchase of artifacts. The collection also contained many reproductions of akkadian tablets and cylinder seal impressions which were used in order to teach students about the Ancient Near East. He further explained that the college had up until the 1970’s been the seat of a prestigious theological seminary and that as a result, the objects had widely been used. Furthermore, he explained to us that in 1970 the College had begun excavations at the site of Tel el-Hesi on the coastal plain of Cisjordan. This all coalesced and led to the a high-point of interest in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East in the early 1970’s. However, this interest soon after waned and with the closing of the college’s theological seminary around the same time, the artifacts found their way into disuse, disorder, and storage.

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A sample of what some of the storage boxes looked like

Professor Blakely went on to explain that while the objects had been reorganized and briefly cataloged into a database in the early 2000’s, this database was lacking in that many of the artifacts weren’t included and in that most of the items were undated and unidentified. As a result, the biggest goal of our project would be to re-catalog the collection by photographing, dating, and numbering the artifacts so that they could easily be accessed and used in the future for student research and by the religion department for use in courses related to the Hebrew Bible. He also told us that he was going to help us design and work on individual research projects based around the objects. I was excited about both of these parts because not only would I be able to focus on something which I really wanted to research, but I would also be able to learn something about artifact photography and database management.

The first couple of days of the project were spent working exclusively on the database. The group first had to make sure that the artifacts which had been cataloged were still in their marked places. After this, we went about setting up an excel file which with the help of Professor Blakely came to include important sorting information such as a time period to which the artifacts could date. From there, we went about assigning object numbers to objects which hadn’t been a part of the previous database. We elected to use a simple system counting up from 1 in order to identify the artifacts. This combined with the previous database method which was more stratified would allow us to fully catalog all of the artifacts in a way which would would make them easily searchable. We also noted a location of origin when known and well took notes on decoration and object’s new storage location. This resulted in a rough copy of the database which we would have to review several times to get just right, but one which was perfectly adequate for the moment. It was also important because it allowed us to find objects for our individual research projects more easily. With all that done, I was ready to start on my individual project.

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Assigning the objects numbers in order to properly catalog them

For my project I had originally intended to go through the college’s collection of pottery from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. However, the more we cataloged, the more it became clear that this was overambitious due to the collection having much more of this type of pottery than had been originally anticipated. As a result, I settled on researching as much of the Early Bronze Age (3300-2000 BC) pottery as I could fit in. My goal was to write descriptions, photograph, and find parallels for these artifacts. My first step in doing this was gaining a better understanding of the period I was studying. To aid in this, I found several books and articles which provided surveys of the Early Bronze Age. These gave a me a good general overview of the period’s social trends, pottery, architecture, and more. With this foundation, I was ready to start.

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Fun time!

The first group of Early Bronze Age pottery  which I worked with was our collection of ledge handles. These are found throughout the entirety of the period and were attached to storage vessels and in some cases bowls. My goal with these was to find parallels for the various kinds of ledge handles in our collection by using Ruth Amiran’s guide to archaeological pottery as well as the Bronze Age publications of Arad, Lachish, Meggido, and Beit-Shemesh. These were helpful as they provided typological classifications of the different kind of handles which I was able to easily apply to the ones in our collection. I discovered that our collection had around 6 different types of ledge handles and came from numerous sites on both sides of the Jordan river.

Following my work with the collection’s ledge handles, I also wrote about the Early Bronze Age pottery in our collection which used comb decoration and grain-wash decoration. These were more difficult to cover because I had a hard time finding sources which specifically explained how these decorations were applied to the vessels. Eventually however, I was able to find what I needed and I was able to finish documenting these types of pottery. Furthermore I was able to photograph, find parallels, and describe our collection’s Khirbet Kerak Ware, vat rims, rope-tie decorated pieces, and potter’s marks. All in all, this came out to cataloging and writing descriptions for around 20 pieces of pottery. In addition to the descriptions and photographs which I provided for these pieces, I also wrote brief summaries of the various occupational sub-phases of the Early Bronze Age and general descriptions about the use, prevalence, and manufacturing of the different kinds of Early Bronze Age pottery which I covered.

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Our photography apparatus

Due to my finishing this project a couple of days before the end of winter term, I undertook another project. As it turned out, the college had in 1978 purchased a tomb assemblage from an EBIA (3400-3200 BC) grave at Bab edh-Drah, a site in modern day Jordan. Due to this post getting to be a bit long though, I’m going to split up my thoughts into two parts. In any case, part 2. will include information about my second project and some concluding thoughts about my work this January.

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