"And brought in the offerings and the tithes and the dedicated things faithfully" (2 Chron. 31:12): On the meaning and function of the late Iron Age Judahite "Incised Handle cooking pots".

Author:Maeir, Aren M.


The corpus of late Iron Age pottery (ca. late eighth--early sixth centuries B.C.E.) from Judah is one of the best-known pottery assemblages in the ancient Levant. Intensive and extensive excavations over the last century or so, coupled with a long list of publications, have enabled archaeologists to build a robust familiarity with the pottery assemblage typical of this period and region, including, inter alia, a close knowledge of the various chrono-morphological types, special features, unique decorations, socio-cultural manifestations, etc. (1)

In the published assemblages of the late Iron Age Judahite pottery, excavators have noticed cooking pots of various types with a pre-fired, incised "X-shaped" marking (similar to the Paleo-Hebrew letter taw) on one of its handles (Fig. 1). Noted already in the early twentieth century (Albright 1932: 81, 88 fat Tell Beit Mirsiml), the incised-handle cooking pot (henceforth IIICP) has since been reported, and in some cases, discussed, in the archaeological literature.

A representative sample of this type can be noted at a large number of sites (Fig. 2). (2) From the archaeological literature it is clear that this is a very well-defined phenomenon, both spatially and temporally. The markings, which had always been incised before the firing of the vessel, are located on the upper part of the handle, and on only one handle of each vessel. (3) This particular marking is to be seen during this period almost exclusively on cooking pots, (4) and across the full range of cooking pot types known in late eighth-early sixth centuries B.C.E. Judah. While the IHCP is found exclusively and extensively throughout Judah, (5) it is particularly well represented in Jerusalem.


The dating of the IHCP is quite clear. Shoham (2000a: 110) claimed that the IHCP was particularly popular in the eighth and early seventh centuries, and although it is still seen in late seventh/early sixth century contexts, its quantities diminish. Barkay (2003: 55) notes that these vessels appear in the eighth and seventh centuries, but does not remark on a diminishing in the later Iron Age. They are absent from non-Judahite sites and rare (e.g., at Gezer, Tel Batash) or absent also at some sites on the Judahite periphery (e.g., Ein Gedi). While their absence at non-Judahite sites is most likely due to the fact that the IHCP is a Judahite cultural phenomenon (see below), the absence of IHCP at late Iron Age Ein Gedi (dated by Yezerski 2007: 105 to the very end of the Iron Age), late Iron Age Kadesh Barnea (Bernick-Greenberg 2007: 179), (6) and Lachish Level II may strengthen the argument that the popularity of the IHCP did in fact diminish towards the end of the late seventh/early sixth centuries. (7) Thus, it would appear that while the IHCP continued to be used in Jerusalem in the late seventh/early sixth centuries, it had disappeared at some sites in Judah by the very end of the Iron Age.

Although the IHCP is quite common in the archaeological assemblages from late Iron Age Judah, Albright's (1932: 81) claim that these markings appear on approximately one-quarter of the cooking pots is exaggerated, based on the number of published examples of marked and unmarked sundry late Iron Age cooking pots from various Judahite sites (note, e.g., Shoham [2000a: 110], who publishes 163 such cooking pot handles among the hundreds of cooking pots from Shiloh's excavation in the City of David).

Before continuing the discussion, the main characteristics of the IHCPs may be summarized:

  1. The IHCP appears solely at sites in Judah that date to the late Iron Age, specifically to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.

  2. The earliest known example is from the mid eighth century B.C.E. (Arad, Stratum X, Singer-Avitz 2002: fig. 25:8), while the latest appear in terminal Iron Age contexts (e.g., Shoham 2000a: 110; Barkay 2003: 55).

  3. Most popular in the late eighth and early seventh centuries, the IHCP becomes less prevalent in the late seventh/early sixth centuries (see Shoham 2000a: 110).

  4. While appearing at many sites in Judah, the IHCP is most common in Jerusalem.

  5. While the IHCP continues to the end of the Iron Age in Jerusalem, it does not appear at all Iron Age IIC Judahite sites (such as Lachish, Level II, Ein Gedi, Stratum V, and Kadesh Barnea, "Strata" 3-2 [for the stratigraphy of the latter site, see above]).

  6. Examples of the IHCP are found among all the various cooking pot types common in Late Iron Age Judah.

  7. The IHCP represents but a small percentage of the total of these cooking pot types.

  8. The IHCP is found in various contexts, alongside other, non-marked, cooking pots.


While, as noted above, the IHCP has been reported from many sites in late Iron Age Judah, there has been very little discussion as to the meaning and/or function of such vessels. Over the last several decades, a few interpretations have been suggested, although, as will be shown, they do not sufficiently explain this phenomenon.

Albright (1932: 81), the first to specifically discuss the IHCP, suggested that the incising perhaps represented a factory mark of a town that produced these vessels.

Nadelman (1989: 132), in the first extensive discussion of these marks, notes Yadin's explanation of the inked taws found on jars from Herodian Masada as related to the Hebrew word teruma (= 'priestly dues/offering'), referring to the contents of the jars. Yadin had based this interpretation on a similar phenomenon noted in the Talmud (Mishnah Ma'aser Sheni 4:1): "If a vessel was found on which was written ... 't.'" (8) Nadelman, however, based on a comparison to the appearance of such incised markings in other periods and cultures, does not accept this interpretation. Instead, he prefers to compare these markings to those known from other early Near Eastern cultures, where they do not seem to have such cultic meanings. Nadelman (ibid.) also notes Frankel's (1975: 38) suggestion (regarding Early Cypriote vessels from Vounous, Cyprus) that we understand such markings as reflecting an attempt to differentiate between vessels made by different potters, but tired in the same kiln. But Nadelman believes that this latter explanation is also irrelevant for the IHCP, since he mentions a vessel from the City of David in which both a taw and a name were incised before firing. Unfortunately, he does not suggest a viable alternative explanation.

These marks on cooking pots have also been discussed by Y. Shoham (2000a: 110) in his study of epigraphic materials from the City of David, but he does not offer an explanation. In his publication of the late Iron Age inscribed and marked pottery from N. Avigad's excavations in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, C. Barkay (2003: 55) also treats the IHCP. He argues that the incisings could not have served as potter's marks, since "the large number of similarly marked pots, obviously from different workshops and extending over a long period of time indicates that these marks do not support this view." Likewise, he raises, and rules out, the possibility that they served to mark a measurement of capacity, since it appears on vessels of varying size, and on cooking utensils, not on storage vessels. He concludes: "We cannot offer any reasonable interpretation for the purpose of the 'x'-shaped marks."

Thus we see that the meaning and function of the IHCP have not yet been clarified.


Before presenting my own explanation for the IHCP, I first assess the interpretations previously offered.

Potter's Mark: The difficulty of defining the so-called "potter's marks" has been dealt with by many scholars in a wide range of archaeological contexts. (9) While it is by now established that a simple explanation for all pre-fired marks as such is untenable, it is clear that some of these did in fact perform this function. A very good explanation is that, as noted above, these markings served to differentiate between vessels produced by different potters bred in the same kiln (e.g., Donnan 1971; Frankel 1975: 38; (10) Wood 1990: 45-48). Examples of this type of potter's mark can be noted from the ancient Levant, such as on cooking pots of the late Iron I/early Iron IIA in the Jezreel valley, which have been studied by Sharon et al. (1987). Clearly, however, the IHCP belongs to a different phenomenon, since the same type of marking appears on different types of vessels, at different sites, over a long period of time, while other markings are very rare. The mark on the IHCP could thus have functioned to differentiate between potters at a single site, or, following Albright's suggestion (1932: 81), denote a specific production site. (11)

Indication of Capacity: Likewise, the incising could not mark capacity, since cooking pots of various size and capacities are similarly marked (see, e.g.. Fig. 1), and, by and large, capacity measures are more typical of storage and/or serving vessels than of cooking vessels.

Thus various attempts to explain the IHCP from a narrow, functional, perspective are not convincing. Despite Nadelman's (1989:132) rejection of the possibility that the IHCP is to be related to teruma, I believe that this avenue of interpretation should be reexamined. I suggest that the cross-like incision on the handles of the IHCPs should in fact be read as an Old Hebrew "taw" (e.g., Naveh 1982: 77, fig. 70), and that it should be understood as an abbreviation of the word teruma, parallel to the custom of marking vessels with letters mentioned in Mishna Ma'aser Sheni 4:1 (see above). (12)

As will be described below, the appearance of the IHCP in late Iron Age Judah (eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E.), if understood as pertaining to the teruma, fits in well with the relevant historical, biblical, and archaeological evidence. In addition, later biblical and extra-biblical texts appear to support this interpretation.

I begin with a definition and brief...

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