Deir El Ballas: Mother of Pots

Egypt is comprised of two disparate lands: the verdant Nile valley and the parched desert plateaus that border each side. The stark contrast is striking whether viewed with feet firmly planted on the ground or floating in space, and it is even embodied in bits of broken pots unearthed in archaeological excavations.

Nile silt clay produces pottery that is red in colour, while desert marl clay results in whitish wares. The difference lies in their makeup. Silt, carried vast distances from upstream and deposited here when the floods ebbed, is rich in iron oxides. Marl clay, on the other hand, is concentrated with calcium carbonates that come from adjacent limestone deposits. Even their characters are different. Nile clay is malleable, while desert marl is hard and more difficult to work.

But Egyptians have worked with this rock-like clay since predynastic times, about 4,000 B.C., particularly in the area near the modern city of Qena. Driving North from Luxor along the new desert highway the entire landscape is pinky grey and the high desert plateau forms a formidable bastion all along the east side. The landscape is daunting; one may even think it threatening. Yet following the desert wadis, or dry riverbeds, men enter this bleak realm to mine clay which is then transported by camels and donkeys down to a village at the desert's edge. Here the clay is broken up into smaller pieces and soaked in a round basin beside the potter's workshop.

The village is home to twenty families, each with a small workshop. A father, two sons and a cousin produce more than one hundred pots and garden water pipes each day. The work is hard and seemingly non-stop, even when a strange foreign visitor arrives on their doorstep.

The video captures some of the activity inside the 4 X 5 meter room, with most of the space dedicated to the preparation of the clay. Two men knead the clay with their feet to remove pockets of air. They also remove any 'impurities', such as pieces of calcite, that might damage the final product and add some fine sand to temper the clay.

Meanwhile, the potter works on his kick-wheel to complete the rounded bases for the jars. This is the final stage. The handles have already been added. He adds a length of twine around the jar's widest point near its base to hold its form while it dries. Twine markings are visible on sherds of ancient jars, so this potter works within a long tradition.

Lastly, with a chip of wood or a bit of a tree branch the potter might add a little decoration, a wavy line perhaps to the shoulder. Then his father takes the jar away for final drying before firing it in the kiln. Note that the walls of the workshop have been built of pots. Cuts made in some of the pots provide useful storage spaces. This same construction is used for animal pens and dovecotes.

Outside the door, kilns resemble hollow towers built of brick into a small hill. They are stoked from a small arched opening at ground level. Inside, just above the level of the door, is a grated floor that suspends the pots above the fire and allows the heat to pass upwards through multiple layers of neatly piled pots. The pots are loaded into the kiln from the top and then covered with a layer of straw. The fire is fueled for four hours with straw or sugarcane stalks that have been pressed for their juice, called bagasse. After the initial heating, the pots continue to 'cook' for a day from the radiant heat in the kiln and in the pots themselves.

Thus the ballas is created. All share the same amphora shape but are available in various sizes. The smaller ones are used to hold molasses or to age village cheese. Medium-sized ballaliis hold fresh milk as it separates its cream. Large ballaliis are used to carry water.

Making pots is tough work and life on the edge of the desert is hard - as hard as the marl clay they work. A visit to the potters at Deir el Ballas is fascinating, enjoyable and educational, but I return to the green valley with a sigh of relief. Life under palm trees feels far less vulnerable.


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It is amazing that an image taken from 681 kilometers (423 miles) above the Earth's surface enables us to see the round kilns, the bundles of bagasse that fuel those kilns, the grey mounds of raw clay, and the hut in which clay is transformed by the potter. The large supply of unprocessed clay suggests that the satellite image was taken late in the year at the end of the mining season. Clay is not mined during damp winter months because it becomes soft and can cave in on the miners who do not use roofing supports in their work.

Drive North from the main West Bank checkpoint to the sign indicating a left turn to Sheikh Tayb Saha village. Follow this road out to the desert Luxor-Qena highway. Some 48 km from the turn, watch for rolls of bagasse on the east side of the road. This is the home of the Deir el Ballas potters. "Village" seems to denote a habitation much larger than theirs. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology article: Pottery Production by Paul T. Nicholson
Tour Egypt article: The Pottery of Ancient Egypt by Mark Andrews

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