The Bronze Age Art: Pottery & Sculpture

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson we'll look at the pottery and sculpture of the Bronze Age to learn more about the cultures of the time. Learn about their techniques and styles along with how archaeologist use this information.

More Than Just Tools!

You've probably heard a little about the Bronze Age, how people developed a new metal by combining copper and tin. You might even have heard how that new metal revolutionized agricultural tools, armor, and weapons. However, the Bronze Age was about so much more, including art. While we don't see as much from art forms that have deteriorated over thousands of years, like painting, we have several examples of pottery and sculpture from the archaeological record because the materials used preserved well. Let's look at some of the beautiful and interesting examples we've found so far.

Nebra Sky Disk
Nebra Sky Disk

Pottery

While the Bronze Age is most characterized by crafting tools of bronze, one of the most significant crafts of the time was a more sophisticated pottery. In the archaeological record, we actually use excavated pottery or broken pieces called sherds to identify some of the different cultures of the time. Let's look at three significant styles, the Abydos pottery, Polished Red Ware, and the most famous Bronze Age pottery, Bell-beaker pottery.

Abydos Pottery

While Abydos pottery likely originated in Palestine, it is named after the area of Egypt where it was first discovered in the tombs of First Dynasty kings. These elegant pieces appear during the Early Bronze Age and mainly consist of large and small jugs. They appeared to be formed on a potter's wheel and fired at high temperatures. Some have painted decorations with patterns of triangles, semicircles, dots, and concentric circles in red.

Abydos Pottery
Abydos Pottery

Red Polished Ware

A signature piece of the Philia Culture, named by archaeologists to identity pieces typically associated with a particular cultural group based in Cyprus. Appearing towards the end of the Early Bronze Age and plentiful during the Middle Bronze Age, this pottery appears at many Anatolian sites, located in present-day Turkey. Ancient craftsmen made these pieces for storing and cooking food as well as even more elaborate pieces for serving food and beverages. The name comes from the red clay painted on the surface of the pottery and polished to a high shine before firing, the process of hardening the clay at high temperatures in a furnace called a kiln. While the red clay was still wet, artists would carefully carve designs into the soft surface and fill the space with white lime.

Red Polished Ware
Red Polished Ware

Bell-beaker

The Bell-beaker pottery, also know as Beaker style, stands far above the other Bronze Age pottery styles for its importance to archaeologists. This style accompanies a cultural group that spread across Europe's mainland and into Britain over 4000 years ago. Originally, archaeologists questioned whether the pottery was a learned style passing from one group to another or if it was a sign of one people's spread. Genetic testing of burials related to Beaker-style pottery now reveals that it was one culture spreading along with their pottery. Along with the Beakers and their pottery, they introduced bronze technology in many of the places they went, including bringing metalwork to Britain for the first time in their history.

Bell-beaker Pottery
Beaker Pottery

The unique style of the Beaker culture is so named because of the S-shaped curve in the container's profile, making it look like a beaker or an upsidedown bell. Made from a rich, red clay, the style shows some variance in the early, middle, and late style beakers. The earliest recognizable beakers are much wider at the bottom of the pot's belly and decorated with circles around the surface, impressions from twisted cords, and impressions from the teeth of a comb. The middle style moves the widest part of the vessel higher up to form a distinct difference between the body and the neck areas. Decorations on the middle style include intricate patterns made by fingernail impressions. Finally, the late style is marked by an elongation in the neck portion of the vessel with a rounded, bulbous body. Decorations including multiple lines on the body to produce a ribbed effect and increased use of fingernail impressions covering a greater area of the vessel's surface.

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