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Red Lustrous Wheelmade ware: Analysis of organic residues in Late Bronze Age trade and storage vessels from the eastern Mediterranean

Steele, V.J., Stern, B.
Journal of archaeological science: Reports 2017 v.16 pp. 641-657
Pinaceae, archaeology, beeswax, bitumen, castor oil, ceramics, chemistry, coasts, fabrics, kilns, mineralogy, raw materials, trade, Cyprus, Egypt, Syria, Turkey (country)
Transport and storage vessels in Red Lustrous Wheelmade ware (RLWm ware) were traded across a large area of the eastern Mediterranean for approximately 300years (c. 1500–1200BCE) during the Late Bronze Age (c.1600–1000BCE). The extreme consistency of the ceramic, in form, fabric, chemistry and mineralogy, points to a single production source for the ware, which, although no kiln sites have been identified, is generally accepted to have been on Cyprus. The aim of this study was to determine whether organic residues were present in this very fine, dense ware, and to characterise the contents of RLWm ware vessels from different sites, contexts and periods, and of different forms, to improve our understanding of the trade in this ceramic type. To that end, 101 RLWm ware sherds, together with three visible residues, were examined from sites in Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt and Syria. Residues were identified in more than half of the samples, indicating that organic material is absorbed into and preserved in this very fine fabric. Four commodities were identified: fat (probably plant oil), which in four residues was identified further as castor oil; beeswax; bitumen; and Pinaceae spp. resin. The commodities were found alone or, occasionally, one of the latter three was combined with the fat or oil. Fatty material was the only commodity present at all sites and its wide distribution may indicate that generally the vessels were used for a mixture or mixtures based on plant oils, in some cases containing castor oil. It was impossible to determine whether the beeswax, bitumen and resin formed part of this mixture or represented post-firing treatments of the ceramic to make it less porous. The identification of more than one type of residue indicates that RLWm ware vessels did not always contain the same commodity. No significant correlation could be detected between the vessel forms, and the dating of many of the sherds was not precise enough to reveal any variation through time. The type of residue present did vary depending on the geographical location of its final use. Beeswax was, with two exceptions, only present in samples from Turkey, while bitumen was found exclusively in samples from Cypriot sites. The occurrence of at least one example of every commodity in the samples from Cyprus is consistent with the theory that this ware was manufactured on Cyprus, and indicates that the vessels could also have been filled and exported from there. The variation in content of the vessels found in different geographical areas could highlight a special trading relationship between the Hittite heartland in Turkey and the Cypriot potters who produced the ware, and a possible trade in bitumen as a raw material between the north Syrian coastal area of Ugarit and Cyprus.