Making Bowls in Biblical Gath Was Man’s Work, Fingerprints Indicate

There are differences between male and female fingerprints, and the potters of Early Bronze Age Gath didn’t always trouble to wipe them off their work

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Fingerprints of index and middle fingers, right hand, made 4,700 years ago on the bottom of a storage vessel in Gath
Fingerprints of index and middle fingers, right hand, made 4,700 years ago on the bottom of a storage vessel in GathCredit: Kent D. Fowler
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Making pottery seems to have been chiefly a man’s job in the biblical city of Gath, archaeologists conclude based on a study of fingerprints on 4,700-year-old pottery.

More specifically, it seems men made bowls but women seem to have contributed to making storage jars, based on the analysis. However, vessels with prints exclusively by females of any age are rare, the archaeologists observe.

The archaeologists even found evidence of a school for pottery in Gath – fragments imprinted by multiple people handling them, including children, according to a new paper by Kent Fowler of the University of Manitoba, Canada, with Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and colleagues, published in PLOS One.

The site of Tell es-Safi – aka Gath – was settled from about 7,000 years ago, during the late Prehistoric period, on the western edge of the Judean foothills, with a strategically convenient view of Israel’s southern coastal plain. By the Early Bronze Age, when this pottery was made, the village had become one of several fortified urban centers in the region, and was probably Canaanite.

And, as seems to be the rule in human society, there was a division of labor – as attested by the marks the potters left on some vessels.

“These are the fingerprints of 4,700-year-old people! Right there to see. To connect with. It is very intimate. It does freak me out a bit, but I get over it and I just think it would have been nice to meet them,” Prof. Fowler says. 

Gath Archaeological Project
Gath Archaeological Project, Tel es-SafiCredit: Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Safi Project

It’s a man’s job, sometimes

The division of labor is a fundamental organizing principle in human societies, Fowler explains, but potting as a genderized occupation in antiquity can’t be taken for granted. Actual archaeological evidence is of the essence.

In the Levant, the Pottery Neolithic Period began about 8,500 years ago. Over in Mesopotamia, it seems more females than males were involved in the earliest pottery manufacture, but that changed with the establishment of state institutions. “In most cases in antiquity, once things become centralized, women are marginalized,” Maeir says.

Yet in the Neolithic settlement of Boncuklu Hoyuk in Anatolia, and in somewhat less ancient Arizona, figurines seem to have been made chiefly by women.

“If the researchers’ analysis is correct, which is potentially problematic, then figurine production would have aligned with the other responsibilities in that society," Fowler tells Haaretz. "Perhaps women were responsible for the conduct of private and domestic ritual practices, much like women in Maya society, whereas men were responsible for the conduct of ritual practices in the public sphere.”

Gath is chiefly known as a Philistine city famed as the home of the legendary Goliath, anecdotally slain by a pre-monarchic David, but that would have been in about the 11th century B.C.E. – a millennium later than the pottery reported here, when it seems the men were potting. But how actually did the archaeologists deduce the gender of the fingerprints?

Jar fragment with multiple prints: Arrow shows the direction of marks left by fabric used to wipe the inside of the pot
Jar fragment with multiple prints: Arrow shows the direction of marks left by fabric used to wipe the inside of the pot, GathCredit: Kent D. Fowler

Murder, she wrote

Fingerprint analysis has come a long way since 1892, when Argentine police inspector Eduardo Alvarez arrested Francisca Rojas for murdering her young children, based on a bloody fingerprint on the door. But it was apparently recognized thousands of years ago that one’s fingerprint is unique: nearly 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians signed contracts by impressing the clay tablet with a fingertip. So did the ancient Chinese.

All fine and good, but how different are female and male fingerprints, if at all? For one thing, human beings are sexually dimorphic. “Women have smaller, more delicate fingers than men,” rules Lior Nedivi, an expert on forensic identification. “But there can always be a margin of error because there are women with big, rough hands and men with delicate, small ones. Sometimes you can tell with certainty, but often you would say ‘It could be either male or female,’” he qualifies. “In my experience taking fingerprints, I find men whose print looks like a woman’s, and women whose print looks like a man’s.”

Consultants to the police are usually asked to identify evildoers, whatever sex they are: they're experts in daktyloskopy, how to identify individuals based upon patterns of epidermal ridges, Fowler explains. Not sexes. But it turns out there are gender differences between our prints (who knew): women have denser fingerprint ridges than their great hulking counterparts. An Indian study in 2015 found stark male-female differences in ridge density, claiming roughly 97 percent accuracy in gender prediction based on fingerprints. There are, of course, overlaps, but that’s the rule.

Why might women have denser fingerprint ridges than men? “Simply, males are more robust than females, and this is reflected in the density of epidermal ridges along with a host of other characteristics. Fingerprint ridge density has been shown to be sexually dimorphic in Spanish, Sardinian, Egyptian, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Indo-Mauritian populations,” Fowler says.

Age can be told by ridge breadth: it increases from puberty until we stop growing at around 20, he explains.

Indeed, the Israeli-Canadian team studying the site of ancient Gath relied on mean ridge breadth and density in their analysis of 112 fingerprints detected on pottery, and thus concluded that the ceramic vessels had been made chiefly, if not entirely, by men.

Most of the fingerprints, the team concluded, were made by adult men and young males, working alone.

A sherd featuring a name like 'Goliath,' found in Gath
A sherd featuring a name like 'Goliath,' found in GathCredit: Prof. Aren Maeir, The Tell es-Sa

Wonderfully, some pots featured multiple fingerprints from all the above, indicating they were “training pots” – the result of teaching how to make pottery.

The potting technique used in Gath was coiling (fully “wheel-thrown pottery appears only in the late first millennium B.C.E.,” Maeir tells Haaretz). Coiling is simple: You roll kneaded wet clay into “snakes” that you coil one atop another, then smooth the surfaces inside and out using fingers or implements. Fingerprints on the product abound, but would remain on a clay vessel only if the potter didn’t care they were there. Also, you might painstakingly smooth a vessel and then add fresh fingerprints while carrying it to the kiln. Such is life.

Haaretz has to wonder: Making a bowl using coiling is tedious, but making a great big storage pot by coiling is very tedious … maybe that’s why marginalized women were allowed to become involved. Just wondering.

Anyway, finding the fingerprints is all the more remarkable because the lower the temperature at which clay is fired, the more liable to erosion the pot is. Luckily, in Gath, it seems the Early Bronze Age pottery was mostly fired in kilns – not that any were found, Maeir qualifies. Nor did the Gittites glaze their pottery, which could have hidden fingermarks.

The mystery of the Venus

So here and there fingerprints have been preserved on antique artifacts, but attempts to analyze them can be frustrating. Scanning revealed a fingerprint on the Venus of Dolní Vestonice clay figurine of Moravia, fashioned about 27,000 years ago and among the oldest ceramic artifacts known. But ridge breadth analysis (which speaks to age, not gender) output the unlikely result that the print had been made by a child aged 7 to 15 years. It is doubtful that a kiddie made that sensual figurine. The authors, Miroslav Kralik et al., qualify that maybe age/ridge breadth relations in the Paleolithic were not like today. Or maybe an adult made the Venus but a child touched it, leaving that mark.

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, fashioned about 27,000 years ago - by a child?
The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Moravia, fashioned about 27,000 years ago - by a child?Credit: Petr Novk / Wikipedia / che

Moving onto Mesopotamia, Akiva Sanders of the University of Chicago used ridge density to infer the gender of 106 prints on 101 vessels from Tell Leilan, now in Syria, spanning a vast period of 2,300 years – from 6,100 to 3,700 years ago. The earliest pottery seems to have been made by both sexes. But come the rise of the city-states, in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., it seems potting became a male fief. Sanders concluded that the state likely played a role in labor assignment.

That is especially interesting given that Fowler and the team believe mainly males were chiefly in charge of making pottery at Gath, though they argue that Sanders’ conclusion is problematic because the “post-state” sample involves just 11 prints on pottery fragments found at five rural sites spanning a vast 870 years (2600-1726 B.C.E.) – a very small sample.

Another latter-day forensic expert, Shlomo Bruck, agrees that fingerprint size is the key evidence of gender. But clay is made into pots when wet and contracts during firing. Fingerprints on the pottery would shrink with the pot during its baking. That is a key criticism Fowler, Maeir et al. level at a study of palm prints and fingerprints on Neolithic clay “tokens” from Boncuklu Hoyuk, a roughly 10,000-year-old site in Turkey.

Based on ridge density analysis, the Boncuklu researchers deduced there were six times more prints by women than men or children, but the researchers there didn’t consider shrinkage, say the Israeli researchers. Fowler and the team did, though: “Different kinds of clay bodies created to make pottery will shrink to different extents when dry and when heated,” Fowler explains.

And so they concluded, based on fingerprint evidence, that in Canaanite Gath, pottery evidently was mainly if not exclusively the fief of the men. But why did that happen?

“Gender(s) is/are a fundamental social identity in all human societies, and each is fit with certain roles, responsibilities and obligations,” Fowler explains. “In all preindustrial societies we know, labor is divided along gender lines as part of these responsibilities.”

There is no universal formula for which tasks are associated with what genders, he adds, and the separation isn’t uniformly rigid. To really understand why males were seemingly more involved in pottery manufacture in Gath than women, we need to think more broadly about what other responsibilities the sexes would have in these early cities, he says: Women may have had other duties that left them less time to be involved in creative potting.

The view that women had important roles in society, even if it wasn’t always clear from the archaeological record, fits in well with the views of the roles of women in Iron Age Israel, as has been argued by Prof. Carol Meyers of Duke University in her groundbreaking work on gender in ancient Israel – which most probably reflects well also on gender issues in the ancient Near East in general, Maeir points out.

But clearly, to really put our finger on this issue, more fingerprints are needed.