The relationship between black-topped and redpolished pottery is very close. Not only are they made in the same manner with regard to fabric and surface treatment, but there is also a strong resemblance in shapes. It is most likely that both types were produced simultaneously. Stacking pottery in a screen kiln would only allow the lower layer or pots to be black-topped. The upper layer(s) will fire entirely red. Through the Naqada I-IIC period, it can be observed in the Naqada cemeteries that the number or red-polished vessels increase compared to the black-topped pottery. At present, it can not be demonstrated whether this reflects the actual situation or pottery production or merely a change or preference in the funerary habits. If indeed the popularity or red-polished ceramics increased, this might be a reflection or a gradual improvement on firing techniques, allowing larger amounts or pottery to be fired in one operation, which would easily imply higher stacking or pots and consequently a change in the proportions of black-topped and red-polished ceramics, in favor of the latter.
The origin of the black-topped technique derives most likely from a desire to produce pottery with less porosity. However, the interior of large predynastic black-topped jars is often not completely black. This is especially so for globular vessels. The colour of the interior fades gradually from black at the rim to brownish grey, but never has the colour of the red part of the exterior. The change in colour can not only be seen at the interior, but also in the fracture. This kind of black-topped pottery seems to occur more frequently during the Naqada IIA-B period than during Naqada I,which can partly be explained by the increase both in globular vessels and necked pottery in general, and in the overall size of the vessels.”l It might well be that over time the black-topped technique was also applied to vessels which were not primarily intended for liquids.
Black-topped pottery is made by hand from a tempered or untempered paste and is characterised by a distinctive black lip. It is a marker of many cultures present at sites in the Western Desert. Although its presence in the Dakhleh Oasis region is reported as early as 7,120±90 bp (Hope 2002, 41), recent refinement of the chronology questions the association of this pottery type with these early dates (Warfe 2003; 2008). Its earliest occurrence in a good stratigraphic context comes from Nabta Playa, with a date of 5,810±80 bp (Table 1). Black-topped pottery is best known for its association with the Predynastic of Upper Egypt, beginning with the Badarian, during which it was a predominate type (Friedman 1994). It continues to be typical of pottery production during Naqada I and Naqada IIA–B periods in Upper Egypt, but becomes less common in Naqada IIC and appears to fall out of use by Naqada IID. Its production is revived in the Naqada III period when it is exclusively used for cult vessels of a specific shape (Sowada 1999).
It is difficult to determine the reason behind the production of Black-topped vessels. Several theories as to why it first developed have been postulated. W. Needler argues that Black-topped pottery originated as a special type of the polished red ware because both share the same surface treatment and forms (1984). The black top is also thought to imitate black-lipped gourd vessels that were heat-treated to prevent splintering around the cut edge (Arkell 1960; Lucas and Harris 1962). K. N. Sowada maintains that the makers of Black-topped pottery during the Early Dynastic (Naqada III) period adapted a colour scheme that reflected the vessels’ ritual functions (1999). She refers to the symbolic nature of colour use in Egyptian art in which red is the colour of chaos and death and black is the colour of the fertile land of Egypt and resurrection, suggesting that the two colours were combined to represent the contrast between life and death.
How Black-topped pottery fits into the larger picture of cultural change is a more complicated question. At Nabta Playa, the earliest examples are from Site E-75-8 located on the north-western edge of the lake, which yielded stratified deposits with alternating layers of cultural material and fossilised dune (Figs. 2 and 3). The first Black-topped pottery-bearing layer at E-75-8 is Layer 8 (Nelson 2001b) (Fig. 4), which is bounded by a Middle Neolithic context dated to 6,155 bp. Its first appearance is in conjunction with Red/Brownish wares that lack the blackened rim, but share the other features, including construction, material and surface treatment (Table 1) (Nelson 2002b; Zedeño 2002).
Red/Brownish ware is also present at Nabta Playa at site E-92-9, which has been dated to 6,000 bp, but without accompanying Black-topped pottery (Applegate and Zedeño 2001). The assemblage from this site is small, with only forty-five sherds, and the absence of Black-topped pottery may simply represent a sampling error. Nevertheless, this shows that the early phase for the complex of pottery in which Black-topped pottery first occurs is securely dated to around 6,000 bp and is present at multiple sites at Nabta Playa.
The presence of Black-topped pottery as part of a larger ceramic complex that shares general features is important. This is first because this combination of features represents broad changes in technology, which will be discussed in detail below, and second because this complex, although referred to by a variety of cultural names, including Badarian, Tasian and A-Group, appears to be a widespread phenomenon. Broadly defined, this ceramic complex includes Black-topped pottery, Ripple-ware and tulip-shaped vessels, together or in conjunction with other vessels that fall within the more general Red/Brown, Qussier Clastic and Olive wares (as described in Nelson 2002b). The extent of this complex includes the Nabta Playa area (Nelson 2002a), the adjacent Gebel Ramlah (Kobusiewicz et al. 2004), Dakhleh Oasis (in the culture described as Bashendi B in McDonald 2002), Kukur Oasis (Darnell and Darnell 2006), as far east as the Eastern Desert at Wadi Atulla (Friedman and Hobbs 2002), southwards to Khartoum (see, for example, Arkell 1949, pls. 91–100) and beyond. This ceramic complex replaces the rocker-stamped and impressed wares that were also widespread. It is not possible within the scope of this paper to discuss all of the details of the distribution and variability of this new ceramic complex. Regardless, it is necessary to understand the broader changes that led to this transformation in pottery and to consider this transition within the larger context of the formation of cultures in southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
Importance of the shift to Black-topped pottery
The technological changes that occurred between the Middle Neolithic and Late Neolithic are important for understanding the advent of Black-topped pottery and its associated assemblage. There is a disjunction between the pottery types and forms of the two periods that reflects more than simply the introduction of a new style. The first major differences are in the basic essentials of pottery production, including the materials and methods used. Both clay and temper raw materials used by Middle Neolithic potters are different from those used during the Late Neolithic. Middle Neolithic vessels are composed of what appear to be clays derived from lake or river deposits and resemble those used for pottery produced during Early Neolithic (Nelson 2001a). The pastes are porous and appear to contain residual silts or gravels, and are tempered with large fragments of granite locally available in the Nabta area. The Late Neolithic wares are made from finer clay, higher in organics than Middle Neolithic clays. The Late Neolithic clay may have been coarser when originally collected from the parent source, and then refined through a process of flotation. The overall appearance of the fabric is similar to that identified in the Badarian by R. F. Friedman (1999, personal communication). Late Neolithic pottery can include sand, sparse carbonized organic material, or both for temper or no temper at all.
In addition to different materials used, very different techniques for finishing and firing were practiced. During the Middle Neolithic, rocker-stamping is still present on some vessels, while others have a roughly smoothed surface. These are the only two surface treatment techniques that have been identified, and they show a transition from the typical rocker-stamped pottery of the Early Neolithic to the roughly smoothed surfaces of the pottery from the last phase of the Middle Neolithic (Nelson 2002c). The finishing techniques for Late Neolithic pottery include new types and a wider variety within those types. Some vessels with blackened lips are smoothed, others are smoothed and burnished and still others are smoothed, slipped and burnished. Slipping and burnishing of vessel surfaces are new techniques added to the pottery-making repertoire. Both added slips and self-slips were noted among the Late Neolithic pottery surface treatments and burnishing, although only on a small number of vessels. They are usually perpendicular to the rim and across much of the vessels’ exterior surfaces.
Slips can serve a variety of functions. They can be applied to add or change the surface colour, to create a fine, smooth surface and/or to reduce the porosity of a vessel (Rice 2005). It is not certain why this technique comes into use at Nabta Playa. Based on the presence of pottery with self-slips, which maintain the same colour as the clay paste, and a few examples with an added red slip in the Late Neolithic assemblage, it appears that the intended outcome was a red surface. This surface colour, however, could have been achieved through the process of creating a self-slip alone. Both processes, slipping and self-slipping, produce a smooth surface, so the reason for an additional slip is not clear.
Changes in firing techniques include possible new methods to achieve higher firing temperatures and the deliberate creation of the black tops. In general, the pottery of the Late Neolithic is fired under higher temperatures than that of either the Early or Middle Neolithic which resulted in greater vitrification of the clay body and so harder, more durable wares. Although it is not certain how higher firing temperatures were achieved, modification in the types or amounts of fuel or the introduction of basic kilns are possibilities.
Specialised firing to create Black-top ware is first used during the Late Neolithic. Many researchers have discussed the possible methods used to create Black-topped pottery (Davies 1962; Hodges 1982; Lucas and Harris 1962; Spencer 1997), and two detailed studies by S. Hendrickx, Friedman, and F. Loyens (2000) and M. Baba and M. Saito (2004) have examined the processes through a series of experiments and achieved successful results. The findings show that there are several methods that could produce Black-topped vessels; all of them appear to involve a carbon absorption process (smudging) that reflects a detailed knowledge of firing technology and the use of new techniques to create this attribute. Overall, it reflects a more diverse and complicated technological regime.
The forms of Black-topped vessels at Nabta Playa differ greatly from the range of shapes associated with earlier periods. Throughout the Early and Middle Neolithic, the only vessel form documented is the large bowl. The reason for this stability through time is not certain, although based on use-wear analyses, it may be due to the continued use of these vessels for the same or similar purposes (Nelson 2002c). During the Late Neolithic, vessel forms include small, flaring, walled bowls with rounded bases and straight, walled beakers with rounded bases. No tulip-shaped beakers were identified, but the majority of sherds are small and the vessel form could not always be determined. All of the sherds are thin-walled and the fabrics are friable.
The pattern of use for the small, thin-walled, Late Neolithic vessels from Nabta Playa does not suggest that they functioned for storage or cooking based on use-wear and form analysis. H. Howard notes that storage vessels should have restricted orifices, a characteristic absent from the Late Neolithic pottery assemblage, and there are no visible residues or soot deposits to suggest that they were used for cooking (1981). Given that the vessels are strong, thin-walled, lightweight and small, in general they can be characterised as having the same form as elongated gourd vessels. They may have been used for collecting, processing and serving milk and blood. Gourds are used for these functions in ethnographically documented pastoral cases, including several examples by the Maasai (Ibrahim 2001; Merker 1910; Spencer 1988; Talbot 1964), but given the long history of use of pottery in the region, ceramic vessels may have taken on this role.
What is the significance of the disjunction between the Middle Neolithic and Late Neolithic assemblages at Nabta Playa and the emergence of Black-topped pottery? The transformation in pottery production reflects important shifts in technology and changes in pottery use that are part of a larger system of changes in the social organisation, visible in the construction of monuments (megaliths) and the understanding of time (calendar circle and megalithic alignments).
Technological choices are bounded by the limits of resource access and technological knowledge. They are also restricted and driven by culture (Van der Leeuw 1993). It is within these confines of access (Arnold 1988) and learned behaviour (see Graves 1981) that technological and stylistic changes occur. Thus, the multitude of changes that appears in pottery during the Late Neolithic are an important reflection of broader changes that occur during this period.
As the process of desertification slowly took hold, mobility patterns of groups using the desert lakes would have become more restricted and mobile peoples would have had to rely on permanent water sources for at least part of the year. The problems of available water, plants and animals for human consumption would have been heightened during the arid interphase that occurred at the end of the Middle Neolithic. This would have resulted in people clustering around the major water sources.
These climatic changes and the resulting limitations in water sources would have altered traditional mobility patterns. In doing so, they may have forced or encouraged greater interaction among groups and resulted in greater one-on-one interaction among potters of different cultures. In essence, they may have changed the spheres of interaction, leading to cultural transmission. Finally, the climatic changes may have forced the formation of new groups in which technological change was an outgrowth of a melding of cultures. When new cultures are formed, new pottery styles can be either an amalgam of previous styles or a formation of totally new types that reflect the needs of the newly formed system. This has been documented in other regions that faced similar conditions, such as the American Southwest, where, following the onset of a severe drought, pottery styles changed in areas where populations clustered (Duff 2002; Cameron 1995; Cordell 1995). Based on the technological and material changes at Nabta Playa, the first appearance of Black-topped pottery occurred during a period of increased aridity which caused shifts in mobility and interaction. These factors spurred technological innovation, encouraged the development of new styles and influenced the rise of complexity during the Late Neolithic.
E-75-8 Red ware burnished 2Layer 9 ..5810 ±80
E-75-8 Red ware burnished and Black-topped 10Layer 10 ..5517 ±90
E-75-8 Red ware burnished and Black-topped 3Layer 9 ..5810 ±80
E-75-8 Red ware slipped, burnished Black-topped 47Layer 10 ..5517 ±90
E-75-8 Red ware slipped, burnished Black-topped 9Layer 9 ..5810 ±80
E-75-8 Red ware smoothed 17Layer 10 ..5517 ±90
E-75-8 Red ware smoothed 9Layer 9 ..5810 ±80
E-75-8 Red ware smoothed 5Layer 8 ..6030 ±195
E-75-8 Red ware smoothed/polished Black-topped 8Layer10 ..5517 ±90
E-75-8 Red ware smoothed or polished Black-topped 10Layer 9 ..5810 ±80
Late/Final Neolithic unknown type 2
E-92-9 Red ware burnished 40 ..6000 ±60
E-94-2 Olive ware 2Hearth 9 ..5980 ±60
E-94-2 Qussier clastic yellow-ware
E-94-2 Red ware burnished Hearth 1 ..5840 ±60
The disappearance of black-topped vessels in Egypt can be connected with the appearance of marl clay pottery, Petrie’s Late, Wavy-handled and Decorated classes, which can be fired at a higher temperature (850 -L050°C) than Nile silt pottery, and therefore is less porous. The temperature necessary for firing marl clay pottery will necessitate the use of reaL kilns, with a separation between the firing chamber and the furnace chamber, making the production of black-topped pottery impossible. In the Sudan, on the other hand , marl clay pottery has never been produced locally, and although many Egyptian marl clay vessels were imported, the production of blacktopped pottery continued. During the Kama Classique period, the potters had improved the firing technique in a manner which allowed them to reach higher temperatures while still using the open fires necessary for producing black-topped pottery. A consequence of the higher temperatures was the over-saturation of iron oxide at the junction between the black and the red parts of the vessel. This resulted in the metalic band characteristic of the Kerma ware of this period.