Did you know that the Natufian people discovered a way to make clay-like vessels without the use of actual clay? In this post we will be exploring the Natufian use of lime plaster as well as demonstrating how to make your own Natufian White Ware using Plaster of Paris.
Also, do check out my MEGA Mesopotamia Unit Study post to find out just where the Natufian people fit into the history of Mesopotamia. This huge post has lots of printable, videos, science experiments and, as always, stacks of suggestions for easy hands on activities you can do with your children! I am always adding new stuff to this post so do go and check it out.
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Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period
The Natufian Culture lived during the pre-pottery Neolithic Era in history. Most of the items they owned came from the natural world around them. For example, they laboriously carved limestone into mortar and pestles:
Or sharpening tools and grinding stones. They used wood and animal skins to build their homes, as well as flint arrows and spears (and possible bone daggers) for weapons:
Find out more: How to Make Your Own Natufian Artefacts (video)
Man had not discovered pottery yet. However, they had discovered a precursor to clay which would revolutionise their lives. What is this material? It is a form of limestone plaster.
Limestone Plaster in the Neolithic Era
Archeologists have found limestone plaster in many of the Natufian settlements in the Levant region. Archeological sites in Syria, Northern Jordan and Lebanon show evidence of limestone plaster being used:
- To pack the walls of their homes,
- As a hard (and polished) floor within the homes,
- To line the storage areas just outside their homes
- And in one of the earliest forms of sculptural portraiture – as plastered human skulls, which they buried under their homes.
Find out more: How to make your own Natufian art (video)
Natufian White Ware
Another use of the lime plaster was as a crumbly form of proto-pottery known as white ware. This Natufian white ware has similarities with the first real pottery, dark-faced burnished ware. It also overlaps time periods and as a result historians believe that limestone vessels led to the development of this clay pottery.
Somehow the Natufian’s figured out that by pulverising limestone and heating it to over 1000 degrees Celsius reduced it to lime. It is possible that the Natufian people discovered this quite by accident whilst using fire to cook their food.
They could then mix this lime powder with water and additives such as ash, straw or gravel to make a white limestone plaster.
Using the Limestone Plaster
Once they added water, the plaster became soft and malleable for a short time before hardening without the need for heat. Once dried, the plaster became rock hard and waterproof.
Whilst it was still wet, the artisans could coil the plaster into rough and ready vessels. These vessels served some of the purposes that clay would in years to come.
In general, these vessels were large, unwielding and made where they were intended to be used. Archeologists have found these rectangular vessels in the dwelling rooms of the Natufian homes, most likely for stationary storage of dried grains.
In addition to these large rectangular tubs, archeologists have also found circular pits outside the homes, circular vessels and an array of smaller bowls, cups and jars:
Some of the circular vessels had basketry imprints on their exterior. Explanations for this include the possibility that the Natufian people built their white ware using baskets as a sort of skeletal support until hardened.
These resulting vessels were hard, water proof and could be polished to a nice finish. However, unlike later pottery vessels, these could not be used to cook with. They may have been able to hold warm food, being somewhat heat resistant. Unfortunately, they were not heat proof. This is because the exothermic reaction when the Natufian people added water to the lime powder, is reversed in high heat. Placing a white ware dish in the fire would give the chemicals the heat required for the water to leave the gypsum (lime plaster + water = gypsum). This reaction causes the gypsum to turn back to lime powder.
The Natufian people were still some way off the clay cooking vessels of their future ancestors.
Pre-Pottery Lime Plaster Figurines
Obviously, the Natufian Culture did not suddenly die out to be immediately replaced by another more advanced one. No, in fact, the Natufian people, slowly over time, were rather absorbed into the surrounding peoples in the Levant region. These figurines are dated at 6500 BC. They are thought to be the earliest large scale (30 models were found in two underground caches in Ain Ghazal) human representational art.
These statues date after the Natufian timeline. However, the use of lime plaster in their construction reveals the influence of Natufian artisan methods. These figurines may have been solely a way for neolithic people to express themselves artistically. Or they may have been ritualistic in nature.
I have made some free printable notepages containing my illustrations of this lime plaster works. Please feel free to download:
How to Make Natufian White Wear and Pre-Pottery Lime Plaster Figurines
I almost didn’t post this video.
This is not my best work!
I found hand modelling a mixture meant to be poured into molds is really hard. My respect for this neolithic people increased exponentially as I tried (and failed) to use first plaster on its own. Next, I tried plaster mixed with paper pulp (paper mache mixture). And finally (stealing from the neolithic people themselves) a plaster and ash mixture. I was hoping it would get easier, but it did not. Take a look, and let me know what you think in the video comments 🤣
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As you can see, my attempts were not altogether successful! So I tried again, using a method I had picked up from a research paper I read on Stone Age plaster figurines. I filmed it, and was much happier with the results:
Museum Labels for Natufian White Ware
Just in case you decide to try your hand at making some lime plaster artefacts (and I wish you all the luck in the world 😬), I have made some museum labels. These labels are a great addition to creating a ‘museum’ of all your artefacts for an end of unit presentation:
Next week, I will be posting about Göbekli Tepe.
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