The Case of the Missing Red-Slipped Dishes in Gamla

Red-slipped plates and bowls (1st Century CE) found at Gamla


By Joe Bartling

One of the most interesting phenomenon discovered in Gamla is the disappearance of “red-slipped dishes” and mold-made lamps in Gamla during the first century CE. These were plentiful in Gamla and most other cities throughout the Galilee in the 1st Century BCE, whether the cities were Pagan/gentile (such as Tel Anafa and Pella), mixed population (such as Sephhoris, Tiberius, and Caesarea Philippi), or Jewish cities (such as Gamla, Yodefat, Capernaum, and Bethsaida).

What happened in Gamla near the turn of the millenium that was different and caused plentiful household articles found in the first century BCE to be virtually non-existent in the first century CE? Archaeologist Andrea Berlin has an interesting theory by investigating the distribution of tableware and household utensils and distinguishing whether those items were Galilee-produced or imported from outside the Galilee. She also distinguished between traditional or innovative designs, and also the obvious meaningful presence or absence of them.

For example, Berlin found that, in a large and prosperous section of Gamla, that from 75 BCE to the end of the century, each household had about 28 plain saucers and bowls, each about 10cm in diameter.  Individuals could have used these small dishes for food.  There were a few undecorated jugs clearly intended for pouring, such as for water or wine, and wide-mouthed, deep vessels, for serving soup or mixing wine.  These vessels were shaped like the Hellenistic Greek table amphoras and column kraters, but were locally made, plainly finished and without decoration.  Finally, in these homes, there were about 5-6 dishes and 2-3 bowls made of an imported slip-ware.  These shiny red-slipped dishes (archaeologically called Eastern Sigilatta A) were a product manufactured in northern Phoenicia and sold throughout Galilee and Gaulanitis.

According to Berlin, at Gamla, as noted above, each 1st Century BCE household owned between 7-9 of these ESA dishes over the course of three generations.   By comparison, in a single large house of the late 2nd century/early 1st century BCE at Tel Anafa, there were over 4,000 fragments of ESA dishes and bowls.  Comparable amounts were found at Antioch and Tarsus, on as well as at Paphos and Kition, in Cyprus.  These enormous quantities of ESA fragments at these Greek and Phoenician sites suggests that they were used for serving dishes as well as individual place settings.  Gamla residents appeared to use these red-slipped bowls for serving dishes only, whose bright red surfaces would stand out in contrast to their plain, drab collection of household pottery.

Remains of these dishes are found in excavations all over Israel dating back to the 3rd and 2nd century BCE and into the 1st century BCE (Identity Politics, Andrea Berlin pg 84).  According to Berlin, new settlements appeared in the later 2nd century BCE, but within a generation, near the beginning of the 1st century BCE, market patterns changed drastically.  In the Hula Valley, residents continued to buy and use these imported household vessels, people in the Galilee and Gaulanitis dramatically stopped buying these items.    A visitor to one of these homes would not see Aegean wine, perfume bottles, or serving vessels imported from the coast.  Instead, they would see jars, cooking vessels, and casserole pots made from clay around the Sea of Galilee, in other words, “locally produced”.  They were buying household pottery from the workshops that had been recently established there.

Berlin says that the dining habits of these Jewish villagers at Gamla drastically changed.  In each house, there were about 20 small for eating, two or three jugs, and one large serving bowl (see photo below) The serving bowls and about half of the small dishes were locally made, plain ceramic; the remaining dishes were stone.  There were no platters or plates, none of the pottery was decorated, and there are essentially no imported pieces.  In the 1st century CE areas at Gamla, only 12 of 9,000 fragments found were imported.  Nothing suggests that the residents engaged in entertaining or fancy serving.  Instead, each household had only the basics of dining equipment, suitable for meals of soup or beans.

Plain saucers and bowls, locally made, found at Gamla, 1st Century BCE and 1st Century CE

Plain saucers and bowls found at Gamla (Photo credit: Andrea Berlin/Danny Syon)


Berlin argues that, during the 1st century BCE, a shift in material culture can be observed in certain villages in the Galilee, and Gaulanitis, and in particular the primarily Jewish villages (of Bethsaida, Capernaum, Yodefat, and Gamla), rather than those with mixed Jewish and Hellenistic populations.  The most dramatic occurrence is the disappearance of ESA plates and bowls from the 1st century CE Jewish sites.  Berlin says this was apparently due to deliberate rejection, since ESA dishes continued to be produced and and in fact are found at all gentile sites surrounding Jewish Galilee (Caesarea Philippi, Tel Anafa, Tyre, Shiqmona, Dor, Caesarea, Samaria, Beth She’an, Pella, Jerash).   Also, no functional replacements for the ESA plates and bowls appear in these 1st century Jewish households.  The residents DID NOT OWN IMPORTED VESSELS, and did not own showy, decorated table ware, and had no serving vessels for food or drink. This type of dining indicates a new level of austerity.

By contrast, in the later 1st CE BCE through 70 CE, dining patterns in wealthy Jerusalem or in areas of mixed populations, such as in Samaria or Caesarea, assorted decorated table ware for serving and individual drinking were common.  Elaborate decoration was desirable and in great demand, both with local and imported varieties. In addition to the shiny, red-slipped vessels, geometric shapes and patterns were painted on slipped or plain light surfaces.

Berlin argues that the shift demonstrated at Gamla reflects an emphatic expression of Jewish identity and solidarity, perhaps in direct opposition to Rome and its influence in the region, observing the shift from the middle of the 1st century BCE onward. Brian Schultz argues that Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BCE decisively determined the interpretation of the so-called Kittim in the War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. (Reference: The Jewish Revolt Against Rome; History, Sources and Perspectives by Mladen Popovic)  The Romans were perceived as the eschatological enemy, whose defeat would usher in the messianic age.

The dining patterns of those at Khirbet Qumran and at ‘En el-Ghuweir were much simpler.  At neither site, is there any decorations on 1st century CE table vessels.  At ‘En el-Ghuweir, as at Gamla, there were virtually no serving vessels, and only small, plain bowls for individual dining.  Qumran residents shared a single main dish. In Gamla and the Jewish Galilee, meals were basic and presented without flourish. In Jerusalem, meals were urbane and showy affairs, with luxury individual table settings and beautifully decorated serving pieces.

What is also remarkable about the absence of these fancy and decorated imported wares in Gamla and the Jewish villages, is that, according to Berlin, that other aspects of Roman style such as masonry and stuccoed walls continued.  Berlin suggests that the attitudes of some of the Galilean Jews were changing due to the intensive Romanization that occurred as a result of the advent of the Herodians.  Inhabitants of these Jewish sites were making clear choices to refuse to adopt the aspects of a Roman lifestyle, especially in culinary matters, once those lifestyles were being aggressively propagated in their area.  (Reference: Galilean Studies: Old Issues and New Questions, Sean Freyne)

So, the case of the missing red-slipped bowls in Gamla may be solved. Its residents purposefully and deliberately rejected and actually purged their community of these imported and decorated household objects.  They chose purposefully to live a simple and austere lifestyle, and rejected the Hellenistic influences that were capturing the minds and habits of other Jews in mixed and gentile areas.  Perhaps in their own way, they were doing in their own way, that what was suggested by the prophet in Isaiah 40:3 and later by John the Baptist,

“The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.”

Sean Freyne explains that if John the Baptist and Jesus eyed the lifestyles of those who were “clothed in fine garments” and “lived in royal palaces” with suspicion, other Galilean Jews, such as those at Gamla and Yodefat, found less public ways of making their protest, such as in their private dining experiences.

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