Imagine a morning dawning on the Mediterranean coast about 3,500 years ago. The early light begins to shine into the windows of the growing coastal town of Akko, and everywhere sleepy eyes open to a fresh new day. Ships great and small are moored in the best bay along the Levant, and the coastline begins to fill with activity as languages from all over the known world are spoken on the wharves where merchants and tradesmen haggle, and in the open markets filling the town square. Fishermen are coming in after a long night of throwing their nets, the fish are hauled from the boats, the nets are drawn out on the sand to dry, and to be repaired, families come out to see the fish, perhaps to buy one or two for their day’s meal.
Gleaming on the walls of most homes are beautiful, glazed pottery, hanging from their hooks. Here is a cheese bowl, with a roughened bottom to hold the cheese as the whey is poured off. There hangs a cluster of juglets to hold water, measure flour and oil, and to be pressed into any needed service. Cooking pots, trays, shallow bowls, and there also hangs a lovely milk bowl, with its creamy white background and henna colored design. Perhaps someone takes down the milk bowl to place a couple of barley buns and some salted fish to bring down to the hungry and weary fishermen.
This morning, as we were sweeping the “top soil” off of an area in the excavation being prepared for pictures and measuring, a small, white chip caught my eye. Ordinarily, top soil is considered detritus, because it has no provenance. It could really have been swept in from basically anywhere on the site, and because it’s at the top, it has long since been separated from the time layer it originally belonged to.
Nevertheless, I picked it up for its lovely design, and found out from our resident pottery expert, Rachel, it is a chip from what is called a Cypriot White Slip Milk Bowl (If you follow the embedded link, you can see an example of a milk bowl from every angle, and a brief description of how it was made)
Actually, nobody really knows what a milk bowl was used for. According to one source, “it was widely believed that they were made to process yogurt but there is no actual evidence that this was the case. The name ‘milk bowl’ is progressively being dropped because it is misleading as the use of these bowls is still unknown. They were exported in quite large quantities, but we do not even know if it was for their contents or as the bowls themselves.”
Reading that, it made me think of Depression Glass, which many people collect as beautiful antique treasures, but which originally were store prizes for buying a certain amount groceries or goods. Old timers remember the 1930’s, when flour came in pretty sacks which could be repurposed into little girl dresses, kitchen towels and other linens, and so on. When I was a kid, my parents used to buy shrimp cocktails in little shaped jars which they washed out to use as our drinking glasses.
Cyprus is quite near Akko, so the import of Cypriot pottery makes complete sense. Were Cypriot milk bowls actually the pretty container for some other common necessity people routinely purchased, and then hung up the bowl as a decoration? Where does your imagination take you?