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Communicating through clay in the Ancient Near East


Admission requirements

ResMA students, as well as PhD candidates in humanities and archaeology faculties.


This course introduces and examines the core forms of material culture in clay across the Near East. Varied aspects of the manufacture, use and meaning of clay artefacts will be explored, including symbolism and expressed, the social implications of craft production and specialisation and the interpretation of material imagery.
The abundance, accessibility and plasticity of clay led to its common utilisation in the making of a vast array of artefacts by the earliest, settled village communities in the Prehistoric Near East and Egypt. In upper Mesopotamia c. 7,000 BC, the widespread introduction of pottery bought about sweeping changes within Neolithic communities. The use of clay continues into the cities of the Early Historic period, where the earliest written texts were created in clay. Through prehistory into the Early Historic period, clay remains an important raw material. Weekly lectures and discussion sessions will cover topics including: ‘The Context of Communication and Symbols’, ‘Theories and Concepts in Material Culture Studies’, ‘Predynastic Egypt’s Expressions in Clay’, ‘Prehistoric Painted Pottery: Symbolism and meaning’, ‘Figuring Gender in Mesopotamia’ and ‘The Invention of Writing’.
Why and how people craft objects, the symbolic meaning held in the form and decoration, the social setting of craft production, and how varied items in the repertoire are used in the context of the villages, towns and cities of the ancient Near East are all questions which will be explored in this course. A broad range of artefacts including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines, pottery (the naturalistic and geometric painted forms), geometric clay objects (‘tokens’), sealings and stamp seals will be surveyed, taking case-studies from specific settlements across the Near East and Egypt, spanning the Neolithic into the second millennium BC.

Course objectives

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Be familiar with the main theoretical concepts in the study of material culture, with a particular focus on symbolism in the ancient Near East.

  • Have gained an understanding of the main features of, and developments within the Prehistoric and Early Historic Near East.

  • Be able to identify basic forms of artefacts crafted from clay in the Prehistoric and Early Historic Near East.

  • Have gained an understanding of the main issues surrounding the introduction, use and development of a broad range of functional, symbolic and administrative artefacts of clay in the ancient Near East.

  • Mastered how to communicate object information to both a general and specialist audience using interactive, online tools (Things That Talk).


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


*Online, interactive, storytelling assignment: 65%
*Class presentation: 25%
*Weekly reading task and class participation: 10%


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average


If the mark is unsatisfactory, the assignments may be rewritten

Inspection and feedback

Students will be invited to discuss the results for this seminar (participation/assignments and oral presentation) individually with the teacher as soon as the results have been published.

Reading list

To be announced.


Enrolment through My Studymap (Login | Universiteit Leiden) is mandatory.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Registration Contractonderwijs.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal


This course is part of the OIKOS program. If you want to take this course as part of OIKOS but are not a student at Leiden University, please contact for more information on how to enroll.