This soapstone bowl dates to the Iron Age, ca. 2400-3100 BP. The bowl was recovered from Jebel al-Buhais, Sharjah, UAE.
This flat-based bowl is from an Iron Age burial at Jebel al-Buhais. The people interred there during the Iron Age were from the settlement of Al Thuqeibah, which was occupied during the Iron Age II and III periods, ca. 2400-3100 BP. The stone for the vessel was likely from sources in the al-Hajjar mountains. The vessel is exceptionally well made, with walls measuring no more than 5 mm thick. Manufacturing or use-wear marks can be seen on the inside, and the outside is decorated with equally-spaced engraved vertical lines in the space between concentric rings around the top and bottom. The shape of the bowl is similar to Iron Age Type 6 vessels, and the decoration is similar to Iron Age Pattern 7.
Soapstone (or steatite) is metamorphosed talc that was highly prized in prehistory because the material is very soft and easy to carve. It is about 2 on the Mohs scale of hardness and can be scratched with a fingernail. Soapstone is dense, non-porous, will not soak up liquids, is highly resistant to heat, and will not fracture when directly exposed to flames. Because of these attributes, people in widely different parts of the world independently began using soapstone for bowls and cooking vessels. For instance, bedrock quarries for bowls are known from Scandinavia and North America, and ornate soapstone vessels were extensively traded and used in various parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Native Americans also discovered that small grooved blocks of soapstone were excellent for straightening arrow and dart shafts. To straighten a shaft, a soapstone block was heated directly on a fire, the wood shaft was placed in the groove carved on one face, and pressure was applied to the shaft’s ends. The heat at the contact point raises the temperature of the wood and makes it much easier to bend. Hot lumps of soapstone were sometimes dropped in water, a process referred to as ‘stone boiling’. Smoking pipes were often made from soapstone because the outside of the stone stays cool while the tobacco burns in the bowl. Large blocks of soapstone was used as stone in constructing buildings in some parts of the world, and nowadays soapstone carvings are often sold as objects to tourists. Soapstone has been used as moulds for casting metals and for hearth stones to radiate heat. A specialist pencil used by modern metal workers—and available today in many hardware stores—is made from cut cylinders of soapstone because, unlike chalk, the mark left on the metal is impervious to the heat generated by welding tools and will not contaminate the welds.
Elaborate and exquisitely-fashioned soapstone bowls, platters, storage vessels, and incense burners were traded across the Arabian peninsula from the Bronze Age and through the Iron Age, reaching a peak in production during the Islamic Period, ca. 800-1200 BP. Stone quarries on the Arabian peninsula was traded to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Quarrying during the later periods has largely destroyed the earlier mining evidence at the major soapstone outcrops. Despite the contemporary production of sophisticated ceramic vessels, soapstone vessels remained a preferred method of cooking through the Middle East. Steatite cooking vessels continued to be made in Egypt until the early 1900s and modern Bedouin communities on the Arabian peninsula use soapstone vessels.
The production of soapstone/chlorite vessels proliferated in the Bronze Age in the Middle East, arising in Iran about 4500 years ago (mid 3rd millennium). About 75% of those vessels originated on the Arabian Peninsula from sources of stone from the Dilmun coast between Kuwait to Qatar and the Makkan region on the Oman peninsula. The styles and decorations were distinct to the Arabian Gulf region, and the vessels were widely traded. The two main types of Bronze Age bowls in this part of the Arabian Peninsula are known as Umm An-Nar Style, from ca. 4300 BP, and Wadi Suq Style, from ca. 3600 BP. A variety of bowl forms were made, including open bowls, tall goblet-like vessels, circular lids for round vessels, rectangular boxes with compartments and fitted lids, and globular suspension vessels with perforated lugs for hanging. Most vessels were smaller than 15 cm in largest dimension. The surfaces of many vessels are decorated with concentric circles around a central dot, along with parallel incised lines. Soapstone fragments from broken vessels were frequently reworked into other objects.
Artists expanded the number of soapstone sources during the Wadi Suq period, using stone with a wider variety of colours. Flat-bottomed bowls, often with a spout, become more prevalent with suspension vessels become the most common form. Decoration was elaborated, with geometric motifs created by incised parallel lines joining concentric or dotted circles. Decorations covered the vessel surfaces within two to five panels, each with different patterns. Patterns included nets, oblique lines, filled triangles, concentric circles, with horizontal lines as separators or infill. The quality of soapstone bowls became more variable in the Wadi Suq, in both the expertise of vessel carving and decoration.
The tradition of soapstone vessel manufacture in the southern Arabian Peninsula continued through the Iron Age, ca. 2300-3200 BP, with some subtle shifts in vessel styles and decorations, but with clear continuities through the pre-Islamic period, ca. 1390-2300 BP. One decorative innovation was the development of ‘saw tooth’ lines created using a rocking technique. The continuities with earlier periods suggest an exceptionally long-lived and conservative tradition spanning some 3000 years. Similarities in soapstone, ceramic, and metal vessel shapes during the pre-Islamic period prompted one archaeologist to state ‘One gets the impression that objects in different materials served as models’ for each other. By the late pre-Islamic period at ed-Dur, the later stages of soapstone vessel manufacture were carried out on using a lathe, as indicated by regular horizontal striation marks on the interior and exterior vessel walls, and a distinct central dimple’ from affixing the stone to a vise.
Research at the chlorite source at Aquir al-Shamoos in Oman has discovered the reduction sequence for the early stages of soapstone vessel carving in the Iron Age. Stone was evidently procured as cobbles or chunks, although the nature of the bedrock seam has yet to be reported. Shaping began by rough chiseling with a 5 mm wide (presumably metal) tool, leaving deep marks, with finer chiselling later in the process creating shallower marks. Chiselling was conducted sequentially and progressively, moving in parallel lines as stone was removed and the shape regularised. A later smoothing process eliminated the deep early-stage chisel marks, but the tool and technique for smoothing has not been identified. The outside was shaped and smoothed first, followed by rough hollowing of the interior by chiselling. The interior was then finished progressively from the rim downwards. The chisel marks on the interior of one early stage bowl fragment are curved rather than straight, radiating from a point in the middle of the vessel and indicating a distinctive carving gesture. Final-stage polishing eliminated most of the earlier-stage manufacturing marks.