The beginnings of pyrotechnology, part ii: Production and use of lime and gypsum plaster in the pre-pottery neolithic near east

W. David Kingery, Pamela B. Vandiver, Martha Prickett

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Characterization techniques of modem materials science have been used to extend a prior study (W. H. Gourdin and W. D. Kingery, “The Beginnings of Pyrotechnology: Neolithic and Egyptian Lime Plaster” Journal of Field Archaeology 2 [1975]: 133-50) ofplaster materials and their processing in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (ca. 7200-6000 B.c.). The “invention” of lime plaster can be traced back to at least the Epi-Paleolithic Geometric Ke-baran (ca. 12,000 b.c.) and its use in architecture to theNatufian (10,300-8500 b.c.). The production of lime and gypsum plasters is described as a multi-step process requiring selection and collection of raw materials, heating of limestone at 800-900°C (gypsum at 150-200°C), slaking the quicklime in water to form the hydroxide, mixing with various additives, applying and shaping as a paste, and often coating with a slip coat and burnishing—a skilled craft activity having some structural similarities to pottery manufacture. Plaster production expanded in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), and the geographic distribution of lime and gypsum plaster indicates interactions and technological interchanges throughout the Near East. Quite different interactive techno-complex areas are defined by lime plaster, gypsum plaster, and whiteware production, perhaps characteristic of the difficulties in applying ideas of “bounded” cultural regions. Rather inadequate comparative site data indicate coeval existence of egalitarian villages and of towns with a greater degree of social and economic complexity. The invention and innovation ofplaster technology and its evolution into an industry is a classic case of the long time interval between initial invention and the subsequent technological innovation coming into general use. Once begun, the industry underwent autocatalytic development and there were further innovations such as mineral aggregate additions; surface slips; burnishing; use for beads, containers, and sculpture; fiber reinforcement; and composite material applications. PPNB sculpture techniques were developed to a level similar to those used today. Geographical distribution, patterns of production and usage, and product development are all supportive of the idea that incipient craft specialization and social complexity were well developed in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. In addition, plaster innovations achieved conditions necessary for metal smelting, provided all the necessary technology, and set the stage for the subsequent adoption of pottery as a Neolithic industry. Describing the Neolithic revolution in terms of the “invention” of pottery, plaster, and agriculture is incorrect; it was rather a period of industry establishment based on much earlier inventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-243
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Field Archaeology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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