Ancient Hands at Work: 3D Scanning for Use Patterns on Cypriot “Bilbils” in Late Bronze Age Egypt

Full Spectrum Notes

2019.05.27 | By Helen Wong, B.A. (Brandeis University, 2019)

Exploring the applications of 3D scanning to archaeological analysis has been a primary research area for OpenARCHEM’s Digital Modeling and Programming (DMP) team. An opportunity for us to pursue this research arose through a case study centering around a set of Cypriot Base Ring I juglets, or bilbils (Goodside 1988), from a Late Bronze Age Egyptian tomb, some with their original seals still intact. In conjunction with conducting chemical residue analysis to identify their contents, we experimented with 3D scanning these vessels to search for patterns of wear on their surface, seeking to answer questions about how and why they were used, how often, and whether the design of the vessel invited particular patterns of human interaction with the object. Our findings constitute a new type of data that not only contributes to the integration of digital tools with more traditional analyses, but also holds great potential for enhancing the archaeological study of ceramics as a whole.

Bronze Age Bilbils at Sedment, Egypt

Situated seventy miles south of Cairo, the ancient Egyptian cemetery of Sedment lies near the Faiyum at a site not far from the western banks of the Nile. Sedment contains over a thousand tombs from nearly every period of ancient Egyptian history (Franzmeier 2011), recording the evolution of cultural norms as expressed through funerary customs over an almost three thousand-year period. While it remains unclear exactly how many of the tombs at Sedment date specifically from the Late Bronze Age, there are at least four examples – Tombs 53, 246, 254, and 1810, all excavated in 1920/21 by Flinders Petrie and Guy Brunton – that clearly date from that period and whose contents were found well-preserved.

While the bodies interred within these tombs are lost (or at least unrecorded), their grave goods remain intact and accessible in museum collections, providing evergreen opportunities for researchers to learn more about the deceased and the world of Late Bronze Age Egypt. The appearance of imported items among these goods is particularly intriguing, and hints at Egyptian engagement with the larger Mediterranean world and the existence of a domestic market for foreign products. Of these items, the bilbils are especially exciting as they are among the most regularly-occurring vessels to appear among the Bronze Age tombs at Sedment. The majority of the tombs listed above contained more than one juglet, with Tomb 254 holding five, Tombs 53 and 246 two each, and Tomb 1810 the outlier with just one.

Recovered most often in funerary contexts (Josephson 2008), bilbils were common across the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, accompanying the larger movement of Cypriot ceramics in the region. As Cyprus became more of an established economic power over the course of the Bronze Age, Cypriot pottery, including bilbils, began to appear more frequently in contexts outside of Cyprus, especially in the Levant (Steel 2010). Bilbils were also apparently popular enough to have often been imitated in local fabric, as observed at multiple sites in the Levant (Prag 1985). Yet bilbil juglets are best known in archaeological circles for the vigorous debate regarding their contents which, some have proposed, may have been opiates or other psychoactive substances. Many have noted the way the juglets are decorated and formed to resemble opium poppy heads (Merrilees 1962).  Chemical analyses have not offered resolution: results appear both to support and disprove the opium hypothesis. Tests performed on Egyptian-context bilbils similar to the ones found at Sedment have been in favor of confirming the presence of opiates (Koschel 1996; Bisset 1996), while other chemical studies conducted on bilbils found in the Levant have found no such evidence, instead concluding that their contents were aromatic oils (Chovanec 2015).


Side-by-side comparison of opium poppy head (Image Credit: KGM007, Wikimedia Commons, 2006) to bilbil E15421 at the Penn Museum which displays an appliqued scoring on the bulb of the body (Image Credit: Andrew Koh, 2017).

So what were these bilbils doing in an Egyptian funerary assemblage?  What did they contain? Why were they so commonly included? And what role might they have played, either in the lives or afterlives of the deceased?

An opportunity arose for OpenARCHEM to contribute to this discourse through our study of a set of bilbils from Sedment Tomb 254, one of the very few undisturbed 18th Dynasty burials at the site (Petrie 1924). Located within Petrie’s Cemetery A, Tomb 254 contained four interments, recorded by Petrie and Brunton as two women, a man, and one infant, all of whom lay within a rectangular wooden coffin with a gabled lid (Franzmeier 2011). The tomb held 17 objects altogether, with all objects except the jewelry worn by the deceased contained in five woven plant-fiber baskets. Beyond the bilbils, jewelry, basket, and coffin, there was a full assemblage of items that accompanied the burial: two small wooden caskets, nice ceramics, a few alabaster vessels, and an ovoid jar filled with bread. The baskets were placed at the heads and feet of the bodies, the bilbils within, alongside the other small toiletries, such as the small alabaster vessels.

The group of bilbils from Tomb 254 includes two which are still sealed with their original linen stoppers, providing sources of potentially uncontaminated samples ideal for organic residue analysis. Two more were originally found stoppered as well, but were opened in the 1940s for chemical analysis that tentatively identified the presence of opiate compounds (See endnote 1). All are currently held at the Penn Museum and form part of their collection of material from Flinders Petrie and Guy Brunton’s excavations at Sedment. With the permission of the Penn Museum Scientific Testing Committee, the OpenARCHEM project has taken organic residue samples from the interior necks and exterior bodies of all five bilbils and the results are presently being analyzed with the help of ethnobotanical and chemical reference standards.

While their contents remain an open question, there are other analytical methods which can offer immediate insight into how these vessels were utilized throughout their use-life. Enter 3D scanning.

Analytical 3D Scanning: A First Experiment in Use-Wear Study

Analytical 3D scanning enables the magnification of the topography of an object’s surface and applies this magnification to a digitally manipulable 3D model. With this methodology, it is possible to closely observe details on the surface of the vessel down to 0.05 millimeters, allowing us to search for patterns of wear on the surface that are too subtle, or lie on a surface too discolored to be seen by the naked eye. It can also be applied to vessels too fragile to handle at length and that therefore might go unstudied. Patterns of wear on the surface, taking form in patches of “use-wear” or “use alteration” burnishing on the clay (Banducci 2014), could reflect use patterns which could tell us more about how these bilbils were used in life and perhaps their intended use in the afterlife. This was the first such experiment carried out by the OpenARCHEM project, and one of its primary aims was to discover whether analytical 3D scanning could be used for this purpose at all.

The first challenge lay in finding the best methods by which to scan the bilbils, as their highly burnished surfaces presented challenges not typical of matte objects. The Artec Spider, which relies upon strobed structured light, has difficulty capturing objects with smooth surfaces since the projected light grid that the instrument casts onto the object is reflected back with minimal data. However, this flaw which makes general-purpose scanning more difficult to conduct is actually ideal for our purposes. The Spider is able to pick up highly burnished patches relative to an already smooth ceramic surface, as the captured data shows an absence, a patchy polygon construction, or an easily identifiable digital fill where the surface suddenly smooths out. The data itself is compiled in a digitally manipulable and distributable format through 3D modeling in Artec Studio, enabling not only visualization of the object in both real and false color, but also the possibility of physical realization through 3D printing (See endnote 2).

This possibility motivated our interest in exploring how to model the way human beings physically interacted with the juglets, such as in holding/pouring, setting down, etc., leading to a second set of challenges. We printed the juglets as accurately as possible in white PLA (polylactic acid) filament, an endeavor which took several tries and produced a few notably mangled and half-formed juglets (including one whose gourd-like appearance led others in the lab to refer to it as “Pumpkin Boy.”) Once we had an acceptably made set of prints, we handed them to different people, observing how they felt the object would be best held and used. We took an experimental approach to answering a series of questions grounded in modern design principles: does the form of the object invite particular kinds of use patterns? Is it designed to efficiently do the job it was intended for? How so?


 A print of a bilbil in process. (Image Credit: Helen Wong, 2018)

When asked to act out pouring a liquid from the vessel, most people held the vessels in a particular way, with the thumb pressed on the top of the handle or the edge of the lip facing it, the index, middle, and ring fingers placed in the handle itself, and the pinky outside of it, supporting the vessel as it tipped. There were small variations between people and the major determining factor seemed to be hand size, but overall the use pattern was remarkably consistent. The most common pattern was the intuitive one; asking people to pour the vessel in any way but that one required an active thought shift and a moment for the person to think. People picked up the vessels by the bulb of the body, by the neck alone, or by both and avoided the handle completely. We kept the experimentally-derived patterns in mind as we searched for signs of wear on the vessels.


 Experimental handling of a printed bilbil. (Image Credit: Helen Wong, 2018)

From our handling experiments, it is our opinion that the way these juglets are designed, with a tall neck and narrow mouth, encourages a way of pouring that is only well-suited to runny or moderately runny substances of a viscosity less than that of honey. Anything thicker would likely be annoying for the user.

Finding the Human Touch: Understanding the Patterns

In the 3D scans, patches of wear were apparent in precisely the places on the vessel where our experimental data suggested that frequent use would be expected to leave marks: the topmost and bottom interior of the handle, the lip above the handle, the neck where it faces the handle interior, and the bottom exterior of the handle. It was possible to distinguish visually and by point count the levels of smoothness on these burnished areas.  


E15424 (left) vs. E15422 (right) final model in false color. One shows no trace of wear, the other shows significant wear. (Image Credit: Helen Wong, 2018)

e15421 pinky wear 2 (1)

E15421 model in false color showing divoted wear at the outside of the handle. (Image Credit: Helen Wong, 2018)

Our work demonstrated that four of the five vessels showed signs of wear – E15422, coincidentally also the tallest and widest-handled of the set, displayed the most wear. At this point in the project, the loss of the bodies originally found in Tomb 254 was felt strongly. If we had had access to the hand measurements of the individuals interred there, we might have even been able to ask questions of individual attribution, possibly comparing skeletal hand structure with the finger spans and patterns. Although true verification would have been difficult to obtain either way, it is especially intriguing on a theoretical level to consider that E15424, the only juglet of the set with almost no wear at all, could have belonged to the infant, who never would have had a chance to use such an item by themselves in life. Ultimately, we conclude that our evidence suggests heavy use of these vessel types prior to burial.

Knowing this is important because it impacts the way we evaluate the roles these bilbils played in the tomb assemblages of which they were a part. When we ask why these items were included in this funerary assemblage, we ask about choice in the context of death: who picked the items buried with the deceased? What does the inclusion of these items mean for the dead? We are forced to evaluate these objects in relation to the other items in the assemblage, the deceased inhabiting the tomb, and what we know of the time period in which the tomb was made. The fact that these bilbils were heavily used before burial implies that they were not purely ceremonial objects and that their inclusion in funerary assemblages may have been a reflection of practical value, their use extending from life into the afterlife. While it may not be possible to exactly quantify their importance to the dead or their culture, we can conclude from the evidence that these items and their contents were important enough to have been actively included in burials from this period.

From the use patterns we have drawn from this set of bilbils, we have been able to shed some light on how they were handled and how long they were in use before burial. This may help us better to understand the role they played in the lives of their deceased owners. Unlike royal tombs, the objects included in the funerary assemblages at Sedment were largely not specialized or ceremonial objects made only for burial; the more practical character of the grave goods at Sedment offers insight into life as well as death. 3D scanning for wear patterns enables us to better understand how these items were used before burial, something especially important when considering how central a factor practical value may have been in the composition of a “middle-class” funerary assemblage.

The information we have been able to produce as a direct result of our scanning methodology speaks to the great potential of its effectiveness as a tool for use-wear analysis, especially when use-wear data is considered in conjunction with those produced by chemical, petrographic, and other analyses. Analytical 3D scanning has the potential to become an essential part of more holistic studies of ceramics and their contents, and by association to contribute to scholarship on Late Bronze Age Egypt and its interactions with the larger Mediterranean world.


This study was funded by the Jerome A Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program at Brandeis University; Meredith Monaghan and Academic Fellowships were instrumental with their support. A sincere thank you to Jennifer Wegner, Josef Wegner, David Silverman, Marie-Claude Boileau at the Penn Museum, and Ian Roy and the Brandeis MakerLab for their help in supporting this project. 


  1. Goodside, Victor. “Why Is a Bilbil Called a Bilbil?” Biblical Archaeology Review 14.1 (1988). 
  2. Franzmeier, Henning, Felix Höflmayer, Walter Kutschera, and Eva M. Wild. “Radiocarbon Evidence for New Kingdom Tombs: Sedment 254 and 246.” Ägypten und Levante 21 (2011): 15-29.
  3. Josephson Hesse, Kristina. “Late Bronze Age Maritime Trade in The Eastern Mediterranean: An Inland Levantine Perspective.” (2008). 11.
  4. Steel, Louise. “Cyprus.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean. Ed. Cline, Eric. 2010.
  5. Prag, Kay. “The Imitation of Cypriote Wares in Late Bronze Age Palestine.” Palestine in the Bronze and Iron Ages. London (1985): 154-165.
  6. Merrillees, Robert S. “Opium trade in the bronze age levant.” Antiquity 36, no. 144 (1962): 287-292.
  7. Koschel, Klaus. “Opium alkaloids in a Cypriote base ring I vessel (bilbil) of the middle bronze age from Egypt.” Ägypten und Levante (1996): 159-166.
  8. Bisset, Norman G., Jan G. Bruhn, Silvio Curto, Bo Holmstedt, Ulf Nyman, and Meinhart H. Zenkf. “Was opium known in 18th dynasty ancient Egypt? An examination of materials from the tomb of the chief royal architect Kha.” Ägypten und Levante 6 (1996): 199-201.
  9. Chovanec, Zuzana, Shlomo Bunimovitz, and Zvi Lederman. “Is there opium here? Analysis of Cypriote Base Ring juglets from Tel Beth-Shemesh, Israel.” Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 15, no. 2 (2015): 175-189.
  10. Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, and Guy Brunton. Sedment. British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1924.


  1. No records remain of this analysis beyond a mention in a 1940 letter by a Penn Museum curator.
  2. It should be noted that although Artec scans can only be compiled into a model through its associated software, Artec Studio, the finished model can be edited or changed through export to other softwares, which is what we did in order to prepare the model for printing. In this case, we ran the model through 3D Simplify after initial compilation.


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