In many excavations of sites dating to the Iron Age in Ancient Israel we find bread ovens. They are different from bread ovens used in the last few hundred years in Palestine or other countries of the Middle East. There has been some debate whether they were used as tannur – fired from the inside, or as tabun – fired from the outside. I think that due to their form, the location of ash, and their location within the house, these ovens were probably used as tannur.
I wanted to see how one of these bread ovens worked and decided to build a tannur. Some scholars have proposed that the bread ovens were built up through coiling, a common technique used in pottery, particularly for the construction of pots. However, Hilda Granqvist in her study of life in Artas, a village near Bethlehem, in the early 19th century, took several pictures of women constructing a bread oven (though it appears to be a tabun). In these photos the women build up the oven by adding clay and pushing it into shape with their hands. Hilda Granqvist specifically comments that they did not use coils when building the oven.
I got some clay conveniently unearthed in a trench nearby, sifted it and then mixed it with pine needles (straw or dried grass would have been more original). I built the oven slowly, adding a few centimeters of height each day over three days. In the humid Mississippi spring it probably took a bit longer than in Israel. It’s important that the sections do not dry out too much as you add a new one. This allows them to be joined smoothly. This is the first time I made an oven, but overall the construction is quite simple and doesn’t take a long time. I’m sure with some practice it would turn out nicer.