A few years ago I built a copy of an ancient bread oven – a tannur – when I was studying in the USA. I even described the building of the oven and then using it on this blog. Well, this year I was involved in another one of those experiments, this time as part of a dig. I’m not the first to write about the experiment. Here, I want to share a few more of the technicalities.
It seems that tannur ovens are sometimes built up through coiling. But based on a few articles on bread ovens and on a description of the construction of a hearth in the traditional village of Artas (near Bethlehem) by Hilma Granqvist, I thought that another method is totally adequate. This involves building up the tannur in rings.
We first sifted soil that contained sufficient clay, in this case soil from our excavations on Tell Halif. This was then mixed with straw and water. To get the right consistency, a generous amount of water was mixed with the dry clay and straw. We kneaded and mixed the sticky clay dough, slowly adding a bit more dry clay and water. To get the right, firmer consistency we then added handsful of dry clay. The wet clay was immediately used. We took chunks from the clay and pressed them onto the ground in a nice circle, about 60 cm in diameter. We then draw up the clay into straight walls, inclining towards the centre. For people, who have worked as a potter, this process of manipulating the clay should be quite straightforward. The first ring was only about 10 cm high and at the base up to 5 cm thick. Taking some water, we then rounded the top of this first rung and then immediately added another one. Because the clay was still quite moist and heavy, this could only be about 7 cm high.
Once the bottom rung had dried and was leather hard, the next rung could be added. We made up some more moist clay (including some clay that had not been used up in the first rung). We then moistened the top of the bottom rung and added more chunks to it, which was again smoothed and drawn upwards, the walls inclining towards the centre. This rung was also about 7 cm high. We added one more rung a few hours later, so that the oven was over 30 cm high and had a diameter of about 45 cm.
Now it was the time to be patient. We let the tannur dry in the sun for a few days. Unfortunately, a few small cracks did appear in the wall. Then we fired it both inside and outside to harden the clay. We used pine cones and twigs for the fire.
A few days later we got onto baking some bread. We used baker’s yeast for our experiment. Sour dough would have probably been more original. We made the dough somewhat firmer than “normal” bread so that the bread would keep its shape. After rolling the dough into small balls and letting them rise again, we flattened them out and put them on a tray beside the fire.
Meanwhile we had heated the oven internally for about half an hour with a fire made from twigs and pine cones. By this time the oven walls had also slowly become hot on the outside. We let the fire burn down to its embers. This was the time to bake the bread.
We slapped each little bread against the inside of the oven wall. Most of the bread stuck, but if it was slapped against the wall less confidently, the bread invariably fell into the fire. About 8 pieces of bread fitted in the oven. Taking the bread out of the oven after about 10 minutes also required some confidence and skill. The inside of the oven is still quite hot, so reaching inside is not easy. The bread has to be taken out in one swift moment and immediately placed onto a tray. It’s too hot to hold in your hands.
While one side of the bread looked nice and brown, the other side was somewhat dark and black from sticking to the oven wall, where soot had been deposited during the fire.
In my earlier experiments I have had problems lighting the fire, but this time with a slightly larger oven and drier twigs, it was quite easy. Also, there was relatively little smoke. I probably should know more about the research on the topic, but I am not sure whether it has been clearly identified that the ash from Iron Age ovens is dung ash. From ethnographic comparisons, a tannur oven was more regularly used with firewood, while tabun ovens were used with dung as fuel. Is there a relationship between the fuel and the situation of an oven inside or outside the house?