Once pottery is broken it appears to be useless. The prophet Jeremiah, prior the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, was told by the LORD to buy a piece of pottery. Follow the story:
The LORD told Jeremiah, “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take with you some of the leaders of the people and some of the leaders of the priests. Go out to the part of the Hinnom Valley which is near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. Announce there what I tell you. (Jeremiah 19:1-2 NET)
Eventually, he was to break the clay jar.
The LORD continued, “Now break the jar in front of those who have come here with you. Tell them the LORD who rules over all says, ‘I will do just as Jeremiah has done. I will smash this nation and this city as though it were a potter’s vessel which is broken beyond repair. The dead will be buried here in Topheth until there is no more room to bury them.’ (Jeremiah 19:10-11 NET)
Broken pottery is clay that has been formed and fired before being broken. David described his weakened condition using an analogy to potsherds:
The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery; (NET), or “my strength is dried up like a potsherd” (Psalm 22:15 ESV)
The pottery is now potsherds, sherds, or shards. Is there any practical use for it? Yes.
- Scraping sores. “Job took a shard of broken pottery to scrape himself with while he was sitting among the ashes.” (Job 2:8 NET)
- Taking fire from the hearth, or scooping water from a cistern (Isaiah 30:14). This would require a shard from a larger jar.
- Writing material. When the potsherd is used as a writing surface it is called an ostracon (plural is ostraca). We have some famous examples such as the Lachish Letters, the lots at Masada, the Arad ostraca, Samaritan ostraca, et al.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of the future, the “toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of clay [pottery, NAU]” (Daniel 2:42). I could have told him this would not work. “Iron does not mix with clay [pottery, NAU]” (Daniel 2:43).
If we move to modern times, there is another practical use for potsherds.
- Archaeological dating. Potsherds are an indicator of the chronological periods during which a tell was occupied. Flinders Petrie, working at Tell el-Hesi in 1890, observed the relationship between the various layers of the tell and the pottery found in each layer.