Making a Tandir
Tell Atchana/Alalakh is an archaeological habitation site with the modern
Aççana village located at its southern extremity. Even though
the existence of a modern settlement clearly puts the site in danger,
the village itself provides good hands-on ethnoarcheological sources for
understanding construction methods. For example, the construction of the
wattle and daub house (now the computer center at our Dig House Compound)
in 2007 was inspired by existing architecture at the village of Aççana.
Almost all individual houses in the village have one outside bread oven,
called a tandir, where the village women made bread every two or three
days. It is important to note that these ovens were also used for cooking
by modifying the oven with metal frames serving as pot stands. These ovens
share similarities with the ones that we have often discovered in our
archaeological contexts. In order to understand more about the use and
construction techniques of these pyrotechnic installations, a bread oven
was constructed following these steps:
a- the making of the Tandir (the conical where the firing action occurs)
b- Constructing the working platform and structure
c- Plastering and decoration
Constructing the Tandir
Ten days were spent to install the conical interior body of the tandir.
In terms of raw materials good quality clay was selected. Our workman,
Hasan Ay, identified the quality clay sources presently in use by the
village. The drainage canal source is located at the Southeastern end
of the site (surveyed in 2001 by Yener and Wilkinson). High quality clay,
light brown/buff in color is found in the second layer below the surface,
which was also used in our experiments targeting local production of ceramics.
Emine Ay, our expert, who also helped us plaster the wattle and daub house
in 2007 and our team, began making the tandir with a layer of straw to
prevent it from sticking into the ground. A very important detail emerged
in the construction of bread ovens in general and that is the use of the
soft, fibrous interior of reeds as an additive to the clay mixture. These
reeds are also available at the bottom of the drainage canal. Clay, reeds,
and water was mixed to a level of plasticity and used to shape the tandir.
Consistent daily progress is necessary to construct a conical clay bread
oven. Two students a day participated on the tandir project. During the
first day of work, a flat metal serving plate was placed on the ground
as a scale for creating the bottom contours of the tandir. The first coil
of the clay mixture was shaped following the outline of the metal plate.
After the first layer of clay was dried to a level to support the pressure
and weight of the subsequent layer, the second layer of clay coil was
laid down. Any errors were corrected by our expert, Emine Ay. Ten days
of repeated layering of clay coils ultimately resulted in a conical shape.
This daily construction technique created separate layers of clay coils,
typical in oven fragments found in excavated contexts.
After the conical body of the oven was completed, we allowed it to dry
for 7 days under the sun. During the drying period cracks were sealed
with a thin layer of clay slip. Since a layer of straw had been laid down
at the bottom, we easily relocated it to the dig house when the work was
Construction of the Working Platform
We constructed a flat platform, which served as a working space adjacent
to the oven. This platform was surrounded on three sides with walls constructed
to a height of 2.30 m using mud bricks measuring 40 x 40 x 12 cm. After
a shallow foundation trench was dug, which was filled with rubble and
discarded baked tiles from the site the structure, it was made water resistant
at the ground level. Three hundred mud bricks were used to construct the
entire superstructure. An excavated vousoir mud brick (with finger impressions)
was placed vertically on the inside wall face as the emblem of our experimental
The tandir was located off-center and slightly to the right framed by
the standing walls. To provide easy access inside the bread oven during
the bread baking process, the tandir was tilted forward at an angle by
raising the back of it with stones and mud bricks laid in a semicircular
pattern. Next, a partition wall was added abutting the tandir from two
sides. The front face was left open with a ventilation hole. The third
stage entailed filling the space left between the partition and the back
wall with earth and stone rubble, which remarkably resembled a casemate
construction technique used in antiquity. In order to prevent heat loss
during the firing and baking process, the tandir was surrounded with a
layer of modern mud brick tiles with an additional insulation of the mud/straw
mixture. Next the earth and rubble fill was sealed with a layer of the
mud/straw mixture and a final finer layer of clay-straw mixture. The clay
was finer than earth and it provided a clean, smoother surface for the
working platform. After finishing the construction of the tandir and the
working platform, the superstructure was completed. Air ventilation from
all directions was provided by three side windows. Little pockets of clay
were attached to the wall faces for storing matches and lighters.
With the accomplished construction of the superstructure, a free standing
roof was erected with four wooden posts at the corners of the structure.
After horizontally laying down ten wooden posts, the roofing was completed
by using reeds and mud plastered coating in a sloping angle towards the
back side of the structure. The spaces between the roof and walls were
filled by mud bricks and mud plastering.
Cotton branches and dried cow-dung were used to set the first fire and
it was kept alive for four hours to completely dry the entire installation.
Dried dung provides a long lasting fire at a constant temperature and
thus prevented the tandir from cracking. During the first firing, the
light brown color of the interior changed into pinkish in color. This
is a good indicator that the temperature inside the oven was raised to
a desired level to make bread.
A metal plate from an old cheese box on top of the tandir was hammered
in the wooden roof to prevent it from burning if the fire got too hot.
|Tandir mouth (diamater)
|Tandir bottom ( diameter)
||2.85 m in length
||2.80 m in length
|Working Platform lenght
|Working Platform Width
|working Platform Height
||40x25 cm, 25x40 cm
A layer of mud plastering was applied by the project members to the entire
structure, using a sifted soil and straw mixture. The freestanding roof
posts abutting the wall were also enclosed with plastering. After the
mud layer dried, lime plastering was applied as the final treatment. The
working platform was left as a clay surface without lime plastering.
As we observed in the modern Aççana village, most of the
tandirs have the same diameter and share the same construction standards.
Based on our excavations, the tanur/ tandir installations that we excavated
vary in terms of size, space usage, location spot, and firing temperatures.
We can divide them into four major categories. They are all built with
a coiling technique with clay but vary in the tempering (stones, shells,
chaff). The majority of them were built with the ventilation hole facing
east. The wind at Alalakh blows from the West and that is why the fire
related workshops were located at the Eastern side of the site.
The following are the different varieties of installations excavated at
1. Semicircular installations were less then 60 cm in diameter and were
attached to exterior wall faces; these more likely functioned as firing
places. Often there was a hole or space left at the front for ventilation
2. Circular free standing tandirs with less then 80-90 cm in diameter
were found with ventilation holes. They were flat on the surface with
signs of high temperature and had no working platform. Locations varied
and some were close to wall faces or situated in open spaces (courtyards).
3. Circular free standing tandirs were found measuring 80-90 cm in diameter
and with working space surrounded by thin walls. Tandirs were located
close to walls suggesting the possibility that its mud brick working platform
probably eroded and was not traceable.
4. Circular freestanding ovens were found with more then 1 m diameter
and with flat surfaces.
The analyses are at an ongoing stage but it appears that the majority
of the circular pyrotechnic installations represent multifunctional usage.
The evidence of slag, bones as well as the installation locations seem
to indicate that they had been used for various industries (metal, pottery,
food). Considering the free standing small tandir, we may assume that
they were portable and used in additional functions like copper and tin
melting. Their small size and shallowness enabled users to easily work
with these installations.
How to Make Perfect Bread
After the first firing and under the instruction of the Ay family, the
project members started working on making bread, which involved putting
your hand inside the tandir when it is extremely hot. Bread making certainly
involved experience since all the members burnt their hands during the
The following describes the baking procedures:
1. Continue the heating of the bread oven after adding fuel (cotton branches)
until the oven changes its color from light brown to pinkish. After the
fire subsides, the heated oven should be used quickly before it loses
2. The prepared dough should be divided into clay balls.
3. By using some olive or corn oil, the dough should be made as thin as
possible similar to making a very crispy pizza.
4. The dough should be laid on top of a small circular pillow. The use
of the pillow allows you to pressure the bread onto the interior oven
wall face since the tandir has a convex shape.
5. The dough should be quickly stuck onto the interior face of the tandir
using the pillow.
6. If the temperature of the oven interior wall reached the desired level,
the bread will bake in two minutes. Now the most difficult part begins
which is taking it out by using your bare, unprotected hands. The bread
should be held from its bottom part (which means putting your hands deeper
into the tandir) and lifted at once and yes without thinking!!!.
We would like to give our thanks to Ay and Okten families.
Without their support it would have been very difficult to accomplish
our experimental projects.