Monday, 30 November 2009

Mad about Pots Part I

When I was an undergraduate, we were all required to do interactive presentations on our thesis topics. At the end of my thrilling 15 minutes on ceramics, I began the compulsory question round by asking if anyone had any. Unsurprisingly, not a single hand went up. I remember cracking a joke about pottery not being very interesting for most people, at which point my supervisor said, (almost) sympathetically, 'There are perverts in every field, Danika'.

So there you have it. Even among our own kind, ceramicists are mocked. It's a curious specialization, as of one always needs them on a site, but at the same time there's something very very geeky about the whole thing. Anyway, I felt I should explain what made me want to do it; after all, I did an undergraduate thesis on pots, and am planning my PhD on pots again. What's the attraction?

I'll tell you. Few artefacts can give you the kind of connection to the person who made them that pots can. You see fingerprints and scrape marks and you know that some man or woman put his (or her) hand to clay five thousand years ago and left a mark that. They left little finger imprints that you can put your own fingers on. In terms of tactile connections, ceramics really offer the most incredible link to past peoples, and pottery survives under all conditions, unlike other things made of bone, wood or cloth that easily degrade.

Ceramics only appeared at a certain point in the Neolithic, the period during which people began to shift their lifestyles from those of hunter-gatherers to those of settled farmers. Somehow that shift from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles, a fascinating social change that laid the base for society as we know it, is linked with the shift from aceramic to ceramic cultures. So what can pottery teach us? The way a pot is made, i.e. domestically from house to house, or perhaps more centrally by a specialized potter, tells us a lot about the way a society was organized. When people began to specialize in crafts, there was a change in social hierachies and complexity, although of course this is not a simple relationship. Imagine if we all still produced all of our own food, clothes, utensils and tools. It's unlikely that we'd have time for doing a lot of other things. The shift to having specialized potters or tool-makers gave us the chance to have people specializing in things that maybe weren't so functional: art, jewellery, ceremonial items perhaps. And it made people really really good at one thing. It's sort of basic Adam Smith division of labour equals greater productivity; instead of one worker doing all the steps to make a pin, it's divided between ten who do a step each, one draws the wire, another straightens it, and so forth.

"...they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not...what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations."
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Ceramics are linked to a lot of changes in social organization at the most basic level. And that's just what we learn from studying how they were made! Archaeologists study what they were made of and can test soils to source them exactly; they test the remains of what's inside and tell you if they contained wine, oil, milk, or powders for make-up; they look at the decorations and can deduce things about motifs and ideology. Ceramics even provide a fairly reliable relative dating function. Radiocarbon dating, which is used for dating all material made of carbon (plants, bodies, etc), cannot always be used as plant remains and things don't always survive. One can use it to date pottery if they're found together. After that, quite simply, if the same type of pottery is found at another site, we can roughly date it even if there's no carbon material, as the same types belong to the same chronological period.

There's a whole wealth of information one gets from pottery, and even if often one deals with scrubby little broken bits, sometimes one is given something amazing to work with. Both the big spectacular painted bits and the broken not very pretty sherds have a story to tell.

Images are a mostly reconstructed amphora I drew in Egypt, and pottery everywhere at the Nile Delta site of Buto. I can't currently use my photos of Indian pottery, but will put some up at some point!


  1. Induswali - love the post - it has made archeology come alive for me. Thanks - keep up the great work - keep writing. And I love pottery and ceramics - have always been drawn to them :)

  2. Thank you! That is very good to hear!

  3. A little late- but I loved the article. keep them coming! More stuff on architecture, and lifestyle around 900 BC. Hehe! You know why I'm asking!