The archaeological importance of the study of pottery


The discipline of archaeology is by no means a simple nor singular study of the past. Due to the wide range of evidence within the archaeological record, from organic to inorganic, many different methods and approaches are taken in order to deal with the wide spectrum of differing evidence. Nevertheless, the study of pottery is without doubt one of the most important tasks taken on by any archaeologist. A great wealth of information can be gained from the study of pottery, despite its inanimate state. It is for this very reason that this essay will attempt to explore and explain the multitude of study that archaeologists apply to pottery.

As has already been stated, there are many lessons to be learned from the study of pottery. These lessons vary in both practice and utility. However, all play their part in piecing together the past. Much can be learned from pottery some of which is directly linked to the pottery itself. Other information can be found which is more inferred than anything else. This therefore makes the study of pottery one of two parts. Firstly, the physical study of pottery, which will be dealt with in the first part of this essay, and secondly the study of the cultural insight pottery gives enabling archaeologists to understand the society from which it came.

Perhaps the most obvious way of analysing pottery is by the naked eye but its obviousness should not detract from its importance. By observing the physical attributes of any artefact a great deal can be told of its manufacture as well as its manufacturer. The practice of typology is of great use when analysing pottery. By observing the shape and size of any artefact it is often possible to date that artefact within a specific range of dates. The size of this range is however not always as accurate as one might wish it to be. Nevertheless, by using typology an educated guess can be made regarding the creation of a piece of pottery this can then be further applied to the site itself where the pottery was excavated. If however, the piece of pottery is decorated in any way the date of creation can be more accurate. The reason for this increase in accuracy is quite simple. Even though the shape of a piece of pottery is an important factor in determining its date through typology it is unfortunately not particularly prone to change through time, unlike decoration. The shape of a water vessel generally remains the same in any specific culture due to the nature of its purpose, it is therefore much more useful if a decoration is present on the vessel since it is much more susceptible to change. Decorative features may change in a few generations and therefore are said to be “chronologically sensitive”. It is for this reason that decorative features can narrow the range in which an artefact can be dated. As useful as typology proves to be it is unfortunately only suitable when sufficient research has been done in the particular area which is being studied. Characteristics from one culture cannot necessarily be applied to another. It is therefore not possible to assume that a small narrow vase found in Asia could be dated along with one of similar attributes found in Europe.

Not all physical study of pottery have such complexities. Very basic observations can tell a great deal about the production of a piece of pottery. Although common place today, the practice of throwing pots on a wheel was only introduced after approximately 3400 B.C. Previous this date a process of building pots up using a series of clay coils was used. This easily identifiable difference can immediately give the piece of pottery a terminus post quem. It also gives a very clear picture of the technology available and used by the craftsman. The physical characteristics of pottery can also be used to identify even finer details of its production. If the surface of a piece of pottery is vitrified or glazed it can be assumed that it was fired in a heat in excess of 900 degrees Celsius which is only possible in an enclosed kiln. the process of firing pottery