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Pottery Experts

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 7 Jan 2021 | comments*Discuss
Potsherds Archaeology Extant Ceramic

The most frequently found artefact on the archaeological excavation site is the potsherd. Sherds are broken remnant pieces of items such as bowls, jugs, drinking vessels and most commonly, pots. Most sites are literally smothered with potsherds, some large (the size of a hand) and some small (only as big as a fingernail). It is relatively rare to find whole, undamaged pieces.


Ceramic and pottery are often interchangeable archaeological terms but they do have specific differences. Stoneware and earthenware pottery are terms likely to be affixed in archaeology, to rudely made utilitarian items such as bowls, cups, jugs and pots. The clay in these everyday pieces has not been fired at high temperatures, was easy to make and therefore, less expensive. Extremely high-fired clay that fuses a glaze onto the body is generally referred to as ceramic. Ceramic artefacts are often very rare due to their thinner, brittle construction being easily broken.

The study of pottery can provide insight into the manner of how pottery items were manufactured in antiquity. In order to analyse pottery the expert in ancient ceramics will consider the known classifications of pottery and attempt to interpret artefacts in terms of their chronology, function and tradability. To achieve this task, specialist laboratories have been established in major universities, museums and in business using traditional and modern examination methods.

Process of Analysis

Firstly, the ceramic expert will identify and record all of the artefacts received from the digging site. It may be necessary to re-classify items that have been incorrectly labelled by inexperienced workers at the site. The next step is to provide a sensible date-range for batches of sherds and other artefacts. Dates fall into specific categories as defined by the chart of archaeological time periods introduced in 1819 by Thomsen's 'Three Age System' of Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. The years before 5000 BC are believed to be the pre-pottery period, the first primitive stonewares being found in the late Neolithic age.

A Complex Jigsaw Puzzle

Undamaged artefacts are easy to recognise and classify. Potsherds, on the other hand, are like a tricky, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces might not even be there. The reconstruction of a ceramic artefact by piecing together all of its sherds is a meticulous undertaking.

When an ancient settlement was violently conquered the victors would often destroy the buildings by pulling down its walls and/or totally razing it to the ground by fire. This resulted in great building stones being hurled down onto the ceramic items of everyday use. Most were shattered beyond recognition. Like a forensic investigator the ceramic expert needs to assemble all of the available sherds and carefully piece them together to reconstruct the original. Where missing pieces create a void, making a modern replacement piece fills the gap.

Dating Pottery

Have you ever marvelled at just how much information appears to be known about an antique when it is turned upside down by Antiques Roadshow presenters? Modern ceramics tell a lot about their history from the maker's marks usually found on the underside. Ancient pottery have very few marks, thus the dating of antiquities is more like detective work.

The analyst must search for clues in the historical references learned from lengthy studies of early ceramics. The raw material used, the process of forming or moulding, the colours applied, the style or shape, any patterns or inscriptions, the firing method and finally, any wear or usage marks, are all considerations necessary before an accurate estimation of the item can be proposed.

Learning More About Buried Cultures

Potsherds from a digging trench, by their style, form and colour will assist researchers to identify the culture extant at that time, provide a date for the stratum level and add to the chronological record further information about the buried civilisations slowly being uncovered.

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This large piece was found in the ocean about 30 years ago.It has no markings other than the decorative ones.Any ideas where it could be from?
William - 7-Jan-21 @ 6:15 PM
I have a very old small clay jug that was dug up by a friends grandfather just before the Second World War about 1meter below the surface I would like to get it’s age and if it is worth anything. I can send a photo also if you like
Glen - 16-Nov-20 @ 10:57 AM
Hello there, My grandad found an old piece of pottery sticking out of a molehill near the site of a Middle Age church which is no longer standing (I never found out where, only that it was near an old medieval church site). I've never been able to work out what it is, but it is hollow and looks as if it once had handles. My initial thought was a candle holder but i'm no expert. There is the remnant of an indented design on it and it seems to be glazed white. I don't think it is Middle Age but it does seem rather old and I'd love someone to advise as to what it is if possible please. It stands up and looks to be made from some sort of stone, rather than pot, but again, I'm no expert (height 4.5cm width 3cm). Happy to share photos if possible. Thank you very much.
OliRobbo - 14-Oct-20 @ 7:33 PM
i found old pottery it is several different colors. it was 4ft in the ground
lil boy - 23-Aug-20 @ 7:25 PM
I have been left this dish which I think is very old but probably worthless and would like very much to know more about itIt is 13 x 10 inches with a divider. Looks reddish brown with a darker brown glaze and cream patterns on the inside Any help gratefully received. Thank you
Marg - 22-Aug-20 @ 12:06 PM
Can I send a photo of a pot I picked up. It looks Aztec or Mexican to me,but would like to know. Thanx
Pete - 18-Aug-20 @ 10:58 AM
Hi, I found a small piece of pottery in a filed in Staffordshire, to me it looks old , how can I identify it? Thanks
Skid - 8-Jul-20 @ 7:53 PM
Hello I need help by an Archioligist as there is nobody to help me in Victoria Australia .. I have a DING a Chinese sacrificial v3 leged vessel I have taken it to Chinese museum and have been told it is real and is thousands of years old and was worth a fortune please help as I am unable to find help Regards Alex
Ace - 27-Jun-20 @ 11:21 AM
I have found a broken piece of pottery with distinctive patterns. I’m looking for it to be identified please. I found it on the shore of the river forth when the tide was out. Thanks Lia
Tictoc - 22-Jun-20 @ 11:50 AM
I have a small pot that is believed to be from the Illyrian period. I would love to send a photo for an approximate appraisal, is this possible?
Mickey - 31-Jan-20 @ 6:32 AM
Please help me find out what this oldpott ry artifact is it pott ry please help me get it id ntifi Ed please
Alisa - 27-Jan-20 @ 4:36 AM
I have what looks to be a very old all black clay pottery liquid container/pitcher of some kind it has small slash markings around where the liquid would pour. A weird extra tail piece off the handle and the bottom is odd.Is there a place that I can send a picture
Red - 31-Oct-19 @ 3:50 AM
I have something i need to i identified i have a picture or it where can i send the picture
Tim - 22-Sep-19 @ 8:27 PM
Hi recently found an old clay-pot in the Sahara, wetness dissipates by the count of five and the ochre paint cannot come off with acetone that is all I can say . Naive artwork strange intentional , looks like dripping but down purposely, PLEASE WHERE CAN I SEND A PIC
Shiloh Noone - 16-Sep-19 @ 2:22 PM
Found a half piece of pottery on the beach in Monterey. Looks like a small tea cup.It has a flower pattern around the top and a # 49 on the bottom. Any idea how to look this up?
Toni - 21-Jul-19 @ 11:52 PM
I am wondering about this piece of pottery that I found on the ocean floor
Bigl80 - 10-Jun-19 @ 11:28 PM
I found a large part of an old reddish clay flower pot under the original 9thgolf green at the world's oldest golf course. during reconstruction, The golf green has never been dug up before and the flower pot looks to have been used as a golf hole cup. Inside the flower pot, it has discolouration and it has wear in the bottom centre hole where a small golf pin would have been placed. Iam trying to get a date of the pot as this will tell us when the golfers stopped taken sand out of the hole to use as a tee to play their next shot. Do you know how I can get adate to pot?
Golflinks - 30-May-19 @ 5:18 PM
I’ve recently inherited a plate, it’s age 1865 thats been worked out through the stamp on the back however it has the ‘makers’ stamp THE RAOLIN GARDNERS’ which seems to be unheard of through the internet can’t find anything. If anyone can help give any information about this piece, value etc, it would be gratefully received. Thank you
Rubee - 25-May-19 @ 7:48 AM
I have an earthenware plate, blue and white, flowers and leaves round rim, no markings, has spiderings throughout and a few imperfections in the glaze. Bird, perhaps a Jay, flowers could be peonies, though that's only through looking online, so I may be wrong, could be cherry blossom! There is also a dragonfly/small winged beastie in the air and a round fruit with leaves on (perhaps apple with bit taken out?) at the top of a branch. Few very dark blues round rim, dark blue solid leaves within, flowers light blue lines. Very curious, help appreciated! Thank you ??
Curiosity - 18-May-19 @ 1:11 PM
I don't know what kind of pottery it's redish in color the bottom is about 7 inches round and the neck is about 1 inch tall and 3 inches wide it's something that water would be carried in the face has slanted eyes and pointy nose with a rectangular mouth with humps on each side of the face.a handle has been broke off the bottom.
Alisa - 22-Apr-19 @ 7:34 AM
I found a small piece of potary with a lot if wear and lots of small markings. Looks like there was handles on it and one point and they broke off and the areas of where they used to be are so soft and smooth so i think this price os very old. The clay is a blueish black and the glazing looks very different from any ive seen. Small tiny marking underneath that looks like a flower almost?..really pretty design. I would really love to know exactly how old this peice is.
Jess - 19-Apr-19 @ 10:37 PM
Hi. I’ve recently brought a few items from a local auction and I was wondering if you would be able to tell me if they are genuine or not? A Greek wine cup An early flagon (would like to know rough age if genuine) A Roman glass scent bottle. I would really appreciate your experiences opinion on these items, if you can help please let me know and I’ll get some pictures sent over. If you are unable to help, could you point me in the direction of somebody who could? Thanks in advance Chris white.
Chris - 31-Mar-19 @ 10:59 AM
Hi. I have found what I think is redwear there are no marks on the pot which has a small opening. It was found on a beach in England about 10 inches down in a clay. Could you send me a email where I can send a photo thank you.
Will - 28-Mar-19 @ 4:18 PM
I have a wide pot with a lid and c shaped handles facing outward and all around the outside of the pot.I think it is a yokut pot.But would love to learn more.
Cuc - 27-Mar-19 @ 3:55 AM
I found a piece of pottery on the beach in Nova Scotia. I was wondering if I could email you a picture and tell me if it means anything or just a common pot. Thanks
Kat - 24-Jan-19 @ 1:53 AM
Good day. I have acquired a tile that I know nothing about. I'm hoping someone will be able to help with regards to age, production origin etc. Please inform me as to whether I can send a picture or two for analysis. Regards, Ryan
Ryan - 11-Jan-19 @ 1:10 PM
I have a greek pot that is 600 B.C an has lions on and want to know the value of it
Bassie - 21-Nov-18 @ 1:52 PM
I have a vase, approximately 6” tall. It is cream coloured inside and a terracotta red outside. It has a picture of a woman with a giant bow on her head inscribed on the outside. The top is scalloped. Underneath the numbers 2022 are impressed under the glaze and the number 15 below that. Around the bottom edge is inscribed Strasbourg. It appears to my research to be one of the earliest pieces of Charles hannong but I am not an expert which brings me to you. I would appreciate any help you could give me. Thanks
Cindy - 6-Nov-18 @ 8:05 PM
Hi have ancient handmade clay bowl that i would love to know more about
Sonya - 1-Nov-18 @ 6:55 PM
Hi. I was walking down a beach in MA and found lots of small hand made clay pots/ cups.Some had and oily substance Some looked burnt.Some had a whitish power residual on it. My friend found a few there a year ago so when I was there this morning I found many. Some more the size like a finger bowl.Some of the bigger ones have a pouring spout.Definitely hand made. Any ideas. I did find some cut up lemon and limes and flowers around the area I found a couple of the pots Thanks Shaggy
Shaggy - 17-Oct-18 @ 8:46 PM
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