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Pottery Experts

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 24 Jan 2019 | 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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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
Hi I found what I think is pottery. How do i get it datedand where as I want to find how old it could be. Thanks Gemma
Gemma Crook - 31-Aug-18 @ 4:39 PM
I have an interesting piece of antique pottery. It reminds somewhat of Voynich Manuscript characters. How can I have someone look at it with an expert eye and determine what I is? Best regards, Alex
Alex - 15-Aug-18 @ 7:10 PM
I purchased a primitive looking dog effigy vessel it looks like red clay but I don’t know if it’s authentic or a reproduction? Could someone please tell me how to tell if it’s something of value it’s in perfect condition no chips
Debbie Floyd - 27-May-18 @ 3:15 AM
Hello! I am currently deployed in Crete, Greece and whilst snorkeling with a friend, found many pieces of pottery. We are even going back to dive for more and get the whole puzzle, so to speak. The funny thing about this island is something could be 5 years old or 1500, and it looks quite the same. We found a quite large piece of the mouth of a pot and it's handles. Could you perchance help in identifying?
Al - 21-May-18 @ 6:35 AM
I found a peice of pottery on the beach and I can't find out how old it is but it does have some symbols which have been stamped in.So it's got small star like symbols, triangles and semicircles also there is really small squares in two rows next to each other going round. I would really appreciate some kind of help even if it's small.
Kaitlyn - 10-May-18 @ 8:00 PM
I need some advice on a pottery item, so far i know this is a clay pot and older then 150 years (before 1850).
Rohit - 9-May-18 @ 11:26 AM
Hi Grahame, my son found a small vase in a river and I wondered if you could tell us some more about it. It looks old and there are no makers mark. Looks like brown glaze and obviously hand made.I can send a photo John
JS - 20-Apr-18 @ 1:55 PM
Hi there i found what i think is a piece of pottery whilst on a coastal walk but unsure how to get it indentified i was wondering if you could help please
Anna - 17-Mar-18 @ 6:18 PM
Found a pirce of old pottery well I think old would like to see how old any that could help me if I.send pictures would be great
Ts - 6-Mar-18 @ 2:54 PM
I have a McCoy 1940s peach&pink glaze vase. But, I also have two that look older and I can't find the insignias online. The very heavy large planter is cracked and glossed, dry peg feet and bamboo/leaf design. On the bottom is what might be a Sl or 51 it also seems to have a very small "8." Could I send pictures for help or maybe direct me to someone who can? Thank you, maegon Collier.
Riddl3r - 3-Feb-18 @ 6:34 AM
I'm in a GT class and I chose my passion as pottery and I need an outside expert. Can you help me with that? If I don't have an outside expert I will lose 10 points off my grade!!
allie - 11-Dec-17 @ 6:35 PM
I found a, what seems like clay, pot with a little spout near a dried up canal and was wondering how old it was and if it is worth anything. If anyone knows, please give me an email to send a picture to. Thanks!
Jason - 2-Oct-17 @ 12:50 AM
Nat - Your Question:
Hi,I recently found a piece of pottery near some Roman ruins. How would I send you a picture to confirm if it is actually Roman? It looks like a rim of a vessel and has a pattern embossed around it.Many thanks

Our Response:
Unfortunately we don't have a way of accepting photos. We hope you can find a local museum or similar to help you with this. Do let us know how you get on.
ArchaeologyExpert - 27-Sep-17 @ 3:33 PM
Hi, I recently found a piece of pottery near some Roman ruins. How would I send you a picture to confirm if it is actually Roman? It looks like a rim of a vessel and has a pattern embossed around it. Many thanks
Nat - 26-Sep-17 @ 6:44 PM
I also have a piece of Zuni Pottery from the archives of the Smithsonian, collect by Bill Stevenson in 1880-1882. It is marked with a number and I verified with Smithsonian. It is also marked Bureau of Ethnology. It was traded by museum to a Minnesotan Representative for important documents in 1904. It has a handle, so it was influenced by modern man and probably made around 1880 or so. I am trying to determine value and how to protect it best. Any help is appreciated. Rob robtep@bellsouth.net
Rob - 24-Sep-17 @ 1:04 AM
Hi. I have a Brownfields' Ferncliffe Pottery Drip Pan. It is heavy ceramic or porcelain and has impressed mark circle. It says Brown on inside and I can not read mark on border. Can you tell me anything about it? It weighs about 7 pounds. Any help is appreciated. Rob
Rob - 24-Sep-17 @ 12:59 AM
I have an approximately 8 inch tall pot with square and rectangular designs in cream, black, brown and rusty colors that have been piped on it. Round at the base narrowing upwards then flaring out at the top. It has no lid. It has 3 painted male figures, upper body only, at equal distances one third of the way up from the base at the widest part with their arms spread as if they are supporting it or holding something back.These are painted also. It has been used to burn something inside at some time. Remnants are still in it and look as though someones fingers may have trudged throughbefore it dried. The remnants feel as hard as concrete and are light brown in color. No markings on the bottom. Any ideas on who may have produced it?Or what it was used for?
dave - 14-Aug-17 @ 6:01 AM
We bought pottery at an estate sale the is signed what looks like Dunlap but could be something else ... it was signed into the clay while the clay was wet i think ... we were curious who the artist was
Sarah - 21-Jul-17 @ 2:34 AM
I dug a hole in my yard about the size of a basketball and found 30 pieces of pottery. They are nicely sized pieces. This is in Phoenix just south of the salt river. I would like to know how old it is as I found it about 8" down in hard packed soil. It's all over my yard.
Plan B - 22-Jun-17 @ 11:50 PM
Hi, I am searching for an expert of Maya ceramics. I live in san Pedro lake Atitlan, and my hobby is collecting little pieces of ceramics from the side of the lake, and now I make ceramic art out of them buy painting one side and leaving one side ceramics appearance that give like a polished historical chesterfield look, once varnished, so as giving two arts, one historic and my input that's giving little painted pendants, but I’d like to tell the people roughly its age, how is this possible, and how can I send photos, for you to look, to get a better idea, of what I speak. Thanks you
mike - 20-Apr-17 @ 3:21 PM
Looking for any information about an earthenware round bottomed jar i trawled up approximately 40 miles south of Lands End Cornwall
Simon - 18-Apr-17 @ 8:22 PM
Hi, I am a life science researcher. One of my hobbies is to routinely go to auctions and buy unique items, including antiques. Recently I bought two pieces of pottery that seem to have a lot of history associated with them and since I have no clue about anthropology. One of the pots has a bluish reddish pigment coating and has a leaf on side top and elephants on a relief (crude reconstructions). The other pot is more flatter with a narrow neck and has yellowish red pigment coating and has horses on the sides. Does anyone know which era these pots belong and also, the civilization and age if known. Many thanks for your help in advance. Please let me know if you have any questions. Kind regards, Moonie1977
Moonie1977 - 20-Mar-17 @ 10:29 PM
Does anyone here know about muesum copy classical period 450 b.c pieces? Ive been told although a copy they can be very valuable. I can't find anything really about copies, but lots on fakes. The figures on my 3 28.5 cm plates almost seem like picasso draw them lol. Any ideas?
jackers - 21-Nov-16 @ 5:27 AM
Hello i found the top part of a greek clay jug in water while i was snorkeling it was at about 6 meter deep and i dont know if its old or not.Can someone help me?Thanks in advance.
Noobie - 10-Aug-16 @ 4:58 PM
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