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.
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.
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.
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
Hi all I found a piece of what I think is very early pottery its bined with some kind of animal hair or fur is this a common find ?
nez - 9-May-16 @ 9:45 PM
Thanks for getting back to me. But if anyone out there wants to see some pics and just email me. I just get so amazed of history and love learning new things!! Thank you!!
bdaniels2234 - 6-May-16 @ 7:02 PM
bdaniels2234 - Your Question:
Hello I posted about the vessel I think that's what it is but if anyone could put me in the right way of helping I would greatly appreciate. It's patina is perfect and it looks like it was dug up there seems to be reminants of yellow and red paint. But the way the clay or dirt is in the cracks of the design on the neck and inside it it looks to be old and it would have taken awhile to form the way it is in there. I can send all the pics you want if anyone wants to see. It's heavy and you can tell it's not something mass manufactured and it's old. Thanks again,Brady
Sorry we can't help on this. Hopefully one of our readers might know something and post a comment.
ArchaeologyExpert - 5-May-16 @ 2:16 PM
Hello I posted about the vessel I think that's what it is but if anyone could put me in the right way of helping I would greatly appreciate. It's patina is perfect and it looks like it was dug up there seems to be reminants of yellow and red paint. But the way the clay or dirt is in the cracks of the design on the neck and inside it it looks to be old and it would have taken awhile to form the way it is in there. I can send all the pics you want if anyone wants to see. It's heavy and you can tell it's not something mass manufactured and it's old.
bdaniels2234 - 3-May-16 @ 6:35 PM
I have a clay vessel I was wondering anyone can help with its shaped like a heart and it looks like it was painted red but it's clay it's old. It has a design on the neck of it. It looks to be an eye on one side and another eye on the other side. Please help me! I bought it from this lady and she said she sold more but this thing is old.
bdaniels2234 - 3-May-16 @ 4:01 AM
I found these walking along the beach at a very low tide was hopeing you can help me identify them
Gina - 12-Mar-16 @ 9:42 PM
I found an item buried in desert looking for meteorite. I have pictures to share ,not sure on who to send it to interesting to find out
mayor - 10-Feb-16 @ 5:55 PM
I have recently found a shard of pottery in glendalough Ireland and I would like to try date it. It's blue and white in design
Irishman - 17-Jan-16 @ 1:57 AM
@Ace. try an antique valuer or a museum.
ArchaeologyExpert - 9-Jul-15 @ 11:19 AM
I have a clay vase/jug that I found in Algeria and would like to know where I can take it to be examined by experts
Ace - 5-Jul-15 @ 8:43 PM
I was gifted a piece of native american Indian pottery about ten years ago and find that I need to sell it to help with living costs. I would like to know if you could identify the tribe and date it so I can figure out how much to ask for it. I believe there is gold dust mixed in to the clay and it was put near or on the fire and probably helped keep it hot longer.
Flo - 25-May-15 @ 12:39 PM
I need some advice on four pottery items, which I have in my possession I need to know a bit more about them and possible avaluation.
Aset - 24-May-15 @ 5:22 PM
I was listening to a Keith Jarrett concert on YouTube and he mentions at one point - "There's a Koreon method of glazing small pots and it is a half totally conscience, half totally accidental process, where they know what might happen but refuse to make anything happen particularly. And I would call that an influence on my music." Can you help a laymen and identify for me what Keith Jarrett is describing.
James - 6-Mar-15 @ 8:54 AM
I have a very old ceramic jar, may be from the meroitic period in Sudan (Nile valley) and I'm trying to find out the history of it. Can you help?
simon - 23-Jul-14 @ 1:04 AM
@Nikki. If you have some identification marks you might be able to find out more here.Alternatively search for pottery valuers in the area in which you live and take them along.
ArchaeologyExpert - 2-Jul-14 @ 11:29 AM
I have a few old pottery that I'd like valued can you help
Nikki - 30-Jun-14 @ 6:32 PM
I have found myself holding a box of it looks like from 3 different items of pottery, broken pieces. Some are hand painted, there seems to be two covers or lids?, one piece looks decorative, and others are plain. I can send you photo's - I know nothing about this pottery but in this box was a small remnant of paper which says "viking" and has some other info on it. I have no history where these came from, but I feel they may have some historical something? The previous owner of these items passed away, they were thrown in this box and left outside. Please advise.
lighthouse - 10-Nov-13 @ 12:53 AM
Located what appears to be Native Indian Pot,11"H X 9"W,is faded black,with typical clay color markings,squares,x's,and dots.would like to know more about it,and if similar examples exist.I do have pictures, Thanks.
DesertOne - 29-Jul-13 @ 5:37 AM
I have some authentic pieces from Ecuador. I would like to sell them but I do not know where. Please any ideas. Thank you.
Monse - 26-May-13 @ 9:38 PM
As a student of anthropology , i have to go to an archeaological exploration or more precisely re-exploration in the archaeological sites of Pirtala of Sagardighi at west-bengal in India. i found some potsherds of neolithic period, those pot sherds are both hand made type and wheel made. A ceramic pot's base with designs of firoza colour and blue-green and also have striking resembling features of Mughal Period in Bengal had found. that experience was mervellous.
Cromagnon 2 - 26-Mar-13 @ 6:59 PM
I have a pottery mug, that was passed on to me over 20 years ago, but unsure when it would have been made.I think it originally come from Norway, possible found somewhere, and has like roman type figures printed in it.I would really like to know roughly how old it is or if its a copy of an old cup?
palamino - 23-Feb-13 @ 3:06 PM
I am searching for an expert of Maya ceramics.
A friend of mine has showed me two pieces of Maya potteries and he would like to know if they are original.
I am a Italian pottery restorer, but about different kind of ceramics I don't have any idea.
Could you help me?
blu - 3-Nov-12 @ 10:55 AM
I have a very interesting piece of pre columbian pottery that I'm a little clueless about. Help please
binky - 17-Sep-12 @ 7:57 PM
I have a neolithic pottery bowl. I need to find an expert
kl - 29-Jan-12 @ 7:21 PM
I have some authentic pieces of F.B. Fiori pottery and I'm trying to find out the history of it. Can you help?