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.