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Ceramics in Archaeology

A Little Place for Your Stuff


Oaxacan green pottery, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan green pottery, Oaxaca, Mexico

L.M. Powell
When I am working out in the field, I often encounter landowners who tell me I must have a terrific artifact collection, since I'm a professional archaeologist. This never fails to stimulate my lecture gland, and, after stating categorically that I have no collection, I always wax eloquent about how artifacts by themselves mean little to me, that only when an artifact is placed within the context of its site does it have any particular interest to a professional archaeologist. An artifact is only interesting if we also know what other artifacts go with it, where the site was located, when it was occupied, what the people did there. Archaeology is, after all, the study of past cultures, not the study of artifacts.

Sounds good, doesn't it? But there is one kind of artifact that I have to admit always resonates with me, all by itself--ceramic vessels. I don't have to know anything about the person who made a ceramic pot to have it set off some deep pang of warmth and admiration.

It's not really all that surprising; pots are not just containers, "a little place for your stuff," as George Carlin would say. Their decoration and shape may be markers of the potter's notions of clan, spirituality, the cosmos. The body forms are sometimes organic in nature, mimicking gourds or conch shells, or effigies of humans or animals. Decorations are often drawn boldly, with bright or subtle colors and textures. Sometimes you find fingerprints in the paste. They're personal, ceramic pots are, in a way that stone or metal really can't be.

Fortunately for us "pot-heads" there are many vessel pictures to be found on the web. Here are a few of my favorites.

You can't be an Americanist in love with pots without spending some amount of time mooning over pots of the American southwest. The Hollister collection at UMass Amherst, linked up there in the box on your right, includes pots from Acoma, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Santa Domingo pueblos in New Mexico's Rio Grande valley.

Effigies are always interesting. Bruce Owen's veritable gallery of Inca bowls from the Osmore Drainage, Peru, are good examples.

Emory University has a great collection of ceramics online, including many from sub-Saharan Africa. The Ceramic Traditions of Mali has a great ethnographic treatment of manufacturing techniques.

With the onset of the "post-processual" movement in archaeology (don't ask), more emphasis has been placed on the utilitarian pots than was true in the past. Some of the plainest pots have shape, beauty and meaning all their own. The Amphoras Project, at the University of Toronto, is a compendium of information about these plain unglazed vessels of the ancient Mediterranean that are the markers of a vast trade network.

Ceramics are one of the most distinctive forms of artifact produced by prehistoric peoples. Both utilitarian and artwork, pottery will always be a subject for serious study by the archaeologist.
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