Basic Concepts: Pottery in the Archaeological Record

I‘ve read a few other science bloggers who are posting some basic concepts articles, clarifying specific topics in their fields of endeavor at a level designed to reach the lay person. It hasn’t escaped me that a large portion of my visitors reach me through search engines and may be students or the generally interested who are looking for basic information. So I thought it might be useful for some visitors if I create a basic concepts post of my own and, depending on the number of hits it gets, I may continue the series. Of course, I’d be willing to accept any questions or suggestions for future topics and hope that each topic sparks questions and comments.

Why study pottery and ceramics in archaeology? Look below the fold and see…

  1. There’s a lot of it. Nearly every culture has used some form of fired clay at some point in time for purposes that range from food/water storage and cooking to writing and religious figurines.
  2. It’s extremely durable. Other materials used by humans are far less so: paper, leather textiles, etc. deteriorate more readily than durable materials such as metals (which do deteriorate), glass, stone, and ceramics. Of these four materials, stone and ceramics are the most valuable when looking at neolithic cultures since they predate metal and glass.
  3. It gets ignored. Most pottery remains end up broken and all semblance of the original vessel or object is lost and, thus, of little interest to looters or casual collectors. When other items have long since been removed or plundered, broken pot sherds will remain for archaeologists to study.
  4. Pottery is common. For a society that sues pottery, it is usually present in all social strata, giving a good overview of the day-to-day activities in a society.
  5. Pots break. A lot. Because of this, people in antiquity had to replace them just as they do in modernity. A consistent industry of ceramics allows for changes and trends to develop which are present in the archaeological record and allow for seriation.

The Basic Recipe
At a minimum, pottery includes three ingredients: clay, a tempering agent, and water. The water and clay are mixed to form a paste and another substance is included to strengthen the mix and improve firing characteristics. Substances other than the original clay in the pot’s material are referred to as inclusions, including the temper, but not all temper are inclusions. Temper generally refers to material that’s intentionally put in the mix for a specific purpose -all other inclusions are accidental. Mineral from the clay source, sand, gravel, grass, insects, ash from firing, etc. can all find their way into the pot’s mix.

Once the paste is created, the next step is to shape a pot. The most basic pottery is hand-formed -perhaps a small vessel pressed into a bowl shape. A more advanced form is made by coiling rolled out strips of clay into the final form, smoothing the interior and exterior as the potter gos along. Further advanced forms of pottery are thrown on a wheel, spinning the lump of clay while the potter shapes the vessel, thinning the wall and building up the vessel with a skilled and patient hand.

Once the basic shape of the pot is formed, the exterior can be treated before firing to give the pot a stylistic representation or functional form. Slips are very watery clay that’s painted on the surface, often giving a different color that allows the potter to create a design. But slips are also functional in that they seal the pot, allowing the vessel to better hold liquids. Glazes can be added for much the same reason, but will create a glassy surface that is more watertight. This is achieved by adding substances like tin or lead. Other decorations can be added to the exterior of pottery through punctations, incisions, embossments, stampings, and burnishing. Pots can be very simple or extremely elegant.

The Finished Product
Once the basic form is created, the slip or glaze added and other decorations applied, the pot is ready to be fired. This could include the use of an enclosed oven with an open top or a pit where the fuel is stacked around the pottery. A potter was likely to create many pots to be fired, since there was always a risk of a pot exploding or cracking during the process. Broken bits of potter could be used to segment the kiln, protecting against fragments from neighboring pots that do explode. Also, the positioning of pots and fuel, and type of fuel used affected the oxygen levels in the kiln, which in turn affect the metallic oxides in slips and glazes, thus producing varied results in color and luster.

When examining the ceramic remains of a society, archaeologists are able to determine dates, levels of stratification, trade patterns, technological innovation, religious affiliations and beliefs, and so on. Analyzing form and function can lead archaeologists to discover things about economic activities in a given society and being able to distinguish between utilitarian and ceremonial functions can offer clues to the status of individuals in burials or residents of a home. Analyzing pottery styles can reveal the nature of restrictiveness a society had: standardized style can imply formal and rigid expectations from the society; less standardized and formal styles could imply fewer societal controls on the potters. Style can also reveal trade patterns and evidence of contact with other societies as trends and fads “catch on” as they are diffused from one society to another. Similarly, technical analyses of a pot’s paste can provide evidence for trade patterns as a pot’s paste is matched to clay deposits many miles away and


  • Ceramics and Pottery – These two words often get used interchangeably, but “ceramics” can also include tiles, bricks, tablets, and the like – thought the term “pottery” isn’t exclusive to just vessels and containers. All products constructed by people of clay can be considered “pottery,” but products that are fired, baked or heated as a means of finishing the product -rendering it more durable- are considered ceramics.
  • Sherd – a broken piece of pottery in the archaeological record
  • Seriation – a relative dating method that places artifacts in chronological order by using form to show stylistic changes over time -the evolution of pottery, for instance.
  • Inclusion – material included in the clay mix that forms the final pot, either intentionally, as with tempering agents, or accidentally, as with sand or ash.
  • Temper – an inclusion that is intentionally added, usually to strengthen a pot or to improve firing characteristics.
  • kiln – an oven or pit used to fire, or heat, finished pots to a high temperature which strengthens the pot and vitrifies a slip or glaze.
  • slip – a coating of clay, usually of a different color, which can often give the appearance of a paint.
  • glaze – a coating melted onto the exterior of a pot that seals it, making it watertight, and creates a glassy surface.

Egyptology Online Karnak and Avaris

The Near Eastern Studies department of Johns Hopkins University is scheduled to roll out an educational website on January 19, 2007 titled Hopkins in Egypt Today.

Also, Tell el-Dabca (a.k.a. Avaris) has its own homepage. Avaris was the capital of the Hyksos in Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. The Hyksos were Canaanite immigrants and Manethos referred to the them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners. Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it.

Look below the fold for quotes and further discussion.

Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins
The goal of the site is:

to provide the viewer with the elements of archaeological work, including the progress of excavation. The daily results are crucial to an understanding of how field investigation takes place, since decisions must be made on the basis of ongoing work. The people involved in the work are also an essential feature and contribute profoundly to the final outcomes. The focus of our diary is thus often on the people and their activities.

Returning for her 12th season, Professor Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins will oversee archaeological work at the Temple of the Goddess Mut (pronounced “moot”) at Karnak (in Luxor, Egypt).

Mut was the wife of the great national god of ancient Egypt, Amun, whose central temple at Karnak is the largest existing religious complex in the world. Mut had her own temple in the southern precinct of Karnak, and the main temple was linked to it by two different paved alleys flanked by rows of ram headed sphinxes. The god Amun’s statue was brought to the Mut temple when rituals occurred commemorating the birth of a son to Amun and Mut. That son, Khonsu, a moon god, has his own temple at Karnak as well.

Avaris Online
The site appears to be run by Professor Manfred Bietak, the Professor of Egyptology at the University of Vienna in Austria. He’s also director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo (Österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes in Kairo). It could be run by one or more of his grad students, however. I couldn’t tell for sure.

While obviously still under development, there is already a great wealth of information for the student interested in the Hyksos period of Egypt (that would be me). Descriptions of the sites and the excavations as well as artifacts and features recovered are included as well as a detailed bibliography. Of course, if you plan to study or write on the Hyksos, a familiarity with German is a must! The site is in both English and German, but most of the references are from German language publications. Here’s a short quote from the site:

After the conquest of Avaris by Ahmose c. 1530 BC the major part of the town was abandoned. The citadel, however, was destroyed and enormous storage facilities set up, among them numerous silos. On top of those remains traces of a camp with bonfires a, ovens and postholes of tents were encountered. Bodies probably of soldiers were buried without any offerings in pits. Also bodies of several horses were found in this stratum.

Go. Visit these sites. Get your learn on.
Hopkins in Egypt Today
Tell el-Dabca Homepage

Astronomical Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic’s Resource List

Have you ever wondered what science has to say about astrology? What the real scoop is on crop circles? What about that “face on Mars” that was such a big thing a few years ago? Or maybe you wanted to know if the astronomical connections claimed for such archaeological sites as the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza had any credibility.

To get started in any research endeavor, it helps to have a good bibliography. If you ever wanted to read up on skeptical opinions of any of the topics above (and more), you’ll want to look below the fold.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has a wonderful resource list. Indeed, if you’re interested in astronomy, you might find their whole site fascinating. But the page I landed on that I didn’t hesitate to bookmark was their Skeptic’s Resource List, a bibliography that covers many pseudoscientific claims in the astronomical field.

As an example, I’ll include a single entry (of many available) for each of the topics above:

Culver, Roger & Ianna, Philip Astrology: True or False. 1988, Prometheus Books. The best skeptical book about astrology, full of useful information.

Nickell, J. “Circular Reasoning” in Skeptical Inquirer, Sep/Oct. 2002, p. 17. A concise review, by a skeptical investigator. (On line at

Sagan, Carl “The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars,” Chapter 3 of his book, The Demon-Haunted World. 1995, Random House.

Krupp, E. “The Sphinx Blinks” in Sky & Telescope, mar. 2001, p. 86. Examines some astronomical connections suggested for the Sphinx and the Pyramids and finds them wanting. (See also, Sky & Telescope, Feb. 1997, p. 64.)

Stenger, V. “Quantum Quackery” in Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb. 1997, p. 37. Quick summary of the arguments against quantum mechanics having “new age” implications for human powers. (On the web at

Okay, I included one extra, but only because I happened across the Stenger citation and noticed the link. I’ve read that piece and recommend it to anyone who’s getting tired of running into quantum-this and quantum-that used to explain every thing from God to consciousness to weight loss.

Each of the titles in the table of contents for the list has a list of both printed resources as well as websites to visit. Such a list is invaluable for teachers who undoubtedly encounter questions about such popular topics from their students as well as the skeptic looking for sources of information to dispel myths and pseudoscientific positions.

Astronomical Pseudo-Science: A Skeptic’s Resource List (Version 3.0; August 2003)