My last two posts were about ancient Peruvian pottery made in the shape of people having sex. But ceramics like these are only a very small percentage of the sorts of ceramics most archaeologists deal with on a daily basis. The vast majority of pots archaeologists work with are made to look like, well, pots. And, what's worse, they're usually broken up in dozens of pieces. And yet, archaeologists often do crazy things for pottery, no matter how unimpressive it might be.
For example, I have recently spent between twenty and thirty hours sorting out through broken pieces of ancient West African ceramics, along with three other volunteers and our supervisor, for the Crossroads of Empires project. The pottery came from recently excavated sites, and the idea was to see whether we could put together, not necessarily whole pots, but at least pot fragments that were big enough for us to make a reasonable guess as to what they looked like when they were whole (which means that a lot of our effort was focussed on rims and decorated bits). Sort of like a really difficult jigsaw puzzle in which most pieces are missing, and those that you still have are very small and worn. Once you do find bits that fit, you just stick them together with superglue. This whole process is called "refitting", and you can see some images of how it works on this post from the Crossroads of Empires blog.
Why do this? Quite simply, pottery lasts a very long time, more so than any other thing made and used by humans in ancient times (excluding stone tools), so, wherever archaeologists dig, they will almost certainly find some. This has led archaeologists to figure out loads of different ways they can extract information about past lives from crummy ceramic fragments. For example, an important part of the Crossroads of Empires project is figuring out which culture groups interacted with which other culture groups—so, if you can connect a particular pottery style with a particular culture group, and then you find the same style, or perhaps a similar one, at a site that is firmly associated with another culture group, then it's likely the two groups were in contact with one another.
But the shapes, sizes and decorations of ceramics can also give us a sense of how people lived in the past, and what was important for them. An excellent example of this is Ashley's (2010) study of ancient Ugandan pottery.
Ashley identifies three major sequences in the region's pottery: Urewe, Transitional Urewe, and Entebbe.
Urewe ceramics are found throughout the region between 500 and 800 AD, and they are characterised by having dimpled bases. What they tell us is that, as long as they were around, people's lives revolved mainly around their family unit, and notions of family were of central cultural value. How can we be so sure? The amount of time and effort invested in making these pots, evident in their quality, suggests that whichever context they were used for was probably a very important one. And that context was probably family meals: this we can tell from how common the pots are, but also their size. Specifically, average sizes of Urewe pottery fall well within standard measurements of domestic pottery around the world, based on an extensive cross-cultural survey carried out by Henrickson and McDonald (1983).
Things start changing between 800 and 1200 AD. At this time, Urewe pots are generally replaced with Transitional Urewe pots. This new type of ceramics may seem, at first, to be quite similar to their predecessors, but a closer inspection reveals that the variety in vessel forms is significantly reduced, and decorations and embellishments are much simpler. This suggests that the family is losing importance within local cultural frameworks... but in favour of what?
To find out the answer to this question, and see some un-sexy and un-glamorous black and white pictures of crummy Transitional Urewe ceramic fragments, please visit the original blog post.