Why Being a Ceramicist in a Pandemic Doesn’t Have to Suck

Knowing how to draw artifacts – especially pottery, if you’re a ceramicist – is an essential skill that every serious archaeologist should have. This is just a fact.

But as far as I know, there aren’t really that many people who can produce quality artifact drawings in our field. In reality, it seems like such a skill is one that is both specialized and in high demand – field project directors often solicit help from students and colleagues in completing this task.

Moreover, the scarcity of the pottery drawing skill was brought to light by a Collaborative Archaeology Workgroup – a group for graduate students in classical archaeology and anthropological archaeology to come together and collaborate on theory and methodology – at my University a few years ago, when we organized a well-attended artifact drawing workshop. I attended the first session and did, in fact, learn the skill – but it’s really an art that requires a lot of practice (and patience).

No wonder so few people actually can do it and do it well.

It was only a few weeks ago, though, that I noticed on Instagram that someone had taken to applying this high-demand skill to something a little closer to home – that is, doing profile drawings of the beverages that archaeologists across the Mediterranean are most familiar with (mostly beers, but there was one homage to ‘ouzo hour’ which has been an institution at the American School for Classical Studies at Athens for ages).

I can’t tell you why this person decided to start doing profile drawings of the beers of the Mediterranean (as well as other varieties of alcoholic beverages, as seen on their website), but I think that it is a super creative and innovative way to maintain one of the many skills that we otherwise would be prone to losing after a summer without fieldwork.

In a similar vein, I saw that a friend on Twitter had been working on their ceramic conservation skills by putting together broken pieces of modern ceramics, which is another way to go about this.

This actually reminds me of a course I took on ceramics analysis, where one of the practicals we had to complete was to sort and quantify broken pieces of pottery that our professor had purchased from a thrift store and broken herself for the class.

Another friend, I realized, has been experimenting on a larger scale – he constructed an entire kiln at his house and has been experimenting with firing both pottery that he has made himself as well as with metallurgical techniques. It really is impressive, and makes me wish that it were possible to do things like that both at my leisure and in a classroom setting.

I haven’t been able to think as creatively as these people, although I had been flirting briefly with the idea of purchasing my own pottery wheel at the beginning of the lockdown. I talked myself out of it after seriously considering the lack of space in my apartment and the fact that I’d have no way of firing the pots that I managed to make.

The way I see it, you have two choices at this moment. Either you can continue to sit around and lament the fact that you almost certainly won’t be able to study any of the material you had been hoping to this summer because the United States can’t seem to get itself together (as I have been for the last four and a half months). Or you can be like the super cool people I mentioned above and find creative ways to hone your skills even from the comfort of your own home.

Draw profiles of some of your favorite beverages, or your favorite mug, or even the planters for all those plants you probably purchased during quarantine.

Buy a couple of cheap dishes, break them up, and either put them back together or practice your sorting and quantification skills.

Buy some clay and/or a pottery wheel and actually make some things to think about what you’re interested in a new way.

Or start a blog (like this one!) where you can think through different aspects of the field, and/or prominently display those experiments that you’ve attempted (as suggested above). We like to think that being forced to stay and work at home is totally isolating and limiting, but in reality we’re all more connected than ever and, in a lot of ways, have more time than ever to experiment. You just have to know where to start.

Where does pottery fit in the world of podcasts?

Now I know what you’re thinking – podcasts about pottery? How do you talk about pottery through a medium that is audio – not visual – by its very nature?

Well, I had the same thought. This idea arose a little over a month ago, after I attended a panel at the (virtual) annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) on public scholarship in Classics. One of the speakers’ talks was entirely about the merits of podcasts – they, like so many other forms of public scholarship, are often dismissed out of hand as “invalid” forms of scholarship, when in fact they require the same, if not a greater, amount of work and research as more “traditional” forms of scholarship (like manuscripts).

This discussion made me wonder about pottery’s place in these discussions. Indeed, it led me to start this blog about pottery and archaeology, since public scholarship on pottery is few and far between, but it also made me think about whether people had attempted to incorporate discussions of pottery into the vast world of podcasts about ancient history and archaeology.

In my search, I found a few podcast episodes which addressed the topic, but perhaps the most extensive treatment of ancient pottery has been (appropriately) on the Ancient Art Podcast. Essentially, the podcasts are done in video form, with an image of the topic of discussion accompanied by voice-over.

By and large, the podcasts dedicated to pottery on the Ancient Art Podcast focus on the iconography on the pots which are featured in several episodes, like “Dionysus and the Pirates” on the Dionysus Cup by Exekias.

Dionysus and the Pirates, the Dionysus Cup by Exekias (90 ...
Dionysus Cup, attributed to Exekias.

Of the almost 10 minute episode, most of it is dedicated to a discussion of the broader mythological and literary background of the image seen on the cup; much less is about the cup itself (although there is a bit of shade-throwing at the name for this particular type of cup, an ‘eye-cup’, so named because it bears two large eyes on its exterior).

Dionysus and the Pirates, the Dionysus Cup by Exekias (90 ...
Dionysus Cup, attributed to Exekias.

Something closer to my own interests as a ceramicist is an episode on “Black Figure vs Red Figure” where I had hoped there would be more focus on the techniques.

Indeed, there is a discussion of the technical differences between the black and red figure techniques, as well as the steps of the process, which I appreciate. However, much like the above episode, this episode was disorienting, because when speaking about decorative elements of a pot, you (as the listener) want to be looking at it and following along with what the speaker is pointing out.

I also thought that the choice of images in this particular was too arbitrary; if you’re going to choose representative examples of black- and red-figure pottery, I think you should talk about them specifically and at length. Maybe the episode would have worked better if each technique had been treated separately.

I don’t know, I’m not an expert in podcasting.

While I appreciate the attention that has been given to ancient pottery by the Ancient Art Podcast, I think that there are other things that I personally would like to “see” in a podcast on ancient pottery, based on other podcasts that I have listened to.

Here are just two ideas.

Interviews with specialists

Like archaeology as a whole, the study of ceramics is also broken down into specialties, because it would be impossible for one person to study it all.

Ceramic study ranges from different geographical regions (Central and South America, Greece, Italy/Rome, the Balkans, Egypt, Near East, and beyond), to different periods (Neolithic, Bronze Age, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and other culturally specific chronologies), to different methodologies (macroscopic study, fabric study, scientific analyses, ethnography, experimental archaeology).

Of course, subjects that foreground cultural topics (such as drinking and dining, religious practices, politics, economics, etc) and use pottery as supporting evidence are important, but I think that, like “traditional” scholarship, more work needs to be done just to highlight the pottery itself and the things that ceramicists do (a lot of which is super cool if I do say so myself).

Problematizing aspects of the field

This could be done through interviews or as just a discussion of different aspects of the field that have been contentious. One thing that comes to mind is the study of connoisseurship, which to me is not something that should be at the forefront of our studies anymore. While it is certainly important to try and get at the individual in these studies, I think that sometimes we have to decide where to draw the line, and what information that we collect is actually meaningful. For example, attempting to identify ‘hands’ based on stylistic patterns (in the manner of Beazley) is much less interesting or meaningful to me than the study of fingerprints found on fired ancient ceramics.

Other topics could be: pros and cons of invasive/destructive analyses, general best practices, collection and discard procedures, and more.

I think that if there were more podcasts that focused on these elements of the field then maybe discussions of pottery would “fit” better in the world of audio-focused scholarship. It doesn’t seem like this would be hard to do – lots of podcasts, like The History of Ancient Greece Podcast, are structured in similar ways to the things that I have suggested above, but by and large the focus is on aspects of ancient history, not archaeological or art historical topics.

Other pottery-themed episodes by Ancient Art Podcast:

Pot of the Week #4: What Do You Call a Vessel with One Handle?

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

People who know me in real life know that I am not a huge fan of vase painting or iconographic studies of pottery, although I did get my start with ceramic studies by analyzing the depiction of the persuasion of Helen of Troy in my senior year of undergrad. It is for this reason that this week’s (long overdue) Pot of the Week is yet another shape study.

Is it a bowl or a cup? This question has plagued me and, it seems a good chunk of the archaeological ceramics community, for years. No one can seem to agree on a single function for the shape.

On the one hand, Flint Dibble (2010) has championed the one-handler’s use as a bowl, stating that

“The vessel…seems to be a likely candidate for soup and/or stew eating. The single handle would have made it more portable and easier to carry hot contents. In addition the handle suggests the vessel’s ability to self-serve by doubling as a ladle or scoop” (p. 128)

In his conception, Dibble imagines the one-handler as being akin to the modern oversized mugs which are better suited for consuming liquid-based foods (like soups and stews) rather than drinking a warm beverage (like coffee or tea).

Black glazed Attic one-handler. British Museum.

Other scholars have emphasized the one-handler’s aptitude for use as a drinking vessel. Sparkes and Talcott (1970) point to certain morphological characteristics of the shape, such as the rim.

“The rim, which is one of the distinguishing features of the shape, is broad on top, often rounded and slightly overhanging on the inside. The overhang has a particular purpose: it checks and guides the flow of the liquid. Practical experiments have proved the one-handler an excellent bowl to drink from…” (124)

Compared to other contemporary drinking shapes, such as the kantharos and the skyphos, the one-handler is unusual in its capacity for being an effective drinking cup because it lacks the symmetry of having a handle on each side. Nevertheless, Sparkes and Talcott’s observations about other aspects of the shape, like its rim, in addition to their experiments show that such a function would have been possible.

You may be asking yourself at this point: but which function is the more likely one? I would answer: does it matter? (The answer is yes)

Indeed, Sparkes and Talcott, although the experiments they reference confirmed the possible use of the one-handler as a drinking cup, go on to acknowledge that it would have also probably held “solids, porridge or gruel” (1970, 124). Similary, Kathleen Lynch has noted that assignment of function to vessels is largely up to the discretion of the researcher.

“The researcher must decide how a shape is used, decide what functional category is meaningful, and then assign each shape to a category. Several shapes have more than one function and thus rightly could belong in two or more categories…Different scholars may also place the same vessel shape in different functional categories” (2016, 48)

And indeed, in the case of the one-handler, scholars have disagreed about the primary function of the vessel in the ancient world.

I agree that it may have had any number of functions, just as I think that we too quickly assume that more well-studied vessels like skyphoi and kraters had only one function and one context of use.

Sparkes and Talcott’s publication serves largely to identify and describe a range of black and plain ware forms – less important is pinpointing the functions of the different forms. This is up to secondary researchers like Dibble, Lynch, and even me, whose categorization of these vessels is meant to be more definitive and serve their specific analyses.

For Dibble, it seems clear that he chose to categorize one-handlers as eating vessels largely because his study revolved around changes in diet in ancient Athens. By comparison, Lynch lists one-handlers among her counts of drinking vessels, perhaps because she is more interested in differentiating between private and public drinking events.

In light of my own study of sympotic assemblages, I think that I follow more closely Lynch’s categorization, since it would serve my study better to include one-handlers among drinking vessels – due to morphological reasons akin to Sparkes and Talcott’s assessment as well as the probability that they were multifunctional – rather than to exclude them on the possibility that they were more often used for eating than drinking (which cannot be proved without extensive usewear and starch analyses).

Bibliography

Dibble, W.F. 2010. The Archaeology of Food in Athens: The Development of an Athenian Urban Lifestyle.

Sparkes, B.A. and L. Talcott. 1970. Black and Plain Pottery of the 6th, 5th and 4th Centuries B.C. The Athenian Agora XII. 2 parts.

Lynch, K.M. 2016. “Can Pottery Help Distinguish a Brothel from a Tavern or House?”, in Houses of Ill Repute, eds. A. Glazebrook and B. Tsakirgis.