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:

Why Should We Care? Dispelling 5 Myths About Studying Ancient Pottery

For most people, pottery is everywhere, and because it is everywhere, it is uninteresting. Pottery crowds our household cupboards, the shelves in shops, the display cases of museums, the grounds of archaeological sites, and the stratigraphic layers of our excavations.

Because pottery is ubiquitous, it is seen as dispensable unless it can prove its worth by bearing an interesting inscription or an appealing image or design.

Just as in the field, in the – history, classics, archaeology, art history – classroom, pottery serves as a vehicle for discussion of relevant themes or textual sources, such as dramatic performance or daily life. No modules centered on pottery and what it can tell us exist, and I believe that this is the reason for a general lack of interest in the field.

The reason I decided to start this blog stems from my belief that pottery is important in archaeology and that it should be given more credit than it seems to have been given in the past. While architecture, inscriptions, metallurgy, and coins all contribute something important to the study of the ancient world, it is my hope that this blog will show just how much the study of ceramics can and continues to contribute to the field and our modern engagement with the ancient world.

In order to lend some support to this idea of what the study of pottery can contribute to the field of archaeology, I have to start by dispelling some of the myths surrounding this endeavor.

These myths are just a few of many which stand between current and future ceramicists (or pottery enthusiasts).

Myth #1: It’s Just About Dating

Stamped amphora handle fragments. Archaeological Museum, Thassos.

As early pioneers of pottery study have shown, archaeological ceramics can in fact be used for dating and forming typologies. However, this is not the only thing that pottery can be used for when considering ancient society. This has most recently been emphasized by Clare Burke et al. in an article:

[T]he integration of insights into provenance and technology are vital in the construction of two elements usually considered the domain of typology: the identification of cultural groups and areas , and the construction of basic chronologies . Provenance studies, especially the determination of specific locations of production, remind us that pottery is crafted in particular locations, by resident communities who themselves have social and commercial ties based on previous practice, kinship, alliances and reputation. Not only that, but the other side of these patterns tell of choices made by those who access and consume the pottery.

– Burke, C., Day, P.M., and A. Kossyva. 2020. “Early Helladic I and Talioti Pottery: Is It Just a Phase We’re Going through?”

As they point out, there are many questions that can be asked of pottery and even more things that pottery can tell us beyond creating typologies and constructing chronologies.

The field is consistently moving towards questions relating to human agency and human relationships, which yield, at least to me, much more interesting, insightful, and satisfying conclusions.

Myth #2: It’s Just About Connoisseurship

Red-figure column krater attributed to the Pan Painter. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I think that everyone can agree that there is far more to studying pottery than trying to pinpoint the person (painter, potter) who commissioned it.

Most of the heavy lifting for connoisseurship studies of ancient pottery was done decades ago (notably by John Beazley, a British archaeologist who attributed the specific “hands” of ancient workshops and artists), leaving us free to focus on more fulfilling lines of inquiry, including, but not limited to, provenance, production, distribution, and iconography studies.

Myth #3: Only Decorated Pottery Is Important

Black-figure cup. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

While certainly more pleasing to the eye, decorate pottery is not the only pottery out there that’s worth anyone’s attention – and this is saying a lot, coming from someone whose research focuses on fine-ware pottery.

Some of my friends and colleagues specialize in undecorated pottery, which often features just as prominently in everyday life.

For example, an analysis of cookware would likely tell us more about ancient diet than would a finely decorated dining set. It might also provide insight into technological choices made by potters in the production process, since undecorated pottery is often coarser in fabric, preserving natural impurities in the clay matrix as well as added tempers which can easily be viewed under the microscope. Added tempers can further point to specific choices made by potters in the course of production.

Myth #4: Everything Worth Doing Has Already Been Done

Archaeological Museum, Thassos.

Just like everything else in archaeology, there’s always more to do, more to be uncovered, more to study. Even if something has been studied before, this does not mean that it couldn’t stand to be looked at again, from a different perspective, using a different methodology.

Because pottery is so ubiquitous, pottery study is necessarily an endeavor governed by strict boundaries on objects of research. No one person can study every kind of pottery out there.

There will always be something that someone overlooked, that they thought wasn’t worth their time or effort, or that was out of the scope of their particular interests.

Therefore, there are plenty of ways to get in on the pottery action.

Myth #5: Only Specialists Can Study Pottery

While there is certainly a learning curve involved in picking up on some of the techniques that are involved in pottery analysis, this is true of most specialties in archaeology.

Sure, anyone can learn to dig a hole in the ground, but can you recognize a bone from a rock? Can you identify and date a coin? Can you set up and use a total station? All of these require some degree of instruction and years of practice, just like studying pottery does.

It took me years before I even realized I cared about pottery, and then a few more to get the hang of knowing how to properly wash, sort, and process it, let alone identify specific shapes and wares. Even now, having learned, I’m still a little rusty every summer after a year without practice.

It’s all a part of the process.