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.

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.

#PotteryWeek on Twitter!

Over the last few months there have been some ongoing ‘challenges’ which have allowed participants from all over the globe to contribute their favorite photos of objects, museums, archaeological sites, etc. The first one that I was only (regretfully) marginally aware of was #MuseumsUnlocked on Twitter.

I had seen people posting with the hashtag for weeks and it never even occurred to me that this could be something I could contribute to, because my mind has been stuck in a mindless scrolling loop since self-isolation began in mid-March. One of the days was even dedicated to ceramics! However, a solution finally materialized this week, the answer to all our ceramicist prayers.

Newly minted this week was #PotteryWeek.

Throughout the week, different people across Twitter have contributed images of their favorite pieces of pottery – from archaeological ceramics to homemade pottery and beyond. So many different research and general interests have been highlighted this week, like this before-and-after shot of a vessel that was reconstructed:

Or this black-slipped fragment of Central Gaulish ware:

And several works by a personal favorite of mine, Graham Taylor, who specializes in making replicas of ancient works:

My very first post of the week featured my proudest ceramic accomplishment – the very first pot I ever managed to attach a handle to, and it received a lot of heart-warming feedback.

This was my second time taking an introductory-level pottery-throwing course at a local pottery studio, and I managed to hone my skills a bit more than the first time around (although I had definitely gotten rusty in the year and a half that had elapsed between courses).

I also highlighted other aspects of my journey with studying ceramics, including the pot that got me into grad school (a red-figure amphoriskos depicting the seduction of Helen of Troy by Paris), a ceramic petrology course I took at the Fitch Laboratory of the British School at Athens in May 2019, a mug and bowl set I got on a trip to Thasos from a local potter last summer, and a set of askoi depicting similar painted scenes from an exhibition on imitation in ancient art at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.

I hope that this is something that can be normalized (in addition to #MuseumsUnlocked) even once this COVID-19 pandemic has subsided and we can get on with our lives again.

Sure, people would probably just go back to posting their photos whenever they want, but it would be nice to have themed challenges like this (annually? biannually?) to bring out aspects of the ancient/museum/archaeological/pottery world that people would have otherwise overlooked.

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.