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.