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:

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