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.

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