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Ceramic Studies in Archaeology: An Updated Exploration of Materials Science Methods in Anthropology: Ceramics Defined

By Charles C. Kolb

Ceramics Defined

CERAMICS ARE ANY OF THE VARIOUS HARD, brittle, heat- and corrosion-resistant materials made by humans for at least 26,000 years by shaping clay and firing the product at a high temperature. In archaeology, ceramic artifacts, especially pottery and earthenware, play an important role in conveying the culture, technology, and behavior of peoples of the past.3 The term ceramics refers to any product made from clays—earthenware, porcelain, brick, and tile. Such products constitute an important source of information for anthropological archaeologists, art historians, and scholars of social and cultural phenomena (i.e., historians, social scientists, and humanities scholars), among others. Because they are created by human beings, these artifacts encapsulate a variety of human behaviors and have become an essential tool for archaeologists who investigate past human lifeways. Ceramic products, therefore, may be studied from a variety of humanistic, social, and natural scientific perspectives.

Ceramics are one of the most complex and ubiquitous archaeomaterials in the archaeological record, appearing around the world and throughout time in almost every culture and context. As one of the tangible products of human culture, they are relatively widespread. Fragments of pottery are likely the most abundant macro-artifacts to be found on archaeological sites of the last half-dozen millennia or more and tend to be preserved almost as well as lithics (stone tools). Ceramics have various definitions because of their long history of development as one of the oldest and most versatile groups of materials and because of the different ways in which materials can be classified, such as by chemical composition (silicates, oxides, and non-oxides), properties (mechanical and physical), or applications (building materials, high-temperature materials, and functional materials).

Materials research has been applied successfully to the study of archaeological ceramics for the last fifty years. To learn about human history and the human condition is not just to analyze and preserve the objects but also to investigate and understand the knowledge and skills used to produce and use them. Many researchers have probed the limits and methods of such studies, always mindful that a glimpse at ancient reality lies in the details of time and place, the context of finds, and experimentally produced data, usually compared with standards that were collected in an equivalent ethnographic setting or that were fabricated in a laboratory in order to elucidate critical questions regarding a technology that could not be understood in any other way. The basis of most studies of ancient technology encompasses microstructure; composition and firing; methods and sequence of manufacture; differentiation of use; use-wear and post-depositional processes; technological variability that can be interpreted as a pattern of stasis or innovation, which can be related to cultural continuity or change; and interpretation that can involve technology, subsistence trade, organization, and symbolic group- and self-definition.4

The invention or adoption of pottery containers remains one of the more compelling areas of investigation for archaeologists. How pottery was first created is still a matter of speculation among students of early technology and culture. Pottery making, one of the oldest crafts known to humankind, developed independently in different parts of the world at different times, in extremely diverse social, economic, and ecological settings. Fired and unfired clay figurines, rather than containers, were created more than 26,000 years ago and are the oldest known ceramic artifacts attributed to human fabrication. However, ceramic artifacts include a bewildering variety of items in addition to cooking and food storage vessels, such as lamps, ovens, molds, architectural decorations, smoking pipes, tokens, medicinal pastilles, female pubic coverings, beehives, and coffins.

Archaeologists characterize pottery vessels in descriptive terms of form and configuration, and types and styles of surface treatment and decoration. Traditionally, they have used ceramics to devise typologies that, in turn, form the basis of temporal sequences of types and relative chronologies reflecting cultural-historical relationships through time. These studies have led modern archaeologists to sociocultural and physicochemical analyses of both the archaeological contexts in which the objects were found and the functions of the ceramic artifacts themselves. Complete vessels or objects are not often recovered, so investigators must usually rely on an intensive examination of bits and pieces of fired clay—ceramic fragments or potsherds (also called sherds or shards). Objects created from clay have six major advantages in archaeological research. They are relatively common items of material culture found in the archaeological record in virtually all parts of the world. Because they are fashioned from inorganic materials, ceramics tend to be imperishable and endure in archaeological contexts. Although durable, ceramic artifacts are friable and often break or fragment, yet will remain for analysis. Potsherds, unlike stone tools, figurines, and exotic or highly valued goods, are less likely to be removed from archaeological sites by unscrupulous excavators, also known as pothunters.

The creation of ceramic objects is an additive procedure whereby successive, cumulative steps may be seen as residual human behaviors in the finished product, among which are the selection and processing of raw materials, the determination of fabrication techniques, the choices of decoration or embellishment, and the context of use and discard. Lastly, ceramic products provide a wealth of technical, sociocultural, and behavioral information to the archaeologist who understands the scientific methods and the limitations of the techniques employed to extract valuable data about the peoples who created, used, and discarded these items.

Ceramics may be studied through a variety of physicochemical sciences as components of physics, chemistry, or geology. Geoarchaeology is the area of research that bridges archaeology and geology. From one angle, it makes it possible to interpret archaeological material that has been subject to geological processes; from another, it can interpret geological structures that have been altered or even made by humans. It is the application of geological methods to the investigation of archaeological material.5

The major goals of archaeological ceramic studies are to identify where pottery was made (locations in the community), using what raw materials (clays, tempers, and decorative pigments) and tools (handmade or on the potter’s wheel), chronologically when (e.g., time, seasonality), by whom (e.g., adults, family members, children, artisans), using what production techniques (e.g., coiling, slab-building, molding), the dispersal of the finished product (e.g., cooking or storage vessels), by what means (e.g., trade, markets), and the product’s final disposition (e.g., mortuary offering, burial, discard).

3. For more, see Charles C. Kolb, “Ceramics,” in Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology, ed. by Allan S. Gilbert et al. 2nd ed. Springer, 2020,; The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis, ed. by Alice M. W. Hunt, Oxford, 2017.

4. For additional information, see Pamela Vandiver, “The Role of Materials Research in Ceramics and Archaeology,” Annual Review of Materials Research, v. 31 (2001), pp. 373–85.

5. See also, Charles C. Kolb, “Provenance Studies in Archaeology,” in Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology, ed. by C. Smith. 2nd ed. Springer, 2020,; Kolb, “Ceramics,” in Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology.