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Ceramic Studies in Archaeology: An Updated Exploration of Materials Science Methods in Anthropology: Basic Volumes, 2000–23: Handbooks and Encyclopedias

By Charles C. Kolb

Basic Volumes, 2000–23: Handbooks and Encyclopedias

THE SECOND EDITION OF PRUDENCE RICE’S Pottery Analysis is the most broadly based book available on ceramic analysis. First published in 1987, it replaced Anna Shepard’s pioneering predecessor, her 1956 book Ceramics for the Archaeologist, although Shepard’s text remains useful for demonstrating historical changes in assessment technologies. The updated edition of Rice’s compendium includes twenty-six chapters that cover every manner of ceramic inquiry, from analyzing the raw materials and understanding the origins of clay to analyzing mineral and chemical composition and interpreting functions, forms, and uses. The book incorporates two decades’ worth of intervening research and maintains an anthropological archaeology and materials science orientation, making it still the most comprehensive treatment of ancient ceramic materials.

Another useful volume for comprehensive understanding is The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis, edited by Alice Hunt. This interdisciplinary collection brings together fifty contributors, mostly from European institutions, who provide detailed insights into ceramic analysis from archaeology, anthropology, geology, and materials science. The book’s thirty-six diverse chapters are divided into six thematic sections that consider research design and data analysis, foundational concepts, evaluating ceramic provenance, investigating ceramic manufacture, assessing vessel function, and dating ceramic assemblages.

Ninina Cuomo di Caprio’s Ceramics in Archaeology is another important text that investigates ancient craftsmanship and modern laboratory techniques from prehistoric to medieval times in Europe and the Mediterranean. The two-volume study is translated from the Italian-language 2007 edition. The first volume considers pottery technology in ancient craftsmanship, including the mineral composition of clay and the processes of forming, drying, decorating, glazing, and firing the clay to make vessels, as well as newer technologies that emerged in the medieval period. The second volume provides an overview and summary of the most widely used modern scientific techniques that can aid archaeologists in understanding and interpreting ancient ceramics. Among other topics, readers will learn about optical mineralogy for characterizing minerals, thermal techniques, physicochemical techniques, characterization techniques, data handling, and the ten-year trend (spanning 2001–10) in the application of analytical techniques to archaeological ceramics. The author originally designed the volume as an introductory Italian-language textbook for university students; the content derives primarily from a series of lectures Cuomo di Caprio gave at the University of Vienna in 1981–83. The contents of volume 1 are only slightly updated and expanded but otherwise remain basically the same as the original edition in organization and format. The most updated citations date from 2010 to 2012, so it is worth noting that the numerous references to Prudence Rice’s Pottery Analysis refer to the original 1987 edition rather than the newer 2015 edition.

The Encyclopedia of Archaeological Sciences, edited by Sandra L. López Varela, is a significant four-volume reference work that provides an authoritative, expert overview of the concepts, research, and techniques that together define the discipline. Sponsored by The Society for Archaeological Sciences and written by a group of international experts, it is an essential resource encompassing hundreds of entries on science and technology and the theoretical approaches from the social sciences and the humanities. Key areas of content include the foundations of archaeological sciences, field methods, mathematics and computer sciences, conservation and cultural heritage, and theoretical approaches to the study of material culture. Thirty-six entries are relevant to ceramics—e.g., those on material agency; clay tablets; elemental analysis of pottery, glazes, slips, and paints; petrography and ceramics; Raman spectroscopy and material analysis; and geoarchaeology, among others.

Valentine Roux’s textbook Ceramics and Society provides a technological approach for classifying pottery assemblages. Six chapters incorporate over one hundred figures and ten tables to offer a sound theoretical background accompanied by an original research strategy that is geared to explain not only how to study archaeological assemblages, but also why the proposed methods are essential for achieving ambitious interpretive goals. Roux offers a cutting-edge theoretical and methodological framework and a practical guide to the study of ceramic assemblages, as opposed to a conventional typological approach. She furnishes a valuable Francophile perspective on non-physicochemical assessments. Indeed, this is a nontraditional approach for classifying ceramic assemblages as the author defines the concept of chaînes opératoires (operational sequence) before discussing the concept in relation to the classification and interpretation of archaeological assemblages.

The second edition of the Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology, edited by Alan Gilbert, Paul Goldberg, Rolfe Mandel, and Vera Aldeias, has twenty-two relevant entries relating to ceramics, dating, and provenance methodologies. Examples include entries on archaeomagnetic dating, geomorphology, petrography, radiocarbon dating, and different methods of spectrometry (e.g., Raman, scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction). It is an altogether readable and comprehensive reference.

Isabelle Druc and Bruce Velde’s Ceramic Materials in Archaeology is an updated and expanded version of their earlier volume Archaeological Ceramic Materials (1999), now seriously out-of-date. Their new volume is designed as a laboratory textbook with abundant color illustrations and copious figures and tables. It examines the nature of the rocks, minerals, and clays used in creating ceramics, as well as the physical and chemical processes of making ceramics.

In 2023, editors A. Mark Pollard, Ruth Ann Armitage, and Cheryl Makarewicz published a revised second edition of the Handbook of Archaeological Sciences, originally published in 2001 and edited by Pollard and Don Brothwell. The updated handbook comprises two volumes with contributions from more than one hundred international researchers who survey the most relevant methods used for obtaining and analyzing archaeological data—e.g., dating methods, archaeogenetics, archaeological prospection, decay and conservation assessment. Chapters relevant to ceramics are devoted to trapped charge dating and archaeology, archaeological microbiology, provenancing inorganic materials, the Bayesian inferential paradigm in archaeology, and especially materials analysis of ceramics and post-depositional changes in archaeological ceramics and glass.

Most of these volumes may also consider firing methods, fuels, and measurements that encompass open-pit firing through updraft kilns and more elaborate ceramic structures such as “dragon” kilns, in separate chapters or as additional material. However, they do not always review the final uses of pots, sherds, and discards.

Works Cited