IN 1985, RENOWNED CERAMIC STUDIES scholar Dean E. Arnold authored the landmark study Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process, in which he elucidates the complex relationships between ceramics, culture, and society. He draws on the theoretical perspectives of systems theory, cybernetics, and cultural ecology to develop cross-cultural generalizations to explain the origins and evolution of the craft of pottery production. According to his interpretation, these processes are organized into a series of feedback mechanisms that limit or stimulate the initial production of pottery and its transition from a part-time to a full-time specialized activity. Arnold substantiates his paradigm with extensive ethnographic documentation derived from a wide-ranging synthesis of the available literature, employing many data from his own fieldwork in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico to illustrate the existence of these feedback relationships in societies around the world. He views each mechanism as a universal generalization based on some unique physical or chemical aspect of the pottery itself. His innovative approach to the archaeological interpretation of ceramics significantly extends our understanding of the social, cultural, and environmental processes of ceramic production and has been tested by numerous researchers in locations around the world. Furthermore, he has refined and elaborated his nearly five decades of diachronic research in the Maya pottery-making community of Ticul in Yucatán, Mexico by documenting all members of the community over multiple generations and changes in pottery production technologies.
Arnold elucidated his study of cultural processes in his later books, Social Change and the Evolution of Ceramic Production and Distribution in a Maya Community, The Evolution of Production Organization in a Maya Community, and Maya Potters’ Indigenous Knowledge. His dedicated fieldwork is unsurpassed by any other investigator in terms of quality and longitudinal assessment, and has provided a worthy model for emulation. Other recent examples include John Arthur’s Living with Pottery, Gloria London’s Ancient Cookware from the Levant, Michael Shott’s Pottery Ethnoarchaeology in the Michoacán Sierra, and articles in the journal Ethnoarchaeology.