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Ceramic Studies in Archaeology: An Updated Exploration of Materials Science Methods in Anthropology: Physicochemical and Scientific Assessments

By Charles C. Kolb

Physicochemical and Scientific Assessments

THE FOLLOWING SECTION PROVIDES SELECTED examples of recent publications on methodologies, procedures, and scientific equipment used to assess the physical and chemical characteristics of ceramic materials to elucidate provenience and provenance, chronology, and uses of ceramic materials. They range from macro- to micro-analyses and from use-wear studies and petrography to neutron activation analysis, Raman spectroscopy, and laser ablation. These physicochemical methods of analysis produce information on potential geographical sources of raw materials and on the firing conditions (temperature and atmosphere) employed in the composition of ceramic materials.

The previously mentioned volumes The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis, The Encyclopedia of Archaeological Sciences, and the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology are particularly significant examples that provide useful explanations of these physiochemical methods. Additionally, the second edition of Rice’s Pottery Analysis, also mentioned above, summarizes the use and applicability of X-ray diffraction and Mössbauer spectroscopy as tools in the study of firing conditions, while the second volume of Cuomo di Caprio’s aforementioned Ceramics in Archaeology summarizes commonly used physicochemical techniques. Of the other books mentioned previously, Roux’s Ceramics and Society, Druc and Velde’s Ceramic Materials in Archaeology, and the Handbook of Archaeological Sciences also offer useful scientific assessments of ceramic analysis techniques.

The physical sciences and archaeology have been inextricably linked since the emergence of radiocarbon dating and other absolute methods of determining chronology stemming from chemistry and physics following World War II. Since 2000, several important studies have been produced that consider chemistry’s contributions to archaeology. In 2007, for instance, Zvi Goffer published an updated edition of his introduction to ceramic materials, Archaeological Chemistry (first published in 1980). It evaluates contributions from physics, biology, genetics, and primarily chemistry to the study of archaeology, incorporating new developments since the publication of the first edition. Other notable publications on the application of chemistry within archaeology include Archaeological Chemistry, edited by Kathryn Jakes; the second edition of Pollard and Carl Heron’s Archaeological Chemistry; An Introduction to Archaeological Chemistry, by Douglas Price and James Burton; and Analytical Chemistry in Archaeology, by Pollard et al., which is useful as an introductory manual.

One physiochemical approach, petrographic analysis, entails examining thin sections cut from sherds as a means of understanding ancient ceramic technology by delimiting sources of raw materials. Patrick Quinn has produced multiple volumes on petrographic approaches to interpreting ceramics, including the edited collection Interpreting Silent Artefacts and his monographs Ceramic Petrography and Thin Section Petrography Geochemistry and Scanning Electron Microscopy of Archaeological Ceramics. James Stoltman’s Ceramic Petrography and Hopewell Interaction details how petrography can help to identify Native American ceramics in order to understand cultural interaction. Other techniques of note are paste analysis, which Daniel Santacreu applies to the study of archaeological ceramics in Materiality, Techniques and Society in Pottery Production; laser ablation, as explored in Recent Advances in Laser Ablation ICP-MS for Archaeology; Raman spectroscopy, covered in Raman Spectroscopy in Archaeology and Art History; residue analysis, addressed in Beyond Use-Wear Traces; and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), as detailed in the collection Historical Technology, Materials and Conservation.

Several edited collections consider the application of a variety physiochemical methods across diverse archaeological contexts, including Archaeology and Clays; Searching for Structure in Pottery Analysis; Archaeometric and Archaeological Approaches to Ceramics; From Mine to Microscope; Detecting and Explaining Technological Innovation in Prehistory; and Archaeological Sciences 1995. Readers seeking a good overview in one volume of the multitude of scientific methodologies used in archaeological study should consult Archaeological Science from editors Michael Richards and Kate Britton; James Skibo’s Understanding Pottery Function; Walter Noll and Robert Heimann’s Ancient Old World Pottery, which utilizes mineralogical and chemical analyses of typical pottery fragments to detail ceramic technology during the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Ages; and Scientific Dating in Archaeology, edited by Seren Griffiths.

A number of titles apply these physiochemical techniques to case studies of different societies. Those focusing on the ancient Near East include Jennifer Coolidge’s petrographic case study Southern Turkmenistan in the Neolithic; Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by Paul Nicholson and Ian Shaw, covering all aspects of craftwork in ancient Egypt, from the construction of the pyramids to basket weaving; Nishapur Revisited, by Rocco Rante and Annabelle Collinet; and Ceramic Production, Technology, and Use in an Urban Settlement on the Middle Nile, by Ulrike Nowotnick. The collection Scientific Research on Historic Asian Ceramics is more broadly focused, considering ceramics across East and West Asia. Case studies exploring ceramic production in the Americas include Antonia Foias and Ronald Bishop’s Ceramics, Production, and Exchange in the Petexbatun Region; Ceramics of the Indigenous Cultures of South America, edited by Michael Glascock, Hector Neff, and Kevin Vaughn; Ceramic Production and Circulation in the Greater Southwest from editors Donna Glowacki and Neff, which considers Southwestern ceramic production through the use of instrumental neutron analysis (INAA); and Kay Sunahara’s Ancient Maya Ceramic Economy in the Belize River Valley Region.

Works Cited

Works Cited