Archaeology is not pretty

March 28, 2009

“Ceramics can tell you everything! Well, not everything but a lot.” So says AERA’s Polish ceramics team, led by Dr. Anna Wodzinska.

Old Kingdom pot from the pyramid settlement.

Old Kingdom pot from the pyramid settlement.

People often ask when you work in archaeology, “What are you discovering?” They have the romantic notions about finding tombs and treasure. 

“Archaeology is not pretty,” Anna told me. The treasure being sought today is not pretty things, but information about our past.

She told me a story from several years ago about sitting surrounded by hundreds of pottery sherds at Saqqara. A woman walked up and asked what she did on the project. 

“I study ceramics.”

“Oh, where are they?” 

We have little awareness of the things we use every day but they tell a story about us. A pen, a spoon, a screwdriver, or a Tupperware bowl all say something about how we negotiate the mundane tasks of living. Looking at ancient every day objects brings us closer to the people who used them. 

For example, Aleksandra Ksiezak and Edyta Klimeszewska related how ancient ceramics speak volumes about cultures that did not toss things away as easily as we do. 

“In the Sudan,” Edyta told me, “we find these wonderful pots that have been repaired with string.” 

Aleksandra continued, “Some have holes in them and they would not hold liquids any more but can hold dry things. They keep finding a new use for them.”

Ana Tavares added, “That’s not the end of the story. From broken ceramics, the ancient Egyptians made weaving tools, spindle wohlrs, accounting tokens, gaming pieces, scrapers, burnishers, fishnet sinkers, and more.”

The Giza ceramics story is being integrated with data from animal remains, architecture, plant remains, and sealings. What this tells us over and over is that this site was being provisioned, an enormous logistical task made possible only by the royal administration’s desire to build the pyramids. 

“In the galleries, you do not find cooking ware but you find rough ceramics for eating, and plant and animal remains [from a poorer diet]. This indicates there was no mass food preparation in or near the galleries but the workers are being fed there. You also find finer ceramics in the elite houses and the Royal Administration Building, which you would expect.”

Aleksandra and Edyta with Late Period import.

Aleksandra and Edyta with Late Period import.

Describing one difference between Egyptian 4th Dynasty pottery and pottery from Nubia, Edyta told me, “Egyptian pottery is much more standardized. It is easy to distinguish one type from another type. It is easier to create the typology of the ceramics.”

Edyta is currently completing her PhD on ceramics from Nubia (modern Sudan). Since 1999 her studies have covered Neolithic up to Christian times. Aleksandra is a student of Anna Wodzinska’s and is working on her masters degree. Team member Meridith Brand, also working on a PhD in ceramics, says, “[The AERA project] is a great place to do this. They really do ceramics well here.”

The AERA/ARCE Field School is training eight SCA inspectors as ceramic specialists.

Anna Wodzinska is currently reviewing copies of A Manual of Egyptian Pottery that she wrote for the field school, covering the period of about 5,300 BC to the present. It will appear in four volumes later this year, hopefully setting the standard in the field.

Most of the seventy tons of ceramics (1.5 million sherds and vessels) from the Giza pyramid settlement consists of wares for cooking, eating, transport, and storage. There are some funerary pots associated with the Late Period burials.

Anna on the job.

Anna on the job.

There are also imported wares, revealing information about Egypt’s commercial exchange with other parts of the Near East.

Anna told me of an interesting development in Egyptian pottery that began even before the Old Kingdom. Prior to that, ceramics were often decorated as an expression of creativity or religion. Ceramics lost their decorative function as the Egyptians began to have a different form of expression through writing. There is very little decoration on Old Kingdom pottery; it is very practical material. 

So ceramics can tell us important information about the changing developments in a culture. Having created typologies, ceramicists can also use pottery to date a site. Archaeology may not be pretty, but it tells a pretty tale about the human career.

Brian Hunt

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One Response to “Archaeology is not pretty”

  1. matt Says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).


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