Symposium 2000    

Richard Carlton

In his presentation Richard Carlton focussed on the need for an awareness of the interpretative process on the part of archaeologists who often rely heavily on ceramics as a source. Using material gathered on field trips in the Balkans, he stressed the importance of the meanings of pots both to the makers and to those whose business it is to pass comment on them. A list of the slides that he used to illustrate his talk is given at appropriate points in the text in order to indicate the range of material covered. Some slides and video clips are available to view. They are highlighted in red.

A Response to the phrase: Interpreting Ceramics

R J Carlton

The phrase 'interpreting ceramics' suggests, to me, an active process aimed at deriving meaning from ceramic materials. Interpretation doesn't just happen - the meaning of material things is not self-evident.

The meaning of ceramics can be interpreted on many different levels for various purposes - Pots as Fine Art or Folk Art, as status indicators, as domestic tools or ritual objects. Since there is no inherent meaning to be found in pots, the meaning we choose to derive is likely to say much about ourselves and our own life experiences.

The particular perspective I attempt to interpret from is that of an archaeologist concerned with pottery remains and the remains of pottery-making processes. From an archaeological perspective pots have traditionally been interpreted and used for dating purposes, to date things found in association with them and, by extension, to date periods of human activity.

Pottery is also used in archaeology to suggest associations between people in different places - to support ideas about human migration or the diffusion of ideas. It is also used to suggest something about the status of the people using the pottery - the premise being that the finer and more decorous the pottery, the higher the status of the associated people. [It is used in many other ways, but these are some of the main ones.]

Now, the basis for such archaeological interpretations of ceramics is often nothing more than the life experiences and archaeological reading of the archaeologists, which often has nothing at all to do with pottery making or the uses of pottery in non-western, non-urban societies. This suggests that the basis for archaeological classifications of excavated pottery may leave something to be desired. This is not to deny the achievements of classification for dating purposes - it is just that pottery has the potential to mean much more than that.

How, then, can the basis for archaeological interpretations be improved. Well, one of the ways it can be improved is by using ethnographic records of the techniques and attitudes of modern potters in various contexts, and records of how pots are used. Using this approach it should, in theory, be possible to work out what pots mean to those that make and use them AND to recognise consistent patterns linking pots and people. The last point is crucial to any archaeological interpretation.

Ethnography works best for archaeology when it is carried out with archaeological interpretation specifically in mind. A sub-discipline has been invented for this - ethnoarchaeology. Using ethnoarchaeological approaches, people like Professor David Peacock have suggested broad relationships between the archaeological remains of pottery-making - which includes pots - and the economic level of production involved - domestic, semi-professional, full-time professional or whatever. This kind of model provides a framework for archaeological interpretation, because it links material patterning with the social and economic context of pottery-making. One of the broad generalisations promoted by Peacock and others is that, in regions where both men and women are involved in pottery-making, non-wheel made pots tend to be made domestically by women, and wheel-made pots are made professionally by men.

SLIDES 1 & 2: Female potters in Turkey and Tunisia - working domestically, with little trace of manufacturing residues..

SLIDES 3-6: Male potters Crete, and remains of wheels, rock-cut settling tanks and a kiln - note abundant traces of manufacturing processes.

As well as providing material with which to build explanatory models, ethnographic case studies are often used in archaeology as cautionary tales, to destroy long-held and cherished assumptions. In fact, some archaeologists believe that the only function of ethnography is to provide cautionary tales. Now, it may be a sign of a deeply vindictive personality, but I rather like cautionary tales - if used in some moderation. I don't think it is harmful to use ethnography to point out inadequate assumptions which fuel poor interpretations.

I'd now like to illustrate a few points with slides, mostly from the Western Balkans - by which I mean an area based on Bosnia and southern Croatia, also including western Serbia and south-east Slovenia.

One of the points I'll be trying to make here is that the variety of pottery-making processes can be very great within a given region and these are reflected in the ceramic products of that region. But in order to interpret the meaning of these pots it is important to understand the technological complexities of the production sequence and all the various influences upon potters - I mean market requirements, raw materials availability, and so on. Only in that way is it possible to understand why different potters choose various alternative means of carrying out particular production steps.

In the western Balkans there are a number of different, overlapping (but not necessarily competing) pottery-making traditions. How to sub-divide and classify these different traditions is an important issue by itself, since the criteria we use will reveal depend on how we view the nature of pottery-making - based on product decoration, form or fabric, or on the techniques used to produce them. For present purposes it is convenient to distinguish on the basis of forming technology. Upon this basis three main traditions can be noted: potters using non-wheel technology in (southern Serbia and Kosovo); potters using the hand-wheel in an area centred upon Bosnia-Hercegovina; and potters-using the foot-wheel, which tend to be peripheral to the hand-wheel zone. I'll concentrate mainly on Bosnia-Hercegovina, where until the late nineteenth century pots were made only using the hand-wheel.

SLIDES 7 & 8: Composite and non-composite types on hand-wheel.

SLIDE 9: Composite hand-wheel in use.

SLIDE 10: Medieval representations of the hand-wheel. Note similar representations from ancient Egypt & Greece.

SLIDES 11-13: Typical cooking pots made on the hand-wheel; bases and inside shoulder of similar pots.

Click on a pictures below for larger view.

Slide 14

Slide 15

Slide 25

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3



SLIDE 14: Decorated pots from Central Bosnia - note how pots can be 'read' by examining marks on them to reveal the forming process by which the pots were made on the wheel; further, these images of pots show that the hand-wheel can be used as a tool to produce very different kinds of pottery. In fact, a very wide variety of pottery is produced on the hand-wheel in Bosnia, classifiable according to the relative fine-ness or coarseness of the fabrics produced, the form of the pots or kinds of decoration used. Perhaps the most clear distinction can be made on the basis of fabric, between pots with a fine fabric made at Visnjica and Lijeseva in Central Bosnia, and the rather coarse fabrics produced everywhere else.


THE PRODUCTION PROCESS - ad-lib description using slides.

SLIDE 15: a hand mill, to accompany discussion on the nature of coarse fabrics.

SLIDE 16: close-up of a coarse fabric.

SLIDE 17: photomicrograph of a thin-section of a calcite-rich fabric.

SLIDE 18: bonfire firing.

VIDEO 2 + 3

SLIDE 19: remains of bonfire firing

SLIDE 20: setting pots for bonfire firing.

SLIDE 21: bonfire firing remains.

SLIDE 22: test pits excavated to examine firing remains at a bonfire firing site.

SLIDE 23: enclosed firing place at Ularice - an incipient kiln. Bonfire firing is more complex than it looks. The most significant point about it is that it keeps firing temperatures low, therefore protects calcareous fabrics from over-firing.

SLIDE 24: An over-fired pot - a consequence firing clay containing calcite (or another calcium carbonate) to a high temperature.

SLIDE 25: A through-draft kiln in western Croatia - to show that kiln technology is known in the region of bonfire firing; in fact it is used for various purposes, including lime burning & plum drying. Kilns are used by hand-wheel potters only at Visnjica and Lijesevo, where clays are used without additions of calcite or sand.

SLIDE 26: Pots in use for cooking.

QUESTION: Why do the majority of hand-wheel potters bother making pots in fabrics containing lots of calcite or sand when the technology clearly exists to make decorated fine-wares?

Bonfire firing is after all more difficult to judge, more dangerous and much more exhausting. Furthermore, the clays used to make bonfire-fired pots require much more preparation time.

ANSWER: The reason is that coarse, low-fired pots are highly efficient, long-lasting cooking pots which discerning customers are prepared to pay for. Indeed, coarse pottery in Bosnia is generally priced much higher than finer, decorated or glazed wares. In this sense it is recognised as a more refined product.

In summary - reverting to 'cautionary tale' mode - I'm attempting to make the simple point that appearances can be deceptive unless we form interpretations of ceramics on the basis of the whole picture. That means taking into account both pottery-making strategies and the context of production.

Second, with regard to the traditional uses of pottery in archaeology - as a dating tool and marker of perceived cultural boundaries - Bosnian pottery is peculiarly unsuitable. Divergent ethnicities are not reflected in either the products or the processes used to make them.

I would also like to make the point that while non-industrial pottery-making is probably not declining worldwide, it is in sharp decline in Europe. More studies of European pottery-making and its contexts would, I think, be most welcome before it is too late.

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Symposium 2000 • Issue 1