The Life Cycle of A Pottery Sherd at Ancient Eleon By Charlie Kocurek

Charlie Blog

Pottery is one of the large, over-arching categories that the finds from Ancient Eleon are placed within. The various subsections of the site have yielded sherds that span from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period. While these various chronologies possess differing levels of value to our study, every piece of pottery that is retrieved from the dark yellowish brown, strong brown, or even just plain brown soil at the site is processed in a standardized and uniform method. We begin by separating the pottery into several loci and lots within the confines of a trench. This helps the ceramic analysts to accurately observe unique patterns or irregularities in the recovered material. But before any of this can happen, there are many steps that us students help with. Every evening, at precisely 5 pm, we assemble out at the back of our house to do one of two tasks. Either we wash the pottery sherds that were brought back from the trenches that day or we sort the pottery that has dried from the previous day. Sorting the pottery simply requires one to be able to distinguish fine ware, medium coarse ware, and coarse ware (cooking pots and storage vessels) from within a chosen lot. Within these categories it is important to separate the unpainted from the painted; the diagnostic features are kept separately as well. Diagnostic features are identified as rims, handles, bases, and ‘other’ (this is where a spout would go). After this stage, the sherds are re-bagged and taken to the apotheke where they undergo a ‘second sort’ – usually done by either Bartek or Trevor. This requires additional categorization within the painted features and body sherds into classes such as patterned, linear, and monochrome. These categories aid our pottery analysts to quickly and effectively fill out a ‘pot notes’ sheet as they make important comments on what is included in the assemblage. This is the same stage in which we look for joins to establish mendable vessels. While it is evidently common for joins to be found within one lot it is important that the lots are systematically inspected to ensure that adjacent or related lots can be compared to discover more joins. The highest honour that a pottery sherd can aspire to is to become a part of a collection of sherds that are granted a ‘P-Number’. This is how we identify and distinguish vessels, at Ancient Eleon. At this point, database entry and EBAP tag number labeling (achieved by the use of countless bottles of clear nail polish) is required before we send off the various sherds to our conservators for mending. Finally, if a sherd cannot be included in a P-Number, it is re-bagged as a part of a distinct assemblage. These are taken and photographed in order to allow for analysis of the overall lot in relation to nearby locals.

While most students participating in an archaeological field school are aware of the valuable presence of pottery, it was one facet of the experience that struck a particular interest in me and, while some may argue that the mundane task of putting small strips of nail polish on each sherd is tedious, each step in the system is vital to a proper interpretation of the material. Pottery can provide us with an interminable amount of information about a site. Not only will it help to develop a relative chronology for various areas of a site but also it can provide us with detailed hints as to the lives of the inhabitants during the various periods of occupation. So next time you come across a sherd of pottery, no matter how small, take a moment to appreciate the incredible age of the material and the significance it may hold.

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