Drawn to See Sherds (Including ‘How to Draw a Potsherd’!)

By Zoe Wieler

I began my time at the EBAP field school of ancient Eleon with a week in Athens drawing Mycenaean pottery. Here, learning the very precise process of archeological illustration, I also learned how to better see what it was that I was drawing. What struck me as meaningful was that it was the particular practice of seeing which had to come first. There is a branch of visual anthropology that explores illustration as (an ethnographic) methodology. The idea is that drawing allows us to see with a greater attentiveness because we are tasked with rendering realities’ details in a concretely visual way; drawing is implemented as a means of learning to see more precisely, holistically, and truthfully, as the way we are seeing is marked down in the production of some understanding. Reflecting on this methodology while daydreaming about how to draw the sherds of pottery that came up during our first week of fieldwork, I realized that maybe—through the archeological illustration I am getting to pursue here at EBAP (Fig. 1)—I am both learning how to see pottery so as to better draw it and drawing pottery in a process that enables me to better see and understand it. As a maker of ceramics, practicing the art of illustrating this material from Eleon has been an exciting opportunity!

Figure 1: Archaeological illustrations of Boeotian Kylix Ware kylikes (stemmed drinking cups) in progress (Z. Wieler; Courtesy of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

Sherds, broken fragments of pottery vessels, are some of the most sensitive chronological material at Eleon. For all eras of past human activity on the acropolis of ancient Eleon, there is more pottery than any other material. Unearthed from long buried strata, these sherds are contextualized by their date, by their vessel forms, by their use, by their style, and also by their manufacture. Since pottery follows stylistic trends that change over time, Early Helladic Ayia Marina ware can be distinguished from a green-glazed piece of a Byzantine plate or a Late Helladic Mycenaean drinking kylix, and here at Eleon, each may help to date the contexts in which they are found. Thus, to enhance understandings of various chronologies, site usage, and artistic and technological change, pottery is often recorded in archaeological publications in the form of a catalogue entry and illustration.

When learning to catalogue sherds with Charlie in the apotheke (storage depot), I experienced the importance of producing precise illustrations. The slightest angles and smallest details matter for archeologists seeking comparanda to date or regionally place their piece. But how to go about visualizing sherds which emerge from the time periods represented at Eleon? For the beginner sherd artist like me, I present my version of a brief guide to pottery illustration (distilled from the lessons of Trevor and Charlie).

How to Draw a Potsherd: A Brief Guide:

Step 1: I quickly learned that how to see a potsherd informs how to draw a potsherd. To begin, the sherd in front of you should be oriented so as to indicate its relation to the whole form from which it came. This is called ‘stancing’ the sherd. The stance will allow you to understand how to draw the profile of one tiny piece of a pot, at the correct angle in which it would have existed in the original vessel. (For me, this was a kind of learning how to see in the practice of visual anthropologists who propose illustration as a method of attentively understanding all that an object or view offers our perception).

Step 1 continued: If a rim or base exists, place this edge as flat as it will go on a flat surface. The angle at which the edge meets most of the surface is the angle the piece likely stands, since pottery vessels are often begun or finished either on a flat wheel head or parallel to one. With the piece stanced, you can use a diameter sheet and a standing square to draw out a ‘T’ to the measurements of the diameter and height. Next, stance the piece in profile, angling it so that the rim edge runs horizontally with cm paper when viewed from directly above. The harder I squint, the better this goes. Trevor Tip: Pay attention to the orientation of wheel bands or coils visible in the clay body to help you stance, especially when you are without a rim or base piece.

Step 2: Concentrating very hard on your sherd stance, draw the outer section of the shape. From directly above, with one eye closed, your outline should match the stanced outline. Now you can take the thickness of the walls with a caliper and use these points to draw the inside of the sherd section!

Step 3: With half the shape drawn in section, you can trace this, flip it over to mirror the section, and draw the exterior view of the profile on the other side. You are now ready to draw and/or carefully trace any decoration on the piece! When drawing your Boeotian Kylix Ware, prepare for zigzags, concentric triangles, linear stripes, and more (Fig. 1)…

Step 4: Note down the basic colours of the paint or glaze. Draw the interior decoration on the section view and don’t forget bases and feet! Measure and include the handles of your BKW and/or indicate where they join, and draw in any rim decoration. Trevor Tip: You can indicate a painted circle on the vessel floor by drawing a little dome–to scale of course.

Step 5: Finally, include a scale under your illustration, above which you can record the sequential drawing number and the specific EBAP find number (Hurray for EBAP# tags). Write your illustrator initials under the scale, and voila–you have archaeologically illustrated a sherd!

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