How Archaeologists Study Ceramics

Ben Mutin studies ceramics as part of his archaeology research at Harvard University. Ben’s particular area of study includes Iran, Central Asia and South Asia.

Benjamin Mutin, Associate in the Anthropology Department, Harvard University

His current field research project is in the Bam region – located in what is now southeastern Iran – and focuses on the period between the beginning of agriculture in the Neolithic period (about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago in southeastern Iran) and the end of the Bronze Age civilizations (around 3,500 years ago). 

I asked Ben to explain how ceramics are “studied” by archaeologists, and what information can be obtained from them. Here’s what he told me.

Generally speaking, pottery is known to have been invented during the Neolithic period and is associated with sedentary life and the beginning of agriculture. (This is very broadly speaking, and there is older evidence for pottery production and evidence for pottery production within the context of hunter-gatherer communities).

In archaeology, the study of ceramics has been extremely instrumental in reconstructing the past. Different aspects of past societies may be revealed by examining ceramics using different approaches.

Pottery kiln found on an archaeological site dating to the fourth millennium BCE in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.
Black and red painted bowl fragment dating to the fourth millennium BCE found on the surface of an archaeological site in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

I study pottery shapes, decorations and building techniques, and I collaborate with colleagues to have their compositions analyzed. By doing so I try to get answers to three main questions about the archaeological cultures I study: chronology and culture; people’s daily lives; and interactions.

Ceramics have been made for a long time and in many places in the world since their first inception. Ceramic styles and the way they have been built have evolved over time, and, as you know, people have not made, shaped, and decorated their pottery the same way all over the world. As such, certain styles have become characteristic of certain periods and places.

In Iran, ceramics became more common from the 6th and 5th millennia BCE, and many different styles have been observed across this country since then. For an archaeologist, knowing to which period and region a ceramic style relates to is extremely important.

Black painted bowl fragment dating to the fourth millennium BC found on the surface of an archaeological site in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

Although we use methods such as radiocarbon dating to determine the age of archaeological sites, knowing this allows us, for example, to give an estimate of the date of the archaeological sites we explore by just looking at the ceramic fragments on their surfaces. It also allows us to tell which other sites and regions, which cultural sphere(s), these sites relate to, or were connected to.

Fragments of misfired ceramics dating to the fourth millennium BC found on the surface of an archaeological site in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

The study of the shapes and physical properties of the vessels (for instance a pitcher vs. a plate; a vessel with porous walls vs. a glazed vessel) also helps us determine their functions. With this type of information, we get insight into past people’s daily lives. We can tell how they cooked, served and ate their food, whether they used ceramics to store food produce, transport merchandise, etc.

Plate of ceramics tempered with vegetal fragments found in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

Moreover, there exist very sophisticated instruments that analyze the composition of residues inside archaeological ceramics. This type of analysis may give us even more detailed insight on what people stored, ate and exchanged.

The study of ceramics also helps us understand past dynamics, movements, across a region and between regions. For example, using composition analysis may allow us to tell where ancient potters went to collect the raw material (clay, temper, pigments) necessary to build the pots. Also, it is common to observe in the archaeological record that communities from different places within one region used the same style of ceramics. This shows that some form of communication existed in that region. Composition analysis may help answer questions such as distinguishing between pots whose style was imitated and made in different places within that region and pots that were made in one place and exchanged across that region. This type of information helps us better understand the dynamics at play within a region, between regions, and even between distant places. Composition analyses have, for example, evidenced the exchange of ceramics between sites located hundreds of kilometers apart in Iran and Pakistan some 5000 years ago.

Black painted beaker fragment dating to the fourth millennium BC found on the surface of an archaeological site in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

My current field research project (Bam Archaeological Mission) is in the Bam region, a region located within the southern margins of the Lut Desert. I codirect the field project in Bam with Dr. Omran Garazhian (University of Neyshabur). It is an Iranian-French collaborative project supported by the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research, the Iranian Research Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism, the Kerman Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, the Arg-e Bam World Heritage Base Camp, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the CNRS-UMR 7041 ArScAn – Archéologies et Sciences de l’AntiquitéArchéologie de l’Asie centrale.

Archaeological site dating to the fifth millennium BCE in the Bam region, Kerman, Iran.

My colleagues and I have explored this region to record and document archaeological sites. One of our objectives is to reconstruct the past of this region from the early farming villages that were settled there during the Neolithic period to the Bronze Age, which corresponds to a period during which the earliest major cities and civilizations emerged between the Iranian Plateau, Central Asia and the Indus Valley. You probably have heard about the Indus Civilization in Pakistan and northwest India and perhaps about the Oxus Civilization in Central Asia. In southeastern Iran, this period is known as the Jiroft (or Halil Rud) Civilization.

In Bam, we also are trying to understand how past communities dealt with climate changes. As you may know, the Lut Desert is currently one of the hottest places on earth. Climate in this region was different in the past; it was for instance more humid 10000 years ago. Several changes have then been observed in the paleoclimatic record, and our goal is to understand how these changes have affected settlement patterns in the Bam region, and how human activities have affected the environment in this region. In addition to surveying this region, we also have excavated a Neolithic site, which is currently dated to between the late-sixth and mid-fifth millennia BCE (around 7000 years ago). This site has yielded no pottery, which is surprising considering that, at that time, pottery had already been known for a long time in Iran!  

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