Linking Social Connections Through Ceramics

Archaeologists are using data about ceramics, such as dates and locations of ceramic production, to study social networks around the ancient American Southwest. This is technical work involving statistical analysis and GIS (global information system) programming. Apart from the technical details, these studies generally serve to remind us that ceramics are a permanent reflection of culture.

Robert Bischoff studies the distribution of San Juan Red Ware pottery (originally produced in southeastern Utah between 750 – 1050 AD). San Juan Red Ware, known to have been produced in a relatively small area of Southeastern Utah through analysis of its clay body, was one of the most widely traded type of pottery across the ancient Southwest region. There is strong evidence to suggest that this type of pottery was closely associated with feasting.

Archaeologists have been able to group San Juan Red Ware into production time periods (for example, Abajo Red-on-Orange style of San Juan Red Ware was produced in Southeastern Utah from 750-850 AD, while Deadman’s black-on-red style was produced during the period 880 – 1050 AD).

Robert analyzed the quantity of San Juan Red Ware pottery produced in different time periods discovered at different locations around the Southwest, apart from the location where the pottery was produced. Robert charted the distance from where the pottery was found to the production source location to measure the extent the pottery was traded at different points in time.

He found that most early (ca 750 AD) San Juan Red Ware pottery was located apx. 60km from the production site. By 900 AD, most of that pottery was located around 100kms from the origin site, and by 1000 AD, most San Juan Red Ware pottery was found apx 150km from the production site. Collectively, these findings suggest San Juan Red Ware pottery became more widely traded over time. Dispersion patterns indicate widening social connections, as pottery was traded between people in ever widening circles over time. By the later periods of production, this type of pottery can be found as far away as Nevada and Phoenix.

Bischoff used the publicly available CyberSouthwest database ( to conduct his research. That database contains location data of millions of ceramic pieces throughout the Southwest region.

Screenshot of website

As a side note, when looked for background information on Robert Bischoff online, I found that he had created a number of 3D models and posted them on Sketchfab – a 3D modeling tool that I covered in an earlier blog post.

3D model of Abajo Bowl, posted on Skechfab

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