This post is based on a video from my YouTube channel.
Ceramics are common archaeological artifacts, but why do archaeologists love them? In this post, you will find the YouTube video explaining why archaeologists love ceramics and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).
YouTube Video Transcript
Here you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section. There are time stamps for every minute and hyperlinked references/citations.[00:00:00]
When you think of archaeological artifacts, what do you usually think of? Cachets of coins, swords caked in mud, maybe even some crystal skulls. Well, while all those things are definitely exciting, they’re not exactly the most common. One of the most frequently found types of artifacts from archaeological sites are actually ceramics.
Ceramics can be found all over the world, and are one of the most important ways we can learn about the past. Even today, ceramics are a part of our daily life. Maybe right now you’re even drinking coffee out of a ceramic mug.
Hi, I’m Smiti and I’m an archaeologist. And in this video we’re gonna explore why archaeologists love ceramics.
Let’s start with some basic concepts. Ceramics are objects that are made out of clay.
Shaped clay objects are exposed to super high temperatures, like in a kiln, which makes them hard and durable. There are many different types of ceramic that vary based on factors like the type of clay and firing temperature. Common ceramic objects that archaeologists often find include pots, jugs, amphora, plates, bowls, pipes, and my friend Anya’s personal favorite, pipkins.[00:01:00] That’s okay though, because these objects can stay in the dirt for hundreds, even thousands of years, virtually unchanged, even if they look like broken bits because fired clay usually doesn’t decompose easily.
One of the major reasons that archaeologists love ceramics is that we can use them as a dating tool. Not that kind of dating tool.
You see, the decoration, materials, and shapes of ceramic vessels often change over time. By studying these changes over time and correlating them with time periods, archaeologists can create timelines based on the type of ceramics they find.
This is a method called seriation.
This has been a really useful method for sites across the world, especially in the American Southwest.
The Pueblo people have a millennium-long history of creating beautiful ceramics with intricate designs that change over the years.
By carefully studying and documenting these designs from ceramic pieces found at hundreds of sites, archaeologists have been able to identify which designs are characteristics of what [00:02:00] set of years.
In other cases, certain types of ceramics were only produced for a very specific set of years.
Take Borderware, for instance. This post-medieval type was only created in workshops on the border of West Surrey and Hampshire County in England during the late 1500s and very early 1600s.
Therefore, if archaeologists find Borderware at a site, they will likely conclude that the site dates to the late 1500s or later.
For more on historical ceramics, check out the following blog post by Anya Gruber.
Seriation is a relative dating technique because it’s trying to create a sequence that relies on a ceramics relation to another ceramic. There’s also absolute dating, which doesn’t rely on such relationships and pinpoints dates by scientifically analyzing specific properties of a ceramic. For example, thermoluminescence dating uses scientific tools to measure the amount of energy trapped within microscopic minerals of the clay used to make ceramics.
This relies on the principle that when certain minerals are exposed to heat, like in a kiln, they trap electrons. Scientists can reheat ancient pieces of pottery and measure the energy that is released.
Based on metrics discovered through [00:03:00] experimentation, archaeologists can figure out how old a ceramic is based on the amount of energy release when they expose it to heat in a laboratory setting.
For example, archaeologists working in Bo Yang Thailand, use thermoluminescence dating to determine the age of the iconic Old Historical Wall. The archaeologists knew that the wall was likely built sometime in the mid 18 hundreds and they use Thermoluminescence on some brick rubble to determine that the old historical wall was built between 1827 and 1841.
Another reason archaeologists love ceramics is that they can tell us about the daily lives of people in the past like what they were trading, what technology they used, and what food they ate. Sometimes archaeologists find pieces of ceramics that they know were not produced in that area. This can signal that people at that site were trading with people outside their vicinity perhaps even across long distances or even across oceans.
Archaeologists working across East Africa have found distinctive Chinese-made ceramics at sites from as long ago as the 9th century. They found that Chinese ceramics were [00:04:00] highly valued and that wealthy East African merchants saw them as powerful status symbols.
Ceramics can also tell us a lot about what people were eating. People often stored and served food in ceramic containers, and sometimes molecules from that food became embedded into the surface of the ceramics themselves.
Archaeologists can then conduct scientific analyses to figure out what kind of food were in those vessels.
For example, archaeologists working at a 15th and 16th century site in Puerto Rico analyzed ceramic pots and jars to find that the people were eating a mix of Spanish foods like olives and wine, alongside indigenous foods and plants like corn and cassava.
Sometimes archaeologists love ceramics because they can help us uncover how people in the past viewed the world around them.
Sometimes we find abstract or symbolic designs on ceramic vessels, and in some cases this can signal spiritual beliefs.
For example, archaeologists have studied axe, horn, and ox designs on Bronze Age Minoan ceramics alongside religious stories from that time [00:05:00] period. This has helped us better understand the ritual and religious aspects of ancient Mediterranean life at that time.
While it can be really hard to know what people hundreds or even thousands of years ago were actually thinking, these types of artifacts give us a peek into the minds of people in the past.
Ceramics may also provide a way for archaeologists to understand social values.
I actually have a personal example from the modern day. Now I live in Baltimore and one of my favorite museums here is the Baltimore Museum of Art. And on a recent visit, I saw an exhibit that beautifully illustrated this idea of ceramics relaying social values.
An artist named Michelle Erickson had an exhibit in which she explored her American and Middle Eastern identities alongside the dark histories of the U. S. through ceramics.
She draws inspiration from historic ceramics like an 18th century English jug with image of two boxers and then crafts her own jug with images of Colin Kaepernick and an enslaved African woman to make a statement about the historical origins of modern racial inequality.
This kind of art combines the ancient technology of [00:06:00] ceramics with popular colonial period forms and glazes to then reimagine it to symbolize the experiences of people living today.
So I would say a bonus reason for why I personally appreciate ceramics is because they still persist to this day. Just like people in the past, we use ceramics for functional as well as symbolic purposes.
Ceramics, can give us a good idea about what was going on during a certain time period, but also how things changed over time
In addition to understanding the past, I really feel that ceramics can tell us a lot about who we are now and where we might be going in the future.
Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Support Video Editor, Researcher, Scriptwriter
Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Lead Video Editor
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