When is a pot not a pot?

When you look at it after its been properly cleaned and it turns out to be a bit of cremated bone instead. This week I have been finally getting on with cataloguing the pottery from George Rock Shelter in Goldsland Wood. This is one of two sites in the wood where we found bits of Neolithic pottery. I looked at the pottery from the other one, Wolf Cave, in the spring and discovered that although we had quite a few bits of pot, they were all broken pieces of the same bowl. We called this vessel 1 and I posted earlier on in the year about the process of reconstructing the pot as a drawing for publication.

This week I have been working on the pottery from George Rock Shelter. This seems to have taken me an inordinately long time to finish. I wrote my PhD thesis on the Neolithic pottery of Wales so it is not as if I have never looked at all the comparative material before. There were two Neolithic bowls from this site, one of which, vessel 10, was in a good enough state to attempt to draw. The other, vessel 11, looks to have been very similar to vessel 1 from Wolf Cave but it is much more badly broken up.

GD Neo pottery

When we analyse pottery as archaeologists we are looking at evidence of how each particular pot was made and, sometimes, how it was used. There are lots of stages we can identify when a pot is being made. First of all, of course, you need clay, dug from pits or river banks. Where the clay comes from affects what is in it beside just the clay minerals. Most dug clay needs an awful lot of processing to get it as clean as the lovely smooth bags of clay from Stoke on Trent that we buy for the students to practice on. Perversely, once they have got it clean, traditional potters around the world often then start adding ground up stuff to it. This ‘tempering’ is the next stage in making a pot. The temper that is added is any kind of (hopefully) inert material that will not change shape or explode when it is fired. Potters add it for lots of reasons but one thing it does is provide a route out of the pot walls for the steam created during firing.

You can build or mould this clay into any shape you need. Neolithic pottery was all built by hand, the potter’s wheel wasn’t used in Britain until just before the start of the Roman period. It also tends to conform to one of a relatively few standardised shapes, particularly early in the period. These are usually variants on the round-based bowl. Where we have evidence it looks as if they liked to work with big lumps of clay at once. The neat rings of clay that modern night-class potters are taught to make were not a Neolithic technique. Once you have the shape you want then it needs to be left until it is completely dry.

wood firing

This is the next important part of potting. The clay needs to be heated up to above 800 degrees Celsius for a few hours so that it ceases to be plastic and becomes solid and (relatively) watertight. You can do this in a bonfire, the one above has replica pottery I made during my PhD toasting away in the middle of it. I did devote a lot of time to carefully controlling how the fire was built and fuelled to try to make sure that the temperature built up nice and slowly. What this taught me was all of this is less important, if the aim is to stop the pots blowing up in the fire, than tempering them properly in the first place.

Prehistoric pottery like this was almost certainly made as it was needed. There would not have been specialist potters, as there were in the Roman period for example. Making pottery would have been a skill many people had, like making stone tools or cooking, which they could turn to when new pots were required. All these choices about what to do at each stage of making a pot mean that when we see that pots were made in similar ways, we are seeing evidence for a connection between the people who made them. Perhaps they were cousins who had both been taught the techniques their great grandmother used.

There has been a lot of interesting research on how potters skills are learnt and passed on and I have put some of it up on the reading list, particularly Prudence Rice’s fantastically detailed survey and a great paper by Sandy Budden (herself both a craft potter and an archaeologist) and Joanna Sofaer-Deverenski on learning to pot in prehistoric Hungary.



  2. There’s a rather hardcore way to test in the field to see if a bit of thing is ceramic or bone. Its not really advised any more given the things that can live in the soil but… if you put your tongue to the thing and your tongue sticks- its bone!

    • That’s like my ‘is it a manky bit of stone or a prehistoric pot sherd?’ test, where you bash the mystery object with a hand-shovel and if it goes ‘clang!’ as it flies away then all is well and it was just a stone (if it goes ‘clunk!’ then you need to go find it because it was a pot after all)… things you wish you’d never shown the undergraduates.

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