About two weeks ago, I was feeling pretty good about the date our our basilica at the site of Polis. We dated the church on the basis of five or six fairly secure deposits associated with the construction or modification of the church. The pottery in these contexts is largely the locally(ish) produced fine ware, Cypriot Red Slip.
The more pottery we have, however, the more problems it creates. And here’s how it goes.
First, we have to identify the major wares present and the make an effort to distinguish the different shapes. That often means spending hours looking at sheets of rim profiles and reading fiddly descriptions of fabric. Because these pots were not made on a production line, any sherd we find does not really line up precisely with the object in our books so we have to wiggle it to fit a category (and, moreover, the potters were not sitting around discussing how to produce Cypriot Red Slip Form 9!). It’s like getting some kind of polyhedron to pass through a round or square hole in a child’s game.
Then, once we are satisfied that we have fit our sherd into the typology, we can begin attempting to date our shapes on the basis of stratified examples of these vessels elsewhere. Most scholars who contribute to the typologies we use to identify the sherds also make an effort to date the pottery. Unfortunately, the bewildering array of shapes and sub-types can devolve into equally bewildering chronological arguments. I had a bit of a “down-melt” this morning when confronted with several possible for a type ranging from 580/600-700 to early 5th to 7th century. That’s a big difference and 580/600 is not a secure date but TWO different dates separated by a slash. In terms of normal humans living in normal time, this is meaningless. I was not born in 1972/1988.
Finally, once we get some dates on some pots, we have to reconcile the chronologies of various vessels within the deposit with one another. This always involves dating the deposit to after the date of the more recent object. Once we have the terminus post quem (that the date after which) for the deposit, we can begin to attempt to understand how earlier material made its way into the collection of pot sherds deposited as a single event. Since most of our deposits are associated with the construction of the basilica, it is easy enough to understand the various earlier sherds as being part of the debris used to backfill a foundation trench or pack a floor. In fact, from a use standpoint the latest and earliest sherd in the deposit functioned essentially the same way. They were all residual and probably all cast aside some time earlier in either a dump or in some kind of local destruction.
The problem is, of course, the more pottery there is, the more complicated the chronological relationships are. For each deposit, we have to sort out both the very local chronology of material, but also the relationship between it and others at our site which may not have the same types (or sub-types) or pottery, but may have a similar date. As a great man once said, mo’ pottery, mo’ problems.