Craft in Archaeology: The Craft of Pottery Analysis in Mediterranean Archaeology

This is the second installment in a series of blog posts focusing on craft in archaeology. Here’s a link to the call for submissions. The posts will explore craft in archaeology from the perspective of field practices, analytical and interpretative frameworks, and social impacts on the discipline. The posts will appear every Thursday for as long as we get contributions and compiled into a e-book by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University

The idea of archaeology as craft is intriguing. Archaeology is a discipline which combines a number of elements from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. We ‘borrow’ methodologies perhaps more so than any other field, combining them to form a coherent body of theory and method. Archaeology is not standardized across the world, however, and a number of sub-fields exist, divided by geographical and chronological boundaries. Classical Archaeology is interesting to consider in the context of craft, given its strong historical connections to art history and antiquarianism. Scientific perspectives, such as New Archaeology, have not had as strong an influence on classicists as in other areas of archaeology. How does this affect our view of Classical Archaeology as a craft?

This post will focus on one aspect of Classical Archaeology as craft: the analysis of pottery. Ceramic specialists are an important component of any project, often dealing with the most robust and copious body of material collected. In many ways, pottery analysis adheres strongly to ideas of craft as they are espoused in the article by Shanks and McGuire (1996). Consideration of the use of an apprentice structure for training specialists, the increasing integration of technology, and the place of pottery specialists within the hierarchy of archaeology, for instance, sheds light on this issue. The analysis of pottery in its present form arose out of nineteenth century methodologies and, in many ways, adheres to this structure. It is not stagnant, however, and is a craft that continues to evolve. The discussion below will hopefully show the benefits and difficulties with this evolution.

An Apprentice Structure

Since the formalization of Classical Archaeology as a discipline, the training of scholars to become specialists in the analysis of particular materials has followed an apprentice system. Pottery analysis, for example, relies on passing knowledge from experienced to non-experienced scholars. This adheres to the ‘traditional scheme of archaeological fieldwork’ according to Shanks and McGuire (1996: 84). Labs often have one or two trained specialists who are assisted by students. The students gain experience working with the ‘masters’ and in some cases may even become specialists themselves.

Shanks and McGuire note that the alternative to the apprentice structure, the factory model, has developed mainly within the jurisdiction of contract and rescue archaeology (1996: 84). The apprentice structure, which promotes the training of students as one of its primary goals, is not as effective in the context of Culture Resource Management. Instead, hiring pre-trained students who can then be assigned to various tasks which in combination bring about an efficient completion to a project is preferable. Proponents of this model within the academy tend to be associated with the New Archaeology, with its greater emphasis of scientific approaches to the discipline.

For Mediterranean archaeology, is a factory model feasible? The primary goal of this model is to increase efficiency by standardizing the methodology and dividing tasks across a series of workers. It favors a top-down structure where the project director or directors would be the only ones familiar with every aspect of the work. To one extent, some aspects of this model already exist within our own field. I am likely not alone in sometimes feeling separated from many components of a project by spending most days in a lab. There is a disconnect that arises from focusing on a specific set of data collected by a project. On most projects in the Mediterranean, however, it is unlikely that many individuals have a command of every task being completed. Directors often spend most of their time in the field or in the lab and may not be familiar with the other. Most directors do not view themselves as CEOs of project who require oversight into every minute detail. Thus, even though pottery specialists may feel marginalized at times, we are not alone in this feeling.

Pottery analysts are also moving toward a greater degree of standardization. This is particularly true for the study of fabric, as noted below, and is apparent in other ways, such as the use of distinct terminology. We can only push this so far, however. For decades, pottery analysis was not a standardized field and the number of unique typologies and descriptive methodologies that arose makes almost any overarching standardization impossible. The study of Roman pottery has many of examples of this phenomenon. If we take amphorae, for instance, many of the most common vessel types encountered across the Mediterranean have a remarkable number of names. The Kapitän II, a third–fourth century A.D. wine container perhaps produced in or around Asia Minor, is also known as the Niederbieber 77, Peacock and Williams class 47, the Benghazi Middle Roman 7, the Zeest 79, the Kuzmanov 7, and the Hollow Foot Amphora. Trying to research a vessel type when it is part of so many different typologies can almost be an act of futility. It also suggests that no matter how much standardization is introduced into pottery analysis, there must also be flexibility to engage with these historical precedents and to train students in understanding the complex past of the discipline.

The history of pottery analysis in Mediterranean archaeology indicates that an apprentice system is still the best system for training individuals to study this material. Hands-on practical experience under the supervision of an experienced instructor is necessary both for learning about the standardized practices that are now in use and about the myriad variations to these practices that appear in older publications and that are still relevant to the field today.

Technology and Pottery Analysis

In his proposal for this blog series, Bill Caraher noted that one significant issue for understanding the role of craft in archaeology is the ever-increasing presence of technology. He asked whether the use of this technology could ‘…marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft.’ Pottery analysis is not immune to the technological revolution. Consideration of how this affects ceramic specialists is lacking, however. One risk with engaging more with technology is that it will erode away traditional skill bases in favor of more efficient (but not necessarily more effective) methodologies. Assessment of the types of technology employed by pottery analysts, and their goals in doing so, suggests an opposing view. Use of technology may actually augment the skills we are required to possess since effective use of this equipment requires keen understanding of the material we are studying.

An example of the interaction between pottery specialists and technology can be found in the study of fabric. In the preface to their book Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide, David Peacock and David Williams make the following comment:

Another feature of this book is the stress upon fabrics as well as forms, because we feel that a consideration of both facets is essential if amphorae are to be identified with the precision that now seems necessary in economic analysis. We make no apology for including details of the characteristics of fabrics as they appear in the hand specimen and under the microscope, for this aspect is all too often neglected (1986: xvii).

For a pottery specialist working in the Mediterranean today, the assertiveness of Peacock and Williams’ view toward including details about fabrics is surprising. Now it would be the scholar who does not engage in fabric analysis who would have to apologize and justify his or her position. The study of fabric has become an essential component of ceramic analysis and one that has been aided greatly by technological innovation.

A number of archaeometric methods, both chemical and mineralogical, have been brought to bear for analysis of fabrics. Petrography is the most ubiquitous. Developed originally as a tool for studying soil and stone, petrography has a long history in the study of archaeological ceramics. Anna O. Shepard was an early proponent during her work in the southwestern United States (1942). Petrography was also in use by Classical Archaeologists around the same time (e.g. Felts 1942). The technique was not widespread, however. It is only within the past two decades that Mediterranean pottery specialists have come to include petrography as a standard part of their analytical program. Much of this is owed to Peacock who promoted the advantages of petrographic analysis in much of his early scholarship (e.g. 1970: 379).

Petrography has several advantages over other archaeometric techniques. It is relatively inexpensive, for instance, which is an important consideration within the present climate of dwindling funding.  The technique also provides a wider array of data about ceramics than most archaeometric methods, a detail noted by Peacock: ‘…the potential of petrology has been widely appreciated but recently other methods, more readily automated, seem to be favoured, even though the results may not have the same range of archaeological implications’ (1977: viii). In addition to providing information about the fabric that can lead to determinations of provenance, petrography can shed light on manufacturing processes, including the selection of raw materials, firing techniques, forming processes, and decoration (Peterson 2009: 2). More data is never a bad thing, which is perhaps why petrography has become so popular.

We must also consider Peacock’s comment about many of these techniques being automated. In other words, to what extent do pottery specialists actually engage with this technology? Petrography is again an interesting example since much of the analysis is done by trained petrographers and not by pottery specialists. We see the results of the study and incorporate them into our own analysis of the finds, but do not necessarily stare into the microscope on a regular basis. How does this affect our view of pottery as a craft? Is there a risk that archaeometric methods like petrography are beginning to replace the need for qualified specialists to examine ceramic assemblages? The answer to the latter question must be no. We can consider a scenario, for instance, where a ceramic assemblage is laid out with the intention of taking samples for petrographic analysis. A pottery specialist trained in analysing macroscopic qualities of fabric and shape is far more effective at selecting a representative sample of sherds from the pile. Moreover, the increased desire to use scientific techniques for studying pottery now requires pottery analysts to be much more vigilant in their study of the material. Detailed descriptions of fabric are now the norm in addition to careful division of the assemblage into known and unknown fabrics, with further subdivisions based on identified or suspected regions of production.

The need for more standardization and greater detail in fabric analysis is of great benefit to the discipline. One element of pottery studies that has always been frustrating is the poor quality of macroscopic fabric descriptions in much of the literature. They tend to relate vague overviews of color, inclusions, and texture. Comparing such descriptions to material under analysis or across different publications often proves disappointing. Efforts to develop standardized descriptions are helping to alleviate this and more and more publication of petrographic data and photographs of fabrics facilitate comparisons between sites and regions. Portable digital microscopes have also been helpful for improving the quality of fabric photographs in publications.

Concern that technology may erode the skills of individuals engaged in pottery analysis is not tenable. Even if pottery specialists do not engage with this technology directly, effective use of these methods prompts pottery specialists to improve their own descriptions and analyses of the material to ensure the best data possible is obtained by use of these techniques. Barring the invention of a Star Trek-like scanner that instantly provides all necessary details about a sherd, no amount of technology will replace the need for trained specialists to examine material by hand in a lab. Thus, the craft of pottery analysis should continue to exist in its present form for at least the near future.

A Field Divided

The use of technology may be beneficial to pottery analysis as a craft, but there are other issues to consider. One topic that appears several times within the article by Shanks and McGuire is the degree of hierarchy present within archaeology (1996: 82, 84). They observe that ‘we divide the practice of archaeology into those of us who manage and sit on committees, synthesize, generalize, and theorize and those of us who sort, dig, and identify’ (1996: 82). Pottery analysis would tend to fall into the latter category. Since the term ‘hierarchy’ has connotations of rank and status, a fact discussed explicitly by Shanks and McGuire, we must consider how this affects our view of pottery analysis as a craft.

At a basic level, there are three primary goals during the analysis of a ceramic assemblage. All relate to types of data that can be extracted from the material: chronology, function, economy. Pottery is the most important tool for dating in both excavation and survey. The make-up of an assemblage provides information about activities carried out at a site or within a specific structure and the origin of this material can shed light on economic patterns. Pottery specialists collect and organize this data. What happens afterward is where issues of hierarchy come into play.

Standard models of publication in Mediterranean archaeology would seem to support Shanks and McGuire’s view of an established hierarchy. In multi-author site reports, analysts present their data, but rarely offer significant synthesis of this material. That synthesis is left for project directors or other scholars who pull together disparate strands of information. Even when site reports involve multiple volumes, with artifact classes presented as separate monographs, pottery specialists often do themselves disservice. A typical pottery volume in Mediterranean archaeology is organized into a contextual introduction that describes the project in question, a detailed catalogue of finds, and a succinct overview of economic implications. It is the final section which reinforces the position of pottery specialists more as identifiers rather than synthesizers. Those final sections tend to range from several paragraphs to several pages and rarely go beyond a superficial treatment of the material. Detailed synthesis is left for other volumes in a series or for other scholars engaged in overarching studies of a region or period. There are a few exceptions (e.g. Peña 1999), but most studies fall into this type.

The analysis of pottery is a craft that requires mastery of a number of different skills. Focus on typology, chronology, function, and provenance, however, can serve as a barrier to moving beyond description into more detailed interpretation. Time constraints are also relevant since it takes a significant amount of time to process the hundreds, if not thousands, of kilograms of pottery produced by many projects. As the ability to obtain permits becomes more difficult across the Mediterranean and with pressure mounting to disseminate results more quickly, limitations on time, and thus on the ability of pottery specialists to interpret the collected data, will only increase.

At the end of their article, Shanks and McGuire argue that archaeologists have an ‘…obligation to take responsibility for what we do and produce’ (1996: 85¬–6). Pottery analysts working in the Greco-Roman world do appear well aware of their purpose within an archaeological project. We produce vital data to complement and augment interpretations developed out of field work and the processing of other materials. The question I am asking here, though, is whether pottery specialists should take on more of the responsibility for interpreting this data. We have the closest connections to this material, engaging with it day after day. Is it not possible for the identifiers to also be synthesizers and vice versa?

The hierarchy and strict division of archaeologists into different specialists has also led to another critique of the discipline. In an article from the late 1990s, Penelope Allison addressed one of the problems inherent in the analysis of material culture by archaeologists. She began with a concise summary of the standard procedure with which artifact analysis is approached by Mediterranean archaeologists:

At present, a common pattern of post-excavation activity is to divide the excavated artefacts into what are now well-established categories. Each category is then assigned to a different “finds specialist” for organisation into a typology which is ultimately published in the excavation report. The categories are largely selected on criteria attributable to the formal or manufacturing characteristics of the artefacts (1997: 77).

Allison’s main critique is that this methodology does not reflect how objects and individuals interacted in antiquity. In other words, separating pottery from glass, bone, architecture, etc. hinders rather than helps us to reconstruct ancient behavior. It was Allison’s own frustrations in reading through countless site and artifact reports during a study of households at Pompeii that led to this appraisal. A related difficulty is the fact that after pottery, most artifact classes are relegated to the category of small finds and given far less rigorous treatment. This pattern has been steadily changing over the past few decades, in no small part thanks to a book published by James Deetz on the importance of small finds in American archaeology (1977), but the disparity is still evident.

For Allison, a more appropriate procedure involves a holistic approach to studying the archaeological record. All material culture, including pottery, should be analyzed and presented together. She advocates the use of database management programs to organize these vast and disparate sets of data, a process which has now become standard practice for many archaeological projects. Scholars interested in domestic architecture have been the primary proponents of Allison’s ideas, following her seminal study of Pompeian households (2004). This includes Brad Ault’s work at Halieis in Greece (2005) and Ben Costello’s recent study of the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (2014). Most field projects, however, continue to separate their finds and bring in multiple specialists, who are not always present at the same time. 

Allison proposed this alternative to traditional practice in Mediterranean archaeology fifteen years ago, but for pottery analysis there has been little movement to modify its traditional structure. It is a sub-field that has seen its own skill set expand over the past two decades with the greater integration of technology. The accusation of pottery specialists being myopic in studying a single class of artifacts is perhaps tenable, but is myopia a bad thing if it means the ability to extract the maximum amount of information from a ceramic assemblage? Can an individual who spends equal time learning about ancient pottery, glass, bone, metal, wall painting, architecture, etc., be expected to understand ceramic fabrics at a level that is currently expected among pottery specialists? Will becoming a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ improve our overall ability to understand the archaeology and history of the ancient world?

These questions are difficult to answer and in many ways require much more discussion and debate among archaeologists. There are palpable benefits to the approach espoused by Allison, but there is also risk that the skills of pottery and other specialists would erode if they were required or expected to become knowledgeable about numerous classes of archaeological material. Allison’s call for use of database management programs may provide the best answer for a compromise. The use of tablets, for instance, allows members of an archaeological project to access a variety of data, often updated in real time, that bring together disparate elements of a project into a more cohesive whole. Pottery specialists can quickly scan the details of an excavated deposit before reading the material. Excavators can assess the chronology of layers already dug to help them understand the stratigraphy of deposits while still in the field. Perhaps breaking down boundaries in Mediterranean archaeology should focus more on sharing information rather than blurring the lines between specialized knowledge. As a craft we have come to rely greatly on our degree of specialization. Other types of finds should be given more robust treatment, but this should not constrain the need for detailed analyses of ceramic assemblages. 


Pottery specialists working in the Mediterranean are achieving a greater degree of professionalization as they develop more standardized protocols and methodologies. There is also a strong element of craft within the field of pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology. These elements are not mutually exclusive and their combination enables ceramic experts to provide robust data for use by other members of their projects. Further development of this craft is possible, particularly with respect to pottery analysts taking on a greater role as synthesizers. Shanks and McGuire note that ‘Craft is productive work for a purpose’ (1996: 78). Pottery analysis in Classical Archaeology adheres to this definition and, in its current manifestation, is successful at justifying its purpose.


Allison, P.M. 1997. ‘Why do Excavation Reports have Finds’ Catalogues?’ In Not So Much a Pot, More a Way of Life: Current Approaches to Artefact Analysis in Archaeology, C.G. Cumberpatch and P.W. Blinkhorn (eds.). Oxford: Oxbow Books 77–84.

Allison, P.M. 2004. Pompeian Households: An Analysis of the Material Culture. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA.

Ault, B.A. 2005. The Excavations of Ancient Halieis, Volume 2. The Houses: The Organization and Use of Domestic Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Costello IV, B. 2014. Architecture and Material Culture from the Earthquake House at Kourion, Cyprus (BAR Int. Ser. 2635). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Felts, W.M. 1942. ‘A Petrographic Examination of Potsherds from Ancient Troy’. American Journal of Archaeology 46: 237–44.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1970. ‘The Scientific Analysis of Ancient Ceramics: A Review’. World Archaeology 1: 375–89.

Peacock, D.P.S. 1977. ‘Preface’, in Pottery and Early Commerce: Characterization and Trade in Roman and Later Ceramics, D.P.S. Peacock (ed.). London: Academic Press, vii–viii.

Peacock, D.P.S. and D.F. Williams. 1986. Amphorae and the Roman Economy: An Introductory Guide. London and New York: Longman.

Peña, J.T. 1999. The Urban Economy during the Early Dominate: Pottery Evidence from the Palatine Hill (BAR Int. Ser. 784). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Peterson, S.E. 2009. Thin-Section Petrography of Ceramic Materials. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Shanks, M. and R.H. McGuire. 1996. ‘The Craft of Archaeology’. American Antiquity 61: 75–88.

Shepard, A.O. 1942. Rio Grande Glaze Paint Ware: A Study Illustrating the Place of Ceramic Technological Analysis in Archaeological Research. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

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