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Pottery Analysis

Pottery Analysis, Technological Analyses, Typological Analysis And Other Dating Techniques

Man first began making pots at the end of the Stone Age (Neolithic Period), about 12,000 years ago in the Old World, and about 5,000 years ago in the New World.

By about 6500 B.C., hunting and foraging had largely been abandoned in Old World Neolithic agricultural villages. The need for pottery arose during the change-over from a food-gathering to a food-producing economy. The cultivation of grain required that man be able to store cereals for future use. But pottery was also used for carrying water, for cooking, and for serving food.

Basketry, including clay-lined baskets, probably served adequately for food storage for awhile. It may have been the accidental burning of a clay-lined basket that led to the discovery that clay, which is malleable when wet, becomes hard and brittle when burned. Further experimentation would have revealed that the piece of burnt clay could be subjected to additional heat without causing the object to disintegrate, which made it suitable for cooking vessels. The manufacture and firing of pottery represented an adaptation of fire-based technology, which was later to evolve into furnace-based metallurgy.

The earliest pots were made by hand, either by being molded or by being built up. Although small pots could be molded, larger ones had to built up by placing successive rings of clay on top of each other.

With the invention of the potter's wheel, probably in the area of the Fertile Crescent, large vessels could be constructed in a few minutes, rather than several days. Until the invention of this device, women tended to be responsible for creating pottery; with its invention, pottery entered the domain of men.

Even the earliest pots appear to have been decorated. Decorations have ranged from simple geometric patterns to the elaborate illustrations characteristic of Chinese vases. Some early examples appear to have been made in imitation of baskets, or to have been molded inside a basket. Patterns on pots were probably created with finger nails, pointed sticks, or bird bones.

The art of pottery requires just the right material, i.e., the clay starting material must be neither too gritty nor too fine in texture. And the wet clay object must not be allowed to dry out before it is fired. Finally, the temperature of the firing oven must reach a critical value if the fired object is to retain its shape permanently. These discoveries may have occurred in the period of the Stone Age just preceding the Neolithic Period (that is, the Mesolithic Period), becoming universal in the Neolithic period. Pots or potsherds are frequently found in the ruins of Neolithic cultures.

Each culture evolved its own unique form of pottery. These shapes typically developed into characteristic forms that changed little over time. In addition, buried pottery does not deteriorate with time. As a result, pottery has become one of the best resources for dating an archeological site. Even if pots have become broken, the potsherds can still be pieced together into their original form. This of course cannot be done with objects of wood, leather, skins, or cloth.

The presence of pots at an archeological site may reveal information about contacts that once existed between prehistoric cultures, or about trade routes in later civilizations. Pottery exported from Crete in the eighteenth century B.C., for example, has been found on the mainland of Greece, on Cyprus, and on other islands in the Aegean Sea, on the coast of Syria, and in Egypt. Other discoveries have shown that by 400 B.C., Greek vases were being exported to the steppes of southern Russia, southern Germany, and northern France. The shape, size, type of clay, type of temper, surface treatment, and painting that characterize an ancient pot all provide valuable clues to the archeologist seeking to date an artifact or site.

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