Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why Ceramics?

Archaeologists spend a lot of our time discussing ceramics but it is not always clear to those listening why that may be such an important part of our research. On our site this year we have found a variety of ceramics some smaller than a penny and some as large as our fists but each of these sherds can provide information about the people who lived and worked on this landscape. There are a variety of reasons that ceramics are vital to archaeology including but not limited to their potential for social and household interpretations.

Each time you pick up a ceramic sherd you can potentially learn about the type of vessel (form), the purpose of that vessel, what kinds of decorations graced the body and how this vessel was made. These types of information can help archaeologists learn about the household and how it functions. One important piece of information that ceramics can provide is information on gender roles within a household. In Cherokee society women held much of the control over ceramics because they created the vessels. Theda Perdue (1998) in her book Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835, describes the vessels made by women as pitchers, bowls, dishes, basins and platters. Most of the vessels we have examined in our lab time and in the field have been bowls of varying sizes.

Ceramic sherds can also provides us with information about how vessels are made, for example temper or coiled versus hand formed. We have learned quite a bit this summer about the different types of temper that are common in ceramics for our region. We have had the opportunity to examine shell tempering, grit tempering and sand tempering. Looking at all of these types of tempering has been interesting because it gives us a better idea of how these pots were made and where the materials may have been coming from.

Ceramics are also vital to archaeology because of their presence in the archaeological record. Ceramics simply preserve well in most contexts and are relatively fragile during use. This seemingly contradictory fact makes ceramics both easily destructible, getting deposited in the archaeological record frequently, and well preserved. This good preservation is great for archaeologists because it provides us with a wealth of information about households and social relations within a community or even a region.

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