By Anna Shamory

From Shards to Sherds: An Archaeologist’s First Dig

By Anna Shamory.


A ceramic bowl slips out of your hands and crashes to the ground. You pick up a piece of the broken pottery, but the real question is what you call this broken piece. Is it a shard or a sherd? Your answer to this question likely depends on your exposure to archaeology in literature or spoken word.

I study archaeological science at Penn State University, so before coming to Tel Akko I had some exposure to the term ‘sherd’. Yet, I have never personally used the alternative to shard until I came to dig at the tel. Whenever I saw the term sherd being used, I always questioned why archaeologists chose or came to prefer this more jargonized spelling.

So after days of uncovering countless sherds, placing them into buckets, carrying said sherds in buckets down to wash, and then hours of brushing them to varying degrees of cleanliness, I finally decided to investigate my question of:

Why sherds and not shards?

A definition of sherd, according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, is “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.” However, shard is a more generic term for “a piece or fragment of a brittle substance.” In short, sherd (short for potsherd) goes specifically with historic/ancient pottery pieces, while shards can be anything literal or figurative that is broken into pieces.     

Even today, after weeks of saying sherd instead of shard, I sometimes do a double take when I see sherd written out somewhere, and I wonder how pottery ‘shreds’ something. My brain still thinks of a more typical word, shreds, over the archaeological variation that is sherds.

Since I’ve been converted to use the term sherd by the lingo here at the Tel Akko dig, I’ve learned so much more about pottery than I thought I ever would. Though I’m sure not all sites are chock full of sherds, the sheer amount of these broken pottery pieces uncovered and collected daily in the square in which I excavate is beyond any prior expectations I had about archaeology. My first day collecting pottery, I was extremely excited by every single piece I tossed into my pottery bucket. It was a thrilling experience to be touching literal pieces of history with my fingertips. Now, at the end of my third week here, I still very much enjoy finding pottery, but not every piece of pottery lends me that same excitement as before.

What do we do with the sherds?

In the late afternoons, we students and staff spend about two hours brushing clean all the pottery we collected the day(s) before. Us newbies quickly learned that washing a bucket full of the small pieces that lack any sort of identifiable ornamentation like a rim or design (and are around the size of  an American half-dollar) is time consuming and not as much fun to do.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoy digging up pottery sherds, and then spending a relaxing fun time with my friends talking, listening to music, and of course, scrubbing the dirt off numerous potsherds!

To end, no matter how many years I handle pottery in the field, I hope I can keep a little spark of that excitement I had those first few days. What looks like a typical sherd in the field can end up being a beautifully decorated piece when washed clean.

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Washed pottery sherds

By Dylan Ingram

The side of ceramics you may not know

By Dylan Ingram…

Everyone at the Tel Akko Total Archaeology Project has some experience with pottery washing:  You grab a bucket of sherds from the previous day at the tel, scrub off the dirt, and you end up with a clean basket like the one pictured above.  But relatively few of the students here know exactly what happens afterwards with the pottery.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity July 18 to sit in on a session of pottery reading, and it provided a completely different perspective on the role of ceramics at Tel Akko.

Pottery reading begins with square and area supervisors presenting the washed pottery from their area’s loci to Martha Risser and Jolanta Mlynarczyk.  Both of them work through the pottery from the crate they were given, inspecting a couple of sherds more closely.  Unsurprisingly, they mostly use the diagnostic pieces such as handles, rims, bases, and painted or stamped sherds, which are kept a few inches apart from the non-diagnostic body sherds.

Occasionally they come across a particularly interesting piece of pottery, such as very nice black ware or East Greek pottery (identifiable from the almost glittery appearance of the fabric).  One piece that I saw Martha and Jolanta get interested over was the toe of an amphora, which they identified from its fabric as being of Attic provenance.  Although Attic imports are relatively common at Tel Akko, they said that it is much rarer to find Attic amphoras.  (Sadly, the context where this toe was found was extremely disturbed, likely due to agricultural tilling of the land.)

After Martha and Jolanta have checked out the sherds they’re given, they determine when this pottery was made.  Certain sherds can be dated very precisely—Martha once showed me a piece of a cup the size of my thumbnail with an incised palmette black glaze design, which she said was at the time the single most precisely dateable sherd in the entire pottery lab—but most of the chronological conclusions Martha and Jolanta made during the reading I watched were a bit broader.  Sometimes they would date a box of pottery to the 7th or 6th centuries BCE, other times to the Persian Period.

What most struck me about pottery reading was the pace at which it proceeds.  Each box gets read in the span of only a few minutes; Martha and Jolanta don’t waste any time when they inspect a sherd.  For example, they are so experienced with pottery that they can determine the stance of a piece just by looking at it, whereas I for one still need to use the “smile-frown test”:  rolling around a rim against a flat surface until it lines up flush.

As we have all heard, things are useless without context, pottery sherds included.  Because of this, the square and area supervisors present top plans and give brief oral descriptions of the loci in which they found each box of pottery.  Although this helps Martha and Jolanta to get a better idea of the source of everything they look at, there is still some ambiguity.  That’s why they both went up to the tel July 19:  to see where all these sherds have come from personally, so as to get a clearer picture of the type of soil in and layout of the various squares.  Martha mentioned to me that she wishes she were able to visit the tel more often in person, since it’s so helpful to her.

Beyond the obvious archaeological significance of pottery reading, I found my experience sitting in to be sort of exhilarating.  There is something really amazing in how quickly Martha and Jolanta can work through a crate of pottery and make a declaration about its origins.  Moreover, I gained a valuable appreciation for the significance of pottery—plainly demonstrating the utility of everyone’s favorite time of the day, pottery washing.

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From Shards to Sherds: An Archaeologist’s First Dig
Washed pottery sherds
The side of ceramics you may not know