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.