Drawing Pretty Pictures of Broken Pots

The single most ubiquitous artifact type for archaeologists working on most time periods is ceramics. The wonders of chemistry and physics have resulted in a materiel that once produced is nigh well indestructible. Ceramics can be used to produce all sorts of different objects from electrical insulators to building materials like roof tiles and pipes, but the form we find most frequently is pottery. Pottery vessels are used for carrying liquids, storing dry goods, cooking, even as burial repositories. And they break with astounding frequency, and thousands of years later, the pieces are still around, sometimes even in the exact same condition they were the day the pot was dropped. Archaeologists rarely find intact pots – unless we’re excavating tombs, when people would intentionally place whole pots, perhaps filled with some sort of mortuary offerings or with the remains of a funeral feast, with the body of the deceased. But most of the time what we find are sherds… the detritus of pots broken during daily use or after they were discarded for other reasons.

Now the uses of pottery to archaeologists can’t begin to be overstated. Pots can allow us to study social organization, political developments, economic strategies, exchange of ideas, movement of populations, and any number of other topics. Because of the ways in which new styles are adopted, developed, discarded and replaced, pottery can be used for establishing relative, or even absolute, dates. A lot of these things though, require us to know what the pots looked like, not just cataloging the dirty sherds that come out of the ground. So, what does an archaeologist do with all these thousands of pot sherds?!

Well, first we wash them! But after that, we count them and we record them. Recording a pot sherd usually just involves determining what kind of clay it was made from and how it was finished and fired – different wares are made of different clays, that are treated in different fashions – think of the difference between fine china and earthenware. However, if a sherd has some sort of decoration, or if its part of a pot that is recognizable, we call it “diagnostic.” This is sort of like being a symptom that lets you diagnose the disease. Well, a diagnostic sherd lets us diagnose something about the pot – what shape the pot was, what kind of decoration it had, or maybe whether it was made a special way.

Diagnostic sherds receive special treatment. We carefully measure them, record details about the fabric (the clay and other materials the pot was made from), the finish (firing methods, burnishing, slips, glazes, painted, inciside, or relief decoration, etc.), and what part of the vessel they were. Sometimes from all of this information we’re ale to tell exactly what kind of pot the sherd came from! And then the sherds are drawn and photographed. As a pottery analyst, drawing pottery is a skill I had to learn, and trust me, I have no innate artistic talent! I’ve been doing it for long enough now that my drawings are acceptable, but there are many (if not most) archaeological illustrators out there who put my drawings to shame. Still, I do all right, and I thought I’d give you guys a little look at how I spend some of my days…

To start, I have to get all of the tools of my trade. Here you can see some nice heavy tracing paper, taped down to a smooth, flat table, over a sheet of graph paper. This way the graph paper can be reused, and the lines don’t have to be removed when the drawings are scanned into Adobe Illustrator and inked, but the grid is still there to help with the drawing process. I also have an architect’s ruler, a triangle, a profile gauge, a set of calipers, a rim gauge, my favorite mechanical pencil, and the pot sherd that I’m going to draw with its ID tag.

Here’s a clearer shot of the sherd in question as well as some of my earlier drawings so you can see what the goal is. This particular sherd is the rim, and a significant chunk of the profile of the body of a hemispherical bowl, a very common form in the bronze age on Cyprus. Specifically, this sherd is a variety of Red Polished ware local to the Pafos region in the SW of the island, dating to the Early or Middle Bronze Age.


The trick to being able to reconstruct a vessel from a single sherd is being able to orient the sherd correctly so you can figure out what the profile of the sherd would have looked like. Normally this requires having a rim, or at least a significant part of it. IF the piece of rim is to small, you can’t tell what angle to hold the pot at. In this picture I’m holding the sherd at close the correct angle. If a piece of pottery is well-made, then the rim should be even, and if the rim is even then if you hold the sherd so the rim is flat, you’ve figured out the correct angle that the sherd should be at! Another way to do it is to place the sherd on the table rim-edge down. You lean the sherd back and forth until you find the angle where no light is passing under the sherd – this means you’ve found the correct angle where the rim in lying flat against the table. Once you have this angle there are a couple important measurements you can take.

First, you can use a rim guage to figure out what the diameter of your pot’s rim was. Here you can see me using the rim guage, holding the sherd so no light passes under the rim (i.e., the rim is flat, and I’m holding the sherd at the correct angle). I slide the sherd in and out on the gauge until I find a rim diameter that matches the curve of the rim on my sherd. Voila! I know how big around my pot’s rim was! In this case, 14 cm…

Using this rim measurement, I’m able to sketch in this T. Basically the cross bar is the rim, and the upright is just the axis of reflection (i.e. the other side of the line will be a mirror image of whatever I’ve drawn). By aligning my sherd at the correct angle again, this time on the T, I’ll be able to measure how high the sherd is and how far in it reaches. I’ll do this using the graph paper underneath and the architect’s triangle:

These measurements allow me to mark the bottom of the sherd on my drawing. The trick now is figuring out the curve between the edge of the rim and this bottom point. And the way we do that is with the profil gauge. These are also tools used by carpenters and other craftsmen. The metal pins push in easily, but remain in place horizontally. By pressing the gauge up against any object (even your face, but its kind of uncomfortable), when the pins push in you get the curve of the profile of the object you’re measuring. Good profile gauges also have built in rulers, allowing you to measure the distance between different points in your curve, which is great if its a complicated curve (like your face). In this case, though, I’ve got a pretty simple curve, so I can just put my sherd on the table and press the gauge down, being careful to press the guage in at an angle that would point towards the imaginary middle of the pot.

This last picture actual skipped a step (whoops!). One I’ve gotten the profile of the pot in the gauge, I line that profile up with the edge of the rim on my T and with the bottom of the sherd which I marked after measuring with the triangle. This lets me draw the curve of the outside of the pot. For the interior curve I use the calipers to measure the thickness of the sherd at various points. I marke these distances in on the drawing, and then basically connect the dots: instant inner surface!

Now, using the grid paper as a guide, I draw in the mirror image of the profile on the other side. Little conventions like a broken rim line tells us that the rim is incomplete, and extension lines at the base of the sherd show the sherd is broken here and would be expected to continue in a certain direction. Then I label the drawing with the project abbreviation and excavation year, the trench and context numbers where the sherd was excavated, and my initials and the date the drawing was completed. Done!

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Living the Dream

I’m sitting on the patio of the Krasares Restauraunt on the coastal road outside the village of Kissonerga in the Paphos District of Cyprus. Its the 4th day of the second week of excavation in the 2012 season at the Bronze Age site of Kissonerga-Skalia, directed by Dr. Lindy Crewe, of Uni. Manchester. I’m here in the role of advanced student/pottery assistant. Lindy is widely considered the finest ceramicist working on Cyprus, plus she’s just ridiculously wonderful to work with, and having weighed my options (including just staying in the States and working on my reading list – prudent, but BORING) I hauled myself, via 4 plane flights and 30 hours, to return to my favorite country to do archaeology. If you’re looking for a great field school in Cypriot archaeology, I highly recommend you check it out next year!

The project is going well this season, with 4 trenches open and digging is moving on apace. The site is fascinating, and confusing! We have loads of Chalcolithic material, which appears to have washed down from the site of Kissonerga-Mosphilia, sitting atop some layers which may be as late as Late Cypriot I (the earliest phase of the Late Bronze Age on Cyprus) and others as early as Early Cypriot I or even Philia (the earliest phases of the Early Bronze Age on Cyprus). Our primary goals are to figure out what was going on at this site during both its earliest and latest occupations, and to try to establish a stratified pottery sequence. The pottery sequence is particularly important, because the ceramics here in the southwest of Cyprus are quite different from those found in other parts of the island, and the pottery here has never really been studied. Lindy is working on developing a new typology for the Bronze Age ceramics of the area, which when correlated with the typologies for the southern part of the island, and the best known from the central and southern regions, will allow us to really see how the region fit into the broader history of the island. Big problem right now – we have some pretty diagnostic stuff for the latest and earliest phases, but right now recognizing the Middle Bronze Age is really difficult. Presumably it’s there, but we just don’t know how to see it!

I spent today drawing pottery, a skill I am now very glad I acquired, thanks in particular to Jorrit Kelder (check out his wonderful book “The Kingdom of Mycenae: A Great Kingdom in the Late Bronze Age Aegean”) who taught me the basics when I worked at Priniatikos-Pyrgos on Crete. Pottery drawing is a funny thing – more technical drawing than anything else, but I find its a great way to really get to know the material. I’m a very visual and hands-on learner (lectures go in one ear and out the other), so the act of handling the ceramic sherds, orienting them, and visually reconstructing the vessels really helps me to learn the shapes, fabrics, and decoration, in a way that reading publication reports never fully does. I’m planning on taking my camera out this week to document the pottery analysis and recording process, which I hope to post on this blog. Just don’t make fun of my drawings – they’re passable, but I’m no artist!

The first step in pottery processing, is every archaeologist’s favorite post-excavation duty (sarcasm? maybe not…), pottery washing. Today’s pottery washing was particularly entertaining though, since we found ourselves washing a bunch of things we shouldn’t have! These were objects that had been mistaken for pottery, because of their irregular shapes and being caked in dirt, so honest mistakes all, but still amusing. Since everything was kept with the material from the context in which it was excavated, we still know right where they were found. So, pulled out of the pottery buckets today were a) a beautiful chalcolithic polished stone chisel, b) a pierced stone disk, c) a deer antler prong (possibly a handle of a tool, or a tool in and of itself), and d) a really peculiar ground stone object which appeared to have been a piece of stone bowl or mortar in a previous life, but which had been reshaped into some sort of stamp or rubber.

Dinner tonight was roasted potatoes and aubergines with fresh feta crumbled and melted on top, a large greek salad, and pickled beetroot. So delicious! We eat here 4 dinners a week, one night is pizza, and two nights we’re on our own. Lunches we take turns cooking for the team (cooking for 30 is an adventure!), and breakfast is out in the field, a standard archaeological practice. The food so far has been excellent, and since I’m not excavating like I normally would be, as I stay back at the dig house to work on the ceramics, and since I’m eating so much, I fear I’m not losing weight, but may even be gaining it! But, with delicious Cypriot food in my stomach and the sun is setting into the Mediterranean, turning the haze yellow and pink and orange, it may be time to have a drink with the crew before heading up the hill for the night. Good night all!