Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology

2017 Edition
| Editors: Allan S. Gilbert


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4409-0_32


Ceramics are among the tangible products of human culture that are relatively widespread among societies across the world. The innovation or adoption of ceramic objects provides significant and compelling questions for scholars, and ceramics, especially fragments of pottery called potsherds (sherds or shards), are one of the most common material objects that archaeologists encounter on surveys or excavations of Holocene archaeological sites, particularly over the past six millennia. In materials science, “ceramic” includes any solid made of inorganic compounds combining metallic and nonmetallic elements and generally possessing refractory and nonconducting properties, while “ceramics” in a nontechnical sense include varieties of fired-clay and siliceous bodies, such as earthenwares, stonewares, terra-cottas, china, and porcelain (Rice, 1987, 2015). Ceramic artifacts include many types and classes of object: domestic/utilitarian and ritual pottery containers; cooking, serving, and food storage vessels; figurines, spindle whorls, earspools, lamps, smoking pipes, tokens, medicinal pastilles, female pubic coverings, beehives, coffins, and other objects. The definition also embraces glass, bricks, ovens, architectural decorations (roof and floor tiles, cast sculptural forms), vitreous plumbing fixtures, sewer pipe, and molds (Matson, 1965; Kolb, 1989b, 2001, 2011).

The study of ceramics is a broad, highly diverse topic, and it is the subject of numerous scientific and popular books as well as journal articles. This contribution focuses initially on the relationships of geoarchaeology to clay and ceramic materials, then it summarizes the literature on archaeological ceramics, provides distinctions between ceramics and pottery, and reviews analytical methods used to interpret technological variables.

The importance of ceramic products

Potsherds are likely the most abundant macro-artifacts recovered archaeologically during the later periods of human existence, and in the main, they tend to be preserved almost as well as stone or lithic tools and their debris. Yet, it can be challenging to date ceramic materials accurately, determine their provenance or location of manufacture, and discern their intended original and subsequent uses. Fired and unfired clay figurines, not vessels made of clay, are the oldest known ceramic artifacts attributed to human fabrication; such small sculptures were created over 25,000 years ago in Eastern Europe according to current evidence (Vandiver et al., 1989; Farbstein et al., 2012). Nonetheless, pottery making is one of the oldest crafts known to humankind and was invented independently in different parts of the world, at different times, and within extremely diverse sociopolitical, economic, and ecological settings (Shelach, 2012; Wu et al., 2012). Scientific analysis of ceramic materials can inform us about technological changes that vary across space (synchronic) and through time (diachronic), craft specialization, and sociocultural, behavioral, economic, religious, and ideological roles and relationships within and between human societies. Hence, banal and unassuming ceramic artifacts such as potsherds provide a wealth of scientific and cultural information if the relevant data can be extracted and interpreted.

Geoarchaeology and ceramics

The term “geoarchaeology” was apparently coined by Karl Butzer in 1973, and it was a foundational component of his influential book Archaeology as Human Ecology (Butzer, 1982). Davidson and Shackley (1976) provided a traditional approach to the topic, while Waters (1996) documented the foundations of geoarchaeology in North America, emphasizing archaeological site matrices, alluvial environments and fluvial landscapes, glaciers, and cave and rock shelter formation. Rapp and Hill’s Geoarchaeology:The Earth-Science Approach to Archaeological Interpretation (1998, 2006) was among the first textbooks to offer an integrated approach to geoarchaeology and focused on the direct use of geologic concepts and methods to solve archaeological problems and interpret archaeological records. Goldberg et al. (2001) and Goldberg and Macphail (2006) assessed geology and archaeology and provided case studies. In most other treatises on geoarchaeology, however, ceramics were subsidiary to ecological and site formation processes. A truly earth-science approach focused specifically upon ceramics began earlier, in the 1930s, with geologist Anna O. Shepard’s research (1965), which integrated geology and archaeological ceramic data for the American Southwest and Mesoamerica. Scientific approaches to ceramic analysis encompassed a finer examination of the composition of ceramic artifacts and sherds to determine the source of the material and, through this, the possible location of manufacture. Major criteria that were examined included the composition of the clays and tempers (aplastics) used in the fabrication of the artifact being analyzed. Temper is an organic or inorganic material added to the clay during the production stage to achieve a particular quality in the paste (plastic, or malleable, material to be formed into a desired object) such as workability, drying and firing characteristics, and intended use, such as a cooking vessel that would undergo thermal stress.

Sources of information

Potters who fashion objects from clay are faced with technological choices throughout the fabrication process. These choices involve selection of clays and tempers, techniques of raw material preparation, forming methods and equipment, diversities of surface treatment, varieties of graphic and plastic decoration, as well as drying and firing procedures. The choices and selections that a potter makes are limited by environmental parameters, technological options, subsistence and economic factors, sociocultural contexts, political forms, religious and belief systems, as well as individual and group psychological or behavioral variables. These parameters are examined through methodological paradigms of ceramic ecology (Matson, 1965; Arnold, 1985; Rice, 1987, 2015) and the concept of chaîne opératoire wherein archaeological finds are understood as products of sequential processes of manufacture, use, and disposal (Scarcella, 2011). Matson’s (1965) concept of ceramic ecology emphasizes a holistic assessment of pottery, beginning with the selection of raw materials, the fabrication of products and their distribution, the final uses, modifications, and discards of the ceramic object. The method and theory of ceramic studies has been expanded and enhanced (Arnold, 1985, 1993; Kolb, 1989a, 1997; Rice 1987, 2015) and extended in a revised form into the ethnographic literature through ceramic ethnoarchaeology (Kramer, 1985; Longacre, 1991). The relationships among these factors have been the subject of much discussion in the anthropological and archaeological literature, and they have led to the publication of voluminous numbers of books and journal articles in what is termed archaeological ceramics and ceramic ethnoarchaeology.

A recent examination of the scientific and anthropological periodical literature that focuses on ceramic studies illustrates the major journals that contain articles on the subject. The information (up to 2015) is summarized in Table 1. The publication of reports on ceramic analysis commenced early in the twentieth century with a concern for typology and classification, and the scientific analysis of ceramics began in the 1930s with thin-section petrography (TSP), expanding greatly with the advent of new physicochemical techniques following the development of radiocarbon dating in the late 1950s. Chemical and radiometric analyses of all forms of material culture in the 1970s and 1980s led to the creation of new journals for the publication of analytical results.
Ceramics, Table 1

Ceramic studies in the major journals

Journal/publication (dates reviewed)a

Volume numbers

Ceramic articles n =

Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2009–2015)



Archaeomaterials (1986–1993) [ceased publication]



Archaeometry (1957–2015)



Geoarchaeology: An International Journal (1986–2015)



Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (1981–2015)



Southwestern Journal of Anthropology (1945–1972)



Journal of Anthropological Research (1973–2015)



Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory (1994–2015)



Journal of Archaeological Research (1993–2015)



Journal of Archaeological Science (1974–2015)



Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2015)



Journal of Field Archaeology (1974–2015)



Journal of Roman Pottery Studies (1986–2012)b



Newsletter of the Department of Pottery Technology

 [Leiden University] (1983–2002)



 Leiden Journal of Pottery Studies (2004–2010) [ceased publication]



American Anthropologist (1888–2015)



American Antiquity (1935–2015)



Advances in Archaeological Practice: A Journal of the SAA (2013–2015)



American Journal of Archaeology (1897–2015)



Antiquity (1927–2015)



Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (1919–2015)



Historical Archaeology (1967–2015)



International Journal of Historical Archaeology (1997–2015)



Latin American Antiquity (1990–2015)



Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology (1975–2015)



North American Archaeologist (1980–2015)



World Archaeology (1970–2014)



American Chemical Society: Advances in Chemistry Series

 Archaeological Chemistry (1974–2007)b

8 volumes


American Ceramic Society

 Ceramics and Civilization (1985–1998)b, c

8 volumes


Materials Research Society

 Materials Issues in Art and Archaeology (1988–2014)

10 volumes


aData collected through June 2015

bLatest issue published

cVolume 8 (1998) is on glassmaking (the 16 articles are not included)

The data also indicate that two science-oriented journals, Archaeometry and the Journal of Archaeological Science, consistently publish contributions on ceramics in each issue, while Geoarchaeology:An International Journal reveals surprisingly fewer than might be expected. Other periodicals that occasionally publish ceramic studies include the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory and the Journal of Field Archaeology. Relatively few journals are devoted exclusively to ceramic studies; the notable exceptions are the Journal of Roman Pottery Studies and the Leiden Journal of Pottery Studies. Two primary archaeological journals, the venerable American Journal of Archaeology of the American Institute of Archaeology and the British journal Antiquity, published a few scientific studies on ceramic materials beginning in the 1950s and more during the past two decades. Periodicals published by professional archaeological societies often contain articles on pottery analysis; these include American Antiquity and its newer sister journal, Latin American Antiquity, affiliated with the Society for American Archaeology, and the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Historical Archaeology. The regionally oriented North American Archaeologist and Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, as well as World Archaeology, occasionally present contributions on ceramic studies. Among other major professional organizations, the American Chemical Society, American Ceramic Society, and Materials Research Society, each have a publication series that focuses on archaeological ceramics.

While Anna Shepard’s Ceramics for the Archaeologist (1965) was the foundational handbook, Prudence Rice’s Pottery Analysis:A Sourcebook (1987, 2015) still remains the most comprehensive volume yet available covering all aspects of ceramic materials, including raw materials, the properties of clays, pottery manufacture and use, and characterization studies.

For a materials science and engineering perspective, Carter and Norton’s Ceramic Materials:Science and Engineering (2007) is invaluable.

The most recent reviews of the status of archaeological ceramic studies are by Tite (1999) and Kolb (1989b, 2001, 2011). Over the past four decades, there have been three distinct, discernible, but overlapping chronological phases of archaeological ceramic research: (1) an initial phase concerned predominantly with the documentation of variables of pottery manufacture, provenance, and physicochemical characterization; (2) a phase, derived in part from economic anthropology, with particular emphasis on the distribution and consumption of the finished products; and (3) a trend, building on the second phase, toward behavioral analyses and psychological meanings reflecting upon the potters and their products. Through all three phases, there has been a dynamic growth in the application of methods derived from the physical and biological sciences, so that the archaeometric toolkit has expanded dramatically in our ability, for example, to determine provenance and vessel contents. With few exceptions, the literature on archaeological pottery is particularistic, or narrowly focused, rather than holistic in that published reports provide in-depth assessments of production but lack consideration of consumption and distribution, and they rarely concern group or individual behaviors and sociocultural meanings (Lemonnier, 1993). The major compendia on archaeological ceramics consider raw materials selection and preparation, methods of pottery fabrication and surface treatments, and drying and firing procedures (Shepard, 1965; Rye, 1981; Rice, 1987, 2015; Sinopoli, 1991; Orton et al., 1993; Gibson and Woods, 1997; Orton and Hughes, 2013) but provide minimal or no discussion of pottery distribution, consumption, and the ultimate disposition of the artifacts.

There are substantial scientific studies of ceramic materials ranging from general treatments (Lambert, 1997) to handbooks or encyclopedic compendia (Ellis, 2000; Brothwell and Pollard, 2001; Maschner and Chippindale, 2005) and substantive assessments, some now dated (Rice, 1987; Henderson, 2000; Biswas, 2005). Recent volumes designed as an introduction to the breadth of archaeological chemistry include major works by Goffer (2007), Pollard et al. (2007), Pollard and Heron (2008), and Price and Burton (2011); see comparative reviews by Kolb (2009). Velde and Druc (1999) authored Archaeological Ceramic Materials, one of the few focusing on ancient ceramics. There are also a number of recently edited volumes on pottery analyses (Druc, 2001; Glascock, 2002; Glowacki and Neff, 2002; Jakes, 2002; Martinón-Torres and Rehren, 2008; Shortland et al., 2009). Rice (1987, 1996a, 1996b, 2015) provides a valuable review of the literature, while Neff’s (1992) edited volume contains specific, in-depth views of the applications of a variety of these analyses. Materials science approaches also play a significant role in this phase and include “cautionary tales” about archaeological ceramic research (Bronitsky, 1986; Kolb, 1997). Pottery function is also a trait of this phase (Skibo, 1992, 2013; Rice 1996a) as is specialization and standardization (Rice, 1987, 1996b; Costin, 1991, 2005). Archaeometry and materials science are foci of edited works by Martinón-Torres and Rehren (2008), Quinn (2009), and Shortland et al. (2009).

Clay, ceramics, pottery, and other distinctions

The nature of clay

The distinctions between these terms are drawn primarily from Carter and Norton (2007), Goffer (2007), Pollard and Heron (2008), and Rice (1987). The word “clay” derives from the Old English clǣġ (“stiff, sticky earth”), from the Proto-Germanic klajjaz or kli (“to stick”), and from Proto-Indo-European glei (“to glue or stick together”) and is ultimately related to the Greek word gloios (“sticky matter”), the Latin glus and gluten (“sticky matter”), and the Old Slavic glina (“clay”) (Harper, 2015). “Clay” is effectively a generic term referring to a substance that incorporates one or more clay minerals in many combinations with traces of metallic oxides and organic matter. Clay is a naturally occurring material, and its constituent clay minerals are composed predominantly of fine-grained sheet silicates (or phyllosilicates) with grain sizes <2 μm that are chemically classified as hydrous aluminosilicates. All silicate minerals contain silicon and oxygen, and they comprise the largest and most significant class of rock-forming minerals, constituting about 90 % of the Earth’s crust. Silicate minerals are classified on the basis of the structure of the silicate group and the strength of the Si–O bond. In the case of clay minerals, the structure is sheet-like, yet the extremely thin sheets several atoms thick break up into very small, submicroscopic crystals.

The introduction of water to a clay body provides sufficient lubrication to impart plasticity, which is defined as the ability of a material to deform under pressure yet maintain the new deformed shape when the pressure is released. As long as the plastic limit is reached for the particular clay mineral or admixture of minerals by the introduction of sufficient water, the platy clay crystals slide by one another and hold the position into which they are forced. Additional water will lower the yield strength, so that less force is required to deform the mass, until the liquid limit is reached and the clay begins to behave as a liquid.

The moisture required to reach the plastic limit and produce a plastic body is referred to as the “water of plasticity.” When a clay object has been fashioned and left to dry, this water of plasticity evaporates in large measure, causing the paste to lose its plastic nature and become hard. When fired to a sufficiently high temperature, the crystal structure of the clay minerals making up such a hardened clay object breaks down, and the hydrous component of its mineral composition is driven off. The loss of this “water of crystallization” transforms the formerly clay object into an essentially artificial ceramic one that will no longer return to a plastic state with the addition of water (Rice, 2015).

Unlike stone sources, clay is a complex erosional product of rocks that were subjected to gradual chemical weathering over long periods of time. Because clays are widely distributed, they are relatively easy to find, extract, and process; their abundance also explains why earthenware products are found in nearly every part of the world. Clay deposits are generally made up of tiny clay mineral crystals (plus extraneous fine materials) that settled out of suspension in low-energy bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. Higher-energy flows and internal thermal currents tend to keep clays in suspension.

Clays are differentiated from other fine-grained soil substances based on grain size and mineralogy. Silts are fine-grained materials that do not include clay minerals. They generally have larger particle sizes than clays, but there is some overlap in particle size as well as other physical properties, so many natural deposits can include both silts and clays. Primary clays are located at the site of formation, while secondary clay deposits have been relocated by erosion and possibly lengthy transport by natural processes from their primary location. There are approximately 30 different types of “pure” clay minerals in these categories (Moore and Reynolds, 1997), but most “natural” clay deposits are mixtures of these types, with additions of other weathered minerals (Rice, 2015).

The distinctions between silt and clay and between the different types of clay vary by academic discipline. Geologists and soil scientists consider the separation between clay and silt to occur at a particle size of 2 μm (clays being finer than silts), sedimentologists often use 4–5 μm, and colloid chemists use 1 μm. Materials scientists and geotechnical engineers distinguish between silts and clays based on soil plasticity properties. Categorized by their atomic composition and molecular structure, there are three or four main groups of clays: kaolinite, montmorillonite-smectite, illite, and chlorite. Chlorites are not always considered clay, sometimes being classified as a separate group within the phyllosilicates. Other names for clay sediments exist in common usage. “Kaolin” is sometimes referred to as China clay because it was initially identified in China; “ball clay” is an extremely plastic, fine-grained sedimentary clay, which is largely composed of the clay mineral kaolinite and may contain some organic matter; “bentonite” is a highly plastic clay composed mostly of the clay mineral montmorillonite that absorbs water and is used as a mold binder in the manufacture of sand castings; “fire clay” differs from kaolin in having a slightly higher percentage of fluxes (components that promote melting at lower temperatures than the pure material), is quite plastic, and is highly heat resistant. “Stoneware clay” is fine grained and used to create a ceramic with characteristics lying between fire clay and ball clay and is heat resistant in order to produce the hard and watertight ceramic called stoneware (Rice, 1987; Guggenheim and Martin, 1995; Kolb, 2011; ASTM, 2015). Clays, the raw materials of pottery making, chemical and mineralogical definitions, and the clay/water system are further elaborated by Rice (1987, 2015).

The word “ceramic” comes from the Greek word κεραμικός, keramikos (“of pottery” or “for pottery”) and from κραμος, keramos (“potter’s clay, tile, pottery”) (Harper, 2015). It is an “artificial stone” created by humans that combines earth/clay, water, fire, and air – the four basic elements identified by the ancient Greeks. The terms ceramics, pottery, and earthenware are sometimes interchangeable, but although these are all synthetic materials, there are important distinctions and discrete definitions that require explanation. A ceramic is an inorganic, nonmetallic solid prepared by the action of heat and subsequent cooling. Ceramic materials may have a crystalline or partly crystalline structure, or they may be amorphous (e.g., a glass). Because most common ceramics are crystalline, the definition of ceramic is often restricted to inorganic crystalline materials, as opposed to the noncrystalline glasses. Pottery as a generic term includes earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. ASTM Standard C 242-01: “Standard Terminology of Ceramic Whitewares and Related Products” (ASTM, 2015) defines pottery as “all fired ceramic wares that contain clay when formed, except technical, structural, and refractory products.” There are four major types of pottery:
  • Terra-cotta is a very porous, lightweight pottery developed in Southwest Asia ca. 6000 BP and fired to <850 °C.

  • Earthenware has a continuous history from the Neolithic period to the present and was made from clays that were fired at temperatures >950 °C in open bonfires or pits. Majolica and faience are glazed earthenwares (Tite and Shortland, 2008).

  • Stoneware was created beginning as early as the fifteenth century BCE in China, and especially since the seventh century CE, and coincides with the innovation of kilns that could be fired at higher temperatures, 1200–1300 °C.

  • Porcelain is made from “China clay” and fired at 1300 °C. It was first made in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–906 CE).

“Greenware” refers to unfired objects in a soft and malleable “plastic” form. “Leather-hard” refers to a partially dry, pliable clay body that has approximately 15 % moisture content and represents the ideal stage for trimming and handle attachment. “Bone-dry” refers to clay bodies after glaze or biscuit firing with moisture content near 0 %. “Biscuit” connotes a shaped object that has been fired in the kiln for the first time. “Glost fired” is the final stage when a glaze may be applied.

Ceramic research

Research on ceramics has, in the main, four goals: (1) description and characterization; (2) provenance; (3) ascertaining chronology; and (4) explanation, inference, and/or the testing of hypotheses.

Materials scientists and archaeologists are concerned with research design parameters, such as sampling and analytical or statistical procedures. Likewise, they expend time and effort in characterization studies of the physical properties of pottery (examining color, texture/microstructure, porosity/permeability, luster, density, mechanical and thermal properties), mineralogical composition (using petrography and X-ray diffraction), chemical content (using spectroscopy and microprobe analysis), structural characteristics (using electron microscopy and radiography), and contents and residues (using scanning electron microscopy and varied chemical analyses). Aspects of manufacturing/forming methods include tool use, form/shape analyses, surface modifications and drying, prefired and/or postfired decoration, and firing. Quantification of dimensions, volume, shape, function/use analyses, and contexts/associations is also of great cultural significance. Most archaeologists must work in some way with ceramic relative chronology, as it is essential to chronological control in many archaeological sites, but some specialists are particularly focused upon “absolute” or chronometric techniques of dating (archaeomagnetic, thermoluminescence, and radiocarbon analyses) or the use of varied methods in the authentication of objects.

Description and characterization

The process of pottery manufacture, from obtaining raw materials through firing and uses, is detailed by Rice (1987, 2015) and summarized by Tite (1999). The former author also reviews the important concepts of firing loss rates and fuel consumption and costs. Sheehy (1988) is among the few scholars to have examined clay/fuel ratios from archaeological and ethnoarchaeological perspectives. Vessel forms, technologies, and properties related to fabrication and the identification of use are well documented by Rice (1987), who also has summarized decorative styles and stylistic analyses (see also Cumberpatch and Blinkhorn, 1997). Use alteration, mentioned by Tite (1999), has been detailed by Skibo (2013). An assessment of residue analysis is also provided by Rice (1987) and Skibo (1992, 2013). Organic residue analysis (ORA) involves biomolecular studies, notably employing gas chromatography (GC), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), and gas chromatography-combustion-isotope ratio mass spectrometry (GC-C-IRMS) as methods of extraction to evaluate lipids and other residues.

Colors of ceramic materials are normally described in the Munsell Color System (2009); for an historical assessment, see also Nickerson (1976) and Kuehni (2002). Clay identification is sometimes determined by a process of refiring the ceramic and assigning a color to it using Munsell Soil Color notation.

By estimating both the clay and temper compositions, and locating a region where both are known to occur, an assignment of the materials’ origin can be made, leading to the identification of potential sites of manufacture. This process is referred to as sourcing, and the location of raw material extraction and/or production of the ceramic object is called its provenance. Mechanical and thermal properties and the mineralogical and chemical characterization of ceramic materials can also be determined (Rapp, 2002; Carter and Norton, 2007; ASTM, 2015). The varied types of physicochemical characterization studies conducted on ceramics have been summarized by Rice (1987, 1996b) and Kolb (2014), while Neff’s (1992) edited volume provides specific, in-depth views of the applications of a variety of these analyses. Pottery function and use analyses are added to the bibliography (Skibo 1992, 2013; Rice 1996a), as is specialization and standardization (Rice, 1987, 1996b; Costin, 1991, 2005).

Thin-section studies (TSP: thin-section petrography) in archaeology, also termed optical mineralogy or optical petrography, date to the 1930s with Shepard’s research (1965). It is the “classic” approach and, although tedious and time consuming, provides data on specimen compositions that bulk analyses such as INAA cannot provide. There is a voluminous literature (Philpotts, 1989; Humphries, 1992; Glazner et al., 1997; Tite, 1999; Clarke and Eberhardt, 2002; Reedy, 2008; Quinn, 2009). Kolb provides examples of analyses and cautionary tales (1997, 2001, 2008), while Reedy’s current research focuses on digital and 3D imaging of ceramic thin sections (2012); radiographic procedures are summarized by Lang and Middleton (2005).

The primary physicochemical methods used in ceramic analysis include:
  • AAS: atomic absorption spectroscopy – superseded in the last decade by XRF

  • EPMA: electron probe microanalysis

  • INAA/NAA: instrumental neutron activation analysis

  • M/S: Mössbauer (German: Mößbauer) spectroscopy

  • TSEM: transmission scanning electron microscopy

  • X-ray milliprobe

  • X-ray radiography

  • XRF: X-ray fluorescence

A persistent difficulty within archaeological ceramic analysis is the study of whole assemblages from both a compositional and technological perspective. Existing techniques, such as TSP microscopy, ICP-MS, and INAA, “struggle” to integrate compositional datasets with the textural information that is crucial for reconstructing technological choices. The latter two provide chemical compositions, while TSP shows structural/textural evidence. However, advances in automated scanning electron microscopy with linked energy-dispersive spectrometers (SEM-EDS) create the potential to offer a seamless combination of textural and mineralogical data in which textural information can be accompanied by the acquisition of energy-dispersive elemental spectra. Mineral quantification using QEMSCAN® (quantitative evaluation of minerals by scanning electron microscopy) technology and compositional mapping allows standardized comparison of diverse datasets to address wider issues of social interaction within the ancient world. A typical analysis involves the collection of more than 500,000 individual points on a sample surface. For ceramic materials, this method offers an attractive visual representation of the texture as well as the mineralogical components. The components of the matrix and temper are commonly recognizable, and the analysis can reveal fine structures that are not visible by the naked eye. Automated SEM-EDS refines petrographic descriptions but also provides unique insight into clay mineral composition and clay mixing; mixtures of different clays combined to achieve specific working properties represent a traditionally difficult behavior on the part of potters to identify analytically (Hilditch et al., 2012).

Methods of determining provenance

Provenance studies have been conducted on earthenware, stoneware, protoporcelain, and porcelain, but few chemical studies have directly linked pottery vessels with specific clay sources. Clays may be transported long distances from sources to distant production workshops, making those sources difficult to trace. They may contain naturally occurring organic or inorganic aplastics that were removed prior to use through levigation (the separation of coarse matter by suspending the fine fraction in water), and organic or inorganic materials may be introduced purposefully as temper or unintentionally during the preparation of the clay. Heterogeneous clays from different sources may also be brought together to achieve specific properties and thoroughly mixed during the wedging process wherein air is forced out of the clay prior to forming. The size and complexity of the manufacturing process may vary – from simple contexts such as household production by one potter to larger group efforts by multiple artisans, each responsible for one step in a multiphase process, to the most complicated situations presented by a factory or industrial level of fabrication – and these variations pose challenges to one’s ability to define ceramic provenance precisely (Rice, 1987, 2015; Neff, 2002; Goldstein et al., 2003; Pollard and Heron, 2008; Shackley, 2011; Kolb, 2014). The following list of methods that have been used to determine provenance derives from a review of the volumes and journal literature in Table 1. As in physicochemical analyses (discussed above), each method has advantages and disadvantages.
  • AAS: Atomic absorption spectroscopy: Superseded in the last decade by XRF.

  • EPMA: Electron probe microanalysis: Similar to SEM which has a higher sensitivity.

  • FTIR: Fourier transform infrared spectrometry.

  • GC: Gas chromatography, HT-GC (high-temperature GC), HT-GC-MS (HT-GC with mass spectrometry): Residues on or in ceramics.

  • ICP-AES: Inductively coupled plasma (spectroscopy)-atomic emission spectroscopy.

  • INAA/NAA: Instrumental neutron activation analysis.

  • ICP-MS: Inductively coupled plasma-mass spectroscopy: It is replacing INAA (Speakman and Neff, 2005).

  • ICP-OES: Inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectrometry.

  • LA-ICP-MS: Laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma (spectroscopy)-mass spectrometry, TOF-LA-ICP-MS (time-of-flight LA-ICP-MS).

  • LC: Liquid chromatography, LC-MS (LC with mass spectrometry): Residues on ceramics.

  • M/S: Mössbauer (German: Mößbauer) spectroscopy.

  • OCL: Optical cathodoluminescence.

  • PIXE/PIGME: Proton-induced X-ray emission/proton-induced gamma ray emission.

  • R/S: Raman spectroscopy.

  • SEM: Scanning electron microscopy, SEM-EDS (SEM with energy-dispersive spectrometers), SEM-WDS (SEM with wavelength-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy).

  • TSP: Thin-section petrography, OM (optical mineralogy), and OP (optical petrography).

  • XRD: X-ray diffraction.

  • XRF: X-ray fluorescence, ED-XRF (energy-dispersive-XRF): Portable (or hand-held) X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometry has become common for the geochemical characterization of ceramics.

  • XRPD: X-ray powder diffraction.

Methods of ascertaining chronology

Chronology is a fundamental component of scientific and humanistic inquiry. There are two ways to establish chronology: methods of relative dating (ascertaining the correct order of the events) and absolute or chronometric dating (quantifying the measurement of time in terms of years or other fixed units). Relative dating may be determined from (1) sequence dating through seriation (changes in artifact form, function, or style through time), (2) stratigraphic analysis (geological stratigraphy based upon the “Law of Superposition”), and (3) cross-dating. Chronometric dating may rely upon (1) historic or written records, (2) non-radiometric scientific studies (such as dendrochronology, thermoluminescence, or obsidian hydration dating techniques), (3) radiometric analyses (radiocarbon and uranium series dating, e.g., which rely upon the decay of unstable parent isotopes into stable daughter forms), and (4) biochemical analyses (notably by amino acid racemization). Chronometric dating that assigns specific dates or date ranges in calendar years to artifacts and other archaeological finds is critical to ceramic studies. Most of the chronometric dating methods above do not date ceramics directly; however, they provide an age for other materials that must be recovered in close temporal association with the ceramics. Since the 1950s, radiocarbon dating has been the most significant and commonly employed chronometric method in archaeology, but ceramic materials must be associated with appropriately datable samples in order to be assigned the same age. The analysis of carbonaceous residues adhering to ceramic cooking pots has been used to some advantage.

There are two types of luminescence dating techniques: optical dating (notably optically stimulated luminescence or OSL) used on sediments and thermoluminescence (TL) which can be employed on a variety of burned materials including heat-treated flint, sediments, and pottery. Thermoluminescence is now commonly used in the authentication of old ceramic wares, for which it gives the approximate date of the last firing (Aitken, 1990; Taylor and Aitken, 1997). When a small sample of ancient pottery is heated, it glows with a faint blue light, called thermoluminescence. During its lifetime, the pottery absorbs radiation from its environment as well as internal radiation sources, and this radiation causes an increase in energy within the fabric of the ceramic due to electrons trapped at higher-energy states after having been displaced from their regular atomic orbits by the radiation. The older the pottery, the more radiation it has absorbed, and the brighter the pottery sample glows when reheated in the laboratory. By measuring the TL, it is possible to calculate how much radiation has been absorbed. This information can then be used to compute the approximate age of the pottery.

Rehydroxylation (RHX) dating has been proposed as a new chronometric dating tool for use on archaeological fired-clay ceramics (Wilson et al., 2009, 2014). The technique relies upon the propensity of reheated porous ceramic objects to regain water through a two-stage process (rehydration and RHX), where the kinetics of the second stage have been shown to follow a (time)1/4 power law at temperatures of 13–50 °C. RHX is self-calibrating, so the reaction rate adjusts according to differences in firing temperature, mineralogy, and microstructure. An empirical equation accounting for the effects of burial in archaeological sites and temperature history has been developed to describe the observed ceramic’s rehydration and RHX behavior. RHX can provide a date of manufacture for archaeological ceramics by measuring the lifetime mass gain. The technique shows great promise, and after additional research, it could become an important archaeometric tool.

Emerging analytical techniques

Close-range digital photogrammetry is applicable to pottery (Matthews, 2008). The technique is used to derive 3D measurements from stereoscopic image overlap and has been shown to have extensive applications (Verhoeven, 2011). Close-range photogrammetry (CRP) refers to the collection of photography from a lesser distance than traditional aerial photogrammetry. It is similar to 3D scanning, in that both techniques are noncontact, fast, and accurate methods for recording objects in three dimensions. Images captured from a distance of 0.5–2 m will have a pixel resolution of 60–250 μm and will potentially produce a 3D model with a point spacing of approximately 0.5–1 mm.

Reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) (Webb and Wachowiak, 2011) is a relatively new method of digital documentation being increasingly utilized as an effective means of object documentation, and it is ideal for ceramic vessels. The process consists of capturing multiple digital images (typically between 40 and 64) of a stationary object from a fixed camera position. For each image captured, the object is illuminated using a single light source at a fixed distance and luminance. Employing a “stack” of images, each with a different but known light position, a per-pixel reflectance function can be mathematically estimated using a method known as polynomial texture mapping (PTM).

Experimental archaeology

Experimental archaeology and ceramic replication (Mathieu, 2002) are well-known methods designed to generate and test hypotheses based upon archaeological source material, the goal being to replicate past processes. The branch has four categories: (1) controlled replication of recovered artifacts or the reconstruction of known activities; (2) testing the validity of methodological assumptions by applying them to known data; (3) contextual experimentation, such as burying modern replicas and/or ecofacts for varying lengths of time to assess postdepositional effects on them; and (4) ceramic ethnographic or ethnoarchaeological data. Closely related is “reverse engineering,” exemplified by Vandiver (2005), which links archaeological materials research and conservation science.


Digital data analysis and the creation of data bases often involve a transition from analog to searchable digital formats (Levy, 2012).

POTSHERD:Atlas of Roman Pottery (Tyers, 2012) is a collection of Web pages on archaeological pottery principally of the Roman period (first century BCE to fifth century CE) in Britain and Western Europe. The database includes an introductory atlas containing descriptions and distribution maps of types of Roman ceramics, lists of wares by class (tablewares, cooking wares, transport amphorae, etc.), and source (Roman province of origin).

The Pottery Informatics Query Database (PIQD) (Levy, 2012) provides for the digital preservation and analysis of ceramic collections, including 2D and 3D data. The initial focus is on the Iron Age Levant, 1200–500 BCE.

The Diyala Database (Oriental Institute, 2012) has published all archaeological materials from the Diyala Expedition in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). More than 15,000 artifacts including pottery and cuneiform tablets, as well as archival materials, object registers, field diaries, photographs, site plans, and correspondence were scanned, object descriptions entered into database tables, and new images of artifacts taken at the Oriental Institute Museum were inserted. The searchable Web-accessible database integrates all of these data formats. Employing high-resolution three-dimensional scans (up to 60 μm resolution) may allow many future projects to proceed by manipulating the digital rather than physical versions of ceramic objects.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ViennaUSA
  2. 2.National Endowment for the HumanitiesWashingtonUSA