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Our Global Neighbours: In Praise of Pottery

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 20 Jun 2016

Are pieces of broken clay pots good for anything?

Egyptian Pottery: E15726

Egyptian Pottery: E15726
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Pottery is probably the first material humans ever truly transformed, by firing, not just shaping it. Made from clay, mixed with various other materials, pottery is usually associated with ancient civilisations and cultures dependent on the cultivation of domesticated plants for their food. But pottery is much older; it appeared among people who hunted, fished and gathered their "wild” crops without cultivating plants, or herding animals.

Actually, the earliest known clay pots are from Japan and are associated with hunter-gatherer culture, where the Odai Yamamoto site (northern Honshu Island) is dated to about 16,500-14,900 years ago. But a craft of modelling clay and baking to harden it, is evidenced in Central Europe earlier still, at about 24,000 - 28,000 years ago.

Pots made of clay allowed different methods of food preparation, such as boiling grains and vegetables, both wild and domesticated. Various fermentation methods resulted in the production of wine, beer and milk products. Pots opened not only new culinary horizons but made possible food transport, storage and preservation like never before. We are probably still not fully aware of the significance of pottery on human dietary adventure, population growth and, ultimately, the course of history.

Chances are archaeologists appreciate pottery far better than the rest of us. And they do it, oddly, for its relative fragility. Pots brake frequently and the “village” potters, often but not exclusively women, or the families manufacture pots in regular intervals to re-supply households with these vital domestic utensils.

Fragments of broken pottery, and some complete pots found in graves or occasionally in forsaken stores and dwellings, are shadowy markers of human persistence through ages. Many tonnes of broken pottery are scattered around villages and townships from remote antiquity to our times. They can survive in most stable soil deposits, unchanged for a very long time, nearly for ever.

Furthermore, communities made their pots in forms and decorations dictated by long local tradition as if desired to uphold collective identity through the faithful replication of their cooking and storage utensils. A change of style usually signifies some social disruption where different groups merged together or one absorbed another, or significant human movement, migration and expansion.

For example Linear Pottery that spread through large part of Europe (c 5,500-4,500 BC) indicates the arrival of early farming communities. Distinct Roman terracotta pottery produced in large quantities, often in specialised workshops, was spread throughout the Empire and beyond, where Roman trade and connections reached out. Lapita pottery marks the geographical expansion of people with common cultural bonds in the Pacific (c 1,600 -500 BC).

But the pottery style could be quite confined to much smaller areas and shorter time periods. They help archaeologist to identify past cultures and refine dating historical sequences. Pottery pieces mark distinct human groups in their homelands and on their migration journeys by land and the oceans. And sometimes it marks trading, where people with better access to resources have specialised in this craft of utilitarian necessity.

An instructive example from our region is the trading network in the Trobriand Islands and Massim area northeast of the Papua New Guinea mainland. A renowned case in social studies - Kula Trading Ring, researched by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the 1920s – attracted the attention of archaeologists. Studying prehistoric pottery, distinctive and extensively distributed in this area, they discovered that similar trading network(s) existed within the past 1,500 years. Until about 500 years ago this network included the northeast mainland, centered on Collingwood Bay. Later, as it is known from the early 20th century, it separated itself from the mainland, only touching its eastern tip and including many islands of the Milne Bay region.

Further reading:

Brian Egloff. The Kula Before Malinowski: A Changing Configuration. Mankind Volume 11, Issue 3, pages 429–435, 978

Wal Ambrose, Fiona Petchey, Pamela Swadling, Harry Beran, Elizabeth Bonshek, Ketherine Szabo, Simon Bickler and Glenn Summerhayes. Engraved prehistoric Conus shell valuables from southeastern Papua New Guinea: their antiquity, motifs and distribution. Archaeology in Oceania 47 (2012) 113–132

Explanation: 

BC (or BCE) – means Before Common Era, and indicates the years counted back from the first year of the Western Calendar. For example, in 30 BC Rome conquered Egypt and Cleopatra took her own life. AD indicates Common Era (counted from year 1 to present).