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ARCH 2105: Ceramic Analysis for Archaeology

Thursdays 4-6:20pm

Rhode Island Hall Seminar Room

Laurel Bestock,, (401) 863-6291

Office Hours Wednesdays 10am-noon and by appointment, Rhode Island Hall Room 209

The analysis and interpretation of ceramic remains allow archaeologists to accomplish varied ends: establish a time scale, document interconnections between different areas, and suggest what activities were carried out at particular sites. The techniques and theories used to bridge the gap between the recovery of ceramics and their interpretation within archaeological contexts is the focus of this seminar.

This course is divided into three sections. In the first section we will examine pottery technology: the physical and chemical characteristics of clay and temper and the art of creating and firing useful ceramic vessels from clay. In the second section of this course we will work to understand how archaeologists use ceramics to answer questions about the past.  The third section will be case studies presented by students detailing the manufacture and use of particular types of ceramics in their geographic areas of interest.  Throughout the course we will spend time aquiring the skills associated with ceramic analysis, including drawing pottery, analyzing fabric, working with a ceramics database, and creating typologies and seriations.  The goal of the course is to leave students capable of participating as ceramicists in a field season with an archaeological project and able to utilize ceramic data effectively in their research.


There are four books used extensively in this class. There is overlap in some cases between them, however all are relevant and required:

Rice, Prudence M. 1987 Pottery Analysis: A Sourcebook. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. This is the most comprehensive of the books currently available and will be our main text. It deals with almost every topic related to the archaeological analysis of pottery. It is an excellent reference book.

Sinopoli, Carla M. 1991 Approaches to Archaeological Ceramics. Plenum Press, New York. This book assumes the reader has access to the Rice and Shepard volumes and focuses on the anthropological and archaeological questions that can be addressed with ceramics. It’s a bit more of an overview than the others – I suggest reading it first each week.

Arnold, Dean A. 1985 Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. A more theoretical look at the intersection between ceramics and culture.

C. Orton, P. Tyers, and A. Vince. 1993 Pottery in Archaeology. Cambridge University Press. More of a practical handbook than a textbook, it will be useful in considering how to set up a ceramics lab and the like.

Also very worth knowing about but not a primary source for this course:

Shepard, Anna Osler 1956 Ceramics for the Archaeologist. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington. The foundational book. It is still relevant on many topics. It is also available free online at This pdf was made using early generation ocr software and so has lots of typos and is somewhat annoying, but for the most part can be figured out.

Lectures and Readings

Required and supplementary readings for the course are listed below by week. Read all of the required readings and select one supplementary to read carefully for discussion in class. You are responsible for scanning (review and become familiar with) the remaining supplementary readings. In general, the first half of each class will be devoted to a discussion of readings, while the second half of each class will be run like a field lab. The reading list currently is extremely full. It is useful for you to know of all of these readings, however, during the course of the semester I will probably cut or change some of them. Updated reading assignments will be posted to the wiki at least 5 days before each class; it is your responsibility to check the wiki regularly and not to rely on the syllabus handed out at the beginning of class. During “lab”, students will work individually, principally on drawing and fabric analysis. You are encouraged to bring iPods with playlists to share as we will – if all students agree – play music while drawing. There will be assigned readings and “lab” time during the third part of the class when we are having presentations.

“Ethnography” assignment Much of our understanding of the creation, use and social and ecnomic roles of ancient ceramics comes from ethnographic studies of societies that still work in so-called primitive potting traditions. For this assignment, students will find and interview a potter currently working in this area in order to learn about how they create vessels, from choices they make regarding fabric to decoration to firing. While it is highly unlikely that you will find potters working in ancient methods, there is a great deal to be learned about clay and those who use it even from more modern techniques. You must be able to speak to your potter in person and examine his or her wares. Any building techniques are acceptible with the exception of slip-casting. We will collectively write a set of questions that can serve as guidelines for interviews. Students will present their findings in a short (5-10 minutes) presentation and post their findings to the wiki. Posts may take the form of podcasts with interviews or written descriptions with photographs and/or video.

Individual Research Projects Using the techniques and methods studied in class, you will develop an independent research project that involves the analysis of a pre-industrial ceramic assemblage or type of vessel or ware. You will adress all aspects of the vessels, from fabric and production to decoration, function, contexts within which it is found, chronology and any larger implications regarding culture or trade. The results of this research will be presented to the class in a 30-35 minuted presentation and written up as a paper in the form of a publishable article. You must assign at least one reading assignment to the class that is relevant to your presentation; post your assignment with a pdf to the wiki at least 5 days before you are slated to present.


Class participation: 25%

“Ethnography” assignment: 25%

Project presentation: 25%

Project paper: 25%

The schdule is in the full syllabus, attached below

Document IconARCH 2105 Syllabus.doc

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