Pottery Function in the Archaeology of the Continental Balkans: An Overview
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Pottery function and use are one of the most complex issues in pottery studies because they comprise the study of different interactions,behaviors, and activities related to ceramic vessels. In the early days ofarchaeology as a discipline, pottery studies were focused on the classification of pots and the establishment of sequences to understand chronological and spatial relations between pottery groups, as the most prominentmarkers of archaeological cultures. Therefore, pottery usage did not attract attention as an important segment of research, except in the earlydays of American archaeology: in the pioneering attempts of pottery classification, evidence of use, such as layers of soot suggesting cooking, weretaken into account (Nelson 1916). Apart from sporadic considerationsabout function, it was not until the ‘80s that studies of pottery functionachieved full recognition. It seems that stressing an obvious fact – thatthe pots are tools (Braun 1983), designed to be used (Skibo 2013,... 27), wasnecessary to bring about a shift in considerations about pottery. With theseminal works of D. Hally (1983a,b, 1986), and especially of J. Skibo andM. Schiffer (Schiffer and Skibo 1987, 1989, 2008; Skibo 1992, 2013; Skiboand Blinman 1995), examination of pottery function was theoreticallygrounded, and its methods were fully established, including experimentaland ethnoarchaeological research. In the study of pottery function and use, making a division betweentwo aspects of function – intended and actual use, is of great importance,especially because focused studies aimed exclusively on pottery functionare still rare. Intended function refers to the technical choices potters make related to function (Skibo and Schiffer 2008, 18; Skibo 1992, 35-37; 2013,27) or, in other words, the determination of the suitability of ceramic vessels for specific functions depending on their performance characteristics.These are defined as the “behavioral capabilities that an artifact possess tofulfill its functions in a specific activity” (Schiffer and Skibo 1987, 599), oras the ability of a vessel “to do certain things” (Hally 1986, 268), and theyare mostly related to resistivity to mechanical and thermal stresses duringuse. These mechanical and physical properties depend on vessels’ formalattributes, usually recorded during pottery data processing: fabric, surfacetreatments and decoration, wall thickness, and shape.The significance of shapes was early recognized as important for theconsiderations about function (Linton 1944; cf. Hally 1983b). Some of theperformance characteristics are exclusively connected with vessel forms:capacity (Smith 1985, 273, table 11.2), stability, ease of access, and transportability (Shepard 1956, 237; Rice 1987, 225), among others. Contoursof the vessels’ walls also affect performance, especially its thermal properties: for example, the presence of a low neck – constriction – reducesevaporation and prevents boiling over, and is, therefore, suitable for simmering for longer periods (Smith 1985; Rice 1987, 240; cf. Vuković 2019a)in contrast to open pots, suitable for boiling. Metric parameters (height,volume, and rim, shoulder and base radii) and different indexes – calculated ratios between some of the metric parameters – were also examinedas important indicators of suitability for specific functions (Smith 1985;Hally 1986). Besides the fact that indexes enable strong empirical data,their numerical values are especially useful for comparative analyses ofdifferent assemblages or vessel classes.The potential function or suitability of a vessel for a specific functiondoes not reveal how the vessels were actually used. The actual functionrefers not only to traces of use – use alterations (use-wear and surfaceaccretions), but also to use-related activities, and it is based on the identification of traces and the examination of their distribution and frequency(Skibo 1992; 2013; for an overview, see Forte, this volume). Considerations of some kinds of surface attrition, i.e. mechanical damage, are alsouseful for the identification of re-use and extended use of pots.The analyses of function, including ethnoarchaeological research,were first developed to primarily understand prehistoric pottery. In contrast to assemblages from prehistoric sites, considerations about potteryfunction within the ceramic assemblages from the historical periods arequite rare. Due to many primary sources, which contain data on vesseltypes and their use, the course of ceramic studies was mainly based onissues of typology, production centers, especially in the case of fine wares,and chronology, both of individual types and whole assemblages. Therefore, the issues of function were approached primarily from the aspect offormal attributes and morphology. Along with the shape and wall curvature, much attention was paid to the fabric, i.e. the types of inclusions, andthickness of the vessel walls, as clear indicators of their function.Among the pottery assemblages from historical periods, namely, theClassical era, use-wear analyses were sporadically done. In this regard,Margaret Ward’s (1993) functional analysis of terra sigillata (Samian ware)from the Roman fort at Piercebridge (United Kingdom) is rather representative. The Samian ware collection revealed evidence of frequent andextended use, most probably in a process of mixing ingredients (spices),based on the presence of heavy abrasion on the bases and walls (Ward1993, 19; Peña 2007, 60, Fig. 4.2). The function of Batavian hand-madepottery in the Roman military context of the Augustan castrum in Nijmegen (Netherlands) was also examined (Stoffels 2009, 147-149). Basedon the presence of soot and secondary burning, it was established thatthese pots had actually been used as cooking pots. The presence of twoother functional groups (tableware and storage), and the spatial distribution of vessels, suggest the usage of locally made pottery for cooking,presumably to fulfill the eating habits of the native Batavian auxiliary soldiers in the Roman fort (Stoffels 2009, 153). On the other hand, P. Arthur(2007b) examined cooking-pot types in relation to food resources, including archaeozoological and archaeobotanical remains, to determine thedistribution and application of different cooking techniques in the centuries between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. He put forwardan interesting thesis that a change in cooking pots, from predominantlyclosed with flat bases to predominantly open forms with convex bases,should be seen as a consequence not only of regionally available meat,cereals, and vegetables but also migrations of people, that is, a culture offood preparation and cooking habits. A similar assumption was made inthe case of tableware, primarily African Red Slip ware, which changed interms of size and typology during the same period. However, the use ofceramic vessels in historic sources, i.e. old cooking texts, challenges Arthur’s model due to a different nomenclature, primarily when it comes tothe function of olla and caccabus (Donelly 2015, 143–144). On the otherhand, during the 5th and 6th centuries, a decrease in the variety of potterytypes, i.e. profiles and sizes (volumes), was recorded. This was largely dueto the economic regression and the disappearance of large-scale potteryproduction (Arthur 2007a, 164-165). This phenomenon, clearly visible inthe archaeological record, coincides with the data in the texts. Nevertheless, Arthur’s model showed that cooking pots can be evidence of cultural(gastronomic) boundaries in antiquity, although due to the unreliability of his conclusions, it was suggested that other methods should be included,primarily analyses of use-alterations and residue analyses (Arthur 2007b,146). Concerning the modes of cooking in late antique pottery, according to the distribution of sooting clouds, it was assumed that pots withrounded bottoms were probably placed on some kind of metal base, trivet,or grid that allowed equal heat distribution, while closed, flat-based cooking-pots were placed by the fire and in front of the hearth or stove; theirthin walls allowed heat to be distributed more evenly on one side without constant mixing (Vroom 2008, 299–301, Figs. 13,15). In contrast, latemedieval cooking-pots, glazed as well as unglazed, exhibit visible sootingclouds on the outside. Although it was suggested that they were placeddirectly in the fire (Vroom 2004, 286), these use-accretions rather indicatethe position of the pot at a distance from the heat source.In early medieval archaeology, the need to examine pottery from theaspect of use was first recognized in the research of the old Slavic settlements. Excavations in Central Europe in the 1970s and ‘80s yielded,among other things, large ceramic assemblages containing whole vessels.They provided a deeper insight into the technological style, but also theuse of pottery in the early Middle Ages. One of the best examples is thesite of Březno near Louny (Czech Republic), a Slavic settlement dated tothe 9th century. Relying on ethnographic studies, an extensive experimentfocused on building old Slavic huts and living in them, including foodpreparation, was conducted (Pleinerová 1986; Pleinerová and Neustupny1987). The research revealed that the pots were placed in front of the ovenopening because of the need for frequent stirring; therefore, half of thecooking pot was exposed to open fire. Additionally, the correlation between mode of use of certain oven types, cooking technique, and the formand size of the vessels was established (Curta 2001, 286, 289–290), revealing some aspects of the household organization of old Slavic communities.Finally, secondary use, reuse, and recycling are important parts ofthe artifacts’ life cycles (Schiffer 1987, 13-15, 271) or use-lives. Reuse – achange in the user or use or form of an artifact following its initial use(Schiffer 1987, 28), or use of an object in a secondary context when it canno longer serve its original function (Deal and Hagstrum 1995, 111), arean important part of dynamic interactions between people and pottery, aswell as an important aspect of formation processes. Recycling – the returnof the artifact to the manufacturing process (Schiffer 1987, 28-32), in thecase of pottery needed to be redefined, and it was proposed that recyclingshould refer to the usage of fragments of pots, as tools, building material,or raw material (Vuković 2015). Important ethnoarchaeological research(Deal 1998) revealed the complexity of ceramic vessels’ use-lives, but theseissues were more rarely examined on pottery revealed from archaeological contexts (for example Sullivan 1989). The usage of ceramic sherds astools attracted some more attention in the research of archeological assemblages (López Varela et al. 2002; Van Gijn and Hofman 2008). An extremely important contribution regarding these stages of vessels’ use-liveswas made by T. Peña (2007), who examined numerous secondary uses ofRoman amphorae, including their reuse in burial customs, and the recycling of their fragments (props for cooking vessels, tools, gaming pieces,weights, etc.).The issue of extended use is usually connected with repairs of thepots. The most frequent ways of mending ceramic vessels were makingperforations along the breakage, and tying together the vessels’ fragmentswith some kind of string, rope, and even with metal wire (Dooijes andNieuwenhuyse 2007, 2009). Roman terra sigillata, for example, was oftenrepaired with rivets and staples (Ward 1993, 19–20), while amphorae weremended using the hole and clamp technique with the use of lead (Peña2007, 237–249) or by filling the cracks with wax, resin, gypsum, crushedceramics or glass, using animal glue, beeswax, or pine resin as adhesives(e.g. 213-215). The repairing of pots was usually connected to their highvalue, and a statistical method, the so-called frequency-of-mending (FreqMend), describing the frequency of repair per pottery type, was developed(Senior 1995). This is why analyses of secondary use, reuse, and extendeduse reveal a deeper insight into lifestyles and common practices of communities of the past.
Keywords:pottery function and use
Source:Pottery Function and Use: A Diachronic Perspective, 2022, 37-67
- University of Belgrade – Faculty of Philosophy
- Institute of Archaeology, Belgrade