by John Strong
July 5, 2011
Pottery is the archaeologist’s lifeblood, it would seem. And it is not because archaeologists want whole jars or museum pieces, though those are always welcome. Archaeologists want pieces of pottery, because the right sherd of pottery can give an absolute date to a wall, a surface, and, once relationships are properly understood, an entire phase of occupation.
In the field, then, volunteers are continually collecting pottery and placing it into buckets. It should be made clear that folks in the ancient Near East used a lot of pottery, and there is never a shortage of their refuse for archaeologists to find. In fact, pottery sherds are as prevalent on an ancient tel as gravel is on a rural Missouri road. So, the goal for the volunteer is not to save every piece, but to save the good ones—the “diagnostic” pieces. Generally speaking, archaeologists look for pieces of rims or bases, because these are the pieces that reveal the style and use of a pot.
I always find it interesting to watch volunteers on the first week of an excavation season. They collect every piece of pottery, thinking that every piece could be important. Then, around Wednesday or Thursday of that first week, they have their first experience washing the pottery that they brought in from the field. Suddenly, the students learn through that experience that a small body sherd has nothing to distinguish it, and often times does not need to be saved. However, from a small part of a rim or a base a trained archaeologist can identify the size, shape, function, and time period of an entire pot.
I plan to write my next entry on pottery reading, but allow me to get ahead of myself and state that the directors of a dig throw away most all of the pottery that they collect because most of the pottery is not diagnostic. The stuff that is diagnostic goes to the warehouses of the Israel Antiquities Authority. But the rest of it is taken back to the tel and dumped at the base, creating after just a couple of weeks a huge mound of discarded pottery sherds. One of our volunteers jokingly laid down on this pile and tried to make a “pottery sherd angle” after breakfast on the tel one day. With that light moment, we were refreshed to go back up and collect more pottery, which would eventually return to the base of the tel, to join the pile of discarded pottery.