Archaeologists who study living peoples and their pottery for the purpose of addressing problems encountered with ancient pottery engage in ceramic ethnoarchaeology. In contrast to the social and political topics ethnographers investigate among extant communities, ethnoarchaeologists examine material culture to document sources of variation in contemporary artifacts. This enables them to make inferences about the diversity detected in excavated artifacts. One goal is to understand better the human behavior responsible for the artifacts. All material culture is suitable for examination. Ceramic ethnoarchaeology among potters practicing traditional technologies (i.e., without the use of electrical or other modern conveniences) and whose finished products (cooking pots, jugs, jars, lamps) are for use by local clientele rather than tourists, is especially relevant given the abundance of pottery archaeologists find in excavations.

In the ancient Near East and Mediterranean basin, the material used most commonly to produce containers of all sizes and shapes was clay. Pottery was inexpensive and highly breakable. Because fired clay becomes rock-hard, sherds of broken pots, which litter ancient sites, are virtually indestructible.

Ancient pottery is important to archaeologists both because of its high rate of survival and the rapidity with which changes in shape and decoration occur. It has been used to establish relative chronologies; to establish the function of buildings; to trace the social and economic implications of the repertoire of forms; and to make inferences about cultic practices. Ceramic ethnoarchaeology enhances these studies because it can explain sources of diversity in form and finish that may have little to do with chronology but, rather, reflect cultural preference: archaeologists want to know whether two jugs with similar but distinct painted patterns reflect different, yet coexisting, sources or two consecutive time periods.

The goal of ethnoarchaeology is not only to observe and record potters and their society, but to do so with the intention of addressing the specific questions ancient ceramics pose. Ethnoarchaeologists initially state the questions under investigation and then select an appropriate community for a long-term field project. During the project, wares of a representative sample of potters are recorded using quantitative means whenever possible. A sample ideally includes people of different generations, gender, and families and those born in the community as well as newcomers. It is essential to learn if and how the manufacturing technique, division of labor, family association, and potter's age and gender impact on the finished product. Interviews with potters and other members of the community are part of the field research. Rather than rely on verbal accounts alone, ethnoarchaeologists systematically observe whatever occurs relating to pottery. On the next level, the ethnoarchaeologist might conduct a similar study at a nearby community, a contemporaneous production location, to compare wares and dynamics of production.

Without long-term field work and a representative sample, the result may be a distorted and incomplete picture. Representative samples ideally include as many variables as possible—a difficult task because the number of potters is decreasing steadily in many parts of the world. Unless an appropriate community is selected, the results may not be suitable for addressing the issues archaeological materials raise. An industry of wheel-thrown tourist wares is not suitable for comparisons with ancient handmade wares produced and used by household potters and sold or bartered with a neighboring community.

Ethnoarchaeologists examine topics related to clay procurement and processing; manufacturing techniques; surface treatments; firing techniques; breakage rates; sales and distribution; seasonality; organization of the industry; discard and reuse of newly made and used wares; the artifacts, layout, and remains (material correlates) associated with pottery production locations; and the sources of variation in all aspects of the industry. Attention is focused on issues such as vessel longevity, use, and reuse; the relationship between wealth and the number of pots in individual homes; the number of people and pots in a home; the presence and use of nonceramic containers; the potters' social status; and local names and pottery classification systems. Ethnoarchaeologists can test the validity of terms (such as full-time or part-time craft specialists) archaeologists use in describing ancient potters. The considerable ambiguity in these terms, in light of the data from ethnoarchaeological studies, suggests that the terms are too rigid and divisive.

One outcome of recent research suggests that at any given time in antiquity the ceramics industry was never a monolithic, static, homogeneous enterprise characterized by potters working at a single level of production; it is more accurately represented as different traditions coexisting. On Cyprus today, for example, potters in a secluded rural village continue to make goat-milking pots and jars to store cheese and water; at the same time these old-fashioned vessels have disappeared from the repertoire of rural village potters who live and work close to an urban center, yet the two villages coexist (London, 1989, p. 227). In Jordan, village women continue to build pots by hand from locally available clays, while male potters nearby throw pots made of imported clays and surface treatments (London and Sinclair, 1992). Diversity characterizes the industry rather than uniformity.

Broken pottery was recycled throughout antiquity: sherds were suitable surfaces for writing transactions and notes with ink. [See Ostracon.] Ethnoarchaeological research on Cyprus (London, 1989) demonstrates that sherds are also suitable building materials; animal feeders; protection for seedlings; carriers (of charcoal from the kitchen to the kiln); wind protection for candles in cemeteries; and for separating pots from kiln walls during firing.

Potters in traditional societies are able to identify the work of individual potters by considering a vessel's overall proportions, its surface treatment, and its finish. These same criteria can help archaeologists identify the work of individual potters in antiquity in order to address the issues that concern how society and the industry were organized.

[See also Ethnoarchaeology.]


  • Kramer, Carol. “Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 14 (1989): 77–102. Overview of the subject.
  • London, Gloria Anne. “Past and Present: The Village Potters of Cyprus.” Biblical Archaeologist 52 (1989): 219–229.
  • London, Gloria Anne, et al. Traditional Pottery in Cyprus. Mainz am Rhein, 1990. Account of one of the few remaining countries in the region with rural potters practicing a traditional technology to produce wares for local use.
  • London, Gloria Anne, and Marlene Sinclair. “An Ethnoarchaeological Survey of Potters in Jordan.” In Madaba Plains Project 2: The 1987 Season at Tell el-῾Umeiri and Vicinity and Subsequent Studies, edited by Larry G. Herr et al., pp. 420–428. Berrien Springs, Mich., 1992. Brief report on two groups of Jordanian potters.
  • Longacre, William A., ed. Ceramic Ethnoarchaeology. Tucson, 1991. The most recent collection of articles dealing with ceramic ethnoarchaeology worldwide.
  • Nicholson, Paul, and Helen Patterson. “Pottery Making in Upper Egypt: An Ethnoarchaeological Study.” World Archaeology 17 (1985): 222–239. Unlike other places in the Near East, pottery production in Egypt remains a viable livelihood.

Gloria Anne London