Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.31

Alice M. W. Hunt (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis. Oxford handbooks.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxxiv, 724.  ISBN 9780199681532.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Sarah A. James, University of Colorado Boulder (

Table of Contents

This book is OUP’s latest guide to the field of archaeology. It provides excellent up-to-date descriptions of scientific techniques used in ceramics analysis, while appropriately emphasizing the need for a more cooperative approach between archaeologists and scientists. Building such bridges seems more possible than ever, thanks to the contributors who clearly strove to make their work accessible to non-specialist archaeologists and anthropologists at all levels. For these efforts, the volume, its editor, and the authors are highly commended by this archaeologist.

All authors are either specialists in different techniques of ceramic analysis or archaeologists familiar with the application of such approaches. Each chapter, however, is written from the perspective of an analyst rather than an anthropologist or archaeologist. A recurrent argument in the chapters is that the theoretical/scientific basis of an analytical technique needs to be thoroughly understood and then employed with methodological rigor to achieve the best possible results. Moreover, the authors emphasize that any type of analysis should be selected with a knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses, and the subsequent results should be interpreted carefully in light of the technique and the archaeological context of the ceramic samples. Successful case studies from sites around the world are included for most analyses to illustrate how collaborative research between archaeologists and specialists in archaeoscience on ancient pottery can yield impressive results.

Each chapter covers a different method of ceramic analysis and has a similar format: first a clear discussion of the scientific basis for each approach, then descriptions of how each method should be used for best results, and finally one or more case studies on ceramic materials to illustrate its practical application. An extensive and up-to-date bibliography is provided for most chapters. The thirty-six chapters are organized as a short introductory section followed by six parts defined by the anthropological questions that ceramic analyses can address.

The “Introduction” section consists of two chapters: one by the editor, Alice Hunt, outlining the rationale for the volume and its organization, and the other by Michael Tite, who gives an excellent overview of the history of scientific research on pottery, including a nice nod to future directions in the field.

In the second part, “Research Designs and Data Analysis”, four chapters discuss how to avoid pitfalls when incorporating ceramic analysis into an archaeological project and how to deal with different types of data from such analyses in a general way. In Chapter 3, Buxeda i Garrigos and Madrid i Fernandez discuss how archaeology and archaeometry were successfully integrated to study Hispanic terra sigillata at sites across Spain. In the following chapter, Hazenfratz-Marks highlights the importance of evaluating uncertainty in archaeometric analysis as well as the main sources of variance in data and how to compensate for it. Although not related to a specific approach, Bishop’s chapter (5) on mathematical analyses of data is a boon for the non-specialist. It clearly and succinctly presents the common statistical data types, tests, and tools that are best suited for describing and analyzing archaeological ceramics. A useful discussion of “recycling” data from previous studies is given by Boulanger in Chapter 6, which ends with a cogent and persuasive argument against “silo science,” urging more standardization, transparency, and cooperation between research projects instead.

Eight chapters on “Foundational Concepts” constitute the third section. These chapters discuss archaeometric approaches to the basic components of ceramics and focus on approaches to sourcing raw materials, manufacturing techniques, post-depositional transformations, and morphological analyses. Chapters 7-9 discuss methods for determining the chemical composition and properties of raw clays (7) and methods of pottery production through chaînes opératoires and relational approaches (8, 9). Duistermaat’s chapter (9) argues for a bottom-up analysis that views pottery as a product of cultural “entanglements” that integrate many aspects of ancient life (shown in Tables 9.1 and 9.3), as opposed to interpreting production through the lens of ethnographic analogy. Her case study of Middle Assyrian carinated bowls convincingly demonstrates the utility of this refreshing approach. Chemical analyses are the subject of Chapters 10 and 11, on neutron activation analysis (INAA) and x-ray diffraction (WD-XRF) respectively. Schneider’s chapter (11) on mineral and chemical alteration is an excellent cautionary tale of how the chemical composition of ceramics can be changed by long-term deposition in certain environments that can significantly alter the results of testing. In the final three chapters, methods of analyzing the physical properties of ceramics are assessed. Chapter 12 critically evaluates typological studies of ceramics, suggesting some revisions that may improve their utility as interpretative tools, while Whitbread (13) and Shirvalker (14) provide useful summaries of the practice of fabric description and analytical drawing respectively.

Part IV (“Evaluating Ceramic Provenance”) expands upon earlier chapters by presenting 11 discussions of specific analytical techniques, with many case studies illustrating their use and efficacy. It is implicit in these case studies that collaboration between archaeologists and specialists is essential, as nicely stated by Hall, “good archaeological science does not end with the discovery and statistical setoff of compositional groups. The next step, and perhaps the most important step, involves incorporating anthropological and/or archaeological [data] to aid in interpreting the empirical patterns [you] observe” (354). All chapters in this section stress that the most successful studies of the origin and technology of ancient ceramics begin with strong, focused research questions and use a combination of appropriate analytical techniques. Although the utility of some of the analyses described in these chapters for the study of ancient ceramics has not been fully demonstrated, the potential applications and preliminary studies are informative. Braeksmans and Degryse’s chapter (15) gives an excellent and detailed explanation for the layperson of how ceramic petrography works and the kinds of information this common analytical technique can yield. A similar approach that has yet to be systematically used in ceramic studies is ceramic micropalaeontology, described in Chapter 16, which examines microfossils in ceramic matrices. The remaining nine chapters in this section detail methods of microscopic chemical analysis, including useful guidance on formulating research questions and sampling strategies, interpreting results, and the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Ionescu and Hock (17) discuss electron microprobe analysis (EMPA), a destructive technique that determines the “mineral signature” of a ceramic body using properties of the clay matrix, inclusions and clasts, and firing phases. Isotopic analysis using mass spectroscopy is covered by Wiegand (18), who describes how strontium, neodymium, and lead lithogenic isotopes in an ancient ceramic can determine its origin and also be used to create “isotopic fingerprints” of pottery at the regional and supra-regional scale. Four chapters (19-22) illustrate the great potential of x-ray-based analyses to define the chemical composition of ancient pottery in provenance studies. While most of these techniques are fairly well-known to archaeologists, including types of x-ray diffraction (XRF) analysis, the specialists provide helpful descriptions and advice for integrating such approaches into an archaeological research program. In Chapter 23, Golitko and Dussubieux discuss the related techniques of inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and laser ablation inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), which were initially developed as cheaper alternatives to INAA but have now surpassed it in their ability to detect fine fraction elements that allow more precise and plausible provenance determinations. The following chapter (24) nicely outlines the development of INAA over the past 30 years into a mainstay of compositional analysis, with online databases of thousands of samples. As Minc and Sterba point out, INAA is still invaluable in provenance studies, despite some limitations. The final chapter (25) in this section discusses less well-known techniques based on synchrotron radiation (SR) to study the physical and mineralogical properties of surface treatments, manufacturing techniques, and site assemblages as well as to create “elemental signatures” of pottery groups.

Section V (“Investigating Ceramic Manufacturing”) focuses primarily on methods of analyzing clay matrices to determine both provenance and the manufacturing process. Chapter 26 is an exception in this respect and offers a good overview of the application of ethnography and ethnoarchaeology for understanding pottery production. Macroscopic studies of clay samples that are fired and re-fired using MGR-analysis (matrix groups by refiring) are presented as a useful auxiliary method to chemical analysis in Chapter 27. Two types of non- destructive spectroscopic analysis are presented in Chapters 28 and 29. First, Shoval describes how Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) allows for an assessment of mineralogical composition and with secondary techniques can provide information about firing temperatures, provenance, and classification into functional groups. A more limited type of analysis for ancient ceramics is Raman spectroscopy (29), which is most useful for studying the chemistry of pre-modern ceramic glazes, as described by Van Pevenage and Vandenabeele. In Chapter 30, Berg and Ambers provide a highly accessible summary of the uses of x-radiography (x-rays) for analyzing forming techniques, ancient fabrics, and detecting ceramic forgeries. The last chapter offers an insightful discussion of microscopic studies of organic inclusions in ancient ceramics. This organic material may contribute to provenance studies by indicating regional agricultural practices and may also elucidate aspects of the manufacturing process.

The last two sections (VI and VII) are comparatively short and discuss the role of ceramic analyses for determining vessel function and as a dating tool. Martinez Carillo and Barcelo (32) present a method to create empirically-based vessel typologies using computational and mathematical modeling. While this approach may not be widely adopted, it challenges us to think more systematically about our qualitative typologies. Chapters 33 and 34 provide good up-to-date discussions of common techniques for analyzing fracture resistance and thermal properties of vessels and for assessing vessel function through residue analysis. Bortolini’s chapter (35) offers a good, succinct description of how archaeological ceramicists classify ancient pottery and how typologies are created in order to determine the chronological range of ceramic types. The last chapter (36) by Blain and Hall covers three techniques—thermal luminescence, rehydroxylation (RHX), and archaeomagnetism – that have great potential to provide absolute dates for ceramics. Although the latter two methods are still being developed, the possibility of directly dating ceramics is an exciting frontier in archaeoscience.

As described above, this handbook presents a series of chapters on related but largely independent methods of analyzing pottery. Such books tend to have an authoritative voice, but here a few chapters read as overly prescriptive and, as a result, some techniques seem less accessible to field archaeologists than others. The stand-alone nature of the chapters will make some readers wish that there were more cross-references or perhaps brief summaries between chapters. For the non-specialist reader, a glossary of terms would have been a very useful addition. Since not all technical terms are well defined, or are defined in one chapter but not in the next, without continuously reading through the volume, an active reader must undertake some extra research to fully appreciate each chapter.

For the Classical archaeologist, this book has much to offer. As a field, we are still developing standard practices in archaeometric ceramic analysis. This volume will be a welcome reference work for anyone formulating research questions and designs for projects that will incorporate these approaches. Many of the chapters also would make excellent class readings for undergraduate and graduate students of archaeology, as introductions to these analytical techniques. Moreover, the case studies from around the world help remind us that ceramic analysis is a common ground for archaeologists and that Classical archaeology is part of a much larger field that seeks to understand our human past.

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