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Potter’s tradition in the Caribbean during 12th-16th centuries, a technological study of ceramics: Research by Katarina Jacobson

Ceramics are the most abundant materials found in archaeological excavations. Mainly based on stylistic types, they have been used for decades by archaeologists as a chronological marker. However, the development of ethnological research in the second half of the 20th century has revealed the importance of technological studies focused on the pottery production or manufacturing processes. Such studies investigate the technological choices (cultural and social) made by the artisans using the concept of operational sequence (or chaîne opératoire) developed by the French archaeologist Leroi-Gourhan. Variability in technological choices may be related to differences in community of practice, embedded in a social learning system.

Studying Manufacturing Techniques

For the NEXUS project I have looked at two ethnographic examples to understand the manufacturing process as the whole. Then I looked at two indigenous pottery assemblages dating to the late pre-colonial and early colonial Greater Antilles (Dominican Republic) and Lesser Antilles (St. Vincent). I have studied the macro traces (invisible to the naked eye) of each individual step of the production process, from clay sourcing to the finished product in order to highlight the variability and changes in technical traditions through space and time. In my study I use archaeological, ethnographic, experimental and archaeometric data (the latter in collaboration with Leuven university.)

Although similarities in shape and decoration highlight interactions between the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the manufacturing techniques show that communities on either side of the archipelago had their own production methods and techniques. Coiling for example is shown to be the preferred roughing out technique in both cases, but the variability is highlighted in the method, size and width of the coils used to produce the pots, intrinsically pointing to a different technological choice. Also the toolkit used for scraping and shaving the coils is different, in the case of the St. Vincent assemblage a far larger array of tools (shell, calabash flint) was used than observed for the Dominican assemblage (mainly calabash).

In comparing ceramic assemblages and highlighting the variability in the production steps, my study contributes to a better understanding of the cultural, economic and social dynamics and practices of the indigenous communities on the eve of colonial encounters.

By Katarina Jacobson