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The Road Goes On Forever and the Research Never Ends

Archaeologists are, for the most part, restricted to studying material culture to understand the past. This means that an important archaeological question is whether the meaning archaeologists attribute to artefacts corresponds to the meaning it had to the people who produced it.

As part of the NEXUS1492 project, we asked ourselves this question about pottery sherds since they are so important for the history that Caribbean archaeologists construct. We were interested to see if we could quantify differing perceptions between archaeologists and potters (or if there even were differing perceptions and experiences with pottery). To do this, we developed methods to record how different groups of people perceive and interact with archaeological pottery.

Traditional potters in the American Southwest

Unfortunately, we soon came to the realization that our methods could not be tested in the Caribbean. While there are many traditional potters, they are often on different island states. The custom regulations rightfully put in place to restrict the theft of archaeological materials, coincidentally made it particularly difficult for us to conduct this research in the Antillean setting where the idea was first conceived.

We thus decided to run a pilot study in the American Southwest, where one of the co-authors has extensive field and research experience. Here, there were no international boundaries to be crossed (although parts of the Southwest extend into Mexico, we avoided including this area for similar reasons as mentioned above) and there is an extensive community of archaeologists and traditional technology potters that were willing to participate in our experiment.

Figure 1: In the American Southwest, the road goes on forever and the research never ends (apologies to Robert Earl Keen, Jr.)

What matters to the potter

Our participants, or advisors, often lived massive distances apart from each other. So we spent many hours in a car with the tires chewing up almost 4,000 kilometers of desert blacktop. Over two weeks, we travelled through the U.S. states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, interviewing Indigenous and non-indigenous potters, archaeologists, and people from the general public.

During our interviews, we asked our advisors to arrange 30 archaeological sherds on a canvas so that the ones they thought were more similar (according to criteria they decide on) were placed closer together and those they thought were more different were further apart. The location of the sherds was tagged and the resulting arrangements were photographed. Afterwards their locations were digitally transformed into a matrix of perceived distances. We are currently analyzing these matrices to understand similarities and difference between various groups of participants and along various introduced decisions that we asked the participants to think about.

The idea is to find criteria where the perception of archaeologists differs from the people who make pottery in order to have a better understanding of what really mattered for the people who made the pots.

Figure 2: Advisor sorting sherds in the shade on a 40 C day at 1,515 meters.
Figure 3: Photograph of a sorting project that has been tagged and reading to be digitally transformed.

A conversation as old as archaeology

Many of the advisors on this project were professional archaeologists, but just as many were people who have been making pottery, some as amateurs, some as professionals, some for their whole lives, some for only a few years. During our travel between advisors, we briefly joined the Archaeology Southwest sponsored Upper Gila Preservation Archaeology field school to meet up with a few more advisors and to observe an open air firing of ceramics made by the students over the course of the field season. This instigated another round of discussion where we began to explore some of the differing perceptions between technology, function, and style: a conversation that is almost as old as the discipline of archaeology.

While our analyses are ongoing, the data acquired during this project has started to uncover some extremely interesting patterns about how individuals and groups, consciously and subconsciously, interact with, perceive, and group one of the most prominent sources of archaeological data that we have from places like the Antillean Islands.

Figure 4: Open pit firing of Archaeology Southwest’s Upper Gila Preservation Archaeology’s field school student and staff pottery.

Writtten by Lewis Borck and  Jan Christoph Athenstädt.