2. Background

In the archaeology of South Asia, pottery has been studied mainly to establish chronological and cultural typologies. Different pottery 'wares', have been identified in order to mark periods of time and (sometimes) the existence of particular cultural groupings in particular areas at those times. To this end, classifications have been based primarily on the most predominant formal technological and decorative characteristics of the potsherds themselves. In the pottery reports of excavation monographs dating from the 19th century to the present day, we find wares being defined on the basis of four main visible characteristics: the colour of the potsherd, the texture of the clay, the firing mode, and its surface treatment (for further discussion, see Sinopoli 1991). Through the combination of these descriptive terms and technological traits, the complexity of the variety of ceramics made by different people in different ways and at different scales of production across South Asia are reduced to broad (pan-Indian) categories, such as: 'Red Coarse Ware', 'Black Slipped Ware', 'Fine Red Ware' and so on. Such categories are useful and convenient. They can be used to categorise excavated potsherds on site by members of the excavation team, irrespective of whether they have any specialist training in the recording and analysis of archaeological ceramics. As such, their use facilitates a relatively quick and easy overview of the excavated material, which (depending on the scale of excavations) can often comprise many hundreds of thousands of individual sherds and weigh many tonnes.

However, at the same time, much as this general approach might provide a good overview of the material on site, this is where the analyses of ceramics in South Asia often ends. Following their initial sorting, morphologically diagnostic sherds (usually rim sherds) are retained and the vast majority of the assemblage is discarded at the end of an excavation and added to the backfill. This being the case, only recording the most visible characteristics of the pots and reducing an entire assemblage to these main wares is extremely problematic. In not being sensitive to or recording more information about the ways individual pots were made or decorated, what they might have been used for, and how they are seriated and distributed within and between assemblages we end up missing a great deal of information about the archaeological ceramics — often the single largest category of archaeological remains at any site. Not having this information affects our archaeological understanding in four main ways. First, and most immediately, it limits the amount of variation (inherent in any material assemblage) that we can accommodate in our pottery typologies, which become somewhat crude and simplistic. Second, the simple ways in which 'wares' are defined creates a great deal of misunderstanding regarding whether the pottery found at one site is the same as that found elsewhere, not least because the terms used to define 'wares' are inherently subjective (one archaeologist's definition of 'coarse' may be the same as another's 'plain'). This in turn further limits the usefulness of existing typologies for relative dating, and means that archaeologists across South Asia frequently end up having to rely on a few very distinctive key 'fossil types' as 'chronological markers'. However, because these fossil types often account for only a very small proportion of a total pottery assemblage, when they are absent it becomes extremely difficult to date phases of occupation (and sometimes entire sites) with any degree of precision. Third, without full and complete information about a complete assemblage, we remove a great deal of archaeological information that can help interpret site formation processes and the deposits in which they were found. For instance, clues as to the nature of the deposit in which potsherds are found (whether it was a domestic space, a rubbish dump, or agricultural field) can sometimes be provided by features of the pottery assemblage found within it (its uniformity, level of fragmentation and abrasion, and so on). Fourth, and even more fundamentally, defining pots in these ways ignores all of the information that they can provide about the ways people made them, decorated them and used them, which in turn provide important clues about craft production, value systems and life-ways (see Rice 1987; Sinopoli 1993; Shepard 1965; Orton et al. 1993).

Figure 4
Figure 4: Plan of the archaeological site at Mahurjhari, showing areas of archaeological investigation. Image credit: Authors.

It was precisely this type of traditional framework that was used during the recent (2001-2004) excavation and initial post-excavation analyses at Mahurjhari. Here, ten trenches were excavated across the wider area of the site during all three seasons of fieldwork, six of which (A-F) related to the area of early historic settlement (see Figure 4). Ceramics were sorted and classified on site, with 'wares' defined on the basis of: broad colour ranges of the surface of individual potsherds (red, black, grey, and so on); their relative feel (fine, plain or coarse); and any other distinguishing visual characteristics (e.g. whether they were slipped or polished). This resulted in the categorisation of the entire assemblage into four main wares (Red Ware, Red Micaceous Ware, Black Ware, and Black Micaceous Ware). Unfortunately, however, excavations did not yield any of the key fossil types that would normally be used for relative dating. This meant that there were no clear chronological indicators to help date the archaeological contexts (or 'units') and thus identify the phases of activity within a settlement that was home to such a large and important bead-manufacturing industry. Equally, because so few details were recorded about the pottery, it was difficult to say very much about the ways they were made and used. These limitations were further exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the excavated assemblage was discarded on site prior to post-excavation analyses. On-site tallies of the quantities of excavated artefacts were made for the majority of excavation trenches, but unfortunately not for Trench F — the largest. Then, only sherds that were deemed to be in some way diagnostic of the original vessel shape (rims, bases, handles, spouts, and lids) as well as decorated bodysherds were retained. This practice is common throughout South Asia for several reasons, not least inadequate funding, expertise and provision of suitable facilities for storage and analyses.


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