3. This Study

Addressing this situation, we have recently dated stratigraphic layers from two trenches (C and F) in the area of historic settlement (Mohanty et al. in press). The results indicate that this area of settlement dates from the 4th century CE to at least the 10th century CE. These dates provide us with a useful benchmark against which to relate the remaining pottery assemblage and changes in the material. Further, we have re-analysed the remaining assemblage with the explicit aims of: (1) retrieving as much information as possible from the remains; (2) using the ceramics from Trenches C and F to help date those from other trenches and the stratigraphic layers in which they are found; and (3) exploring the potential of the application of alternative approaches to the examination and interpretation of archaeological ceramics in South Asia.

What this means in practice is that we have focused on pots from Trenches A-F, which correspond most closely to the area of early historic settlement. Due to the discard and retention policy implemented on site, we are left with an assemblage comprising a total of 5317 potsherds, which amounts to a minimum number (MNI) of 2034 individual vessels that together weigh 753.24kg (see Table 1).

Table 1: Quantities of retained potsherds according to the trenches
Trench No. of potsherds Total MNI Total weight (g)
Trench A 390 189 8060.98
Trench B 443 224 5832
Trench C 1097 523 17337.7
Trench D 330 96 3400
Trench E 327 123 5585.9
Trench F-SW 2730 879 35107.4
Total 5317 2034 75323.98

As we allude to above, a wide range of approaches can be applied to the examination of archaeological ceramics, depending on the questions being asked. All ceramics, whether a single sherd or complete vessel, contain an extraordinary amount of information. The composition, colour and other physical characteristics of the clay fabric, their shape, function and decoration combine to tell us about various aspects of the methods used in their manufacture, who made them, for whom, how they were used, and (together with other archaeological information) what these practices may have meant in terms of wider social, cultural and economic dynamics. There are also a series of well-established methods and techniques that can be applied to extract, measure and record these data. These range from relatively simple methods of visual inspection, to more specialised forms of microscopic examination and scientific analyses. For further discussion see Shepard (1965), Rye and Evans (1976), Rice (1987), Lemonnier (1993), Orton et al. (1993), and Livingstone-Smith (2001). Central to all of these approaches is an awareness that archaeological ceramics are not just tools for dating or cultural indicators, but are also archaeological objects that were made and used in specific ways for specific reasons. A common goal in these approaches is thus to achieve both a cultural and sociological reading of an assemblage.

Responding to the need to retrieve more detail from the pottery, and being aware of various approaches that can be brought to bear, we have decided to use an approach that incorporates the sequence of events that took place during manufacture of the pots as the basis for classification of different 'classes' of pottery. In essence, classifying them first on the basis of how they were made and then on the basis of what was being made, rather than only on the way they might appear (subjectively) to the observer. The central premise here is that traces of the various steps involved in the course of transforming natural clay into a finished pot are preserved in the pot during the firing process. We recognise that recording these traces does require a certain level of knowledge and expertise beyond that which is needed for simply on-site sorting by colour and texture. However, this is not impossible. Indeed, we hope that as awareness grows of the value of looking at and thinking about pots in a more detailed way, so too will the number of ceramic specialists in the South Asian archaeological community. Through the identification and analysis of these traces of production, we will define categories or classes of ceramics. Then, once classified, they can be further categorised by addressing a range of other dimensions of ceramic variability (i.e. morphology, surface colour, paste, etc.). The result will be: (1) a more refined subset of ceramic categories (variants of classes) that will accommodate the variation that exists within the manufacture of any given class of ceramics; and (2) the identification of the different vessel forms that were made using each ceramic class and variant. From the vessel forms we can also infer the function (or range of possible functions) of the pots that were made, with reference to the size of the different parts of the pots (the diameter of the rim for instance) and their general shape and form (the presence of a neck, or a handle, and so on). Doing so will allow consideration of the various motivating factors that lay behind the choices that were made in the production of pots.

While the concept of the chaîne opératoire was developed during the mid-20th century (Leroi-Gourhan 1964; 1965; 1971), it was not adapted and applied to analyses of archaeological ceramics internationally until the 1970s and 1980s (Balfet 1965; 1966; Rye and Evans 1976; Van der Leeuw 1976; Rye 1981; Lemonnier 1993; Livingstone-Smith 2001; Gosselain 2002; Roux 2007; 2011; Roux and Courty 2016). In South Asia, there have been very few attempts to apply this methodology, and these have mainly been in the field of ethnoarchaeology (Saraswati and Behura 1966; Mahias 1993; Kramer 1997; Choksi 1998; Degoy 2005). However, it is worth highlighting a small number of studies being piloted in scholarship on the Indus civilisation that incorporate these methods (Parikh and Petrie 2015; Ceccarelli and Petrie 2017).

The application of this techno-morphological approach, informed by attention to the chaîne opératoire, has the potential to be able to tell us significantly more than traditional approaches alone. This is because this way of classifying pots has to engage, at a fundamental level, with the various social, cultural and technological decision-making processes and material constituents that lay behind their manufacture and decoration, as well as the types of vessel forms and implied functions of the forms that were made. In engaging with the material remains in this way we can not only suggest what people were doing with their pots, but also retrieve valuable information about the potters who made them — their relationships with the available environmental sources, the evolution or permanence of their production techniques, the cultural choices that informed some of the decisions they made — and by extension the social and economic meanings of the pots as either commodities of trade or expressions of identity. Given what has been summarised above about standard approaches to ceramics in this area, it is arguably the case that there is a great deal of potential in applying this approach in South Asia.


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