7. Discussion and Conclusion

We hope that this analysis of the ceramic assemblage from Mahurjhari has demonstrated that looking at pottery from a new perspective is both worthwhile and interesting. From the four vague and poorly understood wares that were identified during excavation (Red Ware, Red Micaceous Ware, Black Ware, and Black Micaceous Ware), we now have ten distinct classes of ceramics that contain at least twenty-three variants. Further, by applying an analytical framework that focuses on how pots were made, rather than simply what they look like, we have been able to move beyond a situation where archaeological ceramics are understood only as chronological markers, towards a situation that involves a more complex picture of these remains.

In approaching the ceramics in this way, we have tried to demonstrate that a systematic and descriptive approach must be used to establish pottery groups. In this case, we have based our analysis on the visual traces left by the manufacturing process. These are visible in the appearance, hardness and compositional matrix of the clay used to make the vessel, the shaping techniques, the finishing techniques, the decorative techniques and indications of the firing atmosphere. These characteristics have been compared and assembled in order to understand the variation that occurs within the assemblage and define pottery classes and variants. These have not been based only on one criterion, such as the colour of the surface, but on a combination of several diagnostic features.

In moving beyond 'fossil types', and with reference to radiocarbon determinations from the site (Mohanty et al. in press), we have also been able to establish a pottery sequence with specific pottery groupings that can be used as chronological markers. We have also documented remarkable continuity in several ceramic classes and variants that challenges their use as clear-cut chronological markers. Classes 1, 2, 5 variant 1, and 9 are typical and indicative of the first phase of occupation at the site, which appears to date from the 4th to the 6th or 7th century CE.

The second phase of occupation, dating to the 7th and 8th century, is marked by Class 3 variant 2 and Class 5 variants 2 and 3. However, that is with the caveat that this phase is slightly more difficult to define owing to the continued use of earlier classes of pottery.

The third phase of occupation, which dates from the post-10th century, can be determined by the high proportion of Class 5 variant 3 ceramics, and the subsequent presence of those belonging to Class 5 variant 4 and Class 6.

Through this analysis, we have been able to propose a relative date for the layers of each trench. Using these data and referring again to the distribution of excavation trenches across the site (Figure 4), we note that Trenches C and F exhibit evidence of continuous occupation from the 4th century CE to the post-10th century, while Trenches A and B (which both relate to the eastern edge of the habitation) appear to have been occupied from the 4th to the 7th century CE; and Trench D from the 7th to the post-10th century CE only.

Of course, the value of this approach extends far beyond simply identifying pots to use as chronological markers. By basing our typology on methods of manufacture, the ceramics themselves become markers of the people, processes, and practices that were involved in their manufacture and use. In this connection, we can begin to interpret the primary functions of the classes we have identified at Mahurjhari on the basis of their morphological types (see Lefrancq and Hawkes 2019b). Class 1 ceramics were almost all unrestrictive shapes, i.e. cups or bowls, and display few varieties of morphological types. We can thus presume that these vessels were used for serving and consuming food and drink. The reasonably high level of standardisation of production techniques and vessel forms that we were able to observe across ceramics belonging to this class could suggest that they were made in a workshop that specialised in the production of this class, presumably in response to a specific demand. Class 2 pots, with a predominance of restricted shapes such as necked jars, may have been used for the transport of liquids. Unrestricted shapes might have been used for the transport of food products or other commodities; the absence of firing traces and residues would appear to indicate that they were not used for culinary purposes. In contrast, Class 3 variant 2 and Class 5 variants 1 and 2 may have served a culinary function. This is indicated by the traces of post-firing burning on the surface of some pots, and the purposeful addition of mica to the fabric of Class 5 variant 1 pots. Further, the main shape for Class 5 variant 1 is a pot with an S-shaped profile, a round base and an everted and elongated rim. These features are significant because it is known that a more porous fabric, the addition of mica to the fabric, and the use of round bases all made pots more resistant to the thermal shock caused by repeated heating and cooling, and may thus be used as indicators of such usage (see Rye 1981, 26-27, for further discussion of the fact that both technical and sociocultural reasons affect the choices potters' make during manufacture see Spataro and Villing 2015).

Class 5 variants 3 and 4 may have fulfilled dual functions as both cooking and storage vessels. The variation in the colours on both surfaces of vessels belonging to Class 5 variant 3 is difficult to interpret. It may result from the firing process, or its possible use as a cooking pot. Similar uncertainties affect our interpretation of vessels belonging to Class 5 variant 4 and Class 6 variants 2 and 3, which both display a black slip and signature traces of having been fired in a reducing atmosphere. For those three pottery groups, we were unable to identify as many shapes and vessel types, though unrestricted shapes appear to have been the most prevalent. It is interesting to note that the shapes and types of Class 5 variant 4 and Class 6 variant 2 are often similar (e.g. Class 5 variant 4-type 2 and Class 6 variant 2-type 2, Class 5 variant 4-type 5 and Class 6 variant 2-type 8 for instance), indicating that pots serving the same function were made using different techniques, and (possibly) by different people or groups.

As mentioned earlier, Class 4 encompasses only one single potsherd that could be of non-local origin. All that we can say at this point is that its rim could belong to a small pot with an everted rim. In contrast, vessels belonging to Class 7 are all large basins and storage jars. Class 10 includes both unrestricted and restricted shapes that appear to have been dedicated to the preparation, storage and serving of food and/or liquids. Finally, vessels belonging to Class 9 were probably intended for carrying and serving liquids of special importance. This is indicated by the small diameter of the jars, the presence of narrow necks and the care used in the finishing of their surfaces.

Interestingly, there is no difference in the proportion of unrestricted and restricted shapes across all phases of occupation at the site — restricted shapes are always the most common forms. However, during the first and second phases, we do encounter more bowls/cups and fewer plates among the wider corpus of unrestricted shapes. During the third phase, bowls/cups become less frequent and plates (mainly those belonging to Class 5 variants 3 and 4 and Class 6 variant 2) become more common. This may indicate a change in dietary habits or other social practices. As far as the scale of production is concerned, the degree of standardisation between groups of pottery and within individual groups is often used as an indicative criterion (see Sinopoli 1993; Roux 2003; Costin 2000; Miller 1985; Chakraborty 2018). However, the Mahurjhari assemblage is quite small and the shapes are not preserved well enough to enable us to draw a conclusion in this regard. What we can say is that certain classes, such as Class 2 and Class 5 exhibit a lot of variations in the kind of rims that were used, while their general shapes seem less diverse. This may be an indication of small familial workshops rather than large-scale highly regulated workshops (see Van der Leeuw 1976). On a broader scale, it is difficult at this stage to say if the appearance of new classes over time is linked to new social groups involved in the manufacture of pots, or if it is due to a chronological evolution of practices of the same potters and/or workshops.

All of these results are, of course, limited by a number of factors. The stratigraphic layers in which they were found were defined only very broadly, and were identified during an excavation that involved the 'dig' system, wherein horizontal spits of arbitrary depths are dug (usually by village labourers) until a distinct change in the composition of the soil or presence of artefacts within the matrix is noticed (usually by those observing the excavation from the side of the trench). The need for more stratigraphic control during these excavations has already been recognised (Mohanty et al. in press). In addition, the collection, discard and retention protocols that were employed on site have also negatively affected our ability to classify and analyse the distribution of wares across the site and throughout the stratigraphic sequence. Since most of the ceramics were initially classified during the excavation on the basis of their traditional ware attribution by different teams of people, and were then discarded on site, the full extent of our analyses suffers from a lack of information regarding the overall quantities of pottery. Indeed, we are unable to analyse the distribution of pottery classes as they have been defined here across space and time as well as we would have liked. Further, the fact that we can see that the four 'wares' first identified during excavation clearly encompass a great deal of variation means that we do not know whether other classes may have been missed altogether, having been discarded and forgotten about. Together, these different scales of resolution mean that we are unable to realise the full potential of such a detailed method of pottery analysis. As such, we suggest that if, on the one hand, we accept the value of looking at archaeological ceramics in this way and the clear contribution that these methods can make to our archaeological understanding, then this conceptual appreciation must be accompanied by the incorporation of new protocols in excavation strategies. In order to achieve high-quality results from the analysis of archaeological ceramics, it is essential to retain and analyse (even if only on the broadest of scales), all potsherds discovered during the excavations. Further, the ceramicist over-seeing the analyses should, in principle, be solely responsible for deciding what to keep and what to discard.

There are, then, clear signposts for future work, not only at this site but in this region in general which, as we mentioned earlier, does not yet have a diachronic regional pottery typology. In order to achieve this, we need to be attuned to the level of variation that we have demonstrated can exist within the range of pottery that was produced and used in the past. At the same time, we do not suggest for a moment that the method of approaching the analysis of pottery presented here is the definitive way that pottery should be recorded. There is no 'one size fits all' approach to the study of archaeological ceramics. The methods, techniques and questions that we can employ all depend on the time, resources and equipment available, as well as the level of previous work in the area. The process that we have used here was detailed and time-consuming — purposefully so. Because we are operating in an environment where there is no established regional pottery typology, we wanted to establish a solid basis for future approaches to their study.

Any perceived weakness of the analyses presented here are due to the limited size and range of ceramic assemblage that was retained following excavation. As discussed above, this made it impossible to apply a 'neat' text-book chaîne opératoire approach to their analyses, and our results are not necessarily indicative of the full range of ceramic variation that exists at the site. This is not to suggest that the approach outlined here (or something similarly detailed) should be applied on site in order to record every single sherd. It is far too time-intensive and requires slightly more skill and expertise than is realistically possible to provide at every excavation. It is (as would be the norm in many other parts of the world) much more suited to subsequent phases of post-excavation analyses. However, this is only possible if the majority of an assemblage is not discarded on site. With this in mind, we suggest that the application of any methods such as these must also be accompanied by changes in the standard excavation protocols employed in South Asia. Of course, entire pottery assemblages cannot always be retained ad infinitum, and we have no such expectations. However, there are still a number of potential solutions. We can identify at least four obvious alternative protocols and strategies. The first is to employ an alternative sorting strategy on site — one that is, at the very least, attuned to the range of variation that exists within any ceramic assemblage and does not seek to reduce it to crude differences in colour and texture. As we have demonstrated here, this masks a great deal of variation, which is irretrievably lost once sherds are discarded. Second, this strategy could be overseen by trained ceramic specialists as a matter of course. If the main impediment to implementing either of these approaches is the additional time it would take, then a third protocol could be to transport the entire assemblage back to the excavating institution where more time may be available to complete the initial sorting beyond the end of excavation and back-filling. Or fourth, and even more radically, we might reconsider the scale of planned excavations so as not to generate so much material. After all, if the artefacts themselves are not going to be examined in any great detail, what exactly is being gained from large-scale exposures?

None of these suggestions are mutually exclusive, and all bring with them a number of additional considerations. Is there, for instance, sufficient capacity for the involvement of trained ceramic specialists? Are there storage facilities available and large enough to house the material for the time needed to achieve a minimum standard of preliminary sorting and recording? Are the corresponding budgets large enough to accommodate these? Full consideration of these issues is beyond the remit of this article. Yet what should by now be beyond doubt is that the practice of discarding the majority of an assemblage without having a grasp of a diachronic typology that can account for all of the variation that exists can no longer be excused.

We hope that future work on ceramics in this region can benefit from the approaches outlined here, and consider the various constraints and clear potential that we have highlighted. It will be interesting now to compare the ceramics from Mahurjhari to both surface material from the wider region and material from excavations as and when they take place. In this connection, the next stage of our research will be the analysis of material collected from surface surveys across the Vidarbha region (see Hawkes and Abbas 2016; Hawkes et al. 2016). The excavations conducted in Nagardhan since 2014-2015 by the Deccan College and the Maharashtra State Department of Archaeology and Museums (Sontakke et al. 2016) will also provide invaluable data when they are published. Indeed, by comparing the different local productions, we will be able to better understand the choices made by the potters in different areas, and the scale and organisation of the pottery manufacture and craft production (household, local and regional workshops, and so on). We will be able to analyse the results through the prism of the cultural exchanges (identification of local and imported materials or exchange of manufacturing techniques for instance) and the relationship between the people and their environment (use of specific temper or clay). By putting together the different scales of analysis, we will gradually be able to develop not only a robust diachronic regional typology, but also a far more nuanced archaeological understanding of the region's past.


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