Ceramic petrology lab and pottery beach art

As promised in the previous entry, we are continuing posting in our blog, since there is a couple of things that we would like to share before the year is over.

The two stories of today’s post have to do with news that found us while in Greece, and both concern outcomes from the visit of the two Sudan specialists in Bergen last month.

First, a fantastic result from Cornelia Kleinitz’s talk on Rock Art and Graffiti from Ancient Sudan: Ole Unhammer, a student who came to that talk has joined the graffiti team of Musawwarat es-Sufra and will do photogrammetry for the Humboldt Mission there already in March!!! Indirectly, Bergen gained a new Sudan archaeology enthusiast! Looking already forward to meeting Ole in January in Bergen…

We were also looking very much forward to meeting here in Athens, our new friend and specialist of Sudan pottery, Dr. John Gait. He presented his work using ceramic petrology and macroscopic analyses of A-Group and C-Group pots in Bergen in November. John is working at the Fitch Laboratory in the British School at Athens. We went there last week to visit him and get a tour of the lab.

John Gait at BSA

While ceramic petrology is a new method for studying pottery production along the Middle Nile, it has been used for several decades on material from the Aegean.

The Fitch Laboratory was founded in 1974, and it was then the first archaeological sciences’ lab in Greece. The lab was developed with help of the archaeological sciences lab of Oxford University, and it was initially housed in a small store room built by the Red Cross after WWII. The lab moved into its current beautiful columned building in the garden of the British School at Athens in 1988.

BSA Art Collection_Fitch Lab

The lab is organizing the Fitch-Wiener Laboratories seminar once a month, and the latest contribution was by John with the title “Forming cultures: technological choice in pottery production in the Lower Nubian Nile Valley during the 3rd and 4th millennia BC”. We were sorry to miss that event!

Since its beginning the lab has processed more than 30.000 samples of potsherds from the Aegean, so that it now houses a large reference collection for provenancing pottery fabrics from this area. In addition, the lab has also analyzed numerous samples from other projects in the Aegean and elsewhere.

pottery sample

The method of ceramic petrology consists of preparing thin-sections of pottery samples by grinding a pot sherd that is glued to a glass slide down to c. 0,03 mm thickness. The mineralogical and microstructural composition of the sample is then examined under a polarizing microscope in order to investigate aspects of the technology of pottery making. Using information on the local and regional geology, together with thin-section reference collections, it may be possible to determine the provenance of the raw materials used to make the pots.

For those interested in learning more about ceramic petrology, the Fitch Laboratory is organizing a two-week postgraduate training course in May 2015, for more information and application form, see here.

Fitch ceramic petrology course

Since petrographic research in Sudan archaeology is still in its infancy, it can mainly be used for studying the technological choices made by the ancient potters. However, John would like to continue his research in this area, and hopes in the course of future work to build up a database of thin-sections that can be used comparatively for identifying the place where a pot was produced. This would be particularly interesting for the study of the magnificent A-Group pots called eggshell ware or exterior painted ware. John presented his results from studying these pots from a few sites in the conference Nubia before the New Kingdom in Leicester two years ago.

The most important museum collection to work on in order to increase the database would be the material from the royal A-Group cemetery at Qustul, which is housed in the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago. In the graves at Qustul, both complete pots and fragments from several hundred exterior painted bowls were found. Since Alexandros is already working for the publication project of the material from the sites Qasr el-Wizz (editor Artur Obluski) and Serra East (editor Bruce Williams), which were excavated by the same archaeological expedition from the Oriental Institute as the one working at Qustul, it would be interesting if John and Henriette could set up a project out of revisiting the archaeological record of the royal A-Group cemetery at Qustul.

It is true that the site was meticulously presented by Bruce Williams’ The Royal Cemetery at Qustul (1986) (for a PDF of this publication, see here), but over the years since this publication, new finds have been made, different perspectives have gained popularity, and novel archaeological methods have been developed. A new approach to the royal cemetery could thus throw new light on this very important site in the history of civilization on the Nile. Ceramic petrology should be part of this, and it should be used for more than the fine wares.

But pottery is not only part of the academic side of our life in Greece! We also use it for fun when playing on the beaches in Attica, so this “beach art” made out of pottery sherds will be our way to wish everyone a Merry Christmas :-)

Pottery beach art

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