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Pottery: The Plastic of the Ancient World

Dr. Lea Stirling, Department of Classics, University of Manitoba

I know you might be wondering, how is pottery like plastic? Well, it’s cheap, moldable, sturdy, and lasts almost forever.

The “lasts forever” bit is a big factor in why archaeologists love pottery. Unlike food, cloth, or wood, it doesn’t rot away after 2000 years underground. All Greek and Roman sites have pottery, often large and wearying quantities. 

But archaeologists don’t love pots and their fragments just because they are indestructible. Battered fragments and whole pots such as the ones in the show Olympus tell stories about daily life and traditions in the ancient world.

In 2004-2008, I co-directed excavations at a cemetery in the Roman city of Leptiminus in modern Tunisia. We found clay jugs in some graves and clay statuettes with some child graves. Transport jars for olive oil, known as amphoras, were repurposed as coffins and grave covers.

Studying the fragments at the site, we learned that people held picnics at the graves, an established Roman custom. They brought big bowls, known as mortaria, with rough grits in the bottom to grind the ingredients, shallow pots to cook them in, and portable braziers to cook with. They poured offerings into graves through clay pipes. Broken fragments became quite worn, indicating that visitors came to the cemetery regularly. The types of pots used enabled us to date the graves to the period about 100-250 CE. Sorting, counting, and weighing broken pottery lets us discover the details of these stories.

Whole pots tell stories too. Many of the painted Greek vases in the Olympus show were found at the Etruscan cemetery in Vulci, Italy at a time before archaeological recording was valued. Thus, we do not know who was buried in these graves, what else was with the vases, or whether some of the pots were found together. However, it is clear that Etruscans bought these Athenian pots and valued them enough to repair breaks. Ancient lead clamps show clearly on a vase of Apollo and the Muses. Several other vases show indentations where lead clamps were removed in modern restoration and the holes were filled in.

The vase pictured above has marks, possibly prices, related to marketing scratched on the bottom. Pitting on the surface of the Panathenaic vase found in Benghazi, Libya shows that it held olive oil for an extended time and the oil soaked into the clay.

Archaeologists talk about “reading” pottery. I always wonder what stories we are writing with our dishes and discards, and who will read them later.

Come to the seminar It’s Really Roman and You Can Touch It, Sunday, January 17, 2-4pm with Dr. Lea Stirling. Handle pottery from her excavation at Leptiminus and discover the stories held in the cracks, crevaces, and fragments.

Photos provided from the Leptiminus Archaeological Project with the permission of Dr. Lea Stirling.

Attic black-figure neck amphora with Herakles, Athena, and Dionysus, Acheloos Painter, c. 510 BC. Terracotta. © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photographer Johannes Laurentius.