Manifestations of technological choice in pottery production

July 8th, 2017

How do technological choices manifest on archaeological ceramics?
Having examined what technological choice is, who makes it and how, it is time to move to the actual areas where technological choices manifest on the final products. In pottery production, technological choice defines the interaction between what is perceived as an ideal ceramic form and the material aspects of the forming process, expressed in the areas of conceptualisation, executive functions and tools, and raw materials (Van den Leeuw 1993, 256-61; 1994, 136-7, also see De la Fuente, 2011).

The conceptualisation of a vessel is divided in three fundamental parameters:

  1. Topology, which relates to the shaping of a pot. For example, a shape can be seen as ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’, deriving from an already know geometrical shape such as a sphere or a cylinder, undergoing transformations attributed to stretching or compressing.
  2. Partonomy, which relates to the different parts of the vessel that are conceptually divided by the potter.
  3. Sequence in which the vessel is made. For example, the sequence of producing a pot can be bottom to top, top to bottom, shoulder to bottom, etc.

It must be clarified that according to Van der Leeuw (1994) the term sequence describes a property of the ceramic vessel. By contrast, Sillar & Tite (2000, 4) use the same term broadly, in order to describe the entire chaîne opératoire. On the importance of conceptualisation, Sillar and Tite (2005, 5) add that a potter must have some conception of the practical and social function of the pot s/he intends to shape, or there must be some conception of at least a potential market for the vessel to be sold, as this defines the raw materials and techniques to be used in production.

The executive functions and tools refer to the different solutions that have to be found in order to overcome basic problems (1) related to the manufacture of a vessel. Regardless of how practical these manipulations are, David & Kramer (2001, 149) stress that these can be channelled by cultural traditions.

Raw materials are the last area where technological choice is expressed. As it is understood, different materials have different properties and constrains, which need to be dealt accordingly in conjunction with the expected result. From a chaîne opératoire perspective, controlling raw materials is a practical aspect, making its confrontation most directly ‘objectifiable’. On the other hand, the conceptualisation and the execution are the steps that are more likely affected by social parameters (Van der Leeuw 1994, 138).

In the case of decorated pottery, style is another aspect related to vessel conceptualisation. By contrast to what is perceived as ‘style’ in the study of Greek Early Iron Age ceramics, in chaîne opératoire studies style describes vessel function instead of external decoration. Definitions and explanations vary. Heather Lechtman (1977, 4) defines style as a formal, extrinsic manifestation of an intrinsic pattern, which is usually “neither cognitively known nor even knowable by members of a cultural community except by scientists”. Ian Hodder (1990, 45) describes style as “the referral of an individual event to a general way of doing” and James Sackett (1977, 370) as “a highly specific and characteristic manner of doing something”. By contrast, David and Kramer (2001, 172) define style as a “potential for interpretation residing in those formal characteristics of an artefact that are acquired in the course of manufacture as the consequence of the exercise of cultural choice”. According to their definition, style resides in conscious or unconscious cultural choices, which are expressed in the actions of artisans, users and modifiers of artefacts (David & Kramer 2001, 172). Although artefacts could function in three cultural domains (utilitarian, social and ideological), when archaeologists speak about function they usually mean attributes that relate to the ability of the artefact to perform its intended utilitarian and technomic roles (David & Kramer 2001, 139-40). For example, the utilitarian function of decorated finewares from the Attic Early Iron Age has been noted in relation to their shapes and forms, while socio-ideological functions have been examined mainly through stylistic and iconographic studies. Sackett (1977), however, argues that decorative style and function are not necessarily excluding each other. In fact, artefacts can be both stylistic and functional. Furthermore, the process of producing functional artefacts involves decisions that are “embedded in and conditioned by social relations and cultural practice” (Dieter & Herblich 1998, 235). Therefore, any approach towards decorative styles should regard these as part of the broader functionality of ceramic vessels, even if this functionality operates at a purely symbolic (social or ideological) level.

In ethnographic research, the above areas of technological choice (raw materials, conceptualisation - including style- , executive functions and tools) are usually recorded in relation to one specific ware group, produced in one distinct production centre (e.g. Gosselain 1994; 1995; 1999). By contrast, the study of large ceramic assemblages of various typologies coming from archaeological excavations requires a comparative approach and an analysis based on statistics (e.g. Orton et al. 1993). Comparisons need to target vessels that belong to the same typological or stylistic group, aiming in the analysis of artefact variability.

On this issue, Schiffer & Skibo (1997) suggest a model of artefact variability based on a range of factors that influence the design of products. These include the performance and capability of the artisan (who is the main source of energy) and situational factors such as access to raw materials, manufacture process, distribution, use, maintenance and repair, reuse and disposal.

Schiffer (1995, 57) argues that the interaction between energy sources and cultural factors occur as a succession of small steps forming a behavioural chain. This behavioural chain is represented by sequential activities in a systemic context through the simultaneous participation of various cultural element. Behavioural chain analysis consists in hypothesising and using the components of each individual activity, which are the segments of the broader behavioural chain. An individual activity is defined as “the patterned interaction between at least one energy source (human or nonhuman) and at least one other cultural element” (Schiffer 1995, 57). This behavioural chain can be reversed, starting from the artefact and reaching to the artisan or the society that produced it, while this reverse process could reveal cultural patterns in the archaeological record (Schiffer 1995, 61).

By contrast to Schiffer & Skibo (1997) and Schiffer (1995), David & Kramer (2001, 141) argue that this model sets an unrealistic and ethnocentric image of the artisan, who are projected as engineer-handymen. Artisans seem to adjust the design of their artefacts in relation to specific performance characteristics that approximate a culturally determined ideal. In their critique, David & Kramer (2001, 141) note that the archetypal artisan are in fact a projection of Schiffer and Skibo engaged in their Laboratory of Traditional Technology through Reverse Design Engineering, neglecting artefact variations in relation to causes such as gender competition and asymmetries in social power. Despite the critique by David & Kramer (2001, 141), the author's PhD supports that the Laboratory of Traditional Technology and the Reverse Design Engineering approach can be useful in the study of pottery production and applies this methodology in the study of Attic Geometric and Orientalising finewares.


  1. Basic problems during the process of making a pot are: 1) the pull of gravity on the object under construction, often leading to sagging or collapsing; 2) the potters physical access to different parts of the vessel while this is under construction (e.g. while spinning on the wheel); 3) the composition of raw materials found at the potter’s disposal (e.g. the quality of the clay or fuel); 4) the speed that the vessel requires to be made; 5) the control over the shape of the pot; and 6) the width of the range of shapes which the technique allows the potter to produce. Certain executive functions employed to deal with the above problems can be summarised as follows: a) squeezing; b) supporting; c) controlling the shape; d) turning the vessel; e) cutting (with a knife or string); f) scraping (with a rib, gourd scraper, etc.); and g) smoothing the surface (with a piece of leather, pebble, bone, wood, etc.) (Van der Leeuw 1994, 137).