Practical problems in the application of the chaîne opératoire theory

July 8th, 2017

Practical problems regarding the application of the chaîne opératoire theory in the study of archaeological ceramics
Practically, the successful application of the chaîne opératoire theory in the study of archaeological artefacts is challenged by various obstacles. A major problem in the field of ceramic studies is that most approaches on the chaîne opératoire depend highly on ethnographic research (1) on contemporary pottery production (e.g. Peacock, 1982). Orton et al. (1993, 17) also argue that the large amounts of contemporary written evidence for pottery production of historical periods have contributed greatly on our knowledge on organisation and modes of production, although these approaches are not usually regarded as ethnographic evidence.

Ethnographic research is not necessarily problematic and until today it has played important role in understanding the combinations of economic, technological, ideological and social parameters involved in the ceramic production sequence. Ethnographers and ethnoarchaeologists are privileged to record technological choices, knowledge and skill inside the production context “as the process unfolds” (David & Kramer 2001, 141). Simultaneously, they observe the social notions and messages that are transmitted through artefacts in a chronologically contemporary consumption context (e.g. Barley 1994). Problems begin when pottery is discovered inside the archaeological context, where the potter and the broader society are unfortunately not there.

The first issue to consider in the study of contemporary ceramic chaînes opératoires is that production is viewed either as industrial (mass production) or ‘traditional’ (e.g. Peacock 1982; Rye 1981). Ethnographic studies prefer to focus on modes of production that still use materials and techniques that have not been completely altered by modern technological development. It remains questionable how well these ethnographic approaches on contemporary modes of production fit the operational sequence models of past societies. And if this is the case, then in which contexts? According to Van der Leeuw (1991, 13), if archaeologists are to realise their avowed aim of reconstructing the process of how people made decisions in the past, they will have to stop looking back from their present position in time, trying to recognise which patterns of the past are still used in the present. By contrast, they will have to travel back in time and look forward with those people who they study at the moment (Van der Leeuw 1991, 13).

A second issue to consider is that in a contemporary society it is rather obvious that the context of production is the same as the context of consumption. However, this correlation is not necessarily valid for the case of past societies. Archaeologists are aware that artefacts have several connected afterlives; they tend to travel through time, while they are likely to be used differently each time in each afterlife (Gosden & Marshall 1999). In ethnographic research the idea of a pot’s afterlife is completely absent. Artefact reuse or discard are expected to happen in the future; therefore, they will be explored by somebody else. For the archaeologists, however, reuse and discard are two important sources of information that must be taken into account.

A third issue to consider is how one can find a secure way to exchange data between a modern and an ancient ceramic chaîne opératoire. What may be happening similarly or differently between those two contexts? The popularity of the chaîne opératoire theory in the study of prehistoric lithic artefacts can be cross-referenced in a variety of studies produced along the years by Japanese, French and American theoretical schools (Bleed 2001). Unfortunately, the same variety of approaches does not seem to exist in the study ceramic artefacts, especially to those from historical times. Additionally, the practical study of pottery production from historical periods requires the creation of typologies through classification and categorisation of the ceramic material. The term is generally described as taxonomy and according to David & Kramer (2001, 157- 62), it can either be etic or emic. In the first case, researchers employ devised typologies to resolve specific problems related to artefacts, such as temporal relationships, cultural affiliation, community styles, trade and technology (Hayden 1984, 82). In the second case, researchers accept folk classifications that are widely encountered in ethnography, which are used by common people, they are subject to changes through time and they are orally and informally transmitted from one generation to another (Kempton 1981, 3). A main problem in investigating chaîne opératoire models in ancient pottery production is that even though ethnology follows folk classifications of the emic approach, classical archaeology follows devised typologies that stand between emic and etic. For example, John Beazley (1927-8) notes that the shape that is nowadays described as an aryballos, in antiquity it might have also been called lekythion. In that sense, it is not entirely sure if the pseudo-emic typologies followed by Classical archaeologists are the exact emic typologies of the past.

Any approach on ancient ceramic chaînes opératoires could incorporate information from ethnographic research, even though an amount of caution is required. Furthermore, researchers need to bear in mind that pseudo-emic typologies are the only available since the 19th century, especially in Greek Early Iron Age studies; therefore, approaches need to incorporate these instead of ethnographic folk classifications. The final products of ceramic workshops need to be viewed as the result of successive technological choices subject to a series of social choices, also controlled by the potter’s behaviour.


  1. For ethnographic work on Greek ceramic workshops see: Casson (1938; 1951); Rieth (1960); Hampe (1962); Hampe & Winter (1962; 1965); Voyatzoglou (1984); Cuomo di Caprio (1982; 1985; 1991; 1995); Blitzer (1984; 1990); Jones (1986, 849-880); London (1989); London et al. (1989); Schneiber (1999).