Technological choices in pottery production

July 8th, 2017

Technological choices in pottery production: what, who and how?
In pottery production, each technological choice is co-depended on a series of other technological choices, which form together a particular chaîne opératoire that produces a ceramic vessel with specific properties and performance characteristics. (Sillar & Tite 2000, 5). According to Sillar & Tite (2000, 4), in pottery production there are five areas of choice within every technology, which relate to raw materials, tools, energy sources, techniques and finally sequence. Techniques are used to orchestrate raw materials, tools and energy sources under the participation of the human body. The sequence is the actual chaîne opératoire that links these acts together, transforming raw material into consumable products. Sequence includes “the order of the techniques, the frequency with which they are repeated, and the locations at which they take place” (Sillar & Tite 2000, 4). The location where ceramic production takes place is based on the proximity to natural resources (e.g. clay, fuel, tempers, water, etc.) and the mode of production (e.g. household, workshop, manufactory, etc.), in conjunction with the amount of specialisation required for each step within each production mode (Rise 1981, 1991; Peacock 1982; Arnold 1985; Costin 1991, Sillar & Tite 2000).

Tim Ingold (1990, 7) distinguishes technology and technique according to their different properties: technique is embedded in the shaping of particular things, while technology consists of a knowledge of objective principles of mechanical functioning, which do not relate to the identity of their human carriers and their context of application (Ingold 1990, 7). In this sense, technological choices in pottery production are linked together in the chaîne opératoire through the sequential application of different techniques that are connected to the professional experience and skill of the potter.

Ingold (1990, 8) rejects the commonly supposed view that “where there are techniques there must be technology, for it skill lies in the effective application of knowledge, there must be knowledge to apply”. According to him, it is the direct and practical contact with materials (mediated or not by some tools) that is entailed in the process of creative work, where technical knowledge is gained as well as applied. Thus, skill is both a form of knowledge and a form of practice or in his own words “a practical knowledge or a knowledgeable practice” (Ingold 1990, 8). Moreover, as a form of knowledge, skill is different from technology. Skill is a tacit, subjective, context-dependent, practical ‘knowledge how’, acquired through observation and imitation rather than verbal instruction. Technological knowledge, by contrast, is explicit, objective, context-independent, discursive ‘knowledge that’, encoded in words or artificial symbols that can be transmitted by teaching (Ingold 1990, 8).

Having clarified what consists of technological choice in relation to the chaîne opératoire and what is technological knowledge by contrast to technique and practical skill, it is time to define who makes technological choices in pottery production. According to Sillar & Tite (2000, 9-11), the word ‘choice’ suggests some kind of agency. In the process of choosing, potential alternative techniques are rejected in order to favour the technique that will be finally used. This agency may be lying in the hands of an individual person; however, this person is most unlikely to be traced in the archaeological record. Instead, archaeologists are looking at a whole group of manufacturers or a whole society and the way they adopt a certain technique by contrast to other available options. What is observed is an interaction between individual choices and cultural choices (Sillar & Tite 2000, 9-11). Under this frame Sillar & Tite (2000, 10) introduce the term technological tradition, which is described as an “active interplay between the conservative force of ‘cultural choice’ and the innovative nature of ‘individual choice’”.

A similar mechanism of choice appears in selecting techniques. According to Van der Leeuw (1993) different techniques can be used in different ways for producing the same result. For example, the base of a pot can be formed by using coiling, moulding, throwing or beating with a paddle on anvil. Potters, however, are not always aware of all their available choices. They usually employ a limited number of techniques, the majority of which are used inside a traditional frame and are being taught from one generation of potters to another (Van der Leeuw 1993). On the other hand, when innovations of individual artisans take place within this traditionally shaped environment, techniques, materials and tools for one type of technical activity are adopted and adapted to be used for another purpose (Sillar 1996).

According to Van der Leeuw et al. (1991), these traditionally used techniques are unquestioned and comprise the technological style within which the potters are living, working and learning. Lechtman (1977) suggests that this technological style is strongly affected by social and ideological factors, while Lemonnier (1980; 1986; 1992; 1993) argues that no technique can be understood outside its context of local perceptions.

After discussing who makes choices in pottery production, it is time to see how such choices are made. According to Van der Leeuw (1994, 135) human beings employ perception and cognition to reduce the information overload within their environment into manageable proportions. Reduction is achieved through the identification of apparent symmetries (similarities) which are used to control information chaos. Cognition allows them to ‘fix’ certain symmetries in real, virtual or conceptual space in their memory, which then disappear. Repetition of the process permits them to retain temporal symmetries for further reference (Van der Leeuw 1994, 135).

In a cross-cultural analysis of chaînes opératoires, Van der Leeuw (1993) argues that regardless the variety of ceramic vessels and chaîne opératoire steps, there are similarities between different pottery producing traditions in the way in which they produce specific forms. Van der Leeuw (1994, 136) argues against the assumption that potters, wittingly or unwittingly, have different ideas in making pottery. Even though it is assumed that different technological, functional, social, behavioural, economic and other ideas affect potters in their work, he suggests that it is our modern and highly fragmented perception that distinguishes these areas anyway. According to Van der Leeuw (1994, 136), the process of pottery making operates as a cognitive function of the human mind, which has a universal, trans-cultural rather than culture-specific application. Roux (1990, 142) also recognises the cognitive (physical) and non-cognitive (psychological) factors involved in pottery production, and she introduces the term “cognitive and perceptual-motor competences” that are developed by potters along the process of know-how (savoir-faire).

Renfrew & Scarre (1998), and Malafouris & Renfrew (2010), stress that a study of ancient material culture cannot take place outside study of the human mind; however, Malafouris (2004) suggests that ethnology has manipulated the boundaries of human cognition. In relation to wheel-throwing, Malafouris (2008) argues that considering the human mind responsible for executing universally applicable cognitive functions in pottery making is no longer viable; instead, one needs to understand the process as an interaction between the potter’s brain and the technical features of wheel-throwing, which are constantly changing during the wheel throwing process while the potter constantly adapts. In that sense, all material products should be regarded as different to each other and the idea of technological tradition requires to be abandoned. Even though this idea is interesting in its own sense, this thesis suggests that an archaeological study on a large ceramic assemblage is unlikely to progress if each vessel is treated individually and outside its typological categorisation.