What can relics of the past tell us about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who invented and used them?
Archaeology is a bit like putting together a puzzle that has lots of missing pieces. And that is almost exactly what Jon Ross, a PhD student in the department of anthropology at the University of Manitoba, has been doing during his studies.
Ross has been involved with the Safi excavations for a number of years. Tell es-Safi was a Palestinian village. One of the largest pre-classical sites in the Levant, archaeological excavations reveal that the area had been inhabited since the 5th millennium BCE, continuously from late Prehistoric through Modern times.
The Tell es-Safi/Gath (southern Israel) excavation project was recently awarded a large SSHRC grant by the Canadian government for the excavation of the Early Bronze Age remains. And that is how Ross got involved with this project.
“Prof. Greenfield from the anthropology department of the University of Manitoba was eager to take me on board as a funded PhD student for the project, with a view to undertaking research relating to the ceramic material being excavated.”
Ross has been involved with the Safi excavations for a number of years. Currently he and his colleagues are in the midst of excavating an Early Bronze Age neighbourhood.
“We have exposed several buildings and an alleyway,” said Ross.
A whole host of scientific analytical techniques are currently being deployed at Safi to investigate how the inhabitants of an early city, in the southern Levant, organized their space and daily lives. It is the first large scale excavation of an Early Bronze neighborhood that is systematically integrating all the specialist perspectives to analyze microscopic and macroscopic data.
Ross’ specific role on the project is to explore how ceramic production was originated at Tell es-Safi and investigate the nature of craft specialization.
“Considerable quantities of restorable pottery have been unearthed, as well as various flint tools, and architectural features. Notable finds made this year included: a complete miniature votive juglet, nice examples of Canaanean blades, grinding stones, and a midden (rubbish pit) containing equid (donkey) remains and fish teeth,” said Ross.
But why is Ross so interested in pottery?
“We are not interested in big palaces, monumental public buildings, and unusual exotic finds. There was a time when archaeology was really into that; now we are interested in the ordinary and every day.”
Pottery was a significant invention historically, used in the construction of lighting, cooking, and storing food; for serving food and drink, transporting goods, and also for ritual purposes, to name a few.
By studying several aspects of the relics, archaeologists are able to understand specific aspects of the society. According to Ross, craft specialization is one important venue:
“[Craft specialization] is where individual households no longer produce all the goods they consume. Producers are reliant on exchange relationships outside of the household in order to maintain their subsistence. To put it simply, we are able to track differential participation in economic activities.”
Ross’ studies are novel because traditionally, research on craft production and specialization focused on the objects themselves and the associated purpose they served, and may not have always been so focused on their place in the economies of the day. Craft production is usually identified and studied in light of the different spatial distribution patterns of production debris, tools, and facilities tied directly to manufacture. In the absence of direct evidence of production, researchers are left to make inferences via the standardization hypothesis.
“According to the standardization hypothesis, the presence of large numbers of highly standardized, homogeneous products (exhibiting little variation) is indicative of a single production group. Archaeologists have come up with different ways of measuring standardization, and variation, including various types of compositional analysis that measure the chemical makeup of the ingredients used to make the artifacts.”
Having a fairly homogeneous product used or consumed across a large region is indicative of concentrated (specialized) production, said Ross.
“That is how craft production is usually studied, and it wholly focuses on the objects and the technology. My goal is to reconstruct the production process, looking at each step in the manufacture sequence and questioning the choice of particular techniques, and tools.”
The object of Ross’ study is no longer narrowly focused on the artifact, but the technical decisions made by the potter during the process of manufacture and the social networks they belonged to.
“The aim is not only to explain how the technology worked, but to explore how it fits into the wider cultural context.”
This article was originally published in the Gradzette.