pottery analysis

To understand how archaeologists analyze artifacts to answer questions about past cultures.

lppitcher.gif (32745 bytes)
This pitcher was probably made by an Apalachee Indian woman for use in a French household at Old Mobile.

Students will be able to:

  • explain why pottery is important to archaeologists
  • classify sherds based on their attributes
  • derive an answer to research questions based on their classification of the broken pottery
  • explain how archaeologists use classification to answer their research questions


abo-ocmulgee.jpg (16197 bytes)The design on this sherd tells us it was made by
a Creek Indian potter.

After excavation, the scientific process of archaeology continues. Artifacts excavated from a site are brought to an archaeological laboratory for the analysis process. This may first involve washing, counting, weighing, and cataloguing all the artifacts. They are then carefully sorted into different categories according to their attributes.
euro-faience.jpg (21290 bytes)
Based on the glaze and decoration on this plate,
we know it is French faience from the mid-18th century.

Archaeologists classify artifacts in order to answer specific research questions. For instance, if an archaeologist wants to know about the economic status of a household, she will group artifacts into those that are essential for survival and those that are not. A large quantity of artifacts that are not essential for meeting a person's basic needs for survival may indicate that the household had a lot of extra income.

Pottery is one of the most important artifacts to an archaeologist. It does not decompose as easily as food, cloth, and other organic remains, so it is often the most abundant artifact found on a site. Also the method and style in which people made their pottery change over time and space, so pottery can often be used to determine the age of a site and its relations with other cultures.

Attributes of pottery such as shape, size, decoration, and paste are studied in order to divide pottery into different groups for study.

Key Words:

culturefaces.jpg (27200 bytes)
These ceramic faces once adorned incensarios (incense burners) used by the Mayas of ancient Mexico.

Attribute - a characteristic of an object, such as weight, size or color.

Classification - an arrangement of things into groups or categories according to their characteristics.

Sherd - a broken piece of pottery. (pronounced to rhyme with "herd")

Paste - the kind of clay a vessel is made of.

Vessel - a hollow or concave utensil for holding something.


pueblopolychrome.jpg (22971 bytes)
This is one way archaeologists illustrate pottery. This small bowl or cup is Spanish majolica with a design known as Puebla Polychrome, which was popular during the first half of the 18th century. 

Pieces of the Past


You will need to purchase several inexpensive ceramic items such as plates, cups, mugs, and bowls of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Include a non-utilitarian object such as a figurine. You may wish to have two vessels that have at least one attribute in common. Flea markets, bargain and salvage stores, and charity shops are good sources for very cheap ceramic wares. Also needed for this activity is an analysis form like the one shown below.



Before class, break the vessels. As archaeologists rarely find any complete pots, be sure to remove several pieces from each vessel. Mix up the remaining sherds and place them on a table. You may wish to divide students into cooperative groups and give each group a portion of the sherds. Tell students that they are archaeologists and that they have just finished excavating the site of an ancient house. They must now analyze the artifacts to learn about the culture that left behind the artifacts. Have them separate and group the sherds into different vessels and then give each vessel a number. Prompt students to observe the attributes of each vessel and record them onanalysis forms. A thorough analysis of the vessels will help students answer the questions below.

table.jpg (9630 bytes)

  • Can you tell how many different vessels were found at the site? A minimum number of vessels can be determined by grouping together those sherds with similar paste, decoration and shape.

  • How many different ways did this culture decorate their pottery? Classify the pottery according to decorative attributes only. Because some sherds may be combinations of different decorative styles, answers may vary. Remind the students that this pottery represents only one household, thus it represents only a small portion of the culture.

  • Can you determine the function of the vessels, and, if so, what might it tell you about the daily lives of the people who used the pottery? Function may be determined by examining the shape of the vessels. Any non-utilitarian objects could represent religious, recreational, or other activity.

Copyright © 2013 by The University of South Alabama
Last Updated:
Thursday, July 23, 2015 8:58 AM