Style and Function: A Brief Introduction to Pottery Analysis

Now that you have learned all about the importance of foodways, it is now my goal to make you as crazy about pottery as I am.

If you’ve ever been to a museum with archaeological collections, you’ve likely seen displays of elaborately decorated ceramic vessels of varying shapes and forms. Archaeologists have unsurprisingly long been in awe of this art form, and, because people from different cultures often have unique pottery styles, which also change over time, pottery is a useful tool for dating archaeological sites and for associating sites with particular groups. Pottery is, therefore, a useful tool for archaeologists studying chronology and culture identity.


Red Figure pottery vessel  (ca. 530-320 BC) from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens

This summer, I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Greece. The archaeological museums there are full to the brim with elaborate, beautiful pottery vessels, from the elaborate patterning of ancient Minoan pots to the red-figure style of Classical Greece. These pieces were often created for display or ritual rather than for every day use, and because of their distinctive decoration, they can tie an archaeological site to a specific culture and time period. Although these vessels were gorgeous and captivating, I always found myself gravitating to a few plain vessels usually grouped in some corner display. These vessels were likely overlooked by most visitors, but not me. They were what my colleague and mentor Jim Skibo refers to as the “humble cooking pot.” They are not ostentatious, they are not for show; they are for sustenance and survival. Cooking vessels are emblematic of the everyday struggle to survive.


Humble cooking pot, set atop a ceramic burner, from the Acropolis Museum, Athens (note sooting on exterior)

While archaeologists use pots as tools to interpret certain aspects of the past, we must also remember that these pots were tools for the people who made and used them, and these functions are important to explore. Scholars such as Linton (1944), Hally (1983), Braun (1983), and Skibo (1992, 2013) have championed the study of pottery function over the years, applying this perspective to pottery vessels from archaeological sites across the world.

One way the function of a pottery vessel can be identified based on its form and construction. By looking at the shape, thickness, and fabric of a pot, we can interpret whether the vessel was made to be used as a cooking, storage, or serving vessel. Another way to explore the function of pots is through use-alteration traces (Hally 1983; Skibo 1992, 2013). These are evidences of how a vessel was used; in cooking pots, we often see sooting on the exterior (from the smoke from a fire) and burned food residues on the interior (a treasure trove of information about diet and cooking).


Interior of a Mackinac Undecorated (ca. AD 900-1000) vessel with thick burned food residue (photo credit: S. Kooiman)

My project applies functional analysis to ancient pottery to explore cooking and diet in the Upper Great Lakes of North America. The indigenous peoples who lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan between AD 0-1600 were experts at survival. To successfully persist in such a challenging environment is no small feat, but, without modern structures and technology, they managed to thrive despite the harsh winters. They creatively took advantage of the wild resources around them and engaged in elaborate planning for lean times. They knew about and even began engaging in small-scale agriculture, but, given the sandy, acidic soils that still make farming difficult in the area today, they continued to rely primarily on carefully chosen wild foods.

The pottery they created was rarely for show; its main purpose was for preparing and cooking food. They made and designed their cooking pots to best fit their needs and cook the foods they consumed on a daily basis. They are a reflection of the people who made and used them.

It’s why I am Hot for Pots.



Works Cited

Braun, David P.
1983   Pots as Tools. In Archaeological Hammers and Theories, edited by J.A. Moore and
A.S. Keene, pp. 107-134. Academic Press, New York.

Hally, David J.
1983   Use Alteration of Pottery Vessel Surfaces: An Important Source of Evidence for
the Identification of Vessel Function. North American Archaeologist 4(1):3-26.

Linton, Ralph
1944   North American Cooking Pots. American Antiquity 9(4):369-380.

Skibo, James
1992   Pottery Function: A Use-Alteration Perspective. Plenum, New York.

2013   Understanding Pottery Function.  University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.


One thought on “Style and Function: A Brief Introduction to Pottery Analysis

  1. Pingback: Cuisine, Cooking Technology, and Climate in the Upper Great Lakes: A Dissertation | Hot for Pots

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