Pottery Junction: What’s Your Function? (Part I)

Imagine yourself opening the kitchen cabinet that holds your pots and pans. Think about how each vessel serves a particular function: boiling, frying, sautéing, baking, etc. But have you ever thought about how you know for what purpose each vessel is used?

I’ve talked a bit about pottery function in the past, but I have yet to get to the nitty gritty of it. How do you determine a vessels’ function, especially one that is a thousand years old? Well, with science!


williams sonoma

Williams Sonoma understands functional diversity. Do you? (image source)

Let’s go back to the pots in your kitchen cabinet. Are they all the same shape and size? Probably not, since each serves a specific and different function. Can you determine the function of each pot just by looking at it? Probably, since we have pretty standard vessel shapes for specific cooking requirements. All societies require different vessels of varying shapes and materials in order to fulfill different functions, and although these vary from culture to culture, there are some overarching trends.


Many researchers have investigated pottery function over the past few decades, primarily through experimental archaeology, in which different characteristics of pottery vessels are evaluated in laboratory tests, and ethnoarchaeology, where scholars observe behaviors in modern societies to understand behaviors in the past. I learned functional ceramic analysis from Dr. James Skibo, so if you’re interested in more of the details, I would recommend checking out his books and articles, which I’ve listed at the end of the post.

serving bowl

Behold the wide mouth and beautiful accessibility of this serving bowl (image source)

Among societies that produced and used ceramic vessels, the primary functions are serving, storage, and cooking. Serving vessels tend to be very open to allow access to the contents. They also do not generally require properties that make them durable over fire. Today, many of our serving dishes are made of glass, porcelain, or china, which can withstand some heat, but are certainly not constructed for cooking.


cookie jar

The Cookie Jar: A paragon of storage perfection, with a restricted opening to keep food in and pests (and hungry children) out (image source)

Storage vessels are a different shape than serving vessels, mainly because they are designed to keep their contents safely within. This means closures that are narrower and/or have a secure lid, like a cookie jar or flour canister. They also do not need to be heat resistant, although those that are intended to hold liquids DO need to be waterproof.


Cooking vessels come in various shapes and sizes depending on the type of cooking required, but let’s focus on your standard cooking pot. Today, these are made of metal, because they need to stand up to the heat of the stove and/or oven. They are not as open as serving vessels, but are more constricted than storage vessels in order to both concentrate the heat while cooking yet access the contents while cooking them (and easily extract food once it’s cooked).

pueblo pottery

Ancestral Puebloan assemblage including cooking, storage, and serving vessels (image source)

Pottery vessels follow the same guidelines. In complex ancient societies that used pottery, you see a wide array of vessel shapes and sizes, where pottery was used for all of these functions. However, in some mobile hunter-gatherer societies, there was no need to use pottery vessels for everything. Making pottery requires a large time and labor investment, and making serving and storage vessels out of birchbark and skins may have been quicker, and they would have been easier to move from camp to camp. And while you can technically cook in bark and skins baskets, you can imagine that there is a


Typical shape of Late Woodland vessels in the Upper Great Lakes (Hamilton et al. 2011)

bit of a technological advantage to cooking in pottery vessels.


In the Upper Great Lakes, most pottery vessels are a similar shape, and this is the shape you would expect for a quality cooking pot: a spherical or conical bottom (which is stronger than a flat bottom), a semi-open aperture, and lots of temper, which is material (usually sand, crushed rock, or shell) added by a potter to a clay during manufacture to the make the clay more “workable.” Temper also makes a pot more thermal shock resistant, which means it is less likely to break when exposed to extreme heat – a rather good quality for a cooking pot.

For the most part, pots used by indigenous peoples in the precontact Upper Great Lakes were generally similar in shape and size at any given time (although these do vary through time). These vessels appear to have been constructed for one general purpose: cooking. But how do we know this for sure? And what kind of cooking were they used for? Come back next week to find out!



Hamilton, Scott, Jill Taylor-Hollings, and Dave Norris
2011  Human Ecology of the Canadian Prairie Ecozone Circa 1,500 BP: Technological
Innovation, Diffusion and Migration.  In HUMAN ECOLOGY OF THE CANADIAN
PRAIRIE ECOZONE OVER THE PAST 10,000 YEARS, pp. 99-152, edited by B.A.
Nicholson, Canadian Plains Research Center, Regina, Saskatchewan.

For more information about pottery function:

Schiffer, Michael B. and James M. Skibo
1987   Theory and Experiment in the Study of Technological Change. Current   

1997   The Explanation of Artifact Variability.  American Antiquity 62(1):27-50.

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

1994   The Kalinga Cooking Pot: An Ethnoarchaeological and Experimental Study of
Technological Change. In Kalinga Ethnoarchaeology: Expanding Archaeological
and Theory, edited by William A. Longacre and James M. Skibo, pp. 113-
126. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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



3 thoughts on “Pottery Junction: What’s Your Function? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Pottery Junction: What’s Your Function? (Part Deux) | Hot for Pots

  2. Interesting, looks like they just shoved the pot down into the ashes. We’ve talked about burning the food before, and that would do it… The ash layer is hot as heck, and there will likely be coals in close proximity too.

    Do you happen to recall the physical distribution of the burned remains? Is it circumferential or radial? That would tell you a lot about how the pots were used. Ours tend to be radial because we’ll have several pots around a central mound of coals, and we get scorching/burning if the fire tender (usually me) forgets to rotate the pots now-and-again.


  3. Hi Derek – by circumferential, do you mean residue that covers the entire surface, indicating cooking directly over the heat source (as opposed to one side of it)? If so, then yes. Based on exterior sooting and interior carbonization of pottery vessels from across the Upper Great Lakes region, it appears they were nestling their vessels right down into the coals. Middle Woodland vessel bases are actually subconoidal (a rounded cone-shape) and cannot stand up on a flat surface on their own, so they were specifically designed for this.

    If you happen to have pictures of your cooking experiments (and pots), I would love to see them!


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