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!
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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
Method 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.