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

If you thought I was finished proselytizing about studying pottery function, boy were you wrong. There is still much to learn, my friends.

So, as I concluded last week, we know that it looks like most pottery vessels in the Upper Great Lakes appear to have been made to function as cooking pots, but how do we know what they were actually used for?

We look for evidence called use-alteration traces. Picture those pots and pans in your kitchen cabinet. Do they look the same as the day your bought them? Probably not. They are probably scratched, dented, and/or stained. These are all use-alteration traces – years of use has altered these vessels permanently. And if this can happen with metal pots, it certainly happened with ceramic pots.

Scratches on the outside and insides of pots can show signs of storage, transportation, and stirring. Black staining on the outside, what we call sooting, is a sign that the pot was used over an open fire, stained by chemicals in smoke. As I’ve discussed before, burned food residue on the inside of pots (called carbonization) is incredibly informative – it signals that the pot was used for cooking, and through various types of analysis, we can get an idea of the foods that were cooked in a particular vessel.

chili pot

The aftermath of my efforts for the MSU Dept. of Anthropology chili cook-off. Note the thick residue throughout the pot.

The patterning of burned food gunk (a technical term) can also help us interpret cooking styles and methods. If you’ve ever burned a pot of chili, stew, or even mac and cheese, you know you get a nice thick layer of charred food all over the interior of the pot. When you boil pasta, you may have noticed that pesky little ring of starchy residue just above the water line. Therefore, we can tell if a pot was used for boiling something rather watery, or simmering/stewing a thicker dish. Pottery vessels were also sometimes used for roasting food – they were often laid on their sides for this purpose, so if you have a whole vessel with thick carbonization on only one side, this is likely the result of roasting.


Carbonization pattern for boiling (photo credit: S. Kooiman)



Carbonization pattern for stewing (or an ancient chili cook-off?) [photo credit: S. Kooiman]

Why is it important to look at actual function? Well, this adds a little bit of nuance to our interpretations of past tool use. Yes, this pot appears perfectly constructed for cooking, but was it ever actually cooked in, or did the owner decide it would make a nice storage vessel? If it was used for cooking, what types of food did it cook, and how? In order to understand cuisine, or “food culture,” you not only have to know what was cooked, but also how it was cooked.

At the Cloudman site, over half of the pottery vessels had interior carbonization, so a majority of the pots constructed by its occupants were used for cooking. Furthermore, I found an intriguing change in cooking styles over time, which has interesting culinary implications, but you’ll have to wait to read more about that. I’m sure you will all be on the edge of your seats until then…

In the meantime, I encourage you to pay attention to the residues of use left behind on your dishes and pots. Many of these traces you may wash away (thank goodness many ancient cooks were not so fastidious), but others are permanent and provide a picture into the life of the vessel. It is these snapshots of an artifact’s history that can help us understand the lives of the people who used them.




As I said in my previous post, most of these concepts and terms are not my own. Please check out these books and articles for more information on artifact and 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.


2 thoughts on “Pottery Junction: What’s Your Function? (Part Deux)

  1. ” if you have a whole vessel with thick carbonization on only one side, this is likely the result of roasting”

    Or it could be a pot that was set towards the edge of the fire. (We do that sometimes.) I’m trying to figure out how you’d tell the difference… On the side I guess the layer would run further up the body?


    • This is an interesting point. I haven’t witnessed signature for roasting myself in the Upper Great Lakes yet. Rather, this is based on some ethnographic observations of modern groups still cooking with pottery in some other parts of the world. So, if this pattern is observed in other regions, it would be good to note how far up the vessel wall the carbonization goes – I would expect it to cover the side from base to nearly the rim in a roasting event.


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