SCRAP new, open-access article about pottery

SCRAP has a new, open-access journal article available in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, titled “It’s What’s Inside that Counts: Developing a paste group typology in Belize.” The study was co-produced by archaeologists Jillian Jordan (USA) and Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown (Canada), local potters Aurora Saqui (Maya Centre, Belize) and Frank Tzib (San Antonio, Belize), and traditional ecological knowledge specialist Sylvestro Chiac (Maya Mopan, Belize). The following is an easy-to-read summary of what the article investigates and concludes, along with the future directions of our pottery studies.

Clockwise from top left: Frank Tzib, Sylvestro Chiac, Jill Jordan, Aurora Saqui, Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown

Ceramics are the most typical artifact recovered from ancient Maya archaeological sites. They tell us important information about when people occupied places, what activities they were involved with, and how people living in different regions interacted. Most ceramic analysis in the Maya region depends almost entirely on describing the outward appearance of a vessel. The pottery pieces that we find at the ancient town of Alabama in East-Central Belize (today, the Stann Creek District) are primarily body sherds without any features that can tell us the form of the vessel (e.g., a jar or a bowl) or decoration to provide clues about where people produced them. So, what do we do? We cannot proceed with our typical analyses, but we cannot just ignore an abundant and informative artifact type because it presents a problem.

Typical, highly eroded Alabama potsherds.

We decided to analyze paste characteristics (clay + rock) because we can study these attributes even on poorly preserved sherds. We used a portable microscope called a Dino-Lite in our field laboratory in Maya Centre, combined with thin section petrography in our lab back in the United States. You can check out the SCRAP YouTube page for more information on thin-section petrography and how archaeologists use the technique.

Clockwise from top left: Using the Dino-Lite in the field lab; firing experimental pots and briquettes in the kitchen hearth; making pottery out of local clays; making clay test briquettes for thin sectioning; washing potsherds; a pottery thin section under the petrographic microscope.

We also analyzed clay and rock samples to compare to the pottery. We do this to understand where ancient peoples were gathering materials and determine which kinds of pottery they were producing locally at Alabama. We identified and named six ceramic paste groups using the names that members of the public in Belize, Canada, the USA, and beyond voted on last year via our Survey Monkey poll. These paste groups tell us how people made the pottery and where. Ancient peoples produced two of the groups at Alabama, while they produced another group somewhere else in the Stann Creek District, and they made two more outside of East-Central Belize. Analyzing paste characteristics on thousands of sherds was time-consuming and frustrating, but it provided important information on provenance, which form and decoration alone cannot tell us. Since we analyzed 100% of sherds collected from the surface of over 100 house mounds in 2015, our future studies about how people distributed the pottery throughout the site will be much more accurate than if we only analyzed diagnostic sherds.

2015 survey & surface collection team

Jill and Meaghan approach the study of pottery production from an archaeological perspective, but are not potters, and their familiarity with the landscape around Alabama is limited. Ms. Aurora Saqui is an accomplished artisan, author, and traditional healer. She provided her considerable knowledge about pottery production and the clays and rocks in the Stann Creek District. Mr. Frank Tzib is also a potter and has recently gained significant social media fame decorating and selling custom painted ceramic vessels with Maya hieroglyphs. He also helped analyze the sherds that we discuss in the paper. Mr. Sylvestro Chiac spent many hours guiding the team around the Alabama area, looking for different clays and discussing the landscape in relations to different soils, rocks, etc. Conversations with him have been some of the most important for understanding how potters may have interacted with the landscape in the ancient past. This paper presents the methods we used as the groundwork for our team’s future analyses. Now we can focus on the act of pottery production at Alabama. With Meaghan and Jill contributing their archaeology and materials science knowledge and Ms. Aurora, Frank, and Sylvestro approaching the research from the standpoint of traditional and contemporary practice and Indigenous science in the region, we have a much better understanding of the Alabama pottery than any of us could have achieved on our own. We hope the results of our research are useful not only to archaeologists, but also to local potters in the region who are looking to the past for inspiration.