Blog #1: The Past in Pieces: How Pottery Gets Us to People with Dr. Christine Johnston

Christine Johnston with the Sphinx and Pyramids at Giza
Fig. 1. Dr. Christine Johnston touristing in Giza, Egypt (photo by J. Johnston)

What topic do you study?

Hi Everyone! My name is Christine Johnston, and I study ancient economics and trade (fig. 1). I mostly work in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia, and I study the Bronze Age (around 2000 to 1000 BCE). I am really interested in the ways that politics and social practices impacted regular people in terms of how they worked and what they used in their homes (both goods made locally and those brought in from other places).

What sources or data do you look at?

There are lots of great sources from the ancient world to help us understand ancient economies, and trade especially. We have administrative documents and letters, we have pictures of traders (fig. 2) and descriptions of imported goods, we have recovered shipwrecks that show objects being moved around the Mediterranean (you can check out the Uluburun and Gelidonya shipwrecks to learn more), and we have lots of surviving objects from excavation that were brought to sites from far-away places. These sources can tell us a lot, but they often focus on elite parts of society (rulers, religious leaders, and the wealthy). In many cases, the pictures, texts, and recovered objects come from palaces, temples, and the homes and tombs of the rich. While this is an important part of the overall picture, I am really interested in the ways people beyond the palaces participated in local and long-distance economic activities. Who else was involved in selling and trading goods? Who shopped at the local marketplaces, and what types of goods were available to them? What motivations did people have for buying foreign or imported goods? One of the main types of data that I look at to understand trade and economics beyond just the palaces/elite is ancient pottery (fig. 3).

Painting of traders carrying goods including pottery, from the Tomb of Rekhmire in Egypt

Fig. 2 – Painting of traders bring goods to Egypt from all over the Mediterranean, New Kingdom Tomb of Rekhmire, Egypt (ca. 1479–1425 BCE­; photo by C. Johnston)
Cypriot Bronze Age pottery from the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.

Fig. 3 – Examples of Bronze Age Cypriot ceramics like the ones I study, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (photo by C. Johnston.

How can this topic or material tell us about real people in the past?

Pottery is a really special material for so many reasons. The simplest is that it is super abundant—broken pieces of pottery are the most common finds at archaeological sites where I work in the Mediterranean. This is partly because, once fired, it doesn’t decompose. It can be broken into smaller and smaller pieces, even ground down to nothing, but unless you are trying to destroy it, it pretty much survives really well. It survives much better than some materials like woven baskets. The other important thing about pottery is that fired clay is pretty fragile—meaning that ceramic vessels often broke (and were then thrown out). Ancient trash heaps are full of broken pottery!

Clay was used to form so many things in the ancient world. In addition to pots, it was used for roof tiles, water pipes, toys and figurines, loom weights for weaving, and many other household objects. Ceramic vessels were used for things like storage, cooking, and eating and drinking. In many places pottery was decorated with images that give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who made and used them. These images can include animals, peoples, and places, and sometimes reflect stories from myth and history. In some cases, we also see moments that reflect the daily lives of people in the past, like this image of a shoe-maker fitting footwear for a new client (fig. 4). Sometimes the images on the pots reflect the way that they were used, like the drinking cup shown here that shows festive Greek partiers, one of which appears to have overindulged in alcohol and is now feeling the consequences (fig. 5)!

Greek pot showing shoemaker designing footwear from the Ashmolean Museum
Fig. 4 – Greek pot scene showing a shoemaker making footwear for a customer (Athenian black-figure pelike, attributed to the Eucharides Painter, ca. 500 BCE; © Ashmolean Museum AN1896-1908.G.247)
Interior of a Greek drinking cup showing youth vomiting
Fig. 5 – Interior of a Greek drinking cup showing a youth vomiting. This image is from a replica of the Würzburg L 479 Vase, attributed to the Brygos Painter in the Martin von Wagner Museum, University of Würzburg (replica: Wellcome Collection

In some cases, we get some idea of who was involved in making ceramics because the potters who formed vessels and the painters who decorated them actually signed their names. This happened for example in classical Greece.  We can also look at images of potters from the ancient world, which gives us glimpses at who was making pottery and how it was done (fig. 6). There are even new studies that are looking at ancient fingerprints preserved in clay to try to understand who was making the pots! In addition to the images and descriptions from the ancient world, we can also learn a lot from the way that traditional potters make pottery today (fig. 7).

One of the really cool things about studying pottery today is that there are all sorts of different scientific methods we have that we can use to analyze all different aspects of pottery production, trade, and use in the ancient world. Scientific analysis can sometimes even tell us what was stored in pottery containers, which helps us to understand what goods were being traded between different regions (things like olive oil, wine, perfumes, makeup, and medicine). One of the projects I am a part of is using x-rays to study the chemical makeup of the clay used in making the pots (fig. 8), which can sometimes tell us where the clay came from and how it was prepared and formed by the potter. Next summer I will also get to look at the clay closely under the microscope to see what kinds of rocks, minerals, and other things (like fossils) are found in it. Studying the clay itself can be really useful in trying to understand where a pot may have come from, how it was made, and—for imported pots—what the trade route looked like in the past from the place of manufacture to the place we find it. I also tend to use math modelling to try to understand what kind of economic systems existed to move, sell, and distribute those imported goods.

There is so much that we can learn from studying the pottery of the ancient world—from how people cooked and ate, how they stored and transported goods, and how traded with their neighbours. Plus, it can be super cute! (fig. 9)

Greek pot showing the production and painting of pottery on the left. Model of an Old Kingdom Egyptian potter on the right
Fig. 6 – Left: Greek pot scene showing the production and painting of pottery (Caputi hydria, by the Leningrad painter, ca. 490–470 BCE; image fromOsservatorio Mostre E Musei); Right: Model of a potter from Old Kingdom Egypt (ca. 2500–­2260 BCE; © Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago OIM 10628)
Traditional potters working in Kornos, Cyprus
Fig. 7 – Traditional potters working in Kornos, Cyprus (2018; photo by C. Johnston)
Portable X-Ray Fluorescence analysis being conducted
Fig. 8 – Portable X-Ray Fluorescence analysis being conducted by Dr. Artemios Oikonomou of the Cyprus Institute, Kissonerga-Skalia project, Western Cyprus (2019; photos by C. Johnston)
Small animal-shaped vessel
Fig. 9 – Small animal-shaped vessel, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (photo by C. Johnston

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