I remember well the time when I was learning how to write. It took years for my first crooked letters to become the handwriting that, admittedly, I am still not quite so proud of today. When I get tired, the text that I write transforms into an indecipherable sea of wavy lines. On the other hand, when writing, I also make a mistake or two that I have to correct by scratching through the misspelled word or writing over a letter in an attempt to hide the still-visible mistake. At a very generic level, such is the nature of skill, labor and production (“production” standing for general “making things”). Mistakes happen due to insufficient experience, tiredness, and sloppiness, and they fall within the general margins of human error. We all make mistakes. It was therefore surprising to me how little attention has been paid to “mistakes” (i.e., production defects) and the manifestations thereof in the archaeological record (some notable exceptions being Taxel 2018 and Peña 2007). It was this line of thinking that made me focus on the various aspects of pottery and its initial manufacture — including the notion of quality control for sold products, through the lens of ceramic finds from Tell Abu Sarbut, Jordan.
Located in the northern Jordan Valley, Tell Abu Sarbut yielded evidence of intermittent habitation dating to early Roman, early Islamic, and middle Islamic times, respectively. It is the early Islamic layers, and the pottery retrieved from these contexts, kindly stored at the As-Salt Archaeological Museum, that I studied as a part of my fellowship here at The American Center of Research.
The Pierre and Patricia Bikai Fellowship has enabled me to work on this small research project that will contribute to a better understanding of the overall findings by the Tell Abu Sarbut Project (2012–2016), led by Dr. Margreet Steiner, Dr. Jeannette Boertien, and Dr. Noor Mulder-Heymans. The results of this fellowship, other aspects of which concerned assessing the presence of regional ceramic traditions in addition to refining the typochronology of the pottery assemblages, will be published in an upcoming book chapter on the pottery from Tell Abu Sarbut (Fig. 1). And, as they say in Jordan, inshallah, I will also be able to publish some of my other findings elsewhere or, with some luck, use these as a foundation for my PhD research. But I digress. The first step to conducting my study was, after all, to get myself into a close spatial proximity to the pottery from Tell Abu Sarbut so that I could study it in person — and this was no easy task, made possible only thanks to the aforementioned co-directors of the Tell Abu Sarbut Project and my research master supervisor, Prof. Dr. Joanita Vroom of Leiden University.
After I received the necessary permissions, moving ten boxes filled with pottery to and from The American Center was quite an adventure, and I am very thankful to the staff for all their support and assistance in this process. The 1,720 sherds contained within these boxes were looked at, recorded, and examined by me in order to advance our current knowledge of the rather relentlessly plain, unglazed early Islamic ceramics from Tell Abu Sarbut. This rural assemblage may not be the most exciting in terms of its decoration (although painted and incised decoration is quite present). However, the production variabilities — especially those relating to the quality of manufacture observable macroscopically — yielded some important insights into different manufacturing techniques and raised important questions on the marketability, economic value, and circulation of ceramic goods. Since technological studies of Islamic ceramics going beyond pure compositional analyses are very rare (notable is the somewhat outdated but still relevant technological analysis by Franken ), the task at hand of examining “how pots were made” was a challenging one. In particular, since the variations in producing wheel-made pottery are less common than in its handmade counterparts, the insights made during this preliminary month-long study provide good foundations for further examining the nature of mass-produced ceramics and the distribution thereof.
Being covered in pottery dust on daily basis in my workroom, which was very kindly provided by The American Center of Research (Fig. 2), I had plenty of time to ponder the ways in which specific ceramic forms were put together: for, as I learned, there are quite some number of ways of making a morphologically similar vessel such as a water jug or a casserole that one could identify within a single site assemblage. Working with the pottery from Tell Abu Sarbut, I’ve had my share of eureka moments, especially when the preliminary observations on minor production defects such as warping of vessel parts, sloppiness in smoothening the attachment areas, crazing of the slip, and general deformations to the vessel parts, added up to a substantial quantifiable dataset.
Studying the pottery assemblages from Tell Abu Sarbut, the quantities of pottery belonging to specific regional ceramic traditions were refined, and new ceramic material traditions were established. With the help of a handheld 75X–300X digital microscope, it became easier to efficiently observe the similarities and differences in ceramic fabric (such as variations in Islamic cream ware), treatment, and manufacture. Thinking long term, I am also hoping to be able to contribute to our understanding of what comprises a rural assemblage and how the commonalities and variations in material culture of rural sites can help us better tackle with the complex label of “rural.”
Importantly for my research, by looking at the level of sorting, firing, finish, and surface treatment of the pottery from Tell Abu Sarbut, I could study what could have driven the choices behind specific modes of pottery production and assess how these influenced the eventual usability and marketability of ceramic vessels. At the same time, I tried to understand the reasons behind the occurrence of “production defects” and how to identify them within archaeological ceramics. Buried underground for centuries, and affected by pre-depositional and post-depositional damage anyway, what “production defect” stands for could only be made clear by establishing clear production-quality parameters. As the work on the pottery from Tell Abu Sarbut progressed, and with the increasing occurrence of poorly made and flawed vessels, I also devised a preliminary framework through which these parameters could be interrogated and quantified. And although my fellowship at the ACOR is over, the work on the pottery is far from being finished. Amid a global pandemic (and renovation work at The American Center), my fellowship here was somewhat unusual, but it soon became my “home away from home” — a notion that binds all fellows and staff upon entering through the center’s entry (side-)door. I would like to thank the staff and residents for the laughs, chats, and collegiality, as well as the strong sense of community. And lastly, as everyone at The American Center of Research says: until next time!
Katarína Mokránová completed her BA degree in archaeology and ancient civilizations at Durham University in England and, after a short experience as a commercial archaeologist in the UK, she went on to pursue a research MA degree in archaeology of the Near East and the Mediterranean region at Leiden University, The Netherlands. During her RMA, Katarína worked as a student research assistant for the “Rural Riches” Project (study of post-Roman northwestern Europe) and the Leiden Islamic Jerash Project (working on the Byzantine-Islamic pottery from Jerash and funded by the NINO, Leiden). Katarína has a background in the archaeology of the Islamic period, focusing primarily on Islamic ceramics, but she is also interested in topics of pottery value, production and its quality, the socioeconomic complexity of rural settlements, urban-rural material entanglements, and social history of archaeological research.
Peña, J. T. 2007. Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taxel, I. 2018. Fragile Biography: The Life Cycle of Ceramics and Refuse Disposal Patterns in Late Antique and Early Medieval Palestine. Leuven: Peeters.
Franken, H. J., and J. Kalsbeek. 1975. Potters of a Medieval Village in the Jordan Valley: Excavations at Tell Deir Alla: A Medieval Tell, Tell Abu Gourdan, Jordan. Amsterdam; Oxford: North Holland Publishing Co.