Identifying Pottery in the Field: Sad Handle Ware at Omrit

BY CAITLIN CLERKIN, PhD student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Pottery reading in the Omrit registry

Pottery reading in the Omrit registry

One step in studying pottery involves identifying what archaeologists call wares. The term “ware” refers to a particular way of preparing the fabric (the material that makes up the vessel: clay, natural mineral inclusions, added temper) to create a specific range of shapes or forms. This kind of grouping is defined by a combination of characteristics of production process, material, and shape/appearance. (See here for another definition of ware, and other terms associated with studying ceramics.)

I spent the first three weeks of June studying excavated pottery at the Omrit Settlement Excavation Project. Omrit is a site in northern Israel’s Upper Galilee, set at the foothills of the Hermon Range; it is the location of a Roman temple and a late Roman settlement (on which the current excavation focuses). I work with one of the project directors, Dr. Jennifer Gates-Foster (UM/IPCAA alumna!), of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the excavated pottery: as part of our work, we sort, identify, and record the different wares we find in each excavated unit (as well as a range of other data about the pottery). This means both identifying known wares and keeping an eye out for shared characteristics amongst sherds of unknown fabric or wares. Sometimes, with enough reoccurrence, these groups of unidentified sherds become identifiable as a new ware; sometimes, we add to what we know about previously identified wares when we spot new shapes or characteristics.

At Omrit, we aim for total recovery of cultural materials. To this end, the excavators sift all excavated dirt (pouring it through 1/4-inch mesh screens). The resulting volume of pottery is large (I don’t yet have final tally for 2015, but, in the 2014 season, we “read”—sorted, analyzed, and recorded—48,678 sherds, and 848.33 kg of pottery, plus part of a backlog from 2013), which is absolutely wonderful for the data set but can sometimes lead to what I call “sherd shock.” While in the midst of a sherd shock fit this season, I came across this diagnostic sherd:

Sad Handle Ware?

Sad Handle Ware?

“Diagnostics” are what we call rims, bases, and handles of ceramic vessels: examination of these pieces can usually help us identify what the larger vessel shape or type was. Given a reasonably sized piece of a rim, ceramics specialists can usually identify the sherd as coming from a bowl rather than a jar. Additionally, rim shape can tell us what kind of a bowl a given sherd once belonged to. For example, the photo below shows, from a single context, 32 rims of a single type of bowl (with a very distinctive rim) called a “Banias bowl,” named for a nearby site where the bowl type was first identified. (I call this quantity a Banias Bowl Bonanza.) Having a small portion of each rim (as seen in the photo) is enough to identify the type of bowl.

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A Banias Bowl Bonanza!

Anyway, back to that funny diagnostic sherd (in the photo with the pink 5-cm scale): that sherd is a vessel handle. But what kind was it? It seemed very strange, and it was not a handle shape that was familiar to me from published literature on the region.

Through consultation with other archaeologists at Omrit, such as field director Dr. Ben Rubin of Williams College (also a UM/IPCAA alumnus!), we determined that, while the handle looked oddly like a finger, a more appropriate name for the group to which this strange, unknown handle belonged would be “Sad Handle Ware” (because it was the saddest looking handle we had ever seen).

Not Sad Handle Ware→ Hawarit Ware! (Thanks to the Kelsey’s Lorene Sterner for the 5-cm scale stamp featured in the photographs.)

Not Sad Handle Ware→ Hawarit Ware!

Closer examination of the handle’s fabric and surface treatment ultimately allowed me to identify it as Hawarit Ware, a cooking ware produced at a kiln (at modern Khirbat el-Hawarit) just up the slopes of Mt. Hermon from Omrit. Hawarit Ware is our main cooking ware at late Roman Omrit and is the group to which most of our cooking pots, casserole pots, and many other vessels belong. This shape was unfamiliar, but everything else about it matched Hawarit Ware. So much for a new ware! (Alas, I will never be famous for identifying Sad Handle Ware…because it is not a Thing.) This funny little handle, however, was a reminder that we sometimes come across new vessel shapes in known wares—and that our examination of pottery at Omrit will do more than just tell us about activity, consumption, and chronology at Omrit; it will also feed back into the pool of knowledge about ceramics in the region, adding to what is known about local and regional ceramics for ceramic specialists after us.

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