The Emergence of Pottery

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The Emergence of Pottery. Edited by WILLIAM K. BARNETT and JOHN W. HOOPES. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1996. xviii + 280 pp., figures, tables, index, references cited. $55 (cloth, ISBN 1-56098-516-X), $29.95 (paper, ISBN 1-56098-517-8).

Most of the uses to which early pottery was put depended on the ability to partially enclose space with baked clay, i.e., on the role of pottery vessels as containers. The pot as multipurpose container is a crucial issue in most of the papers that compose The Emergence of Pottery. This volume is well titled. With the exception of an intriguing chapter titled "Rocks Versus Clay" by Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, the emphasis is indeed upon the emergence of pottery; or, better put, upon the earliest occurrence of pottery in an area or region, rather than the first evidence for potting. Most of the contributors treat pottery vessels as objects, a not uncommon, if somewhat disappointing, archaeological propensity.

Let me illustrate why I find the "pots-as-objects" approach disappointing. In their introduction, the editors state that "Pottery is thoroughly 'cultural' in that its variation is almost completely dependent upon the ideas of the potter"(my emphasis). This is a far more forceful claim about the importance of ideas than most potters would make. Those who have made pots realize that ideas must be translated into action, and that patience, skill, and the properties of the raw materials play as great a role in this process as do the ideas in the potter's mind. In fact, patience, skill, and raw materials may be as significant in producing variability as the trans-generational transmission of ideas about how pots should be made. As explained to me by Mutshekwa Litshira (a Ba Venda potter in South Africa), "Most women know how to make pots but very few have the time or the ability to do it often. Those who do become potters." Mutshekwa's observations fit well with the arguments advanced by Karen Vitelli in her contribution to this volume, entitled "Pots, Potters, and the Shaping of Greek Neolithic Society."

Pottery may have readily entered into preexisting networks of internal and external exchange because personal characteristics like patience and fine motor skills are not evenly distributed in a given population. Several authors make this observation, including Close, in her chapter titled "Few and Far Between, Early Ceramics in North Africa"; Moore, in "The Inception of Potting in Western Asia and Its Impact on Economy and Society"; Barnett, in "Putting the Pot before the Horse, Earliest Ceramics and the Neolithic Transition in the Western Mediterranean"; Bogucki, in "The Linear Pottery Culture of Central Europe"; and Bebaur, in "Pottery Production and the Introduction of Agriculture in Southern Scandinavia." I would not, however, go so far as Hayden, who argues that personal characteristics such as skill and patience are sufficient for the emergence of a prestige economy. I would not view potters who invest more than the minimum effort in embellishing their wares as aggrandizers. Nor would I argue that "craft specialization...emerges first among complex hunter-gatherers as part of elite prerogatives (shamans, exclusive hunters, carvers) or to provide labor-intensive craft items for elites" (p. 259). To do so gives a new and, I think, rather imprecise meaning to the terms "craft specialization" and "elite." I prefer to think of "craft specialization" as the production of items by family, kin group, barrio, village, or guild, and of "elite" as a kin- or class-circumscribed access to positions of power and authority.

Taken collectively, the 22 papers in this volume can by no means be criticized for ignoring the multifaceted role pottery may play in the lives of those who possess and use it. Although Longacre, Manson ("Starcevo Pottery and Neolithic Development in the Central Balkans"), and Sassman ("The Social Contradictions of Traditional and Innovative Cooking Technologies in the Prehistoric American Southeast") discuss the importance of pot performance characteristics, most authors describe and interpret the ceramics they study as integral to the internal and/or external exchange of goods and services and to the communication of status, prestige, or ethnicity. …