Pottery restoration laboratory

There has been a pause in my posts over the last month while I was travelling around the world, including such important holidays as my honeymoon. Now it’s time to update this blog.

While excavation is the exciting part of archaeology, a lot more time has to be spent on laboratory work. Often, fewer people are involved in lab work, especially for academic projects. That means that a few people will work away long hours to be able to interpret the archaeological finds better.

One of the tasks, especially for Near Eastern archaeology, is pottery restoration. That’s what I was involved in at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology. Pottery restoration can be compared to a very large 3-D puzzle, with lots of games mixed together, no definite picture of what the final product should look like and no guarantee that all the pieces are there. Of course, people that know their pottery can guess from a single piece what pot it should belong to and where in the vessel it belongs. But it is still a lot of work requiring a lot of patience to put together a vessel. Large vessels are the hardest, because the different sides look quite different – they often lay in slightly different soils for thousands of years – and there is sometimes little clue where in the pots the shords belong to.

It is one help that pieces are gathered in baskets, which are location specific. It is very likely that potsherds belonging to one vessel are found close together. But sometimes we find potsherds from the same vessel some distance apart.
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Here potsherds are arranged in baskets in the approximate location these baskets were collected in the field. In the back is a partially restored storage jar. We restored the jar by finding the base sherds and then looking from similar sherds from the basekts around these. Sometimes it is some other sherds that we use first.
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The main difficulty is finding potsherds that fit together, but when we’ve achieved a fit, there is no doubt about it. It’s that satisfying “click” which tells the restorer that they’ve got the right potsherds. Often we assemble a few potsherds before we glue them together.
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We use restorer’s glue B72, which can be desolved in acetone. The easiest way to apply the glue to the sherds is through the use of a syringe, in which it can also be mixed.

The first task is to balance the sherds so that the upper sherd is held on the lower by gravity. To do that the lower sherd is placed in rice and kept in position.
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After applying the glue to the upper sherd, it is then carefully placed on the lower sherd and then left to dry for half an hour. The drying time can be sped up by applying heat. Sometimes several sherds need to be glued and it is best to glue additional sherds while the glue on the other seams is still flexible.
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At the end the sherds hold together. The seam is clearly visible, but once all the sherds are put together, we know the overall shape of the vessel and can also tell things about height, volume, width, and use-wear.

We had over 20,000 potsherds registered in our laboratory from a few excavation areas. Each individual potsherd was numbered and weighed. In that way we could tell the distribution of pottery pieces across a room and draw conclusions about the formation processes. For example, an analysis of the distribution led me to conclude that most vessels in a room were on the floor when the building was destroyed and that there was minimal later intrusion.

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3 Responses to Pottery restoration laboratory

  1. Dear Tim, I have been trying to check up on ancient ovens as mentioned in the Mishna Keilim 5:6 and Bavli Shabbat 125a (line 18) on an oven placed over a pit. Rashi maintains these ovens were an earthenware cylinder open at both ends placed over the pit where a fire burned. Does this line up with any archeological findings from the period (all images I found depict a hemispherical oven with a side opening placed over the pit), Thanks, Regards, Jonathan Goldstein, Jerusalem

  2. Tim Frank says:

    Dear Jonathan,
    This will not be the most authoritative respones, as I don’t have my books here.
    Please remember that archaeological interpretation still largely depends on ethnographic analogy and ancient descriptions. Unless an archaeologist knows of those similarities, it is hard to interpret archaeological finds. In the last few centuries, ovens in the Near East were generally made out of low-fired clay. Therefore, archaeologists use this and other evidence to interpret large hollow clay cylinders as ovens.
    Most ovens in recent centuries and in Antiquity had a side opening. However, during the Iron Age ovens in Israel did not have a side opening, in contrast with Cyprus for example. I am not exactly sure when this changed.
    As far as the pit is concerned: most ovens were built at floor level, but some were sunk into the ground or built over a pit, apparently in use at the same time as ovens built on the floor.
    Unfortunately, I can’t remember any oven excavated exactly as you describe it (i’m not that familiar with the Roman period), but yes, cylindrical clay ovens narrowing towards the top opening have been found in archaeological excavations.
    Tim

  3. Pingback: Pottery reconstruction | Imagining the past: Archaeology and the Bible

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