Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Feats of clay

As I write this, I'm waiting for a kiln full of pottery to cool enough that I can open it.

Opening a kiln, especially after the final (glaze) firing, is a bit like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get.  Even though I have about ten years of experience making pottery, it's still a crapshoot every single time, mostly because so many things can go wrong along the way.  My first pottery teacher said never to get attached to a pot until it's cool, in your hands, after the final firing, and there's a lot of truth in that.  Besides the built-in uncertainty of a complex, multi-step process that never quite works the same way twice, there's the added complication that I love to mess around with new techniques, especially new glaze combinations.

So I must admit that just about all of my failures have been my own damn fault.

Sometimes, though, things work out a great deal better than you expect.

I got into pottery on a whim.  I've never been much good at artistic pursuits -- my former students will attest to the fact that my ability to draw kind of topped out in third grade -- but my wife is a brilliant artist, and had been taking lessons in pottery for a while.  She convinced me to give it a try, and after one lesson I was hooked.  I'm still at it ten years later, even though mostly I still just think of it as playing in the mud for adults.

Then there are the (many) times it doesn't go so well.  We have turned our failures into a game called "Confusing Future Archaeologists."

I've done a lot of wheel-throwing and hand-building, and we now have a studio that is completely taken over by pottery equipment.  I must say, in all seriousness, that pottery kind of saved my sanity during the pandemic lockdown.  Having something creative to focus on was a godsend.

Working on the wheel

I have no desire to learn to be a professional potter; an amateur I am, and an amateur I shall remain.  If every once in a while I produce something I judge as worthy of keeping, that's cool, but mostly I'm just in it to have fun.

Then, there's the potential for combining pottery with my other obsessions.  Yes, I know I'm a total fanboy.  No, I don't care.

The reason this comes up is a paper I ran into a couple of days ago in The Journal of Anthropological Archaeology about the techniques for pottery-making used by the mysterious Indus Valley Civilization of northwestern India four thousand years ago.  A team led by Alessandro Ceccarelli of the University of Cambridge did a detailed analysis of fragments of pottery from the Indus Civilization, and found that they were already using a great many of the techniques potters still use today -- pinching, slab-building, coiling, and wheel-throwing.  You might wonder how the researchers could discern the latter; a well-made coiled pot and a wheel-thrown pot can look a great deal alike.  But microscopic analysis of the shards showed that even after smoothing and firing, hand-built pottery still shows traces of the scraping potters do to join the pieces together and avoid cracking, while wheel-thrown pottery retains evidence of rotational stress in the clay particles that comes from the torque on the clay from the spinning wheel and the drag exerted by the potter's hands.

When I read that last bit, I thought, "Oh, of course."  One of the things wheel-throwers learn very early on is that throwing creates a twist in the clay, even if the homogeneity of the material makes it hard to see.  Multi-part pieces like teapots are where this is the most critical; when you put the spout on a teapot, you have to account for the fact that during firing the clay will "relax" or untwist a little, so what was joined to the body of the teapot as a perfectly-aligned spout can come out of the kiln tilted to the side.  Once you figure out how much the clay you're using untwists, you compensate by putting the spout on tilted a little in the other direction -- so during the firing, the spout will right itself and come out properly aligned.

It's kind of amazing to me how far back these techniques go.  Think about the insight our distant ancestors must have had to take this common substance -- clay -- and fashion it into something not only useful, but beautiful.  Now, I sit down at an electric wheel with homogeneous store-bought clay and perfectly-formulated stains and glazes, and fire my work in an electric kiln.  (And I still have pieces that flop sometimes.)  Consider the trial-and-error that must have gone into digging and refining natural clay, developing techniques for shaping (including figuring out how to build a kick-wheel), figuring out which available minerals would work as colorants and glazes, and using pit firing to harden the clay to make the piece usable for containing food or drink.  Modern potters are the inheritors of what clay artisans have learned over millennia of attempts, innovations, successes and failures.

"This study doesn’t just look at how pottery was made – it gives us a fascinating insight into some of the earliest ‘social networks’ and how people passed on knowledge and skills over centuries without the use of books or the technology we now take for granted," Ceccarelli said, in an interview with Heritage Daily.  "The objects we examined suggested that while communities of ceramic makers lived in the same regions – and often in the same settlements – different traditions emerged and were sustained over centuries.  There was a clear effort to keep alive their unique ways of making pottery to set them apart from other communities, like a statement of their identity."

All of which makes me wonder what those future archaeologists will think about my pile of smashed pottery.

But now, I need to wrap this up, and go check the kiln.  I swear, waiting for it to cool is like a kid waiting for Christmas.  And hoping that the brightly-colored boxes under the tree contain something better than socks, underwear, or an ugly sweater.


My master's degree is in historical linguistics, with a focus on Scandinavia and Great Britain (and the interactions between them) -- so it was with great interest that I read Cat Jarman's book River Kings: A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road.

Jarman, who is an archaeologist working for the University of Bristol and the Scandinavian Museum of Cultural History of the University of Oslo, is one of the world's experts on the Viking Age.  She does a great job of de-mythologizing these wide-traveling raiders, explorers, and merchants, taking them out of the caricature depictions of guys with blond braids and horned helmets into the reality of a complex, dynamic culture that impacted lands and people from Labrador to China.

River Kings is a brilliantly-written analysis of an often-misunderstood group -- beginning with the fact that "Viking" isn't an ethnic designation, but an occupation -- and tracing artifacts they left behind traveling between their homeland in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark to Iceland, the Hebrides, Normandy, the Silk Road, and Russia.  (In fact, the Rus -- the people who founded, and gave their name to, Russia -- were Scandinavian explorers who settled in what is now the Ukraine and western Russia, intermarrying with the Slavic population there and eventually forming a unique melded culture.)

If you are interested in the Vikings or in European history in general, you should put Jarman's book in your to-read list.  It goes a long way toward replacing the legendary status of these fierce, sea-going people with a historically-accurate reality that is just as fascinating.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

No comments:

Post a Comment