The Pottery Dump

n July of 1993 we discovered a large accumulation of pottery in an area to the northwest of the Temple of Poseidon (just southeast of the Excavation House). This material was apparently excavated by Paul Clement in the late 1960's and early 1970's, washed, and then discarded in this spot. The exact circumstances of this dumping are as yet uncertain, although they presumably represent what is frequently mentioned in the notebooks: "pottery lotted and characteristic specimens saved" -- things were thrown away in large quantities (a necessary operation in a classical excavation). Several questions about the dumping remain: where did the material come from (i.e., from what parts of the excavation), when and why was the material discarded, and what principles were followed in determining what should be discarded and what saved?

Pile of pottery

An awful lot of pottery

When the material was discovered we had the option of discarding it permanently, so that it would no longer be a bother for the excavation, but in the end we decided to keep it all and attempt to study it in some fashion. The study is being carried out under the general supervision of Professor Jeanne Marty, our Roman pottery expert, who is assisted this year by Denise Tomlinson of the University of North Carolina, Asheville. Our immediate goal is to sort the pottery and other materials into distinct categories and to count and weigh the items in each category. There are several purposes for this procedure. In the first place, we hope to be able to determine where the material in the dump came from, by a comparison between what is in the dump and what has been saved. This will involve, ultimately, statistical comparisons among several classes of material. Secondly, and more importantly, we hope that the pottery in the dump will provide important information about the patterns of trade at Isthmia, especially in the Roman period (the date of most of the pottery in the dump). Thus, in recent years it has become possible to identify many kinds of pottery, including both finewares and transport amphoras, by type and by place of origin. This has then allowed studies of the totality of the ceramic assemblage from an individual site (involving thousands of pieces of pottery) in order to make observations about the direction of trade over time. Thus, for example, the appearance of large quantities of pottery from North Africa or from Asia Minor would presumably indicate strong trading relations with those areas.

Pottery form the dump

Pottery from the dump

We are sorting the pottery from the dump in accord with our general principles for sorting excavation pottery. Thus, we first seek to divide the material into seven broad categories:

  1. fine ware (glazed and slipped relatively fine tableware)
  2. plain ware (unglazed, unslipped relatively fine tableware, mostly Greek)
  3. cooking ware (stony, hardfired pottery, usually--but not always--fired black
  4. pottery used for cooking, pitchers, jugs, cups, etc.)
  5. coarse ware (coarse fabric used for amphoras, basins, etc.)
  6. lamps
  7. tiles, bricks, and ceramic water pipes
  8. non-ceramic objects (stone, glass, bone, metal, etc.)

Pottery from the dump

Yet more pottery from the dump

For each of the pottery categories (1-4 above) we seek to divide the material into "diagnostic" and body sherds. The diagnostic sherds are rims, handles, bases, ring feet, while body sherds are everything else. (Note that the term "diagnostic" can be used in many different ways--here it is simply used in the meaning given above.) Thus, each of the pottery categories above would be divided into two groups. Beyond this, we seek to David the pottery into a larger number of subgroups, especially those that can easily be recognized by relatively inexperienced sorters. Thus, at present we have drawn up the following categories:

  1. Fineware
  2. Plain Ware
  3. Cooking Ware
  4. Thin-Walled Cooking Ware
  5. "Slavic Ware"
  6. Coarse Ware (general)
  7. Coarse Ware (wheel ridged)
  8. Coarse Ware (spirally grooved or combed)
  9. Carafe Ware ("Aegean" amphoras)
  10. Coarse Ware (micaceous water jars)
  11. Coarse Ware (micaceous, general)
  12. Coarse Ware (micaceous, slipped)
  13. Coarse Ware ("whitey/stoney")
  14. Coarse Ware (painted)
  15. Corinthian A Amphora fabric/Blister Ware
  16. Cut Stoppers
  17. Lamps
  18. Tiles
  19. Water pipes
  20. Non-Ceramic

This list will be expanded and redefined as time goes by. Some material will be selected from that in the Dump and inventoried, but most of the pieces will be sorted, counted, and weighed.