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The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis

The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis

Edited by Alice M.W. Hunt. Pp. xxxiv + 724, figs. 138, plates 9, tables 23. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2017. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-968153-2 (cloth).

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The Oxford University Press archaeological handbooks seek to publish “authoritative and up to date surveys” of current research on a range of theoretical, geographic, and methodological topics (Oxford University Press, Oxford Handbooks, Thirty-nine handbooks have been published between 2009 and April 2018, with seven more soon forthcoming and, no doubt, others in the works. The short articles contained in these ambitious edited volumes provide overviews of recent archaeological research and useful bibliographies that allow readers to delve further into the topics they summarize. I suspect that no one but book reviewers ever read these volumes in their entirety. But that is not their intent. They are intended to serve as reference works—valuable for graduate and undergraduate teaching and useful to researchers seeking to get their feet wet in a new area or gain quick insights into current scholarship on a region or topic. Given their goals, the Oxford Handbooks are massive and costly volumes, intended for libraries and online access rather than individual bookshelves. And even though all are many hundreds of pages long, they can be idiosyncratic, reflecting the theoretical perspectives and academic networks of their editors and the impossibility of encompassing between two covers all possible research on a topic.

With 53 contributors and more than 700 pages, Hunt has done a masterful editor’s job of compiling a wide-ranging and valuable volume addressing an impressive array of topics on archaeological ceramics. Hunt is an archaeological materials scientist, and it is perhaps not surprising that the volume is especially strong presenting the ever-growing arsenal of scientific methods available for ceramic analysis.

The volume is organized in seven sections. In part 1, Hunt describes the volume’s goals and structure and includes a useful chart of the analytical methods presented throughout the volume and the research questions to which they are relevant. Tite reviews the history of scientific research on ceramics, including the key research questions, laboratories, and approaches that have shaped ceramic analysis since Shephard’s Ceramics for the Archaeologist (Washington, D.C., 1956).

The four chapters in part 2 (“Research Design and Data Analysis”) make clear the volume’s privileging of archaeometry. Buxeda i Garrigós and Madrid i Fernández begin the section by discussing the importance of linking one’s scientific research questions with appropriate archaeometric and statistical techniques. Hazenfratz-Marks reviews sources of uncertainty in chemical characterization. In a useful chapter for beginning ceramic analysts, Bishop briefly introduces descriptive statistics, sampling strategies, and multivariate statistics. The section ends with a contribution by Boulanger on the potential and the limitations of working with previously published compositional data. While valuable for designing laboratory analyses, discussions of fieldwork research design and sampling are notably absent. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, this section lays a foundation for what follows and provides valuable cautionary advice on the importance of explicit research goals, appropriate techniques and analytical methods, and sensitivity to limitations in the results.

While the guidance in part 2 is relevant to archaeometric research in general, the nine chapters in part 3 (“Foundational Concepts”) turn their attention squarely to ceramics, with contributions on ceramic materials (Montana), manufacturing techniques and the chaîne opératoire approach (Roux), the social organization of pottery production (Duistermaat), provenance studies (Wakeman), mineralogical and chemical alteration (Schneider), formal analysis and typological classification (Santacreu, Calvo Trias, and García Rosselló), fabric description (Whitbread), and analytical drawing (Shirvalkar). As a group, these chapters could constitute a useful text for an undergraduate or graduate course on archaeological ceramics: they are content-rich and combine useful overviews of the history of research with summaries of recent work, often supplemented with case studies from the authors’ own research.

The remaining four sections are organized thematically around specific archaeological questions, with the number of entries in each correlated to the number of potential archaeometric techniques. Part 4 contains 11 articles on “Evaluating Ceramic Archaeological Provenance”; part 5 contains six articles on “Investigating Ceramic Manufacture”; part 6, three entries on “Assessing Vessel Function”; and part 7, two articles on “Dating Ceramic Assemblages.” Out of curiosity, I conducted a quick skim of tables of contents of the last three years of the AJA, American Antiquity, and the Journal of Archaeological Science to compare the weighting of ceramic-focused topics in the journals with the attention they received in this handbook. Thus, with more techniques relevant to the study of provenance, I was curious whether archaeologists were conducting proportionately more research on this topic. This does not appear to be the case; instead—and not surprisingly—ceramic archaeologists are productively exploring a broad range of research questions from a myriad of methodological and theoretical approaches. In the articles I reviewed, studies of ceramic function were most numerous (20 of 51), followed by manufacturing (9.5), provenance (8), chronology (7.5), and “other” (6; style, cross-craft interaction, transmission, hybridity, social identity).

Nonetheless, this volume demonstrates that the breadth of analytical techniques that contemporary ceramic archaeologists can deploy is impressive. In part 4, on provenance, these include petrography (Braeksmans and Degryse), ceramic micropaleontology (Wilkinson et al.), electron microprobe analysis (EMPA; Ionescu and Hock), isotope analysis (Wiegand), X-ray powder diffraction (XRPD; Heinmann), X-ray fluorescence energy dispersive (ED-XRF) and wavelength dispersive spectrometry (WD-XRF) (Hall), handheld portable energy X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF; Holmgvist), particle induced X-ray emission (PIXE; Rizzutto and Tabacniks), inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and laser ablation ICP-MS (Golitko and Dussubieux), instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA; Minc and Sterba), and synchrotron radiation (Greene). While these chapters are not easy reading, each presents useful information on the principles underlying the technique, sample preparation, instrumentation, and evaluation of results.

In part 5 (“Investigating Ceramic Manufacture”), Fowler reviews ethnographic research on pottery production and the complex interplay of environmental, technological, and social constraints on ceramic production. The remaining chapters address the kinds of evidence that can be gleaned from experimental firing and refiring (Dazkiewicz and Maritan), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IFR; Shoval), Raman spectroscopy (Van Pavenage and Vandenabeele), X-radiography (Berg and Ambers), and the analysis of organic inclusions (Lippi and Pallechi).

Part 6 (“Assessing Vessel Function”) begins with a discussion of qualitative and quantitative morphometric approaches to typology and classification by Martínez-Carillo and Barceló, illustrated by their digital morphometric classification of Iberian vessels from complete profiles. Müller discusses ceramic responses to physical and thermal stress; residue analysis is described by Barnard and Berkens.

In part 7 (“Dating Ceramic Assemblages”), Bortolini returns to issues of classification and typology, this time with reference to building chronologies. With Martínez-Carillo and Barceló’s essay, these two chapters provide an excellent review of debates and approaches to ceramic typology. The volume concludes with a discussion of direct methods for dating ceramics by Blain and Hall.

In all, this book valuably provides both general background on archaeological ceramics and a comprehensive overview of relevant archaeometric techniques. It is equally useful to students just beginning research on archaeological ceramics and established professionals seeking to keep up with the ever-expanding toolkit of analytical techniques. The volume is certainly not (nor is it intended to be) a book that looks at the breadth of current theoretical approaches that incorporate ceramics into attempts to explore and explain the human past. With few exceptions (e.g., Duistermaat’s article on the organization of pottery production) recent theoretical discussions such as those of agency, materiality, entanglement, innovation, and Actor Network Theory are not addressed. And no article explicitly examines that mainstay of earlier generations of ceramic analysts: ceramic style and decoration. That said, while analytical methods have pride of place throughout the volume (and a few contributors appear to have been more entranced by their analytical powers than by the questions they could help archaeologists address), overall the authors did an excellent job of reminding readers that the analytical techniques are tools to answer archaeological questions rather than ends in themselves.

Carla M. Sinopoli
Department of Anthropology and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology
University of Michigan

Book Review of The Oxford Handbook of Archaeological Ceramic Analysis, edited by Alice M.W. Hunt

Reviewed by Carla M. Sinopoli

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.sinopoli

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