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Using Pottery to Decode The Past 

What Is Ceramic Typology

Ceramic typology encompasses analytical techniques used in material culture study with the aim to provide information concerning ceramic technology of past societies (Santacreu 2014, 2). Studying ceramics allows for an understanding of how past societies conceptualize produce use maintain exchange and deposit their pottery. Advancements in fields like chemical and mineralogical analysis have benefited the ceramic typology. Using interdisciplinary techniques archaeologists can create a better representation of past societies pottery. Another benefit of studying ceramics is it can be analyzed both in qualitative in quantitative means.

Working in Lab
Metepec Pottery samples.png

Archaeologists analyze and describe shapes, color, textures, mineral composition, and decoration of pottery vessels (Santacreu 2014, 125). They use this information to conduct analysis is focused on social and cultural processes. It attempts to understand the complex relationships existing between ceramics as a cultural product and the natural environment. This viewpoint sees ceramics styles and form as an adaptation to the environment rather than social factors (Santacreu 2014, 130). Pottery can be related to cultural patterns which are often specific to each culture. However, the basic function of pottery types, for example, cups, plates, bowls, jars, and cooking pots, lead to similar forms across the world.

Pottery production is separated into two categories function and use

  • Function- is the purpose they perform based on the Potters intentions

  • Use- how the vessel is used every day

Although function and use are closely tied, they are not determinants of each other.

Why Can Ceramics Be Helpful? 

Archaeologists look at soil composition in local variability. Material composition is significant because pottery has different uses for decorative cooking container. Therefore, the makeup of the ceramic can lead us to conclusions about what it was used for. Also, soil composition and region variants can inform the archaeologists if the pottery was made locally or traded. Determining if the ceramic is not comprised of local soil variance can aid in understanding the living culture. For example, was this population involved in a vast trade network? Has the group migrated? Do they accept foreign people into their culture? Pottery styles that are prevalent in one area may be hard to come by in another. Therefore, wealthy individuals are more likely to have foreign pottery styles because they can afford to have them transported. So, obtaining foreign pottery is a signal to wealth and status. 

Spanish Pottery
Garden Soil

The presence of certain soil indicates with space management in many societies there is a close spatial connection between settlements and mineral sources (Santacreu 2014, 137). Typically, ceramic products are created using local clays and temper material. Temper is a regional variant. Once the potter receives their material, they remove impurities by running water through the clay. This process eliminates unsuitable sediment from the working clay. Clays from central Mexico can be more difficult to chemically analyze due to a regional runoff of parent rock. Therefore, it creates obstacles when determining regional origins. 

Raw Clay


Crider, D., Nichols, D. L., Neff, H., & Glascock, M. D. 2007. In the aftermath of Teotihuacan: Epiclassic pottery production and distribution in the Teotihuacan Valley, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity, 18(2), 123+.

Huster, C., Angela & Pierce, E., Daniel. 2019. A geochemical baseline for clays of the Toluca Valley, Mexico, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.Vol. 29.

The Associated Press. Sep. 19, 2000. Lead in Mexican Products Raises Concern. New York Times. p. 14.

Megged, Amos. 2008. Communities of Memory in the Valley of Toluca: The Town of Metepec, 1476-1643. Ethnohistory 55 (2): 251–85. doi:10.1215/00141801-2007-063.

Pizzigoni, Caterina. 2013. The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico's Toluca Valley, 1650-1800. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. Accessed November 8, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Santacreu, Daniel. 2014. Materiality, Techniques and Society in Pottery Production : The Technological Study of Archaeological Ceramics Through Paste Analysis. Warschau/Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH. Accessed November 11, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Stoner, Wesley D., and Deborah L. Nichols. 2019. POTTERY TRADE AND THE FORMATION OF EARLY AND MIDDLE FORMATIVE STYLE HORIZONS AS SEEN FROM CENTRAL MEXICO. Ancient Mesoamerica 30 (2). Cambridge Welles

Hopkins, Barbara., Muller Florencia. 1974. A Guide to Mexican Ceramics. Mexico City: Minutiae Mexicana. ISBN 968-7074-44-2. University Press: 311–37. doi:10.1017/S0956536118000330.

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