Archaeological Views: Pottery in the Computer Age

As published in the September/October 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review

andrea-berlin

Andrea Berlin is the James R. Wiseman Chair in Classical Archaeology at Boston University.

BAR readers know there is no place on Earth more intensively investigated archaeologically than the Levant. As a corridor between east and west, north and south, as well as the center of gravity for three major world religions, this region has lured scholars since the 19th century. Excavations have revealed the places behind the stories in the Bible and Qur’an: ancient temples, palaces, cities, farmsteads, workshops and graveyards. These same excavations have produced millions of artifacts, none more abundant than pottery. Now, two centuries of discovery later, all that pottery is both an incredible resource and an enormous problem.

Pottery is a resource because it makes human behavior visible. From the earliest agricultural villages through the early modern era, people have used clay vessels for almost every sort of activity: to store, prepare, cook and serve food; to hold perfume; to ship commodities; to burn oil for light; to contain or serve as votive offerings; and to help make the dead more comfortable in the afterlife. Pottery animates the places we excavate.

Pottery also offers analytical evidence for dating, production and exchange through an array of scientific techniques, including Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis, X-Ray Fluorescence and petrographic thin-section.1 More than a century of continuous excavation and study have resulted in a gold-mine of data—stylistic, stratigraphic, petrographic and elemental.

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: information overload. The potential of pottery depends on researchers being able to identify, compare and properly situate what they find—but the system for doing that is broken. Information is couched in arcane jargon, scattered across unsearchable—sometimes obscure—print publications and, increasingly, on unconnected specialist websites. This leads to research that is overly narrow, incomplete, at odds with other ideas and results and sometimes simply a restatement of things already known. Despite excellent intentions, hard work and peer-reviewed publications, this is the current reality.

For the past four years, I have been developing a path toward a new reality. It is called the Levantine Ceramics Project (LCP; www.levantineceramics.org). And it represents a new model for communicating, linking and expanding the use of ceramic data. The LCP is an open-access, crowd-sourced public website (technically a web application, meaning software that is hosted on the worldwide web) devoted to ceramics produced anywhere in the Levant—Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt—from the Neolithic era (c. 5500 B.C.E.) through the time of Ottoman rule (c. 1920 C.E.).

lcp

The Levantine Ceramics Project (www.levantineceramics.org).

On the LCP you can submit, search, browse and display all types of information: wares and petro-fabrics (microscopic rock features); individual vessel descriptions, drawings, photographs, archaeological context and date; petrographic descriptions and thin-sections; etc. There are no restrictions on terminology; contributors may submit the information they have, using their own names and descriptions. Every piece of submitted data remains associated with its contributor as well as its publication references (when available). The application links a vessel’s analytical, descriptive, illustrative and contextual data, even when it is submitted piecemeal by different contributors. Information can be easily edited, removed or rearranged, which makes the LCP an archive as well as a research tool—an especially critical aspect since our discipline is predicated on new discoveries along with reconsideration of older material.
 


 
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Here are some details of how the LCP works:

While anybody can consult the LCP, one must register to submit data. There are two options: user and contributor. Users submit data; contributors receive attribution credit. People submitting their own work are both users and contributors; a person submitting information already published by others is a user and must cite the original scholar(s) as contributor. This allows us to include information published long ago by somebody else (even in cases where the person is deceased). Every entry also includes publication references, which are automatically added to the site’s master bibliography. Thus every item on the site is linked to its original contributor, and intellectual property is maintained.

LCP submission can be partial, meaning that a contributor does not need all relevant data in order to enter information. For example, User A may submit a ware name and description; Users B and C may submit individual vessels that are made in that ware; and User D may submit a petrographic description and thin-section of one of those submitted vessels. The ware page will display all relevant information, with each submission linked to its contributor. In addition, each submission will appear on its own individual page.

Users may choose three options for sharing the data they submit (and may change the setting at any time):

• Public: fully visible to anybody who consults the site.
• Restricted: visible only to specified individuals. This option is useful for people working within a research group who may want to post data for colleagues to discuss and edit directly on the site.
• Private: visible to the contributor only. This option allows somebody to put data on the site but hold it in reserve, compare it with other data, etc. This is particularly useful for data still under analysis.

A scholarly citation can be generated for every content page by clicking on a button on that page. This allows contributors to treat the site as a digital publication—bringing old-world scholarship into the modern era.

The LCP is built to expand in content and utility, and one key element is the ability to modify information that has already been submitted, whether by editing, adding new aspects or deleting portions of an entry (or an entire entry).

Is the LCP working? The numbers are encouraging. We launched LCP 1.0 in January 2013; by March of that year, 55 contributors had submitted data to the site. Two years later, in January 2015, we introduced LCP 3.0, with a revamped submission process, new user interface, new systems for processing references and lots of other improvements. By June 2016 the site had 189 contributors, 270 ceramic wares, over 5,000 individual vessels and 45 petro-fabrics. Of course the amount of ceramic information on the LCP is infinitesimal compared to the staggering amounts of pottery that have been published since William Flinders Petrie first went to Egypt in 1884. Then again, the LCP has been in operation only since 2013. Working together, we can create a resource for the next century of exploration.
 


 
“Archaeological Views: Pottery in the Computer Age” by Andrea Berlin was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 

 

Notes:

1. See 40 Futures, Digging Deeper 3 (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2015).
 


 

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  1. Lisa Thomas says

    While we were in Amman Jordan we went up to the old citadel area. There were many pottery sherds all over the ground. From what date would these be from?


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