California Pottery Project

by Susan M. Hector

Archaeologists attempt to use fragments of material culture to reconstruct, describe, and understand past human behavior and society. Pottery is an abundant and important component of material culture that provides “insights into the lifeways of people” as well as information about cultural change, trade, ideology, and behavior (Rice 1987: 24-25). The collections, notes, and research conducted by Malcolm Rogers, of the San Diego Museum of Man, provide ample evidence of the importance of ceramic vessels to the native people of the Anza-Borrego Desert and environs (Sampson 2015). In the region, potsherds are one of the most frequent types of artifact found at sites. The sherds are generally so fragmentary that a description of the original vessel is not attempted, and this abundant source of cultural information is frequently ignored or described in general terms. If archaeologists had a large sample of complete prehistoric ceramic vessels to study, it might be possible to use information from these objects to shed more light on the meaning of potsherds found during archaeological investigations.

Dr. Hector and Mr. Sampson are engaged in a multi-year project to analyze complete vessels from southern California using a systematic, documented methodology. To date (July 2016), they have examined nearly 200 vessels out of an estimated 500+ located in museum collections in San Diego. Future research to be conducted will add 20-40 vessels that are curated at the California Statewide Museum Collections Center (SMCC) in Sacramento. Mr. Christopher Corey, Associate State Archaeologist affiliated with the SMCC, has agreed to facilitate access for Dr. Hector and Mr. Sampson to conduct the proposed research. Many of the Sacramento vessels are packed in deep storage and will have to be retrieved while the Center researchers are in the facility, so scheduling the work will be complicated.

Current research conducted by Dr. Susan Hector and Mr. Michael Sampson consists of the following:

  1. The individual bowls, jars, and other ceramic objects are photographed with a scale;
  2. Each object is measured: maximum circumference, opening circumference, and height;
  3. Other attributes are recorded from the object: residual or sedimentary clays, condition and repairs, surface decoration, percentage of fire clouding and charring, vessel shape, neck and rim form, and contents when collected (if any);
  4. It may be possible to identify site, location, and cultural group (Kumeyaay [Ipai and Tipai], Cahuilla, Paipai, Kiliwa, etc.) through collection information and/or supplemental research.

These data are initially entered on a paper form, then entered into a spreadsheet for analysis. Supplementary analyses includes location of charring, fire clouding, and surface decoration; statistics will be compiled on these attributes. Testable hypotheses will be generated for application to archaeological collections and surface observations in the field.

Question 1. Does manufacturing and firing affect sherd preservation? What are we missing in the field? Observations from each vessel can provide important cultural information about vessel manufacture and firing methods (Hohenthal 2001; Rice 1987; Rogers 1936; Shepard 1980; Schiffer 1987). Of particular interest is fire clouding, which may have been an intentional decorative feature (Van Camp 1979). The study will also consider whether fire clouding could have an impact on sherd preservation, an issue that has not been studied (Michael B. Schiffer, personal communication, 1/7/2016).

Question 2. What attributes from vessels can contribute to our understanding of vessel form, function, and disposal during analysis of potsherds collected from the field? Several schemes for typing pottery in the region have been developed based on surface appearance, temper material, and clay (paste) content (e.g., Rogers 1936; Waters 1982b). However, it is clear that, as Griset (1996: 145) has stated, that patterns of ceramic artifact attributes in the context of the cultural or archaeological setting will support an understanding of vessel manufacture, use, and disposal. As background for the research proposed in this document, Dr. Hector reviewed, photographed, and annotated Rogers’ ceramic types for the region as curated at the San Diego Museum of Man (Hector 2014). She identified many of the issues described in Waters (1982a). The goal of the research is to associate vessel attributes (representing form, decoration, composition) with locations and cultural groups. These associations can then be used to interpret fragmentary pottery sherds found at archaeological sites, and analyze regional and cultural variability.

Summary. Attribute analysis is a strong analytical tool for categorizing and describing cultural objects (Hector 1984). The attributes for each ceramic vessel are entered into a spreadsheet that can then be used to sort, graph, and analyze the results. The research to be conducted is non-intrusive; individual vessels are not damaged or modified in any way. The researchers believe that this study will prove that valuable anthropological insights can be obtained from ceramics without destructive analysis methods (Hector 2007, 2011). In addition, Native American consultation has demonstrated that many native people do not approve of or support the breakage of potsherds in order to conduct analyses.

References Cited

Griset, Suzanne

1996    Southern California Brown Ware. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Davis.

Hector, Susan M.

1984    Late Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Activities in Southern San Diego County, California. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of    California at Los Angeles.

2007    Eastern San Diego County Site Evaluations: CA-SDI-4010 and CA-SDI-17817. ASM Affiliates. Prepared for the Bureau of Land Management.

2011    Evidence for Intensification and Diversification of Activities During the Contact Period in McCain Valley, San Diego County, California. Planning and Research Collaborative PARC). Prepared for the Bureau of Land Management.

2014    San Diego Museum of Man – Malcolm Rogers Pottery Type Collection. Manuscript on file with the author.

Hohenthal, William D.

2001    Tipai Ethnographic Notes: A Baja California Indian Community at Mid-Century.   Ballena Press Anthropological Papers Number 48. Ballena Press, Novato.

Rice, Prudence M.

1987    Pottery Analysis. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Rogers, Malcolm J.

1936    Yuman Pottery Making. San Diego Museum Papers Number 2. San Diego, California.

Sampson, Michael P.

2015    The Archaeology of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Surrounding Lands: Seeking Spirituality, Power, and Sustenance in the Colorado Desert. In Press.

Schiffer, Michael B.

1987    Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Shepard, Anna O.

1980    Ceramics for the Archaeologist. Publication 609. Carnegie Institution of    Washington, Washington DC. Reprinted by Braun-Brumfield, Inc., Ann Arbor.

Van Camp, Gena R.

1979    Kumeyaay Pottery. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers No. 15. Ballena Press.

Waters, Michael R.

1982a  The Lowland Patayan Ceramic Tradition. In: Hohokam and Patayan, edited by Randall H. McGuire and Michael B. Schiffer, pages 275 – 297. Academic Press.

1982b  Appendix G – The Lowland Patayan Ceramic Typology. In: Hohokam and Patayan, edited by Randall H. McGuire and Michael B. Schiffer, pages 537 – 570. Academic Press.


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