Saturday, March 08, 2008

Just finished reading a paper in the Jan 2008 American Antiquity by Lisa Frink and Karen G. Harry on Alaska ceramics. Here's the abstract:
Arctic Alaskan ceramics offer several interpretive challenges for the archaeologist. In contrast to most cross-cultural patterns, these cooking vessels were produced by hunter-gatherers living in a cool and humid environment and were used to cook meat rather than starchy seeds. Additionally, when compared to cooking vessels and techniques from other areas of the world, their shapes and textures are atypical and appear poorly suited for their intended use. At first impression, these vessels might appear to reflect simply a lack of technological expertise. However, we argue that when considered in relation to the local social and environmental context under which these vessels were produced and used, these apparent contradictions can be understood.

It was okay but largely a hypothesis-generating work rather than anything providing firm conclusions; in that respect, it was kind of disappointing. The problem they addressed was the seemingly poor quality of the ceramics that nonetheless survived for quite a while in that area. I was expecting more of an engineering exercise, but it was almost entirely descriptive.

The first third probably could have been dropped as it consisted mostly of attempting to support the idea that contemporary sources have reliable information to provide on past practices. I found this rather weak. For example, none of their informants had ever seen these ceramics being used to cook anything and only one or two had ever seen a pot being made and even in those instances the pots weren't being made for anything, just to show someone how it was supposed to have been done. Example:
most of our consultants had never witnessed pots being made or used, two brothers we interviewed (both in their later 60s) remember being shown by their mother how to make a ceramic cooking pot. According to one of the brothers, she made the cooking pot not because she intended to use it (according to the elders, they never saw her cook in anything other than a metal utensil), but because she wanted them to have the knowledge just in case it was ever needed.

Although the replacement of clay cooking pots by metal utensils had begun as early as 1833 when Russian cast iron kettles and sheet iron pots were introduced into the region (Nelson 1983 [1889]:317; Oswalt and VanStone 1967:4; Ray 1975), elder recollections suggest that at least some clay cook pots continued to be used into the late 1800s. For instance, Joe Friday (1983), who was born around 1897, witnessed his kinswomen making ceramic vessels and reported that the food was good when cooked in them.

Recollections from decades past and single instances by a couple of eyewitnesses adds little to the credibility of the observations and seems included more for political rather than scientific reasons. Still, the authors note that these sorts of observations tend to drive hypothesis generation than provide actual data. Then again, people have been saying that for decades.

The latter half of the paper is far more informative. In it, they examine the environment in which the vessels were made and used. The inherent cold and dampness of the area is argued to drive the use of porous, thick-walled vessels than can dry over a longer period of time with less chance of cracking due to thermal expansion. A relative lack of fuel -- mostly driftwood -- for firing also explains the low firing of the vessels. The technology is limited by available resources and environmental constraints.

They describe the cooking process as one in which meat is boiled only slightly and over short periods (to keep heat from melting the sod of which houses were constructed). They relate this to retention of Vitamin C which is destroyed by cooking.

The point of the whole exercise is embodied in the following observation:
As has been noted many times before, every decision in pottery manufacture entails a series of trade-offs. While selection of a particular tempering agent or production technique may improve some aspect of the vessel's production or use, at the same time it may worsen others. Therefore, in choosing how to manufacture a particular pot, the potter must decide which of the many desired characteristics she considers most important.

True. In any set of ceramics there are a variety of wares for different functions, all of which are constructed using various tradeoffs in manufacture and utility. In my own work, we have thin, hard, finely made bowls used primarily for serving and big cruddy "bread molds" that look like they were slapped together by 8-year olds (and they might have been!). See the discussion here.

It will be interesting to see if the investigators follow up this study with some experimental work to see if the techniques described really function as advertised. Interesting, to be sure, but a lot more data needs to be presented to support the conclusions.

Ref: Frink, L. and Harry, Karen G. The beauty of "ugly" Eskimo cooking pots. American Antiquity 73(1) (Jan 2008): p103-120.