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Potters in the Past: Micro Computed Tomography of Archaeological Ceramics

By: Amy St. John, PhD candidate in Anthropology, Western University

A pot in the scanner

As an archaeologist, I believe we can access some of the day-to-day, face-to-face interactions of past people through the material culture they left behind. Ceramics are one of the most commonly found material culture types around the world and throughout time. There are many steps that go into ceramic making. Some of these include: gathering and refining clay, adding materials to that clay to make it more workable, forming that clay into a pot, then decorating, drying and firing that pot. Some of the steps in ceramic making, like exterior decoration, have been studied extensively by archaeologists trying to understand cultural connections in the past. Other steps, such as how people actually formed clay into pots, are more difficult to access. However, ethnographic evidence tells us that formation methods are often learned, passed on and maintained across generations, even as more visible decorative techniques change over time. So how can we access how people were forming pots out of clay?

3D images of exterior and interior features of a ceramic pot. The top row shows the exterior surface and inclusions. The bottom row shows renderings of voids

My research explores the ceramic analysis potential of innovative micro CT technology available at the Sustainable Archaeology: Western, located next door to MOA. Micro CT uses X-rays to provide non-destructive, high resolution, fully 3D images of the interior and exterior of ceramics based on the density of materials. It can show us interior features in a unique way, augmenting traditional techniques that include destructive methods.

As a case study, I’ve scanned ceramic sherds from an archaeological collection that are part of a larger research project, directed by my supervisor Prof. Neal Ferris (Lawson Chair of Canadian Archaeology), related to a Late Woodland Borderland in southwestern Ontario dating to around 1100-1250 A.D. Micro CT is proving to be an extremely promising method for examining the interior features of ceramics. These include: voids/air pockets, micro folds in clay, and both intentionally added material known as temper and natural inclusions in clay, which you can see we can easily isolate in the 2D slices and 3D renderings that micro CT creates.

Patterns that we can see in these interior features often relate directly to the formation techniques potters used to make ceramics. I’m finding that on these borderland sites, there were several different ways of making pots that are visible in the scans. For example, some pots’ rims are folded over, while others have clay added on to the exterior.

A 2D slice and 3D renderings of the interior structures of a ceramic

So what I am demonstrating through the micro-analysis of ceramic craft is how micro CT can help us understand an often neglected aspect of this common artifact type: how people were using their hands and other tools to manipulate clay into pots. Using some of the most advanced technology available today, we can explore how the craft of making pots relates to communities, learning, tradition, and innovation over several generations in the past.

Looking Forward: Virtual Reality at the Museum

Trained as both an archaeologist and computer animator, Michael has spent his professional career immersed in the creative, technical and business roles of animation and visual effects (VFX) film and broadcast production. Returning to his archaeology roots twenty years later, Michael’s research focuses on the use of Virtual Archaeology (VA) to better inform archaeological and heritage research, dissemination, and mobilization. His interest is in VA epistemology, paradata and the experiential application of technology for archaeological knowledge construction.

Exterior of the Longhouse

Michael’s most recent completed research project explores the application of virtual reality in the (re)imagination of a 16th century Iroquoian Longhouse.

“What’s cool about Iroquoian longhouses in Ontario archaeology is that nothing survives of these once massive wooden structures except for the post hole stains in the ground, remains of fire hearths, storage pits or even burials within the disintegrated walls of these houses.” Using the archaeological evidence found in the ground, archaeologists make an educated guess as to how the longhouse once appeared as it stood. By coupling European historical accounts and Indigenous oral histories with archaeological data, Michael can stitch together a virtual 3D account of a typical longhouse.

Interior of the Longhouse

This longhouse combines the interpretation of the cultural material available, modern methods of CGI and virtual reality production, and 3D scanned artifacts from the Lawson collections to provide visitors of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology a chance to explore the sights and sounds of what a potential longhouse might have looked and felt like within the 16th century in Southwestern Ontario.  

In 2017, the museum plans to make this technology available for use to visitors to experience at the museum. Stay tuned for updates, stories, and new information relating to the use of virtual reality in the museum here through our notes, or on social media.

Hillary testing the Vive

 

For more details on Michaels work check out A Day in Virtual reality here.

http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/a-day-of-virtual-archaeology/#more-22779

Follow Michael Carter on Social Media

@mcarterSKW