Thickness, shmickness: Archaeologists are a bunch of cracked pots

October 10, 2008

Lots of folks ask me what I do as an archaeologist, or as a graduate student in archaeology.  They typically have grandiose ideas about me braving tropical jungles in search of elaborate artifacts, or sifting through desert sand in search of long-lost cultures.  The truth of the matter is that archaeology can be an incredibly boring profession.

Calvin and Hobbes discover the truth about archaeology

You see, archaeology is primarily about posing and testing of hypotheses, like all sciences.  Testing these hypotheses requires a lot of hard work.  So, for every week you spend out in the field digging stuff up, you spend at least a month in the laboratory or office.

This brings me back to what it is that I do with my time as an archaeologist/graduate student.  Right now, I am studying the pottery from a site in New Hampshire.  The site dates to the mid 1600s, and the pottery left there was created by a group of Native Americans known as the Sokoki or Squakheag.  I am in the process of analyzing this pottery to assess the technology of ceramic production among these people (that is, How and why did they make pottery the way that they did?).

Answers to this questions can be determined in a number of different ways.  One possible measure is how thick the pots are.  Why is this important?  Well, I have to assume that pottery that was used for similar purposes (like cooking, or storing water, or holding food) was roughly of the same thickness.  This kind of idea permeates our thinking, and it is often an unconscious process.  Unfortunately, it’s not a rock-solid “law” of human behavior.  Think about it, you could use Grandma’s fine china to feed the baby, but you’d probably want to use something that was designed to withstand the abuse of a young child.

At present, I have measured about 60% of the total pieces of pottery from the site, and I’m finding some interesting patterns.  Below is a quick plot of thickness for the pieces I’m measuring.  Importantly, this is almost a normal distribution (i.e., a “Bell Curve” as shown by the solid line).

Pottery thickness at Fort Hill, NH

Pottery thickness at Fort Hill, NH

Actually, it’s closer to a log-normal curve, hence the logarithmic scale, but I’m not going to go into what that means right now.  What is important is that there is really only one peak in this chart.  That suggests that there is a central “thickness” around which these pieces cluster, with most pieces (68%) falling somewhere between 5 mm and 3 mm, and virtually all (95%) falling between 6 mm and 2 mm.

Admittedly, this isn’t the same as discovering a new planet, but it does suggest that there is a general range of pottery thickness that was produced at this time.  Because some people argue that pottery thickness changed over time (becoming gradually thinner) for cultural and technological reasons, comparing earlier or later pottery may allow us to test this proposition, and begin asking questions such as “Why did the pottery become thinner?”, and “Can we chronologically order sites based on the distributions of pottery-wall thicknesses?”.

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