Sequencing Ancient Pottery from Northern Afghanistan

Bactrian bowl (left) and Greek bowl (right).

BY CHARLOTTE MAXWELL-JONES, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

Pottery is one of the most common archaeological finds.  This is because unlike cloth, wood, food, even human remains, pottery doesn’t chemically break down, and almost everyone in the ancient world used it for storage, transportation, and dining.  Archaeologists use pottery as evidence for daily behaviors, trade and travel patterns, cultural contact, and dating.

I have been lucky enough to work on a large corpus, or collection, of pottery from northern Afghanistan for almost four years. All of the pottery is from the capital of ancient Bactria, the easternmost frontier conquered by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE, and right now it is stored in Kabul, Afghanistan. I am studying this pottery to create a chronological sequence for the city it comes from. This will help us date the deposits the pottery is found in and help us determine how the capital interacted with neighboring cities.

There are two types of “chronologies”: relative and absolute. Relative chronology will tell you what is before and after something, but it doesn’t give you a date. Absolute chronology will tell you the date of an object, either specifically (October 1957) or generally (late 3rd century BCE). Both types are useful, but I started with a relative chronology. To do this, I first looked at all the pottery I was studying, from about 600 BCE to 600 CE, and figured out what pottery shapes were present (turns out, a lot!). Then I went through and wrote down how many examples of each shape I found in each archaeological deposit. Usually pottery shapes come into use, grow in popularity, and then decline — a lot like fashion trends. So I look for these trends in pottery and then make a list of what order the shapes show up in. Jeans are a perfect example: bell-bottom jeans came before ripped, stonewashed jeans, which came before wide-legged jeans, which came before low-rise jeans. Pottery was just as much a part of people’s daily lives as clothing, and although the trends may not have changed as quickly as jeans in the late 20th century, they are just as recognizable.

Studying this pottery, I’ve been able to see big changes in pottery types. In the Achaemenid Persian period, right before Alexander the Great came to Bactria, undecorated, peach-colored pottery is popular. After the Persian Empire is conquered, there is a huge growth in the number of shapes and decorations in use. Some of these shapes and decorations are so similar to what has been found in Greece and the Near East that if they were side by side, it would be hard to tell them apart. Although it’s not the globalization that we have today, this shows that despite distance, people in the ancient world were connected to one another.

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