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date: 03 February 2023

pottery, scientific analysis offree

pottery, scientific analysis offree

  • David William John Gill


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine

Petrographical and chemical analysis are the two main ways to characterize pottery. The former treats the pottery as a geological sediment which has been used for a particular purpose. Thus by scanning thin sections of pottery under a polarizing microscope, mineral inclusions can be visually identified; this allows a parallel to be drawn with other ceramic material, which may lead in turn to an identification of the clay source. This technique is particularly useful for coarse wares such as transport amphorae. However in the case of fine pottery where inclusions have been removed, the clay can be treated as a bulk material. The sample can be studied by three main means: neutron activation analysis, optical emission spectroscopy, and atomic absorption spectrophotometry. In addition to the three main elements within clay (silicon, aluminium, and oxygen), an analysis will seek to determine the percentage of other elements in the composition: iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and titanium. These proportions can then be plotted and the results compared with other tests from pottery or indeed from clay sources.

One of the main uses for these analyses has been in provenance studies. This is particularly important for the bronze age in determining which items are imported or made locally, and this in turn allows an archaeological site to be placed within a regional setting. For example some late Minoan IB marine-style pottery found outside Crete was shown not to be consistent with Cretan compositions; however the clay beds, and therefore the place of production, have yet to be identified. Some plastically moulded Archaic terracottas from the E. Greek world seem to have clay which is consistent with pottery known to have been made at Miletus.


  • R. E. Jones, Greek and Cypriot Pottery: A Review of Scientific Studies (1986).
  • J. Henderson, The Science and Archaeology of Materials (2000).