- Ceramics in Circumpolar Prehistory: Technology, Lifeways, and Cuisine ed. by Peter Jordan and Kevin Gibbs
Edited by Peter Jordan and Kevin Gibbs. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv + 234.
Ceramic technology was a relatively late innovation in human prehistory. Recent research indicates that people began making pottery in northeastern Asia towards the end of the last Ice Age, around 16,000 years ago. In comparison, technologies for manufacturing tools from stone and bone, controlling fire, and preparing animal skins for clothing predate pottery by a million years or more. Despite this delayed appearance in the archaeological record, ceramics are traditionally viewed as a very significant technology. Originally, the advent of pottery was considered to be closely associated with a major transition: from the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) to the Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Neolithic period encompasses momentous changes that have transformed human society. These changes include the shift from a mobile or "nomadic" existence to a sedentary lifestyle, leading to the emergence of permanent villages, cities, and the advent of writing, which marks the dawn of the historical era around 5,000 years ago. The Neolithic is also linked to a fundamental change in social organization, from more-or-less egalitarian social relations to hierarchical social structures ("complex" societies). Last but not least, the neolithic witnessed a "revolution" in the economic sphere, from hunting and gathering to agriculture.
This volume brings together papers from leading researchers to address key questions about early ceramic technology—namely, why was pottery invented, and what roles did ceramics play in these dramatic Neolithic changes? In the opening chapter, the editors highlight a few enigmas. One is that the earliest pottery has been discovered in a cold region, where cooking would be an obvious benefit. Yet pottery was absent when humans established a presence in the circumpolar region, which extends beyond 30,000 years ago. Clearly, ceramics were not needed for survival. Subsequently, pottery was adopted by mobile hunter-gatherers who evidently were not fazed by its heavy and fragile qualities and who manufactured pottery in difficult environmental conditions. Chapters in the book are devoted to archaeological evidence of early ceramics in Japan, Siberia, Scandinavia, and North America, supplemented by ethnographic examples. Ceramic vessels were mainly used to process marine resources, for instance to make fish soups and extract oils; other functions include storage containers, lighting, and heating. A culinary function might help to explain the widespread adoption of pottery, although the regional studies suggest pottery diffused across Eurasia in contexts of social complexity. Ceramic vessels, often well-decorated, became prestige artefacts, utilized for feasting on special occasions and not just as everyday utensils. A socially-contingent [End Page 1221] model best accommodates the enigmas of early pottery, consistent with views long advocated by Brian Hayden, who contributes the final chapter and summarizes the theoretical issues, the evidence available to date, and the areas needing further research.
Collectively, these papers make a compelling case that ceramic technology was never essential for human survival or adaptation. A functional role in cooking probably gave pottery some advantages over alternative technologies, though not always. Neither, apparently, did the adoption of pottery result in any formative socioeconomic changes. Rather, pottery was sometimes favored as one of the highly-valued technologies in societies that were already becoming complex. Similarly, while ceramics commonly appear alongside agricultural activities and in sedentary and semi-sedentary communities, ceramics are also found among mobile hunter-gatherers and pastoralists; typically, the latter groups were trading ceramics. As an archaeological sign of sedentism, agriculture, or social complexity, pottery is quite unreliable. At best, ceramics serve as useful markers of cultural identities, trends, and contacts, and to assist in the interpretation of demographic patterns. Indeed, the consensus emerging from these contributions seems somewhat at odds with the historical significance granted to pottery. The privileging of pottery likely reflects its durability and visibility in the archaeological record, lending ceramics a prominence at the expense of perishable technologies like wood and fiber. Despite archaeology's focus on pottery as a pivotal technology or catalyst of social change, the advent of pottery was, surprisingly, almost...