An archeologist working in the field.

Exploring the past through ceramics

earth science, social scienceKarilyn Robinson, Marketing & Public Relations SpecialistSep 24, 2020

I’ve been thinking about ceramics lately because I recently broke the last plate in a set. I had already dropped one, set one down too hard in the old-fashioned porcelain sink, and I think one even cracked from too much heat after being set down on a warm oven burner. 

The Science Museum’s Ed Fleming, Ph.D., also thinks about ceramics a lot, but for different reasons. Ed, the museum’s Curator of Anthropology and director of the Anthropology Department, has partnered with George Holley, Ph.D. of MSU-Moorehead, to recreate and update a guide to Native American ceramic types in Minnesota. The previous ceramic handbook used by archaeologists, “A Handbook of Minnesota Pre-Historic Ceramics,” was created in 1979, and archaeologists have gained considerable knowledge about Native American ceramics since its publication. 

“It is important to understand that there are some 13,000 years of indigenous history in Minnesota, and this long period of time saw remarkable changes among populations in North America, their traditions and technologies, and the environment and their relationship with the environment,” Ed says. “To me, one of the most interesting periods of time in Minnesota’s history, from an anthropological point of view, is the centuries leading up to the arrival of European explorers and colonists. A key category of evidence archaeologists study from these centuries is ceramics.” 

Only certain materials, like stone and bone, survive the passage of time, and ceramics are among the most durable artifacts that archaeologists uncover. As anyone else who is in the market for a new dish set can attest, ceramics break, but, Ed says, “the fragments preserve forever, providing an extremely dynamic artifact type to examine history and changing traditions.”

People in North America first started worrying about breaking their ceramics more than 3,500 years ago, and then the technology began spreading from the southeast along the riverways of eastern North America, reaching the Upper Midwest about 2,500 years ago. As archaeologists uncover ceramic fragments, also known as sherds, they can identify stylistic and technological changes over time to not only create a timeline for a site but also illuminate cultural changes and relationships among different groups of people.

“For example, the site we are excavating in the St. Croix Valley has at least five different ceramic types, so far,” Ed explains. “These types tell me that the site was occupied multiple times over a period from roughly 500–1100 CE. Throw in the stone tools, and I can see a third, pre-ceramic, occupation 3,000–5,000 years old. Take this site along with dozens and dozens of other sites in the St. Croix Valley and beyond, and a picture of the dynamics of native society over thousands of years begins to emerge.” 

Combined with information from oral histories and knowledge passed down through generations, every detail of every item gives archaeologists clues about the people who made them, such as cultural traditions, worldviews, and culinary traditions. The descendants of many of these makers are still our neighbors, friends, family, or even maybe you, reader! 

The way that we create or obtain items like ceramics may have changed some, but each item still has more to say than you might think. Look around your own space. Where did you get the vase you put fresh flowers in? What’s the story behind that novelty mug? Do your plates match each other? Have any of them been handed down to you from previous owners, whether that’s friends and family or a thrift store? Can you tell the age of any of the items, either from the style or material they’re made out of? Is it an item meant for a special occasion, or everyday use? 

Whether our belongings are utilitarian or sentimental, future archaeologists could still find clues about us from them. The next time you need a video call icebreaker, group activity, or just want to reflect, choose a home-good item, put yourself in a future archaeologist’s shoes, and consider the following: 

  • Where did this come from? 

  • What is it made of?

  • When was it made?

  • What is it used for? 

  • Who would have used it?

  • How did it get here?

What’s something you own that a future archaeologist might find intriguing, unique, or puzzling? Let us know on social media using the hashtag #ShareYourDiscovery! 

The new ceramics handbook is funded through the Statewide Archaeological Survey effort coordinated by the Office of the State Archaeologist, the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Drs. Fleming and Holley plan to report on their findings in June 2021.