Cracking pots or crack-pot ceramics processing? by Irene Liesk

Processing rooftile, the most plentiful ceramic material at the site

Irene Liesk, who is a veteran member of the pottery team, looks forward to the coming season by reminiscing about the previous ones.

‘‘Quack quack quack quack’’ was the sound that woke us up every work day, before the sun had even risen. Not because of any ducks nearby, but a room-mate’s delightfully humorous alarm. A great way to be propelled out of bed and into the day.

The first week is slow and relaxed in Ceramics Processing, waiting for trenches to be marked out, cleared, and finally for the excavation to begin. The first shovelfuls of soil just scrape the surface, and so yield only the odd heavily worn fragment of tile or pottery. While we wait for the trenches to get deep enough to bring more substantial quantities of recognisable fragments down to the workroom, our time is spent getting to know each other and the material from previous years: re-familiarising ourselves with the local forms, fabrics and styles, and introducing them to new team members. But that idyllic bubble will burst, releasing multiple contexts of ceramic fragments and untold tonnes of roof tile. Then work begins apace and we find ourselves in a  ‘cracking’ routine…

After a very early morning walk to site (with an obligatory stop-off at the local bakery to pick up a tasty spanakopita, tyropita or bougatsa for breakfast), we collect the drying ceramics that were washed the previous day (unless of course, there was one of those impromptu early July downpours!). Once we have collected the sherds, carefully making sure no contexts get mixed up, we start sorting them to categories.

Everything needs to be categorized, counted and weighed, so our first task is to separate the tile from the ceramics. We then sort the ceramics into fabric-based categories and sub-sort these into anatomical (rim, base, handle) and non-anatomical (body sherds) groups. This is where the puzzle starts: pondering and debating the original whole vessel forms based on the stylistic features of these fragments. But thanks to our stylistic diagrams, we often have a fair idea of the original shape, even if most pieces are missing!

Then we need to write it all down, and big contexts need lots of comments. Sometimes our scrawled-on context sheets appropriately recall the horror vacui of Geometric vases, every blank margin filled with our notes. But everything needs to be recorded in as much detail as possible because this information is all we’ll be left with when we pack up and leave at the end of the season.

There are lots of “eureka” moments when someone opens a bag and finds something interesting, or better still, joining fragments: we all have to stop what we are doing to share in the excitement. It keeps us going through all those bags of slightly less enigmatic and nondescript body sherds of unknown and unknowable origin. That and lots of coffee. Greece is directly responsible for my new-found coffee drinking habit. Those early starts, the lazy heat, and the ongoing task of counting and weighing means caffeine is one of the most important resources for processing. But it is really those exciting moments that keep us cracking on: what will we find in the next bag?

We work until lunchtime, counting, weighing and joking, before having a well-earned break. After lunch, we hear a summary of what everyone else has been doing in the trenches, on the survey or at the flotation tank, and one of us gives the ceramics summary. Then it’s back to work, sometimes washing that day’s excavated ceramics, sometimes continuing with sorting and counting – usually the roof tile, which is plentiful enough to often produce a backlog.

At the end of the day, after the final push to pack everything safely (and hopefully in order!) back into the apothiki or workroom, we eagerly puzzle over the ceramics drying on their racks and prepare ourselves for the walk back to town. Tired, but excited by the prospect of what tomorrow might bring.