Ceramic petrography

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Ceramic petrography (or ceramic petrology) is a laboratory-based scientific archaeological technique that examines the mineralogical and microstructural composition of ceramics and other inorganic materials under the polarised light microscope in order to interpret aspects of the provenance and technology of artefacts.[1]

Samples are ground to a thickness of 0.03 mm and mounted on a glass slide. The approach relies heavily on the geological principles of optical mineralogy, thin section petrography and soil micromorphology. It combines these with an appreciation of the craft of ceramic manufacture and interprets data within an archaeological framework.

Ceramic petrography is used in academic archaeological research and commercial archaeology to address a range of issues. A common goal is tracing the movement of pottery and associated trade through provenance determination. The principle of provenance ascription with ceramic petrography relies on the fact that "the mineral and rock inclusions within a paste are a reflection of the geology of the source area of the ceramics"[2] and that potters did not transport ceramic raw materials over significant distances.[3]

An equally important concern is the nature of ancient ceramic production and its meaning in terms of the knowledge, skills, identity and traditions of potters. As synthetic materials, ceramics are "sensitive indicators of human decision making and materials interaction".[4] By examining microstructural evidence for processes such as clay paste preparation, forming and firing, ceramic petrographers can reconstruct the steps involved in the production of ceramic artefacts.

Ceramic petrography originated in the American Southwest with the work of Anna O. Shepard[5] but has mainly been developed in the Old World in the later half of the 20th century. Other early studies include the work of David Peacock and his students in the UK[6]

Ceramic petrography continues to be applied to the interpretation of British ceramics[7][8][9] and is used heavily in the prehistoric Aegean.[10][11][12] In the USA the approach is less popular, though important contributions have been made in the area of quantitative petrography.[13] Other attempts to extend ceramic petrography include the use of automated image analysis,[14] the palaeontological analysis of microscopic fossils within ceramic thin sections[15] and the combined statistical classification of petrographic and chemical data from artefacts.[16]

Thin section archaeological petrography can be applied to a range of other artefact types in addition to ceramics; these include plaster, mortar, mudbricks and lithic implements.[17]

Academic papers on ceramic petrography are often published in journals such as Archaeometry, Journal of Archaeological Science and Geoarchaeology, as well as edited volumes.[18][19][20] Petrographic research is often presented at the International Symposium on Archaeometry, the European Meeting on Ancient Ceramics and the meetings of the Ceramic Petrology Group.

Commercial petrographic analysis of ceramics and other artefacts is offered by companies such as ceramicpetrology.co.uk [1] in the UK, and Desert Archaeology [2] in the USA.


  1. ^ Quinn, P. S. 2013. Ceramic Petrography: The Interpretation of Archaeological Pottery & Related Artefacts in Thin Section. Archaeopress, Oxford.
  2. ^ Freestone, I. 1995. Ceramic Petrography. American Journal of Archaeology 99: 111–115.
  3. ^ Arnold, D. E. 1988. Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process. Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^ Whitbread, I. K. 2001. Ceramic Petrology, Clay Geochemistry and Ceramic Production – from Technology to the Mind of the Potter. In: (Brothwell, D. R. and Pollard, A. M.) Handbook of Archaeological Sciences, Wiley: 449–458.
  5. ^ Shepard, A. O. 1936. The Technology of Pecos Pottery, In: Kidder, A. and Shepard, A. O (eds.). The Glaze-Paint, Culinary and Other Wares. The Pottery of Pecos Volume II.Yale University Press, New Haven: 389–588.
  6. ^ Peacock, D. P. S. 1969. Neolithic Pottery Production in Cornwall. Antiquity, 43: 145-149.
  7. ^ Morris, E. and Woodward, A. 2003. Ceramic Petrology and Prehistoric Pottery in the UK. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 69: 279–303.
  8. ^ Vince, A. 2001. Ceramic petrology and post-medieval pottery. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 35: 106–118.
  9. ^ Vince, A. 2005. Ceramic Petrology and the Study of Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Ceramics. Medieval Archaeology, 49: 219-245.
  10. ^ Whitbread, I. K. 1995 Greek Transport Amphorae: A Petrological and Archaeological Study. Fitch Laboratory Occasional Paper, 4. British School at Athens.
  11. ^ Day, P. M. and Wilson, D. E. 1998. Consuming Power: Kamares Ware in Protopalatial Knossos. Antiquity, 72: 350–358.
  12. ^ Vaughan, S. J. 1995. Ceramic petrology and Petrology in the Aegean. American Journal of Archaeology 99: 115–117.
  13. ^ Miksa, E. J. and Heidke, J. M. 2001. It all comes out in the wash: Actualistic petrofacies modeling of temper provenance, Tonto Basin, Arizona, USA. Geoarchaeology 16:177-222.
  14. ^ Reedy, C. L. 2008. Thin-Section Petrography of Stone & Ceramic Materials. Archetype, London.
  15. ^ Quinn, P. S. 2008. The occurrence and research potential of microfossils in inorganic archaeological materials. Geoarchaeology, 23: 275–291.
  16. ^ Baxter, M. J., Beardah, C. C., Papageorgiou, I,. Cau, M. A., Day, P. M. and Kilikoglou, V. 2008. On statistical approaches to the study of ceramic artefacts using geochemical and mineralogical data. Archaeometry 50: 142–157.
  17. ^ Reedy, C. L. 1994. Thin-Section Petrography in Studies of Cultural Materials. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 33: 115-129.
  18. ^ Freestone, I., Johns, C. and Potter, T. (Ed.) 1982. Current Research in Ceramics: Thin-Section Studies. British Museum Occasional Paper, 32.
  19. ^ Middleton, A. and Freestone, I. (Eds.) 1991. Recent Developments in Ceramic Petrology. British Museum,Occasional Paper 81, London.
  20. ^ Quinn, P. S. (Ed.) 2009. Interpreting Silent Artefacts: Petrographic Approaches to Archaeological Materials. Archaeopress, Oxford.