Pondering Petrie’s Pots
By Alice E Stevenson, on 4 February 2014
When you think about ancient Egypt what comes to mind? Plenty of things beginning with the letter ‘P’ no doubt: Pyramids! Pharaohs! Papyrus! Maybe even Petrie. But Pottery?…
Poor pottery. It is such a frequent archaeological find that it rarely excites anyone but a few specialists. Petrie himself recognized this, noting at a meeting of the Archaeological Institute on February 1 1883 that:
“On such a familiar subject as pottery, it might be supposed that there would not have been much left to be said, after the various explorers who have studied the antiquities of Egypt.”
Yet there is so much to be said about pottery. And, no, I don’t just mean in terms of typology, chronology or micromorphology. Such aspects are crucial parts of archaeological data analysis, but that is only a means to an end. Ceramics offer tantalizing clues about ways of life, ways of thinking, ways of doing, and ways of dealing with death.
In the Petrie Museum we have an entire gallery devoted to all things pottery. What we don’t currently offer is much in the way of insight into why we have so much pottery, nor do we reveal what it can tell us about ancient Egypt or Sudan. Sure there are some dates attached to them. But in those periods that we identify what were these things for? What did these vessels contain? Where were they used? What did they mean for the people that used them?
All good questions. But as a curator my question right now is whether there is space in the gallery to offer some answers. The cases and any available storage in the Petrie are full, so there’s very little wiggle room.
There are windows of opportunity though to try out a few new approaches. So over the next year I’m going to explore a few small interventions: case highlights – watch out for a few new labels; a new pottery trail – picking out a few characters from the displays; and a series of blog contributions from pottery specialists, artists and students to share some of their thoughts about the pottery collection. So watch this space! But don’t just watch – ask. Is there a vessel that caught your eye on your visit? Want to know more about a certain ceramic artefact? Do get in touch if so, as it can feed into ongoing changes. When you think about ancient Egypt or Sudan then, think about pottery.
Alice Stevenson 4 February 2014