Going to pot: how a single artefact reveals life in the Bronze Age


Exploring the “micro-history” of a broken container yields surprising insight into life thousands of years ago. Andrew Masterson reports.


A Bronze Age pot from Sicily, from the same period as the one studied.
A Bronze Age pot from Sicily, from the same period as the one studied.
DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Perhaps it became a treasured family heirloom, or perhaps it was simply cheaper to repair than replace, but chemical analysis of a banged-up Bronze Age pot is providing remarkable insights into community life in Sicily thousands of years ago.

In a paper published in the Journal or Archaeological Science: Reports a team led by Roberta Mentesana of Italy’s Università del Salento uses a combination of techniques to reconstruct the history of a single artefact, and, through it, throws light on how commodities were shared over long distances.

The research focusses on fragments of a repaired clay pot unearthed several years ago by Mentesana and colleagues at the site of a long-disappeared village known as Coste di Santa Febronia, which was occupied between 2200 and 1450 BCE. It stood 500 metres above sea level, looking down on a plain called Piana di Catania and near a tributary of the Gornalunga river.

A crack in the pot had been repaired using a tar-like substance – and it was this fact that prompted the researchers to spend subsequent years investigating the source of the pot itself, and that of the tar, to try to determine its history.

The pot was too fragmented to permit a complete reconstruction, but two things were obvious: it was large, and it wasn’t unusual for the period. Discovering why and how it had been repaired, therefore, meant it could serve as an object of “micro-history”, an item that could throw light on the broader cultural history of the region.

To do this, the researchers conducted chemical analyses of the clay, the tar, and the charred ground in which it was found, identifying mineral and botanical elements in each.

The pot was found to comprise bits of micrite, microfossils, quartz, feldspar and volcanic rock fragments. Size and distribution of the components suggested that all were present in the raw clay, with none added by the potter during manufacture.

The mixture matched that of material available around the ancient village, leading Mentesana’s team to conclude that it had been made locally.

The black resin used for repair, however, was a different matter. Analysis using gas chromatography revealed that it contained biomarkers diagnostic for tar made from birch bark.

Although birch bark tar was widely used from prehistoric to Roman times – for everything from securing flint tools to handles, waterproofing ships and even as chewing gum – earlier reconstructions of the climate and plant life around the village indicated that there were no birch trees anywhere near.

The closest suitable trees grew on the slopes of Mt Etna, some 70 kilometres distant, and at least 1500 metres above sea level. The discovery threw up some immediate questions, which, while still unresolved, illuminate possible scenarios for Bronze Age society.

Did villagers from Coste di Santa Febronia make the long trek to the volcano to harvest the bark? Did Mt Etna residents make an equivalent journey to trade it? Or was it acquired through a series of transactions between villages along the way, coming ever closer?

The bark itself had to be heated and converted into resin: was that done at the village, or elsewhere?

Analysis of charcoal recovered from the site revealed that no trace of birch – only the oak trees known to have been common in the area.

For Mentesana and colleagues these findings throw up still more questions. Other pot fragments recovered from the site showed evidence of repair, but by using a different method – holes were drilled and the cracked pieces stitched back together. This pot was clearly different, or, at least, repaired for a different purpose.

The use of birch bark tar to seal the breakage suggests that it was used to hold a liquid or some kind. The researchers note that birch bark tar has been associated with brewing in ancient times, because of its waterproof nature and disinfectant properties. However, they concede, there is no other evidence to suggest this particular pot held booze.

Nevertheless, it was definitely repaired instead of being discarded. This must have been done consciously, for a reason.

It may have been a banal one, of course. “It may be that repairing the jar had an economic significance: the manufacture of a new jar would have involved more resources and energy than repairing one,” the researchers write.

On the other hand, perhaps the pot was – or became over its life – special. The researchers suggest that it may have been handed down over many generations. “Its significance for people using it could have changed over time from being a simple container to ‘belonging to the history of a place’ in the same way as people do,” they note.

Also, they speculate, the very act of repair might have had a cultural purpose and meaning. It might indicate a practise roughly analogous the Japanese concept of kintsugi – repairing something, but repositioning its significance by highlighting its cracks and imperfections.

“Whatever the reasons for restoring the vessel might have been, the mending process could have had a powerful meaning for the persons performing it,” they conclude.

The real reason for the repair of a single not-very-special pot many thousands of years ago will never be known, of course. But, by looking deeply at the processes involved, Mentesana and her collaborators have firmly established that the people of Bronze Age Sicily were very aware of their landscape, and their neighbours. They knew how to gather or acquire raw materials – and the notion of “giving a new life” to something broken was important.

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