The socio-political context of the potter’s wheel in Bronze Age Crete

The research background

Ina Berg

The conventional reason given for why the potter’s wheel has become so important to Aegean archaeologists is because of the contemporaneity of its first appearance on Crete with the emergence of the palaces (Figure 1) and its supposed links to craft specialisation. It is argued that the palaces introduced a host of new arts and crafts made by resident full-time craftsmen with superior and faster techniques, such as the potter’s wheel. These crafts allegedly include elaborately decorated Kamares Ware, figurative frescoes, writing, stone working and metal working. Thus, through the procurement and conspicuous consumption of an array of exotic technological, material, institutional and ideological innovations Cretan elites gained significant political capital.

image001

The Potter’s Wheel

Circa 100 remains of clay wheels and wheel components are known from Bronze Age Crete. Previous reconstructions have now been superseded by recent experimental work by Evely and colleagues that demonstrates that a horizontal support half-way up the axle must have existed (Figure 2). Depending on the precise design, the wheel could be use by the potter him/herself or with the help of an assistant. The vessels that have been produced by the teams were small simple bowls and cups as well as medium-sized vessels. It was concluded that larger vessels were better produced using the wheel-coiling method.

X-radiography and Experimental Archaeology

X-rays and radiography is something virtually all of us are familiar with from modern medicine. However, the potential of radiography for ancient ceramics is still under-utilised and occurs most commonly within museum conservation contexts. Over the last 30 or so years, radiography’s most successful application has been the identification of primary and secondary forming techniques as well as joining methods for attachments (spout, handle, etc.). The reason that radiography can identify forming techniques lies in the association of individual forming techniques with a distinct orientation of voids and inclusions/temper (Figure 3). To be sure that we interpret the visible fingerprints of techniques accurately, potters produced a wide range of vessels that utilised various manufacturing methods and which serve as a reliable control group with which to judge the patterns observed in prehistoric artefacts.

Results

  1. While experimentation with a free-running rotating device can already be detected in EMIII/MMIA, properly wheel-thrown pottery appears for the first time in MMIB.
  2. Wheel-throwing becomes more popular over time, but does not replace handmade techniques.
  3. As at Phylakopi (see Berg 2007 – book and article), wheel-throwing is primarily restricted to small open vessels, such as cups and bowls. Handmade techniques, on the other hand, incorporate the full range of vessel shapes.
  4. The vessel height limitations indicate either/or or all: specific apprenticeship patterns, workshop organisation, device limitations, and/or social barriers.
  5. Given its limited application, height limitations and lack of highly decorated vessels it is unlikely that the potter’s wheel formed part of elite legitimisation strategies or was necessarily directly linked to the palaces.

Wheel-throwing vs Wheel-coiling

To makes matters more complicated, two fundamentally different techniques exist but whose visual traces look very similar: wheel-throwing and wheel-coiling. Wheel-throwing uses a fast-running potter’s wheel to pull up and shape the clay. In contrast is wheel-coiling where vessels are built up using the coiling technique and then spun at a later stage to give the vessel its shape, or thin and join the coils. Experiments undertaken by Roux and Courty have identified four different methods of wheel-coiling (Fig. 4) of which Method 4 uses the wheel most forcefully and can therefore easily be confused with genuine wheel-throwing (1998; also Courty & Roux 1995). The similarity between these two techniques has given rise to the proposal that Minoan potters were, in fact, unfamiliar with the concept of wheel-throwing and instead practiced wheel-coiling – with a preference for Method 3 (Jeffra 2011).

image003

Fig. 4

Giving the two opposing views of wheel use in Bronze Age Crete, further work is required. For this purpose, a pilot project that combines Computed Tomography and experimental archaeology was launched in 2015. Computed Tomography has the potential of revealing additional detail of the internal structure of each vase. In addition, its ability to reach the micro-level should provide further clues that may help researchers distinguish between the two techniques and determine the process of innovation, adoption and adaptation among prehistoric potters on Crete.