Issues and Limitations in Ceramic Typology

The subject of classification of ceramic types is not without controversy. Archaeologist haves long disagreed about the reality, usefulness, implementation of Southwestern ceramic types. For example, Brew (1946) discussed in detail problems in using the kinds of conventions and strategies originally designed to examine the degree of evolutionary relationship of reproducing organisms to man-made inanimate objects. Plog (1995) more recently has suggested that traditional ceramic typologies should be used as analytic units only with extreme caution, if at all. The issue of whether ceramic types are real and discovered representing underlying cultural rules of ancient people or arbitrarily derived tools measuring relationships across time or space has long been debated by archaeologists (Brew 1946; Neff 2005). There have been some instances where Southwest ceramic where the use of types were deemed unnecessary, but these have usually still resulted in their replacement by sorting categories that seem to reflect combinations of criteria and attributes that are quite similar to previously described types (McGimsey 1980; Plog 1986).

In most cases, archaeologists continue to utilize earlier defined Southwestern types simply because they reflect a useful and established tool that may be used to accumulate, communicate, relay, and organize broad sets of information ultimately relating to the transmission and modification of established information about the appropriate ways to make, construct, decorate, and use ceramic vessels between potters separated by varying degrees of time, space, and shared identity. Categories defined for any classification system simply reflect a means to expediently to accumulate and arrange mass amounts of facts about ceramics recovered from different contexts to better evaluate and understand the potential relationship between communities who produced and consumed different classes of pottery (Colton 1954). Networks in which such information was conveyed have recently been described in terms of “communities of practice” that are described as representing connected relationships among people and the objects they made and used that ultimately resulted in a particular combinations of actions leading to the persistent creation of similar and identifiable forms by individuals in connected communities (Cordell and Habicht-Mauche 2012; Joyce 2013) The documentation of such relationships through the documentation of ceramic types and other data can be ultimately used to examine processes of communication (transmission) and change and innovation (selection) associated with the larger social and economic systems in which different groups including potters participated (Neff 1992; 1993).

Because the processes resulting in changes occurring in vessels produced by potters are not limited to the gradual modification and accumulation of traits characteristic of biological evolution, the nature of changes noted for ceramic types noted in a particular area or for a described ceramic tradition may vary dramatically. Change reflected by some areal sequences of ceramic types may seem to reflect a slow, accumulative, and logical series of changes which while they are not actually in the biological sense evolving, superficially resemble a highly speeded up version of biological evolution. Other trends are comparatively conservative with little change sometimes being documented for centuries, and may sometimes result in a single type being defined for a ware group belonging to a particular tradition. For other areal sequences, combinations of trait associated with different types seem to emerge, disappear, or appear out of nowhere (Peckham 1990). Observations relating to different projections of ceramics through time over different geographic are presented here during the descriptions and discussions of types associated with various traditions and ware groups and may provide important clues relating the nature of connections between groups in different communities over time and space.

The organization of ceramic types into different nested units, such as presented in this web-site, may serve as models of projected changes, relationships, and connections between different pottery-making groups. Thus, this web-site is designed in such a manner that the organizations of various categories defined here can be changed with additional data, observations, or insights. We welcome all comments relating to the best way to appropriately organize, extend, or interpret information about ceramic types assigned here to various regional traditions.

The use of ceramic types to examine such changes requires several controls. The first of these is context. It is critical that the specification location and associated material from where pottery assigned to a combination of types was recovered is known. Without this information little to nothing can be learned through classification as well as other kinds of analysis from the pottery being examined. The other control relates to clues relating to the area of production of a particular ceramic item regardless of where it might have been recovered. This may be provided by the recording of paste and temper information necessary for the identification of pottery produced within a specific area, given much pottery recovered from a given context were not locally produced. Together, information relating to context of recovery and area of origin for combinations of pottery assigned to types defined for different regional types allows for examination of the nature of interaction between groups and continuity across type. Variations in the nature of such connections may provide important clues concerning trends in group identity and social and economic organization across Southwest.

Another issue that has long been debated concerns how many types are necessary to effectively describe and monitor ceramic change across the Southwest. It has been estimated that about 1500 pottery types have so far been defined for the Southwest (Peckham 1990). Among ceramicists there is sometimes a debate between the so-called “splitters” who advocate distinguishing as many types as possible often based on very slight and subtle distinctions; as compared to the “lumpers” who feel that too many types have already been defined and many of these can be more effectively grouped into few types without the loss of significant information. One solution has been the addition of varieties to some types that allows for the documentation of observations relating to minor variation in materials and styles of unknown temporal significance along with the type (Wheat and others 1958). During the description of types for this web-page, reference is made to note as much as possible the incidence where we have included other previously described types with the definition of a particular type. Thus, while we do not plan to include every type occurring in New Mexico that has ever been described in this web-site, we hope to include references to as many types as possible in these descriptions.

Descriptions presented in this web-site are limited to “formal” ceramic types that exhibit a distinct combination of characteristics indicative of pottery produced over a specific geographic and time-span. For the effective analysis of the full range of ceramics occurring in different assemblages, further, conventions and categories may also be needed to describe the full range of pottery from a particular context. Thus, it is necessary to define forms displaying levels or kinds of variation not included in previously described formal types as well as those recorded during projects where various constraints may prevent the recognition of formal types as defined here for different traditions. For example while all the ceramic types described in this web site display decorative styles or surface manipulations indicative of formal types defined for different traditions, many of the sherds that may be encountered during the analysis of various assemblages may not exhibit the combination of characteristics described for these types. These may include white ware sherds not exhibiting painted decorations or exhibiting decorations not indicative of formally defined types. These ceramics are assigned to descriptive types based on general observations relating to the traits noted. Examples of descriptive types may include terms such as “Unpainted Polished White”, “Mineral Unpolished Painted White”, or “”Gray Body” sherds. Similar descriptive labels can be assigned to pottery associated with a number of different traditions. When such forms are identified during an analysis for which pottery is assigned to specific traditions based on the identification of paste and temper, these descriptive categories would be included within a specific regional tradition. For example, a sherd assigned to the “Unpainted Polished White” category, but tempered with crushed andesite or diorite, indicative of pottery produced in the Mesa Verde region which would further be assigned to that tradition. Thus, pottery identified during a specific analysis would include a mixture of formal and descriptive types defined for that tradition.

Other modifications of overall strategies of analysis may result in situations such as during field survey, where the determination of paste or temper indicative of a particular tradition is not possible. In these cases, it is often not possible to assign pottery to specific types defined for different geographic areas. It is still possible to assign most Southwest types to more general descriptive stylistic groupings or “generic types” that may convey useful, but with spatially incomplete information (Lucius and Breternitz 1992). These consist of descriptive groupings or categories that reflect different ranges of painted styles, surface manipulations, or textures known to have been utilized over large areas of the Northern Southwest during specific time-spans. Examples of such categories may include “Basketmaker III Black-on-white Mineral Paint” or “Neckbanded Gray”. Thus given the particular situation, analysis of Southwestern pottery may not only involve the analysis of the formal types described in this web-site but combinations of descriptive and generic types. This document is one of many examples of how combinations of formal, descriptive, and generic types may be defined and to describe pottery analyzed during various circumstances and for different reasons.

The recording of formal, generic, and descriptive simply represents one of many kinds of data sets that can be utilized to describe a particular ceramic assemblage in manner to document various trends and patterns and examine a variety of issues. When possible the recording of type descriptions should always be in conjunction with the recording of large number of descriptive attributes including those that may be related to paste, style, surface manipulations, vessel form, and post firing modifications. Comparisons of distributions noted for type and descriptive attribute categories may provide additional observations useful in evaluating the nature and causes of variation inherent in categorization of different types that have been defined.

It is also important to note that information posted on this web-site is not intended to be used as a replacement for ceramic analysis conducted by experienced archaeologist. Like any specialty, the analysis and pottery of Southwest pottery requires considerable experience and expertise. The descriptions and discussions presented here reflect a syntheses of information that should be regarded as starting point in understanding the significance of a particular group sherds or vessels from sites or collections from the Southwest that display a certain range of characteristics as well vehicle for communication of information about ceramic types that may occur in New Mexico . It is also hoped that information presented here can serve here as forum through which the information, organizational, schemes described here can be interpreted. Certainly, this is not met to be a final authority on pottery types from New Mexico and any comments, critiques, or questions relating to the types described or overall organization and interpretation presented here are welcome and will be addressed. Most questions relating to any aspect of types or classification of any ceramics known to have been produced in New Mexico are also welcomed and will addressed as quickly as possible. An exception concerns any question that may be related to the authenticity or monetary appraisal of any individual pottery item or vessels.