Plymouth Archaeology Society

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Henrietta Quinnell

1st December 2007

We were very fortunate to have Henrietta Quinnell, a well known authority on prehistoric pottery, to spend a day with us imparting her knowledge with such enthusiasm. She was very patient with us novices! We also had the company of Fiona Pitt from the Plymouth

City Museum, who had brought along some pottery for us to see and pass around; although some was so precious we were not to touch it.

Most of us in the room could most likely distinguish between a piece of fine, decorated Samian table-ware and a sherd of prehistoric pot, but the main purpose of the day was not to come away as experts on the identification of specific pottery but how to approach the study in a methodical and careful manner. It is not a simple process of - quick glance, put sample in box and label!

We were advised to use careful observations, research similar examples and make cautious inferences before coming to our final conclusions.

As an introduction we were given an outline of what to look out for when studying pottery, followed by a brief history of pottery in South West Britain with examples; both displayed on screen and from the Plymouth Museum collection.

As it was a very intensive day, it is impossible to report everything in the newsletter, but I would urge anyone who has an interest in pottery to obtain instruction from Henrietta. She is a veritable fount of knowledge on the subject.

Matters to consider when studying pottery:

A pot can be composed of different materials and sometimes from a different area. Firing changes the material; was it considered a ‘special’ process used for special purpose?

Is the source itself significant? Some early Neolithic pottery is of very good quality, but it appears to go out of use during various periods; is pottery no longer necessary?

If there are signs of use, what use could it have had?

Pottery is a good indicator of behavioural patterns e.g. funerary rites.

Is there evidence pot making is a seasonal activity?

Does the pottery under study compare well with documented finds?

Things to look for:


Colour – oxidising conditions yield reds and browns, whereas reducing conditions produce greys and blacks. In the Iron-Age South West pottery is mostly reduced; an acquired skill!

Fabric – inclusions and base material, which temper was used to open the fabric to allow gas to escape?

Decoration – with a tool, with vegetation, rope, or just with the hand or finger?

Burnishing – compacting the surface with a bone or wooden tool makes the surface more impervious.

Wear/abrasion – the more abrasion, the more it has been moved around in the ground – it can be possible to tell whether the pot was broken before or after it was disposed of.

There is the actual process of manufacturing the pot to consider:

Digging clay

Continued .....

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