Seemingly discarded in earlier excavations and even now mostly overlooked, potsherds (see fig.1) aren’t always considered the most valuable artefact for ascertaining information. Most Egyptologists (and archaeologists worldwide) look only for diagnostic sherds; this is to say, pieces that are large enough to highlight their former part of the pot, such as a rim, handle or large parts of curved sides. Unless expert in pottery remains, Egyptologists have very little time for pottery, especially when usually faced with such a huge and overwhelming corpus within any given assemblage. Whole pots are a dream to find (see fig.2), whether in situ and complete or fragmented yet representing a whole pot for reconstruction (See fig.3). I think this comes down to the need of the Egyptologist to “see the whole picture”. As an Egyptologist myself, I appreciate that it can be time consuming working with potsherds, and often at times, hard to know where to even begin with research and analysis!
Sherds are scattered across many sites from ancient Egypt (urban, religious and mortuary), and due to the sheer size of a corpus, they can be left untouched, or even returned back to where they were found after macroscopic and diagnostic examination. However, sherds are important! They have a story to tell and their very presence can say a lot! You can analyse the amount and spatial distribution, they can inform on production, use and re-use. The context they are found in can hint at individual, family or communal acts (the agents), whether their deposition was the result of a single action or repeated action and whether they are found in a random or fixed location (all of this enables the study of social relationships within communities). Sherds may present with organic residues or interesting inclusions, not to mention the ability to demonstrate foreign trade. The study of sherds is inexhaustible.
We can also discern technology and production methods, raw materials and access to them. We can begin to build a picture of social requirement, use and production by the context they are discovered. For example we can discover whether the pottery was wheel made or handmade, professionally or home-made, factory or estate, home or institution.
Fig.1 Sherd (Photograph taken from the Petrie Museum Website)
Fig.2 (Photograph taken from the Petrie Museum Website)
This is a rather fine example of a Naqada II vessel, with geometric design, typical of the period and faunal designs. This pot gives a huge amount of information, such as local fauna (or fauna known to the creator) production, techniques, use etc. You can’t blame an Egyptologist for wanting to study this! And for a full understanding of Egyptian pottery, it is important to study both complete pottery as well as sherds.
Fig 3. (Photograph taken from the Petrie Museum Website)
Sherds which fit together to form a pot are also useful finds. Ethnographic research and experimental research allows for an understanding of deposition. For example, this pot was probably abandoned whole, but the crushing sands have broken it, rather than this was broken and/or smashed. If it was smashed, the sherds would be considerably smaller and the edges of the breaks sharper. This is from Amarna, a known abandoned desert site. Further research could also be done on the pattern, as this pattern is widely unknown from Amarna. Then again, it was discovered in a box marked ‘Amarna’, the provenance may be inaccurate and we are looking at something from a different period or site. Provenance is very important both as a region, time period, and even more locally, the narrower you can make it the more meaning and context it has.