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Nuclear Science and Prehistoric Pottery: Chemical Variability of Ceramic Resources in Northern New England
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Nuclear Science and Prehistoric Pottery: Chemical Variability of Ceramic Resources in Northern New England

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Analyses of Native American pottery found in northern New England have typically followed a normative approach focusing on formal variability, intended to address questions of culture history and......

Analyses of Native American pottery found in northern New England have typically followed a normative approach focusing on formal variability, intended to address questions of culture history and chronology. Although these methods and goals are essential to laying the groundwork for further study, they are by no means the end goal of archaeological research. Since the 1950s, archaeologists have increasingly adopted analytical methods grounded in the realm of the physical sciences to examine sources and methods of artifact production. The resulting interdisciplinary field, referred to as archaeometry, draws together anthropology, physics, chemistry, and geology to identify the decisions made by prehistoric cultures. Recent nuclear and geological analyses of natural clays and prehistoric pottery from Vermont and New Hampshire serve to demonstrate how archaeologists may employ techniques grounded in the physical sciences and move beyond asking “Who?” and “When?” to begin pursuing the “How?” and “Why?” of the archaeological record. These data suggest there is significant chemical variation among clay sources in the region, and that this chemical variation may be related to depositional regimes. Further, comparison of archaeological pottery samples reveals decisions made concerning clay and temper acquisition, as well as suggesting evidence for intraregional trade and other forms of human interaction.

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  • 1. MU Graduate Professional Council’s Research & Creative Activities Forum 2008Nuclear Science and Prehistoric PotteryChemical Variability of Ceramic Resources in Northern New England Matthew T. Boulanger Department of Anthropology boulangerm@missouri.edu
  • 2. Introduction Pottery Analysis in Northern New England  Preoccupation with questions of chronology and/or culture history  Little to no consensus in method, theory, or conclusion across modern political boundaries  Compare Rouse (1947), Ritchie & MacNeish (1949), Fowler (1966), Lavin (1987), Petersen & Sanger (1991), Lizee (1995)  Primarily descriptive and observational; little or no theoretical framework with which behavior can be explained  Few attempts to explain the technological or cultural aspects of pottery production
  • 3. Archaeological FactorsAgainst Technological Studies Poor preservation  Freeze-thaw cycle  Shallow, rocky, acid soils  Over 200 years of artifact collecting and looting Dominance of compliance-oriented archaeology  Document what is there and why it is important  Little incentive to conduct research
  • 4. Technological Approach Pots are tools designed and used for a purpose (Braun 1983) Technological knowledge of pottery manufacture (Schiffer & Skibo 1987)  Recipes for action, teaching frameworks, and techno- science Selection for performance characteristics is driven by changes in behaviors of makers and users of pottery (O’Brien et al. 1994) Selection for performance characteristics drives technological change (O’Brien et al. 1994)
  • 5. Pottery Manufacture & Use:A Hypothesis Hunter-gatherer lifestyle almost until European contact Small groups of family microbands with fluid boundaries and composition Seasonal transhumance (uplands in the winter, lowlands in the summer) Generalized cooking pots are most common form Manufacture and use of pottery in Northern New England was likely a domestic craft that employed localized materials
  • 6. Pottery Manufacture & Use:A Hypothesis Manufacture  Likely a domestic craft  Employed localized materials  Produced vessels easily and efficiently made (e.g., non-specialized production)  Did not involve substantial investment in time or resources Use  Centered around a generalized cooking pot
  • 7. Research Goals Determine whether chemical differences exist among ceramic resources from different physiographic regions in Northern New England. Establish preliminary geochemical source profiles associated with discrete geographical regions Use comparative approach with raw clay and archaeological pottery to begin identification of the technology involved in pottery production
  • 8. Analytical Sample 6 raw clay samples from differing geological and geographical contexts  Champlain Sea clays: northern Champlain Valley  Champlain Sea clay: Champlain Valley interior  Glacial Lake clay: Champlain Valley interior  Glacial Lake clay: southern Connecticut River valley 92 pottery samples from archaeological contexts near each of the clay deposits 1 possible tempering agent (burned and crushed mica-rich granite fragment from prehistoric context)
  • 9. Archaeological Samples
  • 10. Archaeological Samples
  • 11. Macroscopic Analysis Surface treatment Paste color and degree of coring Thickness Aplastic inclusions  Size  Shape  Sorting  Mineralogy Description of paste Construction method
  • 12. Compositional Analysis Neutron Activation Analysis using a comparator method Procedures outlined in Glascock (1992) and Glascock & Neff (2003) Samples are cleaned in de-ionized water Surface is removed using a SiC grinding wheel Pulverized and homogenized in agate mortar 2 aliquots prepared from the resulting powder:  One used for a short (5 s) irradiation via a pneumatic tube system  One used for a long (24 hr) irradiation in the reactor pool
  • 13. Compositional Analysis “Short” sample undergoes one 720-s gamma-ray count after a 25-min. decay  Al, Ba, Ca, Dy, K, Mn, Na, Ti, V “Long” sample undergoes two gamma-ray counts:  1800-s count after 7 days decay  As, La, Lu, Nd, Sm, U, Yb  8500-s count after 3 weeks decay  Ce, Co, Cr, Cs, Eu, Fe, Hf, Ni, Rb, Sb, Sc, Sr, Ta, Tb, Th, Zn, Zr Determination of concentrations of 34 elements at ppm or ppb level
  • 14. Results Partially oxidized paste, suggestive of firing at low temperatures in open fires Visible aplastics in most sherds include quartz, k-spar, plag. feldspar, & biotite mica Aplastics are primarily grit (1-3 mm) and sand (<1 mm) sized minerals, a minority of sherds contain crushed rock fragment aplastics Late Woodland/Contact period sherds do not contain aplastics visible under low-power magnification
  • 15. Results Soft, friable, and platy pastes suggestive of low firing temperatures and poor clay mixing Approx. 30% of sherds contain carbonized organic matter that may or may not have been intentionally added All vessels that exhibited clear evidence of manufacturing technique were produced by coiling Most sherds exhibit drying cracks, indicating either excessively wet clay or use of clays that contain large amounts of water (e.g., bentonite or montmorillonite)
  • 16. Results
  • 17. Results
  • 18. Results
  • 19. Results
  • 20. Conclusions Pots appear to have been fired at relatively low temperatures, likely in oxidizing environments Mineral inclusions are consistent with local bedrock and gravel lithologies Contact-period sherds appear untempered or tempered with very fine sands
  • 21. Conclusions Compositions of clay samples:  Appear to reflect differences in depositional environments, and therefore physiography  Glacial-lake clays are high in Ca, low in REE  Marine-bottom clays are chemically distinguishable from marine-edge clay  Pottery from three regions are also distinguishable based upon chemical composition
  • 22. Future Studies Expand the analytical sample to include a greater number of clay samples Identify and analyze potential sources of tempering materials Continue analyzing archaeological samples, but focus on discrete time periods and sites
  • 23. Acknowledgements Thomas Jamison, Robert Goodby, and Allen Hathaway provided pottery and clay samples for analysis. Research at the Archaeometry Laboratory at MURR is based on support by the National Science Foundation (grant #0504015). Leslie Cecil and Christine VanPool provided comments and guidance on this research. Tessa Schut prepared the samples for analysis.