Palaeolithic origins of ceramic technology: innovative and creative revolutions

It is not generally known that ceramic technology was invented and extensively used in the Upper Palaeolithic period (around 40,000 to 13,000 years ago) in Eurasia and North Africa. The earliest uses of ceramics were for artistic and symbolic purposes, producing thousands of figurines. The earliest pottery vessels are also Palaeolithic, and are around 20,000 years old.

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Vela Spila ceramic

Archaeologists often assume that once an invention was developed, its benefits would be self-evident to its inventors, and thus it would be retained in perpetuity. Our project tests this assumption: currently it seems that ceramic technologies were reinvented in different places and times during the Palaeolithic. If this is true, we need to explore why it is so.

We shall focus on how ceramics were made and used in Palaeolithic societies, and compare them against other, less common forms of artistic expression (such as cave art, music, and portable art in bone, antler, ivory and stone) to identify similarities and differences in manufacturing, subject, style, and social context. The latter will be evaluated to identify what might have determined the apparently intermittent, independent invention of ceramic art in several distinct places during the Upper Palaeolithic.

Our analyses are standardised to allow comparison across different regions, periods and materials: we record the choices prehistoric artists made at every stage of manufacturing and utilisation, from selection and combination of raw materials, to shaping, use of heating/firing, usage, and final discard. Thus, any differences in the steps of ceramic manufacture and use in different places and times can be identified. Each of the estimated 10,000 artefacts from Eurasia and North Africa will be studied in this way.

We will compare technical characteristics from case-studies from Eurasia and North Africa to related material culture, allowing us to identify “communities of practice” where particular social behaviours were shared among a group of craftspeople. Our project also incorporates experimentation with ceramic materials and firing temperatures and techniques, which will provide primary knowledge of these techniques and experimentally-recreated objects to act as reference materials.

Dr William Davies
University of Southampton

Dr Davies was awarded a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant in March 2013