I have a general question which may sound naive: archeologists eg in Ancient Greece take a lot of information from preserved pottery they found. What physical attributes of ceramic items made of clay make them so likely to be preserved?

  • 5
    Are they? They don't seem particularly well or more likely to be preserved than similar inorganic, durable materials.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 18 '18 at 12:19
  • 10
    There is a selection bias: only the well preserves pottery is well preserved. All the bad pottery has not survived. Dec 18 '18 at 13:14
  • 3
    Pottery is well preserved because it is not organic, and not subject to corrosion. Items made of stone, glass, silver and gold are also very well preserved. But unlike these items, pottery is also very common at certain stage of development of civilization.
    – Alex
    Dec 18 '18 at 15:31
  • 3
    @Alex: Also silver & gold are intrinsically valuable, so a worn or broken item made of them will be melted down and made into something else. Pottery? Like today's dishes, if it breaks or just becomes unfashionable, you throw it out.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 18 '18 at 18:34
  • You should consider that the glazing also preserves the pigment so art is well preserved on such medium and art on pottery is also hugely important for studying the past.
    – Daniel
    Dec 21 '18 at 0:38

Two features of ceramics make them likely to be preserved.

Firstly, ceramics are fired in a kiln. This makes them solid, even as sherds. They are hard and impervious. If not mechanically disturbed (jostled, trampled, etc.) they are likely to remain in the state they were in when discarded.

Secondly, ceramics were widespread, in daily use, and regularly broken. This meant they were regularly dumped, or used as fill, or forgotten in holes. Ceramics were much like plastics in contemporary society. They were widely used and regularly discarded and replaced. As an item of common use which cycled rapidly, many ceramics were available for preservation.

Ceramics were often discarded as they were every day breakable items in wide use; and when discarded they were less likely to be destroyed if undisturbed.

  • 4
    It may also be worth pointing out that, unlike materials such as gold, it's never really been economical to destructively-recycle old pottery (although mosaics stand here as an important counter-example.)
    – Roger
    Dec 18 '18 at 17:26
  • There's some hill in Rome entirely made out of broken amphorae as they were dumped there after use.
    – Daniel
    Dec 21 '18 at 0:37
  • 1
    @Daniel -- Monte Testaccio. The amphorae were likely used to transport olive oil, and considered unfit for other purposes afterwards because the oil seeped into the terracotta, went rancid, and would ruin anything it contacted. So they carefully broke the amphorae, laid them out to carefully, spread lime to keep the smell down, and eventually 53 million amphorae stacked to over 35m high. The people of Rome received state-subsidized olive oil, and the site is near the site where it was stored and distributed. Apr 5 '19 at 20:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.