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Research project: Palaeolithic Origins of Ceramic Technology: innovative and creative revolutions

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This project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RGP - 2013-073) and will run for three years from May 2013.  It is the first comprehensive and comparative analysis of the more than 10,000 ceramic figurines found across Eurasia and North Africa dating to the late Palaeolithic (c.40,000-13,000 years ago).

These artefacts, some of which pre-date the first pottery by as much as 20,000 years, offer unique insight into the non-functional, artistic origins of this technology in nomadic hunter-gatherer communities. For 150 years, research on Palaeolithic art has focused on the limited number of painted and engraved caves and iconic female figurines found primarily in Western Europe.  This project shifts focus towards the under-studied assemblages of ceramic art, which represent a large proportion of the Palaeolithic artistic oeuvre. To understand Palaeolithic art and symbolism, we must gain a better understanding of these earliest ceramics. This project broadens awareness of these relatively overlooked artefacts, demonstrates their impact on prehistoric society, and increases recovery of Pleistocene ceramics during future excavations. It also transforms our understanding of the breadth of Palaeolithic material culture; most Palaeolithic research focuses on stone and bone artefacts, but this project acknowledges the full scope of diverse late Palaeolithic material culture.

This project embraces anthropological, archaeological, and art historical methods and theories to build interdisciplinary frameworks for advancing understanding of how small-scale or ephemeral technological innovations were catalysts for social and artistic change. This project addresses questions of cross-disciplinary importance about how societies innovate and how communities adopt or reject these innovations.  Our objectives are:

  • To define and quantify the manufacturing, use and discard of Palaeolithic ceramic and bone/antler/ivory artefacts, using chaîne opératoire methodology.
  • To apply macroscopic and microscopic analyses to determine the techniques, tools, use and deposition of Palaeolithic ceramics, and to create a database containing each artefact studied. This database will provide a key resource for future researchers.
  • To analyse three centres of Palaeolithic ceramic production (Central Europe, Croatia & France), and to compare these with Palaeolithic ceramics found elsewhere in Eurasia and North Africa.

 Our research questions are:

  • What were the social and artistic origins and uses of ceramics in the Palaeolithic?
  • How did ceramic innovation develop or change between 31,000 and 13,000 calBP?
  • What social and environmental conditions were conducive to the adoption of ceramics?
  • Are there links between the use of ceramics and increased sedentism in the Palaeolithic?
  • Is there evidence of technological continuity between regional ceramic traditions, or was the technology independently invented and used in distinct ways across Western Eurasia?
  • How did Palaeolithic societies adapt to innovative ceramics?

    - Does the style of ceramic art differ from bone, antler and ivory art

    - Did ceramic innovations have an effect on established technologies? Are changes also apparent in art made in other materials?
    - Are social or artistic differences discernible between nearby sites that preserve and lack ceramics that might explain the variable adoption of ceramics in the region?

  • How do ceramic technologies alter our understanding of Palaeolithic material culture and innovation?

The work will be conducted by Dr William Davies and the Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Becky Farbstein.  Dr Farbstein has extensively studied Palaeolithic ceramic figurines from central Europe and the Adriatic since 2005, and will extend her coverage to all the c.10,000 known ceramic figurines from the study period. 

Palaeolithic Ceramics
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