Why are ancient pottery items so well preserved?

Why are ancient pottery items so well preserved?

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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?

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.

The enduring mystery of The Lady of Dai mummy

When talking about body preservation and mummies, people all over the world think of Egypt and the mummified bodies of Pharaohs, such as Tutankhamun. But how many know that the world’s best preserved bodies actually come from China? The Lady of Dai, otherwise known as The Diva Mummy, is a 2,100-year-old mummy from the Western Han Dynasty and the best preserved ancient human ever found. Just how this incredible level of preservation was accomplished has baffled and amazed scientists around the world.

In 1971, at the height of the cold war, workers were digging an air raid shelter near the city of Changsha when they uncovered an enormous Han Dynasty-era tomb. Inside they found over 1000 perfectly preserved artefacts, along with the tomb belonging to Xin Zhui, the wife of the ruler of the Han imperial fiefdom of Dai.

Xin Zhui, the Lady of Dai, died between 178 and 145 BC, at around 50 years of age. The objects inside her tomb indicated a woman of wealth and importance, and one who enjoyed the good things in life. But it was not the precious goods and fine fabrics that immediately caught the attention of archaeologists, rather it was the extraordinarily well-preserved state of her remains that captured their eyes.

Despite the fact that she had been buried for over two millennia, her skin was still moist and elastic, her joints still flexible, every feature still remained intact down to her eyelashes and the hair in her nostrils, and blood still remained in her veins. When she was removed from the tomb, Oxygen took an immediate toll on her body and so the state in which she is seen today does not accurately reflect how she was found. Nevertheless, when forensic scientists conducted an autopsy on the Diva Mummy, they were stunned to discover that the body was in the same state as an individual who had recently died.

The Lady of Dai undergoing examination. Photo credit: Hunan Provincial Museum

The autopsy revealed that all her organs were still intact, even down to the lungs vagus (nerve), which is as thin as hair. Blood clots were found in her veins and evidence was found of a coronary heart attack, as well as a host of other ailments and diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease, and gallstones. The Lady Dai died of a heart attack at the age of 50, brought on by obesity, lack of exercise and an over-indulgent diet.

When they were still studying her organs, the pathologists found 138 undigested melon seeds in her oesophagus, stomach, and intestines. Melon seeds take about 1 hour to digest so scientists were able to determine that she died shortly after eating some melons.

Archaeologists and pathologists have not determined all the factors behind her state of preservation, but they have a few clues.

Nearly perfectly-preserved mummified nodosaur from Canada

The nodosaur is on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada

Discovered in a mine in Alberta, Canada in 2011, a fossil of a nodosaur dinosaur is one of the most well-preserved fossils of its kind, down to its skin, scales and even the contents of its stomach. These heavily-armored herbivores walked the Earth between the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous periods, with this particular specimen dating back 110 million years.

The specimen was so well preserved that it “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago,” according to paleobiologist Jakob Vinther talking to National Geographic. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Tel Tsaf: Center of Trade and Commerce or a Regional Authority?

LiveScience reports that clay seals dating back to 8,500 years ago have been found in the region, but none had any impression. This points to a long clay usage in the larger valley area, something that this part of the Arabian Peninsula is well renowned for to this very day. This particular seal exists before writing, unlike newer seals like those found at Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem from 2,600 years ago, which contain a name and biblical figures sometimes.

The other deductions by the research team point to the largesse of Tel Tsaf village, based on the sheer volume of evidence. “Tel Tsaf was a big flourishing village,” said Garfinkel. “We uncovered houses that were as large as 100-200 sq.m., large courtyards, and silos which could contain from 3-4 tons to 20-30 tons of grain or other agricultural products. This is unbelievable considering that 1.5 tons of grain was enough to feed a family for one year.” Any society which can generate surplus, particularly agrarian, fits the billing of a ‘developed’ society in historical terms.

Perhaps Tel Tsaf was a regional hub of trade and commerce, home to a wealthy community of families, who had relations and networks with those from far-off regions (at a time when these relationships were particularly difficult to forge). “There is no prehistoric site anywhere in the Middle East that reveals evidence of such long-distance trade in exotic items as what we found at this particular site”. Yet, he cautions not jumping to conclusions about trade links just yet.

Tel Tsaf was also possibly some sort of regional authority, as other villages and sites from the same period do not point to any evidence of similar existence or features. It would not be unfair to argue that this site points to considerable social development, serving both the local communities in the region, along with those who were passing through. "We hope that continued excavations at Tel Tsaf and other places from the same time period will yield additional evidence to help us understand the impact of a regional authority in the southern Levant," concluded Garfinkel.

Top image: 7,000-year-old seal found in Israel. Source: Vladimir Nichen

Top 10 Health Benefits of Pottery

The art of pottery is oftentimes described as therapeutic and relaxing. While spinning clay, your mind, and body are in natural synergy, wrapped around your creative ambitions and goals. This thoughtful, artistic activity can open up the mind and relieve you of outside worries.

  • Creative outlet – There are both physical and mental benefits from expressing yourself by creating something. Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that. With pottery, you can produce something and express yourself in some way.
  • Increase optimistic outlook – Pottery enables for improvements in flow and spontaneity, provides an outlet for grief, and helps you with self-identification and self-expression, bolstering confidence and self-esteem.
  • Improve focus – Pottery allows you to escape the worries of life and shift your focus toward your creation. During the process, outside influences don’t affect your work so you dedicate your time to your creation. Being able to fully focus something helps the mind relax and expand, which will help you focus on other tasks in your daily life as well.
  • Exploring and experimentation – Pottery helps you to express your creativity, which is essential to expand who we are and how we connect to ourselves and our environment. It’s a good way for people of all ages to explore the things they can do. You may be more creative than you think, besides there’s no right or wrong way to participate in pottery.
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  • Reduces stress – Our hands are an outlet for creativity and the sense of touch is of high importance. A lot of focus is required while you’re making pottery, therefore outside distractions are reduced and no longer stress you out.
  • Can help reduce pain and discomfort from arthritis – The movement of making pottery is gentle yet strengthening to the hands, wrists, and arms. This can be beneficial to those prone to arthritis in the hands, as it promotes joint movement and dexterity.
  • Encourage sociability – Pottery rouses mental activity as much as physical and is often the perfect hobby for those who prefer to expend their energy internally. While partaking in group pottery, however, one can socialize confidently with other potters while still allowing for silence. The usually casual atmosphere helps relax any socially anxious woes and can help start a conversation. Plus, you can even do pottery at home with your family! There’s nothing better than doing something you love with the people you love.
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Ancient Tombs Discovered Along Silk Road

Along the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road, archaeologists have unearthed 102 tombs dating back some 1,300 years — and almost half of the tombs were for infants.

The surprising discovery was made in remote western China, where construction workers digging for a hydroelectric project found the cluster of tombs. Each tomb contains wooden caskets covered in felt, inside of which are desiccated human remains, as well as copper trinkets, pottery and other items buried as sacrificial items, according to UPI.

"The cluster covers an area of 1,500 square meters (1,794 square yards) on a 20-meter high (66 feet) cliff, an unusual location for tombs," said Ai Tao from the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology, as quoted in the Indian Times.

The tombs, which date back to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), also contain a number of well-preserved utensils made from gourds, some of which were placed inside the wooden caskets, the Indian Times reports.

But why so many of the tombs are for infants remains a mystery. "Further research is needed to determine why so many people from that tribe died young," Ai told UPI.

The area where the tombs were found, the Kezilesu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture, was an important mountain pass along the Silk Road, a network of ancient trading routes that connected the Far East with Europe.

Why are ancient pottery items so well preserved? - History

Nok sculpture by Unknown

Africa is a large and diverse continent. Its history is filled with the rise and fall of numerous civilizations and empires. As a result, the art of Ancient Africa is varied and diverse. However, there are some common themes throughout much of African art that we will discuss on this page.

Ancient African art can be somewhat divided into regions. The art of northern Africa was heavily influenced by the Arabs after the Islam conquest. Similarly, the art of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa was influenced by Europe and Christianity. There is also the well preserved art of Ancient Egypt found in temples and burial chambers. However, what most people think of today as African art is the art produced by the peoples living south of the Sahara Desert.

The art of Ancient Africa was produced using a wide variety of materials. Unfortunately, a lot of African art was produced using wood, which has since been destroyed by time and the elements. Other materials, such as metals (like bronze and iron), ceramics, and ivory have survived.

Woman's Head in Bronze.
Photo by Daderot
African art. Photo by Daderot

One of the main elements of African art is that it is often created in three-dimensions rather than two-dimensions. For example, they used sculpture more often than flat paintings. Here are some of the primary types of art used in Ancient Africa.

Sculpture - Sculpture was one of the most important types of art in Ancient Africa. Sculptures were mostly made of people and sometimes animals. African artists often used wood for their sculpture, but they also used bronze, terracotta, and ivory.

Masks - Masks were an important part of art. They were often used together with dance to create a type of performance art. Masks were generally made of wood, but were often decorated with ivory, gems, paint, and animal fur.

Jewelry - Many Ancient African civilizations created jewelry from gold, gems, shells, and other materials. Jewelry was an important part of showing one's status and wealth.

Pottery - Ceramics were used for everyday items like bowls and cooking pots. However, some ceramics were works of art that were shaped and painted with fine details.

One of the main themes in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form. The primary subject in the majority of the art is people. Sometimes people were shown with animals or as part animal, part person. Many times the representation of people wasn't natural, but was more abstract with certain features exaggerated while others were entirely left out.

African mask. Photo by Daderot

Monumental Art and Architecture

The most famous examples of monumental art and architecture in Ancient Africa come from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians created huge structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, temples, and statues (like the giant pharaohs at Abu Simbel). Other African civilizations built monumental structures as well including the giant obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia, mosques like the Great Mosque of Djene in Mali, and the rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.

The People's Pompeii

Ellis's team is particularly interested in a corner of the city near the Porta Stabia gate that is a bit off the beaten archaeological path.

"It's kind of a lost neighborhood of the city. When they first cleared it of debris in the 1870s, they left this block for ruin (because it had no large villas) and it was covered over with a terrible jungle of vegetation," he says.

Much research has centered on public buildings and breathtaking villas that portray the artistic and opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the city's wealthy elite.

"We're trying to see how the other 98 percent of people lived in Pompeii," Ellis says. "It's a humble town block with houses, shops, and all the bits and pieces that make up the life of an ancient city."

But while his quest is knowledge of the living Pompeii, Stanford University's Gary Devore, the project's co-director, notes that the eruption still resonates because of the intimate connection it created between past and present.

"We're digging in an area where a lot of Pompeians died during the eruption," he says. "I remind myself all the time that I can investigate in such detail this ancient Roman culture as a direct result of a great human disaster.

"At the end of a day of intense mental processing and physical labor, when the tools are being packed up and put away for the night, I often take a moment to remind myself of that connection with the individuals whose homes and workshops we're digging up," he says.

Packing Food for the Hereafter in Ancient Egypt

When death came, as it inevitably did, the ancient Egyptian pharaohs and their relatives were ready for it. Each had spent years preparing a lavish tomb stocked with everything they might need or want in the afterlife, including food, preserved for eternity.

Even meat and poultry were on the menu. To keep these highly perishable foods tasty until the end of time, the Egyptians mummified them—slowly drying them with salt, bandaging them and covering the bundle with resins—much as they would a human body.

A recent study has identified one of the resins used in this process: the sap from a tree related to the pistachio, which was slathered over beef ribs before they were buried with the great-grandparents of King Tutankhamun in about 1400 B.C. This wasn’t any ordinary goo, though. Imported from what is now Syria and Lebanon, it was an expensive substance available only to the rich and powerful. When it appeared among funerary goods, it became highly symbolic, evoking a fundamental belief about death.

“Once you were dead and mummified, you became a god,” says mummy expert Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo. “And gods inhaled those resinous substances.”

Today a similar resin, known as mastic (or mastik), is used in Mediterranean cuisine to add a smoky, almost pine-y flavor to foods—savory sauces, cheeses, chewing gum, ice cream, puddings, and pastries. “They use it in grain [dishes] like peppercorn,” says Amy Riolo, author of Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture, and in Greece and Turkey it’s even found in bottled water.

In Egypt mastic sometimes turns up in custom-ground batches of coffee—as Ikram discovered by accident one day. “I was buying a bag of coffee to take home, and the man in the shop said, ‘Let me give you my special,’” she remembers. “He tossed a handful of resin chunks in with the beans and then ground it all up. The mastic makes for an unusual taste, which is quite delicious.”

A variety of resin-coated foods were recovered from the tomb of King Tut's great-grandfather and great-grandmother—Yuya and Tuyu. At the time of its discovery in 1905, the burial still held the two original mummified occupants and some of their funerary equipment, although it had been robbed more than once in antiquity. Among other things, archaeologists discovered 17 wooden boxes of food, each carved into the shape of what it contained—a leg of veal wrapped in linen, for instance, as well as a shoulder of antelope, three geese, two ducks, and small birds that may have been pigeons. Yuya and Tuyu believed that these delicacies would be magically available to them in the next life.

Ikram calls such ancient meats “victual mummies,” one of the four labels she uses to categorize living beings that were purposely preserved after death.

The best-known group, of course, are the mummies of people—mostly royals, nobles, and high officials. Those members of the upper class could best afford the labor-intensive process of mummification, which may have taken up to 70 days and required expensive ingredients such as a drying salt known as natron, and exotic oils and resins.

Occasionally people mummified their pets—another of Ikram’s groups—so the animals could accompany them to the next life.

And finally, many millions of creatures, including dogs, cats, ibises, baboons, shrews, and snakes, were specially bred to be mummified and then offered to the gods with a prayer. These became wildly popular in later pharaonic times, beginning with the 26th dynasty in about 664 B.C. Ikram calls them “votive mummies.” (Read more about Ikram’s studies of animal mummies in National Geographic’s “Animals Everlasting.”)

The most extensive examples of victual mummies and other provisions for the afterlife come from the tomb of King Tut himself.

British archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered the teenage pharaoh’s final resting place in November of 1922. It’s now known as KV62—the 62nd tomb found in the Valley of the Kings, the cemetery of royals and nobles from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.

Freezing and Cooling

The weather of the greater part of Europe throughout much of the Middle Ages was rather temperate in fact, there is often some discussion of the "medieval warm period" overlapping the end of the Early Middle Ages and the beginning of High Medieval Europe (the exact dates depend on who you consult). So freezing was not an obvious method of preserving foods.

However, most areas of Europe did see snowy winters, and freezing was at times a viable option, especially in northern regions. In castles and large homes with cellars, an underground room could be used to keep foods packed in winter ice through the cooler spring months and into the summer. In the long, frigid Scandinavian winters, an underground room wasn't necessary.

Supplying an ice-room with ice was a labor-intensive and sometimes travel-intensive business, so it was not particularly common but it wasn't completely unknown, either. More common was the use of underground rooms to keep foods cool, the all-important last step of most of the above preservation methods.

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