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Anthropology Unit

Anthropology Unit | University of Geneva

Function of ceramic productions and economy in West Africa (2015-15)

Project scope

The function of pottery has long been a topic for research by archaeologists who, through this aspect, aim to reconstruct dietary, technical, medicinal and even ritual practices by past populations. If definition of the different indices for pottery use has been considerably refined over the last two decades, their interpretation remains complex. Ethnographic reference databases focused on this topic are rare and, in addition, often confined to a single functional class of pottery (cooking pots, beer vessels, etc.) from a specific community (the Kalinga, the Gamo, etc.).

Our study aims to compensate for this lack of interpretive models for pottery use. To do so, we have developed a recording method for the most diagnostic functional criteria, including morphometry (form, dimensions, volume) and traces of utilisation (use-wear and residues). The study protocol was tested on a collection of worn pots being part of the Malian ethnographic ceramics collection at the University of Geneva and National Museum of Bamako. This collection, assembled and documented in 1995 from ten different traditions, covers the range of known functions in this region. The method was then applied to document the use of pottery in the Bedik Country in Eastern Senegal during a field survey conducted in February 2016. This survey focused on functions still represented in current use. We have been able to sample several of them for “blind” chemical and phytoliths analysis, in order to establish new protocols of research.

Another aspect of this research focuses on the identification of functions of ceramic fragments recovered and modified after their rejection, numerous on some archaeological sites but barely studied. In fact, very few collections of modified sherds have been subject to a use-wear analysis based on experimental archaeology. This approach is an effective tool for distinguishing marks resulting from the shaping of objects and those of use. Furthermore, use-wear analysis can infer the nature of materials worked and the user’s gestures. The settlement mounds of Sadia (Dogon Country, Mali), dated between the 8th and 13th century AD, have delivered a substantial collection of ceramic shards that show alterations, abrasions and residues. The analysis of these objects compared with experimental results led to the individualization of several functional categories of artifacts. Scraping and crushing of coloring mineral material are well documented, as seems to be the use of certain fragments as tools for the manufacturing of pottery.

The results of this research, by building interpretive reference databases adapted to archaeological questions, will contribute to a better understanding of pottery use in past societies.

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A research project funded by the « Germaine de Staël » Programme (grant 2015-15, Applicant Dr Anne Mayor)

Internal collaborators

External collaborators

  • Vieugué Julien (CNRS, Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense)
University of Geneva
Dpt. of Genetic & Evolution
Anthropology Unit
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