Urkesh Ceramic Analysis

Introduction: The book


Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati – August 2023

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Primacy of the excavated record

As a premise to the methodology it is important to elaborate on the principles behind our work at Tell Mozan. As archaeologists we know that it is our primary responsibility to study all the stratigraphic contexts as well as all the finds unearthed by our excavations because in excavating we destroy these contexts and the connections between things found and their context. It is not only the architecture or finds that we are interested in, or that we deem as important, but also the emplacement and deposition of everything we unearth ( Critique, pp. 57-58, 75-77 [see here for some relevant excerps]). We see all contexts as well as everything found in these contexts as part of an integrated whole; and this whole constitutes more than the sum of its parts ( Critique, p. 37). To achieve this end we begin from the very first stroke of the excavation to use a methodological approach that will help us to accomplish these ends.

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The unit books

A particularity of our publishing strategy is that we forefront the individual excavation units. Such a primacy of the unit books is not current in our discipline, but we feel that it is an essential precondition if one aims for a truly objective record. Concretely, and for our current purposes, this means two things.

  1. Every single ceramic item, whether a whole vessel or a single sherd, receives its full treatment in the field. This amounts to a very high volume of data, and its repository is exclusively the one provided by the unit book: it is here that every item is given its full treatment, whether form a stratigraphic, or typological, or any other point of view. As an example of a ceramic vessel or a single sherd one may see two examples in different books: A15q1308-p15 and J1q1297-p3.
  2. At the same time, each unit book contains an extensive essay about the ceramic inventory of that unit, which may quite extensive in some cases, see for example in J1

From the beginning we did in fact set up a digitally based system that focuses on the contexts of every single element we excavate with the capacity to register the analysis of all the data we uncover and always intertwine these data with the context. We collect and register every sherd placing them in q-lots which come from relatively small portions of the excavations, areas approximately 60x70 cm and about 15 cm in depth. These q-lots are collected in relatively small plastic bags (containing less than 100 sherds); the tags of all the q-lot bags give unit and feature number in addition to the q-number which is unique to that excavation unit. The sherds are washed in the excavation house give link to history and analyzed according to parameters describing the wares and shapes. All the body sherds as well as all the shape sherds are analyzed based on the same parameters. All the shape sherds and any body sherds considered important (e.g., because of decoration type, or other interesting characteristics) are saved in the expedition’s ceramic library and therefore available for further study. The other body sherds are for the most part discarded.

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The typological dimension

This website, devoted to the ceramic analysis of the entire corpus, is in direct interaction with the unit books, in two ways.

  1. The typological description of any given item, whether whole vessel or sherd, is directly based on the categorization which is presented in this website. This reflects a direct personal interaction between excavators and ceramic specialists (who are often in fact the same person).
  2. This website draws in turn on the individual elements presented in the unit books. As an example one may look at the index of shapes from phase 3pMZA, which lists 514 elements, for each of which there is a link to the publication in the pertinent unit book.

This digital book is structured so that it serves two purposes. First it presents in an organized and transparent manner the principles behind the analysis of the Urkesh ceramics and the methodology pursued during this analysis. The second purpose is to present the vast amount of data excavated and analyzed during the twenty five seasons of our excavations and study.

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Impact on excavation strategy

Ceramics provides the largest body of data found in the excavation, and it is the one that has the most direct impact on strategy. Even a very quick preliminary analysis can give reliable and substantial insights into the chronology and nature of the deposition in any given level or structure. As a result, the analysis of the ceramics serves as the guidepost for deciding where and how to excavate. In other words, it provides the clues that can point the way in deciding how to proceed in order to achieve the goals that guide the research project. Thus priority might be given to a sector which the ceramics links to a given period or a given functional area (a coherent assemblage may point to a regular accumulation as in a room, while a mixed assemblage may point to a discard). Both would have an impact on excavation strategy.

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