Friday, February 1, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Shelby Anderson Researching Northern Ceramic Technology

Shelby Anderson at Giddings Cabin on the Kobuk River
Shelby Anderson is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University, whose research into hunter-gatherer groups and northern ceramic technology has taken her from Northern Alaska to the Pacific Northwest.  She earned her doctorate from the University of Washington in 2011 with her dissertation: From Tundra to Forest: Ceramic Distribution and Social Interaction in Northwest Alaska.  I asked her a few questions about her current research, and this is what she had to say...

Plans and Profiles #5, Shelby Anderson, Northern Ceramic Technology

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Contemplating a Thule House at Cape Espenberg 2011
I’m working on a couple of different projects right now, although they all fit into two overlapping themes: 1) studying past social networks and socio-economic organization in hunter-gatherer groups, and 2) addressing questions about subsistence from a technological perspective, i.e. hunter-gatherer ceramic technology. I specialize in analysis of northern ceramic technology, but also work frequently with others to pull together different data sets in addressing these research questions. Most of my work is focused in northern Alaska, although I have recently returned to my archaeological roots and am working on a small Pacific Northwest clay and ceramic technology project. I am probably most focused on ceramic related questions right at this moment, particularly as a way to test hypotheses about environmental change, late Holocene social networks and organization. How were social networks structured during times of change? And were some people more socially connected than others? Why? I also want to know more about why ceramic technology was adopted in the North American Arctic relatively late, why it was adopted when it was (around 2800 years ago), and why some groups made pottery and some did not. Does it have something to do with the development of a more marine focused diet, changes in subsistence organization (more storage), or something else? Other projects include a survey/settlement pattern study for a climate change project, working on publications on the Cape Krusenstern Human-Environmental Dynamics project, in the thick of ceramic analysis on the Cape Espenberg project, and some other things in the works.

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Curvilinear Stamped Pottery
From two different directions – I have always been interested in complex hunter-gatherers and unraveling how social structures develop and change. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was drawn to a career in archaeology through learning about the prehistory of this region. I have also always wanted to do research in the Arctic for various reasons so I worked my way north over the years. When I secured my first job in Alaska, I was fascinated by the ceramic technology I encountered. I was working on an excavation project on the Alaska Peninsula in SW Alaska. We were finding “tons” (for Alaska) of ceramics. Prior to this, I did not know how prevalent ceramics were in Alaskan sites and soon learned that there had been relatively little research in the region on, or involving, ceramic technology. I was hooked and eventually put all of my interests together into a dissertation project. 

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Shelby looking for clay on the Kobuk River
Definitely. For me it seems to have looped around various interests over the years: human-environment interactions, ceramic technology, hunter-gatherers, coastal archaeology, etc. With respect to ceramic technology I would say that I go back and forth between being interested in very specific questions to much broader ones. For example, I am interested very specifically in how and why pottery was made and used. But I also want to use ceramic sourcing and other data sets to address bigger questions about how social organization and social networks have changed in northwest Alaska over the last 4000 or so years. The latter question especially is really made up of lots of smaller questions/projects.

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?

Hmmm, hard question. Right now I think I would ask someone to tell me all the places they had been in the last year and how they got there. Or would I ask them to tell me where they got their clay? Argh. Ok, the first question.

5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

Yes, for sure, many things. Mainly, that if one thinks a project or idea is worth pursuing, one can probably talk other people into coming along for the ride (as in research and community partners, funding, etc.). And, that I can work in all sorts of weather and weird, uncomfortable field situations, but if we run out of coffee - WATCH OUT. I’ve solved that one by always bringing an emergency coffee stash. I have also learned that I need a good field buddy who can tell me when to stop for the day. Sometimes I overdo it without realizing that my field crew is hypothermic - oops, happened again last summer. Sorry team!

Testing Midden Deposits at Cape Krusenstern

6) Have you ever found anything in the field or in the lab that you wish you hadn’t?

Talking about site erosion. Nuluk Project 2012
Not really, no. Well, yes. I have encountered looting, or subsistence digging, in various contexts and it is such a bummer. And a problem that is so much bigger than me or my work so I feel somewhat powerless in the face of it. I guess we all do our part with education and outreach…

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I like exercising, knitting, taking photos, and hanging out with my dog and family. I moved to Portland only about a year and a half ago, so it is fun to explore different parts of the city and surrounding area on the weekends. I also enjoy hiking and camping for fun rather than work, although there has not been much time for this the last couple of years.

8) What made you decide on a career in Archaeology?

Sealing Tower at Cape Krusentstern
Archaeology combines many things I find interesting, fun, and challenging – studying past and present human behavior, drawing methods from other fields (geology, geography, biology, chemistry, etc.), working as a part of an interdisciplinary team, analyzing material culture, and doing both field and lab work. The creative process of scientific problem-solving is probably my favorite part, second only to the thrill of holding something thousands of years old in my hands and feeling connected to other people and times.

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

First Projectile Point of the 2010
Cape Krusentstern Season
The Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center website:

The National Park Service has some web content up that I wrote about the Cape Krusenstern Human-Environmental Dynamics Project I directed while a graduate student:

And another piece written for the public on that project: Cultural Vulnerability and Resilience in the Arctic: Preliminary Report on Archeological Fieldwork at Cape Krusenstern, Northwest Alaska

For my ceramic research, I have a couple of papers in prep that aren’t ready for public viewing, but you can read about my pilot study:

Anderson, S.L, M. Boulanger, and M. Glascock
2011 Late Prehistoric Social and Political Change in Northwest Alaska: Preliminary Results of a Ceramic Sourcing Study. Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 38: 943-955.

And, I’ve been slowly updating my website with photos and info on various current projects as they develop:

Our Constant Companions at the Cape


Would you be willing to have your research profiled in a future Plans and Profiles interview?  Or do you have a student or colleague whose work that you'd like to recommend?  Please send me an e-mail at

Photo Credits:
1,5: Ross Smith
2,11: Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White
3,4: Shelby Anderson


  1. Replies
    1. Shelby is doing really cool stuff - I really like following along on her blog:


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