Friday, April 6, 2012

Thule Pottery Introduction

Paddled Thule Pot Reproductions
The Cape Krusenstern order includes a sherd of Thule pottery.  This is a new challenge for me.  I've dabbled with ceramics in the past, and I had a good hands-on "ceramics for archaeologists" course as an undergrad, but I haven't tried replicating a Thule vessel before.  There are a few things that give me confidence that I may be able to pull this off.  First, unlike almost everything I do, this project actually comes with instructions. There is a recent and thorough paper called "An Experimental Approach to Understanding Thule Pottery Technology" by Harry, Frink, Swink, and Dangerfield (2009) that documents their experiments with reproducing Thule pottery.

I hope this one survives, so I can break it
The end goal is a low-fired, paddle stamped pottery sherd about the size of the palm of my hand.  (Here's a photo gallery from the fieldwork at Cape Krusenstern that I'm reproducing - there are some small pottery fragments shown midway down the page.) According to Harry et al. even experienced potters had failure rates of up to 50% with this style of pot when firing under the cool, damp, fuel starved Alaskan conditions.  Hopefully I can get a complete vessel or two to survive, but the goal is a broken piece of pottery that looks right.  The antiquing and usewear that I want to add to the sherd will be easier to do if I have a complete pot to work with, but if all I have are sherds at the end of the firing process that may not be the end of the project.

Melting some seal blood
Making pottery in the Arctic had many challenges.  Thule pots were not always fired, and when they were they would have been fired at relatively low temperatures.  The clay vessels were slowly dried and hardened next to a fire, but were not always fired directly in the hearth.  Based on ethnographic observations and Harry et al's experiments there were some clever uses of seal blood and oil to augment the functional properties of the pots. Blood or oil applied as a slip to the leather hard vessels resulted in a pot that could more easily be heated and bring the contents to a boil.  Organic tempers were frequently used, perhaps to help make the clay more workable and dry more evenly to prevent cracking, but at the cost of creating a porous vessel.  Harry et al found that some vessels were so porous that they could not hold water, but boiling oil in them would effectively seal the pore spaces and make them watertight.  Very cool stuff.  All that iron and organic matter is going to be important in giving the final reproduction the right colour, texture, and age.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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