X-ray of a Roman jar, done as part of the Crafts and Community project.

Pots and people: getting creative with archaeological research through ceramic radiography

Dr Adam Sutton

X-raying empty and often broken pots found on archaeological sites might seem pointless. What can it tell us about peoples’ lives in the past? MOLA’s Senior Pottery Specialist, Dr Adam Sutton, argues that the answer might be more interesting than you think.

In the Roman period, Northamptonshire had many pottery-making sites, where ancient potters made a wide variety of vessels using different materials and techniques. These ranged from basic pottery made for everyday use to fine, thin-walled tablewares made with exceptional skill and creativity. Archaeologists have known about the evidence for potting in this part of the world for a long time, but only rarely have we considered the significance of how these objects were actually made. Indeed, people living in the region nowadays might not know that Northamptonshire has had a prominent industrial heritage for at least 2,000 years. Long before Northampton became the shoe-making capital of the UK, people made a living by making and selling pottery. The new collaborative project led by MOLA is going to unveil their stories.

Crafts and Community will combine rigorous academic research with creative public engagement activities, giving general audiences the opportunity to get involved with archaeology in new and exciting ways. During the first phase of the project, we will use our new AHRC-funded digital x-ray equipment to analyse pottery from a range of sites in Northamptonshire. Radiography allows us to ‘see through’ archaeological artefacts and identify features we can’t ordinarily perceive. X-rays can tell us how pottery was made. For example, they show if a vessel was thrown on a wheel, built up from clay coils, or simply pinched into shape (read more about it here). By looking at how artefacts were made, we can access totally new information and uncover the very human stories hiding under the surface. We can learn how they worked, how they learned their skills, who they might have learned from, and what role creativity played in their lives.

This is what we will investigate with our new research project.  We will analyse around a hundred vessels made in Northamptonshire to find out more about the techniques used in their production. Pots will be taken from the extensive collection housed at the Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre (ARC) at the Chester House Estate.

On the left, X-ray of a Roman jar. On the right, master potter Rob Bibby of Woodnewton Pottery working at the wheel.
X-ray of a Roman jar (left). It shows the pot was built up as four coils of clay, then smoothed and finished on a wheel. The dark areas are where the coils join. Master potter Rob Bibby of Woodnewton Pottery working at the wheel (right).

Next, we will use the results of the x-ray study to organise a series of pottery-making workshops, hosted by the Woodnewton Pottery in Northamptonshire itself. These will offer the local community the opportunity to learn the skills used by Roman potters working in the region 2,000 years ago. They will also allow people to creatively engage with Northamptonshire’s heritage in a fun and informative way, based on cutting-edge research. Participants will even have the chance to get their own pots x-rayed, just like ancient artefacts!

The results of the project will be displayed at the Chester House Estate. The exhibition will allow local groups to learn about pottery-making in Roman Northamptonshire, while seeing how it can act as creative inspiration in the modern day. The exhibition is planned to run between August and December 2022.

The project team are currently busy completing the x-ray study, in preparation for the first workshop in early June 2022. Watch this space for further updates as the project progresses!

Crafts and community in the past and present: engaging local communities with their Roman past using ceramic radiography has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project will run throughout 2022, being led by MOLA’s Senior Pottery Specialist Dr Adam Sutton, in partnership with the Chester House Estate, Woodnewton Pottery, the Creating Tomorrow Multi-Academy Trust, and Cranfield University.

  • Artefacts
  • Technology
  • Science
  • Roman
  • Research
  • Community project

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