To See a World in a Grain of Sand

By Emily Jin

It all started with a single piece of pottery.

Well, diagnostic, of course – what I was holding on my palm appeared to be the remains of the rim of an ancient vessel. Completely baffled, I turned to the information sheet for help. Square, QQ19. Late Bronze Age, Persian period. I saw scribbles, checkmarks, none of which I could really manage to comprehend. As a newcomer to the pottery lab, I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoons spent in the bright, air-conditioned room, writing locus and basket numbers on every little piece of diagnostic sherd with my neatest handwriting possible. However, whenever it came to moments like this, I found myself trapped in a rather uncomfortable position – I did not know where to write.

The basic guidelines to marking pottery are fairly simple. Take a sharpie, find a spot on the sherd, and try to write with your smallest, neatest handwriting. The hard part, no doubt, is to find that spot. I have been taught a few techniques, but for some sherds, those techniques were simply inapplicable. For instance, by pressing the rim on the table perpendicularly and observing the direction in which the sherd fell down, we were supposed to be able to determine whether the vessel was open (a plate) or closed (a jar). For open vessels, we marked the outside of the sherd; for closed vessels, we marked the inside of the sherd. It seemed like a straightforward enough technique, yet the only problem was that the sherd I held fell both ways. The first time I tried the rim technique it fell inward, the second time outward, the third time inward again – was I supposed to record its falling pattern and figure out the ratio?

I turned back to the rim in my hand and sighed. Maybe it was because of the coldness of the room – or the slight pain in the middle of my thumb for pressing down too hard on the sherds – I began to feel a tinge of annoyance arise from the depth of my heart. This is a waste of time, I thought. For days and days all we’ve done was pulling out pieces of pottery sherds from the ground, carrying them back in full buckets, washing them until our fingers turned to prunes. Pottery, pottery, pottery. It was a work that seemed to never have an end, and really, never made that much sense. What could a piece of rim possibly tell you? I had absolutely no idea of what this vessel even looked like, let alone determining its time period, function, or some other implied information.

“Martha? I think I need some help.” After ten minutes of contemplation, I had no choice but to call out to my professor for help.

It only took her ten seconds to decide that I should mark this sherd on the inside. “But why?” I stuttered, unable to find a reason.

Martha smiled: “You see, the techniques are not always applicable. Out of all honesty, archaeology isn’t all about techniques. What’s more important is always experience, a good eye for observation, and the imagination for a grander picture.”

“What do you mean by a grander picture?”

Martha picked up the sherd and held it to my eye: “What can you see?”

I held my breath and observed. Thousands of years of time has worn away the glaze on this sherd and roughened its surface. The only remains of the rim that I saw were thin, and the curve was not very visible. There were some bumpy stripes on the outside of the sherd, neatly spaced, presumably some kind of decoration.

“Now, try to imagine – if this sherd was a part of a restored vessel, and this vessel was put in a museum for people to see, what would this vessel look like?”

Just when I was going to respond, “I don’t know”, I suddenly realized what she meant.

There – I finally saw. Under the sun, this sherd had a slight curve that could only be noticed if you look very carefully.

Try to imagine. Martha’s smile conveyed this message once again. I took hold of the sherd and tried to imagine. If we extend the sherd along this curve, what would it eventually become? In my head I constructed a vessel. At first the vessel was mysterious and unclear, but as the sherd stretched and grew, I could start to see a shape.

It was a jar. Not so tall, and the opening was about the size of my palm. Judging from the thickness of the sherd, it seemed that this jar was relatively easy to carry around. Most certainly it was used for storage – but what would it store?

Martha hinted: “Starting from the stripes here, apart from decoration, the other function is to allow the person holding the jar to have a better grip, and thus prevent the jar from accidentally slipping, falling and breaking.”

With deduction, I thought, this jar must have been moved around a lot, transporting things from location to location.

“And here.” Martha pointed to the square code on the information sheet, “QQ19. What do you know about this square?”

QQ19 was indeed the square that I worked in. I recalled the explanations that Amani made as she came over to supervise: “Um…we think that QQ19 could be the remains of a courtyard. We’ve been finding a lot of metal slag and bronze material, so there’s a chance that this could be an ancient blacksmith shop –”

“Exactly. Didn’t you guys find some cool bronze pieces there a few days ago?”

“Yes, we found several identical bronze pins, they are about the length of a fingernail, and both of their ends are sharpened deliberately.”

“If this pottery sherd and those bronze pins are all the information you know about QQ19, what conclusion would you make?”

I paused and tried to imagine again. However, this time, it was far less difficult – as soon as I closed my eyes, an image jumped into my head.

It was a hand – the hand grabbed the jar and brought it up. The bumpy decorations prevented the hand from slipping off and dropping the jar by accident. After a few steps taken, the jar was once again set down. The hand reached into the jar to take out something, probably to use – on the palm of the hand, some bronze pins rested, quietly, with a color of shimmering green. This was a blacksmith shop. Those pins were to be used in the process of forging or polishing. What came from that process could be weapons, tools –

I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. True, I admit that most of what came to mind was the result of limited imagination and probably exaggeration, but at that moment, I felt I truly understood the connection between archaeology and history. We always say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, just a small piece of pottery sherd played so well into a given context, and thus provided infinite amounts of details about the lives and works of the ancient Persian people.

History was never dead. Every little piece of physical evidence we recover from the dusts has brought it back to life.

And, believe it or not, after this important lesson that I’ve learned from Martha, marking pottery was never a source of frustration or pain anymore.

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