Prehistoric pottery-making of the Russian Far East by Irina S. Zhushchikhovskaya (translated and ed. By Richard L. Bland & C. Melvin Aikens).
Prior to reading this work, my knowledge of the prehistory of the Russian far east could have been written on the back of the proverbial postage stamp….using block capitals and a bullet-tipped marker pen. However, in the light of the increased attention being given to the Jomon ceramics of Japan in recent years, I was eager to see this volume from the point of view of its observations on and experiments into ceramic technology rather than from its account of far north-eastern Prehistory. It is clearly from this point of view that I review the volume and any material consideration of the Prehistory of the region per se will have to be left to those more qualified.
We are told that Dr Zhushchikhovskaya has been studying the prehistoric pottery from the Russia far east for over 20 years but this is her first major synthetic work aimed at bringing her collective studies to a wider audience. I hope she is successful and certainly this is a comprehensive work involving observation and experiment particularly into ceramic technology on a region that is at least unfamiliar (if not unkown) to most British Prehistorians.
In Britain (and Ireland) we observe that pottery arrives with the Neolithic and as a result we have a proud 6000 year old tradition of ceramic production behind us. OK, it’s earlier on the Continent, but it’s still Neolithic. It is somewhat humbling to realise that ceramics, sometimes quite elaborate, were being made by upper Palaeolithic groups in the far east as early as 15000 years ago. Interestingly, while agriculture cannot be linked to this development, a more sedentary way of life can, both here in Russia and in neighbouring Japan. The theories are familiar; sedentary life style, change in food technology, storage needs etc. Heat transfer is considered to be the most valuable property that ceramics can offer.
The earliest ceramics in the Russian far east are moulded and plaited and basketry impressions resulting from the moulding can be clearly seen on the outer surface of many vessels. These marks are later smoothed out to varying degrees. The pots are open-fired and rarely fired above 600OC. Gradually technology develops through coiling and paddle and anvil manufacture and firing temperatures increase as forms diversify until kilns are introduced in the palaeometal period just as they are in many parts of southern and eastern Europe. Timescales apart, It is all very familiar and reassuring that Russian archaeologists have reached similar, often independent, conclusions to we westerners. Much has a very familiar ring: clays and deliberately added inclusions tend to be local, manufacturing sites may be riverine, various forms constitute an assemblage, quality of surface finish varies considerably, firings are short and economical. The finding of kiln sites at Malaya Podushechka with part of their load still in situ has allowed the identification of the work of individual potters in this region.
The book takes us on a chronological journey through prehistoric ceramics and also (chapter 8) links ceramics to the rich range of containers in other media that have survived in Russian ethnography (birch bark, basketry, weaving patterns etc). This is fascinating stuff and leaves me rather downhearted given the paucity of this material in the British archaeological record. In addition, Dr Zhushchikhovskaya attempts to define socio-economic models in pottery production by quantifying the ‘value’ of prehistoric pottery in terms of the time taken to make vessels and ‘work intensity’. This section is very American-influenced and is perhaps also the weakest part of the work. I find some of her time estimates over-generous. Her claim that it can take an hour to coil a small pot is not justified – there is no quantification – and I personally have seen coiled pots about the size of a melon being constructed in minutes. The role of inclusions is also not fully understood referring to the old oft-quoted mis-truths such as ‘thinners’ and strengthening the clay.
Well-chosen line drawings and photographs illustrate the text though some of these are poorly reproduced and some of the language in the captions is somewhat tortuous. Indeed the language is one of the most annoying parts of the work. Given that the translation is acknowledged to two native English speakers (albeit American) unfortunately, the translators seem to know little about ceramic terminology. Thus opening agents are referred to as ‘fillers’ throughout, kilns are usually called ‘ovens’, slip is ‘plaster’, paddles or spatulae are ‘pressure striking tools’, burnishing is repeatedly ‘smoothing or polishing’ wasters are ‘ceramic artefacts with traces of spoilage as a result of firing’ (p84) and we also have ‘torn away areas of the vessels’ surface layers’ for spalling.
This technically poor translation does gall somewhat but one cannot hold the author responsible. Dr Zhushchikhovskaya has produced an excellent book and a comprehensive study of her subject. Some of her observations on ceramic technology are American-influenced and as suggested above some old mis-truths are still rolled out. Having said this, some of Dr Zhushchikhovskaya’s observations on subjects such as skeuomorphic decoration are poignant. And, for someone who has also devoted some 20 years to ceramic technology, it is reassuring that we have, through the study of very different datasets, reached very similar conclusions.
Review Submitted: May 2006
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