Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Pots: Actual Bleddy Pots!

Well, last week was pretty exciting on this 'ere blog. Due to a bit of shameless self-promotion, some of the great and good of the Twitterati kindly tweeted links to the blog and some lovely feedback too. If you are reading this this week, thank you so much! I tried to thank everyone individually on Twitter, but if I failed, or if you looked at this blog to check out my Richard III piece and are back for more, then THANK YOU VERY MUCH! This post was always going to struggle to be as exciting as last week, however...

Fun as dissecting TV archaeology is, it isn't actually what I do day to day. I did say when I started this blog that "Pots" type posts were meant to be about daily life. So, I thought I'd write about what more or less is the crux of my daily existence- my research on Etruscan pottery. Please don't stop reading. Pottery has a bad, bad reputation that it doesn't deserve. OK, grotty nasty British pottery does. Sometimes. And finding endless sherds of poorly made eroded yuk when digging isn't exactly an advert for the glamour of ceramics. Five years ago, I too would have turned off at the mere mention of a pot. Back then, they were for people who liked petrographic analysis (cutting pots into slivers to examine their chemical composition....not my thing). But it turns out that pots are a lot like men (or women, whichever you want to use in this metaphor). You can swear off them all you like, but it will turn out that there'll be one that's just right for you. For me, it was Etruscan bucchero pottery. You can see me grinning in the picture like a loon in the Athens Archaeological Museum next to their sole case of bucchero- never mind the marble sculptures, I want black shiny Italian pots. This is on my honeymoon as well, just so you know how crazy I am about these pots. There are some other very nice Etruscan things in the case too- a Villanovan hut urn and Chiusine canopic urn, both for cremation burials. But back to the bucchero: the black colour is produced by a careful process of firing- heating the pots so that they set. By controlling the amount of oxygen, and burnishing the clay, you could recreate the shiny, luscious effect of bronze in (much cheaper) clay.

I don't really want to talk too much about bucchero, although it's great. I want to talk about pots themselves- what do we do with them? And what are they for? These are two really basic questions that drive my research on some particularly elaborately decorated Etruscan pottery. One of the things I'm really interested in is how pots themselves shape and twist your body into certain positions in order to use them. Usually, it's your hand, arm and mouth that get involved, with fingers put in all sorts of places. The pots, the inanimate objects, have the agency and power to enforce your usage of them in a particular way. Well, to strongly encourage you to use them in a specific way- the endorsement of that method by your social group does the rest. To illustrate this, I gathered together a gang of modern day pots (including glasses) and had a play around with what they made my body do.

The first two were quite easy. They were both made of glass- a small water glass and a pint glass. You'll have to excuse my continued vapid expression in all these pictures. The small glass only required me to wrap a single hand around it, and no thought at all to control the flow of liquid. The larger glass was heavier and more difficult to use, but still easily controllable with one hand. I'd imagine that a large pint glass would be very tough for a child to use- requiring the use of both hands and a technique to control the outflow of liquid into the mouth.

The next two pots were a bit more demanding, although still both made of glass. The first one was a tankard with a strongly formed handle. You couldn't really pick it up without coming up against the handle in some way. The most natural way of using the vessel felt like putting all my fingers into the handle space and wrapping my thumb around around the body of the vessel. Lifting the glass like this required my whole arm to move in an almost straight line, rather than just bend at the lower arm- a completely different motion from the first two glasses. It's interesting- I don't like using these glasses, but  my husband loves them and will choose them ahead of any other type of container in the cupboard. The second glass I tried is a bit of a funny one- it's meant to be a wine glass, but is wider and has a low foot. It demands (from me anyway) a twist in the hand. My ring finger and little finger are focused on the stem and base, while the two fore fingers and thumb wrap around the bowl. It looks convoluted in the picture, and I suppose I could just pick it up by wrapping my fingers all the way around the bowl- but that just doesn't feel secure, it doesn't feel right. Whether that comes from the pot or from me, I don't know.

The final pair of pots were actually made of clay- two different types of mug, which are really the only type of drinking vessel that's made of clay that I could find in the house. The first one is a posh wedding present mug- it keeps the large volume of a vessel designed to deliver lots of liquid, but tries to show off with a handle which is actually pretty demanding. The handle is just too small for me to put all my fingers through- and I don't have big hands. My little finger is forced out, poking into the air or clinging to the body of the mug. When the mug is full, I can't really lift the mug with one hand comfortably- there's pressure on my index finger, which, particularly when the contents are hot, is not very pleasant. The second mug is my favourite of all the vessels I tried- it's huge, fits loads of liquid, and has a handle which is much larger and more comfortable to use. However- the handle is still a little small for my hands, and it is still easier to use two hands and cup the vessel.

The pots that I played with were all pretty relaxed in their demands on my hands, although a couple certainly pointed to particular ways of holding. If you compare these to a Victorian teacup, or an Attic Black Figure Kylix, a style of drinking vessel used in Etruria, you can see just how lazy my pots are.

Image from bettyannharris.blogspot.com

Image via wikimedia commons

This process of playing around with pots has been fun- but it's serious too! Objects structure our lives in all sorts of different ways- this computer controls how I use it, my chair controls how I sit on it! I'd love to know what you think about objects as active agents in modern and past lives.

Disclaimer: this approach is entirely phenomenological- based on experience and perception. I'm going to post in more detail about this style of approach in the future- it certainly isn't perfect. 

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What do you think? I'd love to hear what's in your head.