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Ancient clay pots mystery may be solved

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Dr Michael Copper, from the University of Bradford's School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, pictured at an archaeological dig site

‘Dung and Dusted’ project aims to answer burning question

Archaeologists say finding out how our ancestors first made clay pots could help us discover more about other aspects of their lifestyles.

A new study, Dung and Dusted, aims to do just that, specifically by examining whether sheep dung could have been used to fire pots before the widespread use of kilns.

Dr Michael Copper, from the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Bradford, said the study could lead to a greater understanding of how different societies were organised.

“Despite considerable advances in our knowledge of how ancient pots were made and used, archaeologists still know remarkably little about how prehistoric pottery was fired before the introduction of the potter’s kiln, including what fuels were used.

“One abundant and freely available fuel source in prehistory would have been animal dung. Could it then have been the case that dried dung was used to fire pottery in prehistoric Britain and Ireland?”

The project, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is planned for six months and will undertake a series of firings of hand-built replica prehistoric pots using sheep dung and other fuels. The pots and firing sites will then be analysed to see whether residues left behind can be matched to ancient pottery or can be used to help archaeologists identify dung firing on ancient sites.

Dr Copper said: “In terms of why it is significant, experimental projects such as this provide an important way for archaeologists to understand how prehistoric people went about tasks such as pot firing using materials and techniques with which we are no longer familiar.

“Pottery is one of the most important finds made on archaeological excavations. Its varied forms help us to date sites and analysis of burnt food residues can tell us about what the inhabitants ate. If we find that animal dung was used to fire the pots then it could be that people were managing animals with one eye on using dung as a product.

“The project is significant not only for our understanding of how prehistoric pots were being made and the implications this has for ancient economic practices, but also because variations in technological practice, such as fuel choice, often pass from older to younger generations within the same community, meaning they can tell us a great deal about the social identities of the potters.”

The project team will include Dr Mike Copper, a specialist in prehistoric pottery and ancient ceramic technology, Dr Cathy Batt, an expert in magnetic studies with extensive experience of investigating ancient firing sites, and Dr Gregg Griffin, whose recent PhD looked at ways to identify fuels from residues discovered on archaeological excavations. The project’s full title is: Dung and Dusted: Was sheep dung used to fire prehistoric pottery in Europe? An experimental approach.

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