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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis
The sherd yard
Checking out the sherd's arc
Kyle putting the finishing touches on his drawing
Kyle and his finished drawing.
The drawing

All photos courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition unless otherwise noted. Click on images for larger versions.
by Kyle Mullen

2007 Field Note 4 - All Drawn Out!


Examining sherds in the sherd yard to determine the fabric and the original shape

Any excavation at Hierakonpolis would not be complete without collecting bucket after bucket of ceramic sherds. At parts of the site the ceramic pieces are so abundant you literally cannot take a step without stepping on a few or even several. What do we do with all of these collected broken ceramics? We draw them and by doing so we can re-create the pottery vessel from which they originated.

Before we can draw the pottery we must first sort the collected fragments and distinguish exactly which sherds are important enough to draw. It is unrealistic to try to draw every sherd we collect, but most people are surprised to learn just how much information can be gained just by looking at a particular sherd with a trained eye. Pottery is our best guide for determining the relative date of the occupation at a particular location within the vast site of Hierakonpolis and the types of vessels can also tell us something about the activities taking place there, or the function of the locality.

We use our "sherd yard" to receive every sherd that is collected from the site being excavated. There, the ceramicist sorts through all the broken pieces of pottery and organizes them according to fabric, that is, what the pottery was made of, be it fine Nile silt that was coated with red ocher and then polished (used as table ware or the "fine china") or silts that were tempered with chopped straw creating a "rough" finish when fired (used to create the cooking pots and other functional vessels). The fragments are then sorted as to their original place on a ceramic vessel--rim, base, or body sherd. Some of the rims and bases that have not been too wind worn over the years are brought back to the lab for further analysis, which includes drawing.

Drawing sherds is a complicated process that, I have been told, becomes second nature over time. Our ceramicist and pot-drawing expert, Jane Smythe, compared this process to learning how to drive a stick-shift car. At first its tough and you make a lot of mistakes, but as you practice more and more the smoother things become and soon you are drawing sherds without even thinking about it. But you must remember that you never drink and draw!!!

To draw a sherd accurately so that it will be a useful record for future analysis and study requires quite a few steps. The steps are the same for both rims and bases. First, we start by identifying the stance at which the sherd "sits." For bases, it is pretty easy, as the pot sits on its base. For rims it is more difficult and is based on the assumption that the rim, or the top of the pot, was level along a horizontal plane. As pottery in the Predynastic period was all made by hand, this is a big assumption, but we do the best we can. To determine the stance of a rim, we turn it upside down, and literally get on our knees to get level with the sherd as we move the rim back and forth on the table until we see no light shining through underneath. This is the sherd's stance, and this gives us the angle of the original pot's wall.


Finding the height


The profile comb in action


Measuring sherd thickness


Tracing the sherd on scratch paper

Once we have the stance, we place the rim on a chart to determine the arc or curvature of the sherd. The degree of the arc on the sherd will tell us the overall diameter of the rim or base of the vessel that the sherd came from.

Next we keep the sherd in its stance and measure its height.

Now it starts to get tough. We then trace the section of the sherd, interior, exterior, rim, and broken edge, onto a scratch piece of paper. To help us identify the little nooks and crannies that the naked eye cannot see we use an instrument called a "profile comb" that, when removed after being pressed against the sherd, keeps an accurate impression of it. This instrument can pick up the very subtle differences in two seemingly identical pieces of pottery. It gives the artist much more information to trace with than just using one's eye.

We then measure the thickness of the sherd to make sure we do not draw it too thick or thin.

After it has been drawn on scratch paper we are ready to trace it on to our final drawing.

We take the information that we recorded in the beginning--rim diameter and height--to act as a guideline for our final drawing. We line up our drawing in the correct stance and trace it in. We then measure out the diameter of the original vessel on our paper, and at the other end of this line create a mirror image of the sherd, but trace out only the sherd's exterior outline. Now, we have the fully traced sherd on the right side of the paper and the exterior half on the left. The distance between the two drawn rims will be the actual diameter of vessel. To finalize our drawings we look at the actual sherd and make note if there are any straw markings from temper, polishing marks, finger lines from the potter, or any other marks on the sherd. We then add anything we see to our final paper, exterior markings on the left side and interior markings on the right.

So why should we bother tracing these sherds onto paper down to the millimeter? Well, when you make an accurate representation of a sherd onto a piece of paper a trained eye can see a lot. Putting these sherds on paper shows the stance and therefore what these vessels once looked like. As a collection of sherd drawings grows, differences in rim styles for different vessels become apparent. The style of rim or base can tell us about the function of the vessel (e.g., whether the vessel was used for everyday life or special occasions), the amount of time and effort that went into making the vessel, and if that particular vessel was of good quality or if it was poorly made, and in what period it was made.

As a student, Hierakonpolis was my first experience of drawing sherds. It was one of the more frustrating experiences I have encountered as a student archaeologist. Time and time again I failed as I tried to draw my first sherd all by myself. One time I would measure the arc incorrectly, another time the height would be slightly off, but most often I would forget the correct stance of my sherd as I drew it on the paper. This would happen because I was so focused on tracing every crevice of the sherd correctly that the most basic principle would escape my mind. The more I failed the more I got frustrated, believing that I would never be able to draw even the most basic sherd without my instructor's help. But the day finally came when all the experience I had gained from failure came together and I finally completed my first one. It took me such a long time as I double and triple checked every corner of sherd. But now that I have it down, I know that with more practice the quicker it will become, and soon, I may be able to do it (almost) with my eyes closed.

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