The adoption of pottery into the New World Arctic

Dates: 
2015-2019

This PhD research project, led by Marjolein Admiraal of the University of Groningen, is focused on the evolution of the function of pottery and stone bowls in Southwest Alaska during the past 9,000 years. The sub-Arctic environment of Southwest Alaska posed many challenges for the manufacture and maintenance of container technologies by prehistoric hunter-gatherers. The manufacture of stone bowls demanded precious time investments. Winter was too cold for the procurement of clay to make pottery, and the short summer season was often too humid for drying clay vessels and fuel shortages complicated the firing of pottery.

Pottery from the Alaska Peninsula However, despite all these difficulties, people in Southwest Alaska still chose to make and use clay and stone vessels. About 9,000 years ago the first container technologies in the western hemisphere appeared in the form of stone bowls on the Aleutian Islands. The function of these vessels has been poorly studied. At around 1,000 BP their use is abandoned, possibly they were replaced by flat cooking (griddle) stones. By about 2,800 BP pottery was introduced in Alaska, originating from Northeast Asia. By 1,000 BP the relatively well-made Norton pottery was replaced by crude-looking pottery of the Thule tradition that eventually also reached Kodiak Island some 500 years ago.

What made these container technologies so important? And what role did container technologies play in the wider process of food procurement and processing? The exact function of vessels in Alaska, in the context of wider subsistence strategies and other food technologies, has seen minimal attention. It seems probable that changes in the manufacture and use of different container technologies were connected to changes in the economy. Possibly an increased focus on marine resources led to the emergence and spread of pottery in Alaska.

Sampling pottery Lipid residue and stable isotope analysis was used as a method to answer the above research questions. It has provided direct evidence for vessel function and this project has contributed to the greater understanding of food technologies in the research area. With around 100 samples from vessels originating from 32 archaeological sites in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago, this is the first large-scale systematic study of organic residues in Alaska.

Results of this research project have been published:
Investigating the function of prehistoric stone bowls and griddle stones in the Aleutian Islands by lipid residue analysis
Leftovers: The presence of manufacture‐derived aquatic lipids in Alaskan pottery
The adoption of pottery on Kodiak Island: Insights from organic residue analysis

About

The project is a collaboration between the University of Groningen, Netherlands and the University of York, UK. It is undertaken by Marjolein Admiraal and supervised by Peter Jordan and Oliver Craig.

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