Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ceramic Sequences

A very useful way to view relationships between archaeological sites is to compare ceramic sequences. Remains of fired clay pottery vessels and adornments are abundant at most excavations in Mesoamerica, both because they were used in large numbers anciently and because they age well even under moist conditions. Because technologies and styles changed over time, the lowly pot shard can tell us a great deal about individual sites and related groups of sites. The following chart shows ceramic sequences from key sites throughout Mesoamerica during preclassic times. As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.
Mesoamerican preclassic ceramic sequences
Not all researchers agree with every one of these time horizons, and a new Ph.D. dissertation could come along that would change the picture slightly for one site, but for now this is a pretty good overview of the Mesoamerican preclassic. Note the sources at the bottom of the spreadsheet. The Uaxactun sequence, originally published by Robert E. Smith in 1955 and re-calibrated since, continues to be the basis for the Mesoamerican timeline definitions of early preclassic, middle preclassic, and late preclassic. In the spreadsheet, ?? means the sequence is not yet well established and ** means the site was in hiatus during that time period. BYU specialists such as Bruce W. Warren (Chiapa de Corzo) and Donald W. Forsyth (Piedras Negras, Nakbe) have been at the forefront of this monumental effort to integrate and synthesize the vast numbers of data points that make up a given sequence.  Robert L. Rands worked on the complex Palenque sequence for most of his career and died in 2010 before it was finally finished. Palenque ceramics are probably the most studied of any in Mesoamerica because researchers there had access to the extraordinary Brookhaven National Laboratories facilities for many years and were able to do neutron activation analysis on tens of thousands of pottery fragments to determine provenance of the base clays, pigments, pastes, etc. It can take decades of patient lab work after the field work ends at a site for a ceramic sequence to finally get published.

So, what do we learn from the sequences shown above?
  • The valley of Oaxaca and the Olmec heartland sites were quite independent, each doing its own thing, so to speak.
  • Kaminaljuyu and Abaj Takalik were very similar.  No surprises there.
  • The southern Maya lowlands and the Maya highlands were on independent tracks. This does not mean there was not a great deal of trade and cultural interchange between the highland and the lowland Maya.  It means the technological and stylistic influences and the time periods were different in the two areas.
  • The southern Maya lowlands, on the other hand, exhibit a great deal of homogeneity.
  • What is a little surprising is how closely the Soconusco (Izapa) and central Chiapas (Chiapa de Corzo) sequences track the cultural evolution in the southern Maya lowlands.
Was there widespread trade in clay, pigments, paste materials, and finished ceramic pieces? Yes. We know that from all the neutron activation work done on Palenque pottery. Because we find a similar pottery style at two different sites during the same time period, does that mean they spoke the same language or saluted the same flag? Definitely not. Future archaeologists may find Apple and Android smartphones at excavations in both Beijing and San Antonio. Pottery similarities between two different sites or regions imply trade and communication, but don't tell us much about religion, politics, or ethnicity. And what is The Book of Mormon mainly about? Religion, politics, and ethnicity. Furthermore, 50 year increments in the timeline for ceramic sequences are not granular enough to help us very much with most Book of Mormon New World correlation questions. This is a thumbnail history of the Nephite nation:
Brief chronology of the Nephites
The change at the preclassic - classic boundary ca. A.D. 200 may be detectable in pan-Mesoamerican ceramic sequences. Other than that, it is difficult to envision a Nephite event or condition showing up in the pottery record. So, any claim that a ceramic relationship between site A and site B supports a particular Book of Mormon geographical correlation is probably an oversimplification.