Anthropology 1010 Lab: Uncovering the Past Through Making

by Ceramics

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to just do it. On November 17 and 18, more than 100 Anthropology students discovered the OFA Ceramics Program through a "just do it" hands-on lab about the ceramic-making process. Research and art came together as students spent the day immersed in clay while discussing the technologies behind ceramic artifacts including clay bodies, firing methods and forming techniques. The undergraduate course Anthropology 1010 offers an introduction to the practice of archaeology and explores major themes of the human past, seeking an understanding of early civilizations. The lab, which has become a popular aspect of the class, enriches the curriculum by showing how the sherds (pottery fragments) students find and study are actually made.

Students were split into groups and rotated through six stations, each exploring the ceramic-making process through formulation and chemistry, sherds and clues to making, paddling (Peruvian technique), throwing on the wheel, hand building, and surface decoration.

With their black aprons securely tied, students eagerly began working with the materials. After a quick demonstration at the throwing station led by instructor Wayne Fuerst, students were each armed with a ball of clay, sat at a wheel and let loose. Assistance was readily on hand, but the speed and exhilaration of throwing on the wheel quickly propelled the process which resulted in interestingly shaped bowls and cups.

At the Formulation and Chemistry station led by instructor Kathy King, students were asked to be imaginative, creating their own unique body of clay from an array of natural materials before adding traditional tempers (or fillers) such as straw, eggshells or sand. The freedom of choice and experimentation led to excited indecisiveness and a vast range of results from shapeless slips to crumbling ruins. The discussion of the clay composition was designed around the idea that early settlers would have had to identify their source of materials in order to ensure that they would have bricks and so forth to build a community. When one student produced a near watery mud, he explained, "I think we need to move if we use my clay."

At other stations, students worked to identify ceramic sherds, tried their hand at a traditional Peruvian paddling technique, explored surface treatments through slips and carving, and built vessels using basic slabs and coils. After two hours of total clay immersion, students signed their work and washed the clay from their hands. One student, happily engaged on the wheel, remained and asked if he could stay through his lunch break.

The hope is that when students are back in the classroom or on a dig site, they not only appreciate the art and practice of what they are studying but are aided in their understanding of the how it was made and why. Harvard President Drew Faust, invited to observe the lab, watched students engage in the creating process while also learning about the materials herself. "This is a perfect example of the way the arts can meld into the undergraduate curriculum and serve as an important teaching tool for the big questions that archaeology and anthropology pose," Faust said in the Harvard Gazette.


[Caption: Wheel Throwing Station led by Wayne Fuerst]

[Caption: Harvard President Drew Faust watches students at the Paddling Station. ]