Where Ceramics and Harvard Classes Meet

by Minji Kim

Last week, I audited Anthropology 1010: The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods & Reasoning, basically an introductory course to Anthropology. But no, I didn’t take my notebook or my laptop; all I needed were my hands and five pounds of white earthenware clay to pound into shape. At the ceramics studio, 136 Anthro students ventured into the ceramics studio for a special hands-on field day organized by their instructors and the Harvard Ceramics Program staff.

The students split into groups, assigned to each of the eight stations, which focused on a different aspect of claymaking—coil and slab building, paddling, wheel-throwing, carving, and even a tutorial on cylinder seals. By working with the clay themselves, the students were able to gain an intimate sense of the process behind the objects they were studying. Because clay is an ancient art, getting literally in touch with the various methods, and thus being able to identify them, proves useful when uncovering the history of human civilization.

The activities, timed to be ten minutes each, were framed by more educational lectures. At these stations, staff members taught students about the science of glazing, firing transformation, and morphology analysis—how to examine shards of pottery to determine by which process the pot was made. Of course, staying true to the fact that this is a Harvard course, each group was quizzed (lightly) at the end.

Seeing my peers smeared in clay dust and smiling amusedly and running from one station to the next when "Time’s up!" was much like observing excited kids at an arts and crafts fair. That is, to say, I could tell they deeply enjoyed themselves, and I’m certain that it was a painlessly enlightening activity for them. If only every Harvard lecture could be as lively and fun as this two-hour experience.

Photos courtesy Shawn Panepinto.