Texas Archaeology Month at the Alamo - Week Two

Tiffany M. Lindley, PhD, RPA, Archaeologist
October 11, 2021

For the second week of Texas Archaeology Month, we would like to shine a light on one of the most abundant artifacts archaeologists find at this site and many others: ceramics.

What are Ceramics?

Ceramic objects are made by creating mixtures, called pastes, of clay, temper, and water and then shaping them into specific forms. Temper is a material added to the clay to aid in the firing process by preventing cracking and shrinkage. Many different non-plastic materials have been used as temper through time, such as crushed animal bone, sand, shell, ash, various types of rock, and even plant fibers. The clay mixture is shaped and left to dry, then hardened through a process called firing, which heats the clay to a very high temperature and removes water from the clay.

There are multiple methods of decorating ceramics. Prior to firing, the ceramic object may be decorated by incising, gouging, or creating impressions on the clay. A very popular decorative technique that occurs before firing is called glazing. Once the ceramic is removed from the kiln, the glaze is glossy and hardened. Other decoration techniques, such as painting, occur after the firing process is complete. Many ceramic objects, especially utilitarian pieces, may remain undecorated.

Ceramics- one of the most common artifacts an archaeologist will find
Ceramic sherd from early Chinese cave site; Source: Science/AAAS; https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1218643

Ceramic objects can come in the form of pottery, figurines, or even toys. The oldest known ceramic object is a female figurine called the Venus of Dolní Věstonice from a site in Czech Republic, which dates to approximately 26,000 years ago. The oldest known pottery vessels come from two cave sites, Xianrendong and Yuchanyan, in southern China and date to approximately 20,000 years ago. Ceramics were completely handmade until the invention of the potter’s wheel. The introduction of the potter’s wheel, sometime between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago, resulted in great changes to ceramics production. The earliest wheel-thrown pottery is traced to Mesopotamia, and the technology quickly spread throughout Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa. However, early cultures in the Americas used non-wheel techniques, such as coiling or pinching, until the arrival of Europeans. Both wheel and non-wheel techniques produced durable vessels that survive, at least in part, today.

What can we learn from ceramics?

Archaeologists can learn a lot from ceramics, and even the smallest sherd (broken piece of pottery) can provide valuable clues. For example, certain paste recipes are linked to specific groups based on availability of resources used to produce the ceramics. Decorations and vessel forms can sometimes be intimately tied to specific geographic areas, time periods, and even to the specific potter or group who made it.

In addition to technological components, archaeologists can also deduce social, economic, or political aspects from ceramic artifacts. Not all members of a culture or society may have had access to all types of ceramics, therefore the presence of certain pottery can highlight social or economic differences. Additionally, specific pottery vessels, sometimes decorated or shaped in a certain way, have been associated with various political activities of the past. For example, a feast with special serving ware may be held in honor of the arrival of a foreign dignitary or a gift in the form of a beautifully decorated cup may be given to a political ally. While we may not think of a ceramic cup as a very thoughtful gift today, remember in the past this would have been a significant and symbolic gesture.

Ceramics at the Alamo

Like other sites, there is an abundance of ceramic artifacts at the Alamo. Archaeologists have been able to use information gained from the ceramics to add to the knowledge of the site.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous peoples living in what is now Texas produced unglazed ceramics with bone and/or sand temper. Ceramics were sometimes decorated with incised and impressed patterns. In Central and South Texas, the ceramics manufactured by Indigenous groups first appeared around AD 1250.

One native ceramic type called Goliad Ware is commonly found in Spanish missions and presidios throughout Central and South Texas. There are two defining characteristics of Goliad Ware: 1) it’s context within a Spanish Colonial mission or presidio- ceramics that have the same physical characteristics but are found outside of a Spanish Colonial context are referred to as Leon Plain- and 2) the crushed bone used as a tempering agent. The vessels were handmade, typically using the coiling technique. Archaeological excavations at the Alamo have revealed many sherds of Goliad Ware.

Goliad sherds from Alamo excavations

One of the oldest known ceramic types encountered by archaeologists at the Alamo is called Puebla Polychrome. This pottery type was produced in Puebla, Mexico, which inspired its name. Puebla Polychrome has also been recorded in Florida, Alabama, and at later sites in California. In Texas, Puebla Polychrome has been recovered from early Spanish Colonial sites. This pottery has a probable date range of AD 1650-1725. It is characterized by its white or off-white background with painted blue and black designs. The painted decorations are scrolls, curvilinear, or linear motifs, typically resembling a lace or cobweb pattern.

Puebla Polychrome sherds from Alamo excavations