Introducing Tracing the Potter’s Wheel / De Geheimen van het Pottenbakkerswiel
Have you ever wandered through a museum gallery and wondered how exactly archaeologists learned how an object was made? Or how they know for certain where it comes from? The exhibition “De Geheimen van het Pottenbakkerswiel / Tracing the Potter’s Wheel” was put together to answer just these sorts of questions. This exhibit offers the public some insights into how archaeologists approach their research and traces a new path of discovery for the audience of the archaeological museum.
Tracing the Potter’s Wheel is presented by a research project of the same name (Tracing the Potter’s Wheel, funded by NWO), concerned with looking into the potting techniques practiced across the Aegean during the Bronze Age. One of the most consistent findings of theirs – and their colleagues’ – is that when the potter’s wheel was first used, potters adopted combination techniques which blended coil building by hand and rotational shaping using the wheel to make their pottery; this was not a time when potters were wheel throwing. This is an important difference to identify, and it created an exciting opportunity for TPW and the Allard Pierson to lift the curtains on the mechanics of research archaeology. The curated displays each show a different perspective on how archaeologists tackle the question: How do you reconstruct potting techniques when the wheel was a new innovation in pottery production? The whole process can be broken into three phases: examination, analysis, and interpretation.
How do archaeologists look at objects? What are they looking for? In the exhibit, visitors are invited to look closer at reproduction and experimental pottery to learn what kinds of evidence the TPW archaeologists sought. The focus in each case is sharing how to identify traces related to potting techniques.
Inside the ArcheoHotspot, visitors can get started with a selection of 3D printed reproductions which show how specific traces manifest on ancient pots, and each has a QR code so that they can view the 3D model on SketchFab (all of those models are available here ). Alongside these are fragments of experimental pottery, a chance to see traces on real objects rather than reproductions, a bit more of a challenge. To make getting to grips with identification easier, a nearby display presents an array of white experimental pots. Visitors can shine the provided UV-light flashlights on the pots to expose UV-sensitive ink which marks out the location and shape of forming traces. By comparing the UV ink against what they can see under natural light, visitors can get a bit of trace identification practice. Elsewhere in the Allard Pierson’s galleries, the TPW team scanned and 3D printed a selection of pots from the display cabinets and visitors are encouraged to handle the reproductions and look for evidence of how they were made. These are also available as 3D models to view on TPW’s SketchFab.
Overall, the in-museum visit is mirrored in the digital exhibit’s ‘Trace Explorer’ mini game. The game has a narrative element, and players are tasked with studying seven pots and identifying the traces that each one presents. Players can refer to an in-game glossary which illustrates how to recognize the different traces while also explaining what causes the traces. If they struggle with identification, players also have the option to activate a UV-effect filter, which highlights the location of forming traces on the sample surface just as in the ArcheoHotspot display. Each sample can be rotated to simulate handling an object in person, and after assessing each pot a report is created, submitted, and assessed.
Taken together, the in-person and the digital exhibit displays grant visitors a chance to get to grips with material in a way that is most often reserved for students of archaeology making their first research trips to museum collections or archaeological sites.
Once they’ve begun to understand what they’re looking at, an archaeologist must progress beyond just examination and analyze the material that they are studying. What are the techniques of analysis, though? Two of the ArcheoHotspot displays walk visitors through specific types of analysis.
A digital microscope invites visitors to interrogate what exactly pottery samples were made from. They must select a sample, place it under the microscope, and test themselves in identifying whether the sample was made with organic temper, sand temper, or something else entirely. A short accompanying video illustrates the connection that exists between a pot’s constituent raw materials and the wider landscape that the potter existed in. What is more, they can begin to identify where choice exists in the pottery production process, choices which lead to a unique technical profile for a potter.
The digital exhibit’s game “Inside the Pot” expands on this physical display. Players are invited again to step into the role of the archaeologist, this time given the task of ceramic petrographer who must identify from which island each of five samples originated. They are guided through the questions a petrographer must ask themselves, and then asked to select an origin for each sample based on a comparison of the origin’s characteristics and the characteristics that they recorded. Once the samples are all studied, players are then given insight into how archaeologists use these analyses for interpretation.
A second display within the ArcheoHotspot presents a common conundrum confronting archaeologists: What is this? Ceramic objects from the Allard Pierson’s storerooms are accompanied by one or two modern items which are possible matches. Visitors are given the opportunity to carefully analyze the attributes of these ancient objects and draw conclusions about whether the archaeologists’ assessment matches their own expectations. The digital exhibit “Ceramic Match” turns this into an interactive matching game. Players are presented with the ancient object and a typical room in a modern house with a selection of common objects placed throughout. They are tasked with finding the modern match of the ancient object within the room, and are given three text hints to help with identification.
Though analysis follows closely behind examination, the two discrete displays within the theme offer visitors and players alike the opportunity to explore the interplay between these stages of archaeological research. It is from this foundation of examination and analysis that they might progress to interpretation.
What do archaeologists do with the information that they’ve gained with examination and analysis? The interpretive displays illustrate just this. In many ways, the previous displays have been preparation for this section – here the fundamental concepts of the research process are made explicit, but it is often not easy to translate key concepts into a physical and practical display. It is evident here that the integration of physical and digital exhibition is essential in the design of clear and interactive content and communication.
The ArcheoHotspot features a scale replica of how a Minoan type of potter’s wheel might have been constructed, based on architectural features and recovered components. Within the exhibit space visitors will also find replicas of individual parts of wheel devices so that they can handle them and test their own theories of how they fit together into a complete device. Visitors are encouraged to rotate the replica wheel to form opinions on aspects of its functionality, and to challenge their own perceptions of what constitutes a ‘usable’ wheel. The digital exhibit’s game “Wheel Builder” offers somewhat more flexibility in reconstruction, inviting players to imagine themselves as a Minoan potter building a wheel device from the ground up. Along the way, they are given insights into what materials might have been difficult to procure at the time, and what considerations a Minoan potter might have had. Once they have created a wheel from the range of parts that archaeologists have recovered (or theorized existence of) players have the opportunity to explore what evidence exists for each of the parts of the devices. They can discover how well-supported their device is via the archaeological evidence.
The potting process as a whole is also treated with both an ArcheoHotspot display and a digital exhibit game, called “Pot Maker”. In this case, the game offers a more dynamic experience for the participant; the ArcheoHotspot display consists of an informational panel describing the potting process step-by-step. Throughout, the potting process is illustrated as a flexible, adaptive, and culturally-specific set of choices. The digital exhibit’s game invites players to step into the role of the potter by asking them to make decisions at each step of the production process. They can gain experience selecting and mixing clay, forming, and firing a pot, and discover the repercussions of poor decisions and bad luck if their pot fails.
Interpretation remains one of the most fraught aspects of archaeological research, and specialists often disagree with one another despite studying the same evidence. The displays on this theme accommodate this characteristic while also encouraging participants to examine the steps they’ve taken toward their own interpretations.
This exhibit shows the many angles that the archaeologists of the Tracing the Potter’s Wheel Project took as they sought to identify and define how the potter’s wheel spread across the Aegean during the Bronze Age. Instead of just sharing results, however, the exhibit shares the process of research.
De geheimen van het pottenbakkerswiel / Tracing the Potter’s Wheel is open to the public at the ArcheoHotspot in Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum from 1 October – 6 November 2022. The digital exhibit is available on a long-term basis here at immersive-heritage.com.
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