Friday, April 13, 2012

Lots and Lots of Pots


We are just back from a research trip to Italy, in which we were hot on the trail of the Etruscans.

Etruscans?

Why, you may ask, would a medievalist be pursuing a people who flourished two and a half millennia ago?  Never fear, I will attempt to explain, but I need a little more time to pull that post together:  my husband took 1700 photos, and it's taking a while to sort them all out.

Meanwhile, I wanted to confess to a serious flaw in my scholarly endeavors, brought into sharp focus by this trip.

It is this:  I don't do pots.

A pot

Oh, I try.  I understand the importance of pottery in dating and interpreting archaeological finds.  I do appreciate the artistry and skill that have gone into the making of many of them and the stories of trade and commerce they can tell us, and the wealth of information they can provide about life in distant times and places.

I've seen pots that are breathtakingly beautiful, or clearly valuable, or amusing, or whimsical, or pornographic, or all of these at once.  

A duck pot

And I did learn some things.  I saw how the Etruscans valued Greek pottery and then emulated it, with subtle changes.  I saw how thick-walled black bucchero ware eventually replaced thin-walled, and I saw the difference between red- and black-figure painting techniques.

A bucchero pot

But in spite of all that, when I encounter a room in a museum which is filled with nothing but pots, I blanch.  Especially when it's followed by three or four more rooms, also full of pots.

 Another pot

While a better scholar might be absorbing the details of the glaze on a particular type of pottery, I am merely glazing over.  Pots are my own personal scholarly Kryptonite.  I simply cannot look at a case full of the things and see anything but - too many pots.

Yet another pot

And I miss a lot because of it.  The Etruscan pottery we saw on this trip was covered with wonderful mythological stories, deities and heroes, animals both realistic and fantastic, beautiful geometric designs, and so much more.

Pot (with friends)

I can study images of these pots in a book, but when confronted with hundreds of them all at once, I simply can't focus on them.  I want to go look at armor, or jewelry, or go get a coffee.  Maybe two.

Pot (canopic jar, actually)

It's different when they're interspersed with other exhibits.  If I can look at a case and say, "Oh, what a lovely bracelet.  And that comb!  Maybe they both belonged to the same woman who owned that mirror, and who used that strainer to clarify the wine she kept in that pot..." then I'm okay with that.  But when that pot appears with several dozen of its fellows, it's as if I just can't see it anymore.

Why, look - it's a pot

It occurs to me that making that sort of speculative connection is more the job of the historical novelist than the job of the historian, the archaeologist, or the museum curator ("Just the facts, ma'am," as the hardboiled detective used to say in a television show that was popular many years ago).  But I still wish I had more tolerance for the things, for there's so much to be learned from them, and how will I ever make those connections if I can't make myself really look at the pots?

I do believe it's another pot

I've even thought sometimes that it might help if I took up making pottery, but I fear that the whole concept of throwing pots would take on a whole new meaning in my hands.

Even the souvenir stands have lots of pots

I'm not yet writing about the Etruscans, but sooner or later I'm going to have to confront their pots.  After all, they didn't eat out of styrofoam carryout containers, or cook in microwaves.

For now, I guess I just have to admit that I've come up against a limitation.  Fortunately, I have a much greater tolerance for pottery in my main period of interest, but then, there's not so terribly much of it.  I'll say this for the makers of classical pottery - they had no concept of planned obsolescence.  That stuff is here to stay.

 First image:  Museo Guarnacci (Volterra) by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Other images:  personal photos.

2 comments:

Rhonwen y Llysieuyddes said...

Tinney, you have a way with words! And I adore the captions on your (very fascinating to me) pictures. But where are the pictures of naughty pots? Could you not put those pictures in a family blog?

What will future historians think there are too many of from our age? What will survive the test of time to become the artifact that will define the early twenty-first century. Cell phones? I must think on this.

Thank you for a fun blog and a good laugh.

Tinney Heath said...

Thank you! And yes, I admit to limiting myself to G-rated pots for the blog.

You're probably right about the cell phones - or maybe it will just be batteries. How tedious. I think I'd actually prefer pots. (Unless future archaeologists could still access the information stored on the cell phones, of course. Then it could get interesting.)