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“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.

Ceramic wasters in the Archaeological Museum at Siracusa on Sicily.

Ceramic wasters of various dates in the Archaeological Museum at Siracusa, ancient Syracuse on Sicily.

I don’t know what’s worse: the title of this post, or the dreadful image accompanying it.

So, this short post is about wasters.

In my student days in Dublin, that term described a person not worth investing your time in or not much good, so I often heard phrases like “ah, don’t bother with him – he’s a complete waster”, or “…so you’re not a total waster after all.” – which actually passed for a compliment. By no means would I cast aspersions of bad character upon the inhabitants of ancient Syracuse in Sicily, nor on their descendants in modern Siracusa. That’s not the kind of waster I’m referring to at all.

Back to the image: unless you’re specialised in the study of ancient pottery production (or maintain a strong interest in that topic), you’ve probably not seen – or at least not noted – objects such as the ones shown here. And yet, they’re not exactly uncommon – they just rarely make the grade to be included in a museum display. And that’s only because they don’t tend to be pretty – what they do tend to be instead is highly informative.

So, what are these wasters after all? They are – quite simply – pieces of pottery that “went wrong” during firing (in this case in Syracuse).

A Hellenistic pottery kiln in Morgantina on Sicily

Where it all happened – or went wrong: a Hellenistic pottery kiln in Morgantina on Sicily. What’s visible in our image is the firing chamber, its dome lost, separated by a pierced clay floor from the furnace below, which was fed and stoked through the stone-lined shaft visible behind.

The firing or baking of pottery vessels is the most sensitive stage in their production, as it takes place within a super-hot kiln, rendering the actual process mostly invisible to the potter and making any corrective intervention virtually impossible. The more ambitious the potter, the more can go wrong: for example, vessels can collapse or deform due to bad clay composition or uneven heating, or they can merge with other vessels in the kiln due to bad spacing or stacking. In cases where the firing also aims to achieve striking results regarding surface colour (as is famously the case for Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases), the carefully timed oxidation necessary for such effects could be mistimed or badly dosed, leading to discoloured, spoilt vessels.

As is so often the case in archaeology, what was bad luck for the ancient craftsmen is good fortune for us. Wasters, such as the ones shown here, are a sure indicator of ancient pottery production sites: since wasters are entirely useless, they were usually discarded on the spot. Thus: where there’s wasters there will be a kiln and vice versa.

Misfired Roman oil lamps from Ephesus on display in the British Museum

A stack of misfired Roman oil lamps – discoloured and merged – from Ephesus, now on display in the British Museum. (Image by Wikimedia Commons user Marie-Lan Nguyen).

What all those mishaps have in common is that they cannot be fixed. Clay may be a wonderfully versatile material before firing – afterwards, it becomes one of the least flexible, most durable and least recyclable substances in our man-made world. A badly-cast piece of metalwork can be melted and recast, an unsuccessful painting can be erased, even stone sculpture can often (not always) be fixed or amended – not so for pottery. For the potter, that means he has to throw away the misfired pieces, salvaging any that can be used, and have a new go at shaping, painting and baking the next lot – a major investment in time, effort and material was lost. Not surprisingly, ancient potters believed in malicious spirits trying to mess up their production, they even sacrificed to them to lessen their malice!

Most commendably, the Archaeological Museum of Siracusa has a display about pottery production in the ancient city, a major hub of commerce in the ancient Mediterranean. It includes the wasters shown here, found in various parts of the city, dated between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC and throwing a sharp light on that great city’s craft production.

6th century BC Corinthian clay plaque depicting a potter tending a kiln in the Louvre

Let’s hope nothing goes wrong! – a 6th century BC Corinthian clay plaque depicting a potter tending a kiln. Louvre, Paris.

Beyond that, wasters can teach us about what vessels were being produced where, what vase shapes were made or at least fired together and are thus not only contemporary with one another, but most likely products of the same workshop. The implications are enormous: economy, technology transfer, exploitation of local resources, supply and demand – you name it! Therefore, as archaeologists, we want wasters – the more the better.

You cannot see pottery wasters on many of our tours, although you can be certain that they were found on many of the sites we visit, Examples on display can be found in Syracuse, on our Sicily tours, but also on Exploring Athens. In both cases, they are just a sidelight, a tiny detail illustrating a grand narrative of ancient human effort – their individual failure just highlights a much greater achievement!

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