Ethnoarchaeology of pottery: style and technology boundaries in southeast Botswana

Thebe, Phenyo Churchill
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The notion that ceramic styles mark ethnic and linguistic groups is problematic. The notion perceives cultures as geographically discrete with distinct material and cultural traits. Research in the 1960s has demonstrated that social boundaries are a product of interaction and not isolation. Ethnoarchaeological research in the 1970s and 1980s adopted information exchange and social interaction models to understand stylistic boundaries. These studies show that material culture style does not always mark ethnic or linguistic boundaries and may not be prominent if there is no competition for resources. Depending on a number of factors, style variations in material culture may mark the style of an individual, a community of practice or social identity. Other factors are also relevant; the matter is complex. To investigate this complexity, an ethnoarchaeological study was launched to study the products of 41 contemporary potters affiliated with different social, political and linguistic groups in south-eastern Botswana. This study demonstrates that variations in different parts of the process of manufacturing ceramics can mark different kinds of social boundaries. Clay sourcing strategies in south-eastern Botswana today show that the choice in the selection of potting clay is principally dictated by distance to the source. In contrast, in the forming and shaping of pots, boundaries are influenced more by teacher-learner networks than ethnic group and geographic location. Decoration styles also show strong association to learning networks. Geographic location is more influential in determining techniques of firing pots. Here, ―community of practice‖ and mobility of potters present significant stylistic and technological boundaries. The chaîne opératoire of living pottery traditions may assist in the interpretation of pottery in the Iron Age of southern Africa, however, the connection between the past and present is complex.
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 22 March 2017.
Thebe, Phenyo Churchill (2017) Ethnoarchaeology of pottery: style and technology boundaries in southeast Botswana, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <>