Pottery shards are pieces of pottery that have broken apart. The designs on the shard, whether it is glazed, and what the shard is made of are all things that help identify the time, place and artist of the pot. While it may seem like most pottery shards come from Indian tribes in the southwestern area of the United States, shards are actually found throughout the country. Researchers can use the shard to tell how old it is and possibly who made it.

Look closely at the material of the shard. Knowing the color of the clay used will help to determine the age of the shard, as well as the name of the people who made it. Some clays completely change color when they are hardened (fired). If many shards are in the same general location, then chances are the artisan was local to the area. If the shard does not match anything else, it could be from pottery that was traded to someone local and is from far away.

Feel the shard by running fingers up and down each side. Shards will be of varying thicknesses. This is because Indian potters didn't use potters wheels. The coiled rope method of making pots was common, as was using a woven basket to create the pot shape. Even though the coils were covered with more clay, the outline of the coils is usually still apparent by feeling, and in some cases, sight. Pots made from lining baskets with clay have a distinctive texture to the outside of the shard. Indentations left from fibers and woven basket designs show up on some shards.

Examine the decoration on the outside of the shard. Look for designs in different colors and if there was a glaze used. These things tell that the pot was made when there was time for artistry. If a culture was too busy just staying alive, the people would not have time to decorate pottery, it would be left utilitarian. Decorated pots are a sign of a more advanced culture. This is also true of glazing, as glazes were made of locally available products, plant or animal. Figuring out what works for a glaze would take considerable time, and is another indication of an advanced society.

Compare the shards to ones known to exist from the area. Many local historical societies have pottery and pottery shard collections. They have also done much of the research needed to positively identify similar shards. If the shard does not match any others, go to a local university. Chances are it will have people in the anthropology department that can help to identify the shards. They are also likely to be able to identify shards that are from far away.

Tip

  • The Internet is another valuable resource for identifying pot shards. You can find collections online that aren't on display at the museums or universities that own them.