Globular Jar

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Ronald L. Bishop, Ph.D.

Ronald Bishop uses a special drill bit to extract a small amount of paste from a ceramic vessel

Courtesy of Dr. Ronald L. Bishop

Dr. Ronald L. Bishop is an archaeologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and has excavated in California and at several locations in Mexico and Central America. Most of his time, however, is spent in a nuclear chemistry laboratory where he analyzes archaeological materials, especially pottery, for “matches” among the chemical patterns, much like fingerprints, to determine where the raw materials were acquired and how finished objects were moved among different social groups or sites. He has spent 40 years analyzing ceramics and jade from Mesoamerica (especially Maya), Lower Central America, the greater U.S. Southwest, and more recently, Hispanic and Mexican Colonial pottery in California, Texas, and Mexico. He works predominately with ceramic materials as these can be studied for their form, design, composition, and construction techniques that allow one to ask questions about different aspects of how they were made and used. He found his particular specialty, using nuclear chemistry to determine trading patterns, by being in the right place at the right time. Because of his undergraduate course work in chemistry as well as in archaeology, he received an invitation to be trained in the use of nuclear techniques of analysis at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Thus he spent a year at a nuclear research laboratory before returning to Southern Illinois to complete his doctoral course work.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Chiriqu¡ Pottery from Panama
A116580-0, Department of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

Prehistoric People of Lower Central America

Over the past 14,000 years, many groups of people have inhabited the area known as Central America. Earliest human activity appears around 11,200 B.C. and is scattered throughout Costa Rica and Panama, specifically the Providence of Chiriqui. The most well-known site is that of Barriles or Sitio Barriles, which was occupied from 4600 B.C. through A.D. 1500. There were four main periods of occupation, each with its own distinctive cultural markers: The Tropical Forest Archaic period known for its rock shelters; the Concepcion Phase which marked the emergence of ceramics; the Aguas Buenas, which had the highest and most highly organized occupation; and finally the Chiriqui phase which provides evidence of a social reorganization. During this period, these people used stone tools, developed farming techniques for maize (corn), and used pottery with intricate designs. Although not as well-known as other sites and cultures of Central and South America, the early societies of this area can teach researchers a great deal about how society developed and cultures evolved.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

Smithsonian Archaeologists in the Field
Courtesy of William W. Fitzhugh


How Archaeologists Use Pottery to Learn About Cultures

Archaeologists and researchers use the broken pieces of pottery or ceramics ("sherds") that they find during their search for and excavation of ancient settlements to learn many things about the people who once lived there. These pieces of pottery can provide clues about the age of the settlement that lies buried below the surface and the types of activities that took place there. Just by looking at the sherd, archaeologists can often recognize the size, shape, and date of the vessel based on the sherd's shape, the material used to temper the vessel, and the designs incised into or painted onto its surface. The date of the vessel will also apply to the settlement underneath the surface. Ancient societies changed the shape of their pottery vessels and their designs over time, sometimes quite rapidly, and archaeologists have been able to develop "ceramic chronologies" for different regions of the world. They do this by excavating and dating (using carbon-14 or other methods) ancient settlements of different ages and determining what the pottery of different time periods looked like.

Researchers take detailed notes about objects found during their excavations
Courtesy of Stephen Loring, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH

Practicing Archaeology

The discipline of archaeology has changed dramatically since the time when average people were searching for strange or exotic objects. Today's archaeologists carefully excavate sites by recording the context and stratigraphic relationship of the objects they recover. Archaeologists are careful to take detailed notes during the entire process. When people continue to live in the same location for a long period of time, they build on the remains of those who lived there before, thus creating layers of remains that can be studied to learn how people lived and how they interacted with other groups. Excavation, however, is only part of the process of archaeology. Today the archaeologist may use techniques of the chemical or physical sciences to study materials used in the past and to determine where they were made and if they were brought into a site from somewhere else. Another approach is that of experimental archaeology where archaeologists attempt to recreate the objects of the past to understand the process by which the objects were made. Examples of experimental archaeology might be making tools (e.g., flintknapping) or by attempting to recreate some special type of pottery.