Featured Artifacts: Ceramics in Latin American Archaeology

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Ceramic (or pottery) objects are among the most common types of artifacts found on prehistoric archaeological sites in Latin America. Pottery was used to make an enormous variety of things in the past, from plain household pots to elaborate ceremonial vessels, and everything in between. Ceramicsare made from clay mixed with various kinds of inclusions, such as sand or shells, and water. These combinations create a material that can be formed into almost any shape a potter can imagine. Once the pot is formed, it is dried and then fired in an open-pit fire or kiln to create a hard and durable vessel. The earliest ceramics in Latin America have been found in northern South America, in what is now Colombia and Ecuador. Nicely decorated ceramics were excavated from the site of San Jacinto in northern Colombia and have been dated to about 4500 BC. Slightly later ceramics are known from coastal Ecuador belonging to the Valdivia culture, dating to about 3200 BC. Ceramics showed up much later in Mesoamerica and it seems likely that ceramic technology spread north from South America into Mesoamerica by about 1800 BC.Ceramics offer archaeologists a wealth of information about the past. From the pottery found at a site, archaeologists can often determine the different activities, such as cooking or food storage, which were being carried out there. Ceramics also make excellent time markers that archaeologists use to assign a time period to archaeological occupations and sites. Since pottery styles generally change through time, it is possible to create ceramic chronologies, or time lines, that allow archaeologists to determine the dates that a site was occupied.