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Production activities at archaeological sites

Proceedings of a workshop

An interesting look at archaeological research that focuses on all aspects of the production process, from the procurement of raw materials to the use of finished products.

Written by Arianna Sacco on

What is a workshop? This is the main question that the papers collected in Approaches to the Analysis of Production Activity at Archaeological Sites, edited by Anna K. Hodgkinson and Cecilie Lelek Tvetmarken (Archaeopress, 2020), seeks to answer.

The contributions included in this volume show how a workshop can be defined and how it can be recognized in the archaeological record, using case studies where different methods are applied to different sites and periods of time.

These papers also demonstrate how workshops operated with the larger context of the chaîne opératoire. This entails all the stages of the production process, from procurement of raw materials to the use, reuse, and discarding of the finished products, and how its different stages can be recognized in the archaeological record.


After an introduction by the editors Anna K. Hodgkinson and Cecile Lelek Tvetmarke, the contribution by Johanna Sigl and Peter Kopp deals with the settlement of Elephantine during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, especially House 169. This is a part of the project Realities of Life, which aims at examining the use of the living quarters in the north-western part of Elephantine, through stratigraphy, archaeometry and the analysis of organic remains.

By showing the different phases House 169 went through during the Middle Kingdom, how the organization of spaces and the materials deposited changed, they show how different productive activities, especially the production of bread and jewellery, were linked, but their stages were kept separate on the basis of how dirty they were.

The contribution by Macarena Bustamante-Álvarez and Albert Ribera i Lacomba deals with the House of Ariadne in Pompeii and analyses the areas of the house dedicated to producing and selling perfumes, especially the presses and the pools, the architecture, and the archaeological finds affiliated with them. The authors show not only how the owner of the house was involved in the production of perfume, but also how the house was part of a guild district of perfume-makers in the heart of Pompeii. Moreover, they demonstrate how the production of wool was connected to perfume-making, because it provided lanoline, one of the main ingredients of perfumes.

Silvia Prell and Chiori Kitigawa next examine a possible bone workshop in site QI in Qantir-Piramesse, the capital of the Egyptian king Ramesses II. The site is not far from Site Q IV, where the stables of the chariotry were located. The existence of the workshop is indicated by the presence of different stone tools which, when considered in their entirety and with the associated finds, especially the bone remains at different stages towards being a finished products, show the process in the production of bone objects. This workshop was controlled by the royal house and connected with other workshops needed for the production of chariots and weapons.

David J. Govantes-Edwards, Chloë N. Duckworth, Amaya Gómez and Lauro Olmo deal with the glass production in Early medieval Iberian peninsula, especially the city of Reccopolis during the the sixth to eighth centuries AD. By analysing the different types and locations of structures and finds connected to glass-making, they demonstrate the social importance of this industry and how it responded not only to economic needs, but also to social and ideological factors. It even became part of the royal propaganda.

The sixth contribution is by Stephanie L. Boonstra. It deals with the production of scarab amulets in Egypt, focusing on the second millennium BC. In detail, the author compares the typological scarab workshops detected on the basis of the main characteristics of the scarabs (i.e. the way of rendering the head, the legs, the back, the incised decoration on the bottom surface, and the presence of royal names), to the physical workshops revealed by archaeological remains.

While it is difficult to recognize physical workshops in the archaeological records, and the ascertained ones are few, going beyond the typological workshops and recognizing them in the contexts of physical workshops is fruitful, as show by the examples of the fourth-century city of Naukratis in the Nile Delta and from the second-millennium-BC site of Tell el-’Ajjul in the Gaza strip.

Anna K. Hodgkinson explores the glass industry in Egypt and in the Ancient Near East in the Late Bronze Age. On detail, the author uses spatial analysis and GIS to compare finds deriving from glass working, such as waste material and ovens, and the architecture of the structures where they have been found. This method helps identifying workshops and production spaces and is applied to the urban sites of Amarna and Malqata in Egypt, of Assur and Nuzi and Mesopotamia, and of Tell Brak in Syria – all date to the second half of the second millennium BC. The analysis shows not only different ways in which the glass industry could be controlled, but also its link to the preparation of food.

Frank Wiesenberg reports the results of experiments aimed at recreating glass furnaces used in the Roman empire. The different types of furnaces have been recreated and the process of glass making has been tried out, which leads to interesting results on how large a furnaces could be, what would be the best temperature inside the furnace and how it would be kept, how many people could work with the furnaces, how much space would be needed.

The ninth paper, by Sarah K. Doherty, deals with pottery workshops in Egypt and Sudan, of which only few have been identified in the archaeological record. The author examines the pottery workshops already identified at archaeological sites and their representations on tomb paintings and clay models, as well as modern pottery workshops and her impressions by her own try at making pottery. All this provides insights in what is needed in and for a pottery workshops, to help identifying them in excavations.

Carmen Ting and Jane Humphris study the variation in shape, techniques, and fabric of pottery from different periods found in heaps in Meroe, Sudan. By studying how standardized each feature of the pottery is for each period, the authors suggest different way the pottery production was managed, and how centralized it was.

The penultimate contribution is by Adnan Baysal, who analyses ground stone tools from Neolithic Anatolia, which were used in food processing. The author shows how tools can have multiple functions and become themselves not a mere product, but a space of production. Therefore, a space of production can have different connotations, be defined in various ways, and vary depending on the products fabricated and on the market conditions: a product like ground stone tools can therefore become a space of production in food making.


The volume is wrapped up by Cathy Lynne Costin, who discusses the elements that have been traditionally ascribed to the definition of workshop and used to identify workshops in the archaeological record. By using examples from different areas and time periods, the author demonstrates that these elements do not necessarily define a workshop, and that the term itself is laden with preconceptions.

Firstly, a workshop is not necessarily a separate space, specifically intended for production activities, formally organized in different activity areas. Secondly, artisans do not always work full time and artisans are not always of the highly specialized type, specifically hired and divided in structured work groups. Thirdly, a remarkable capital, to acquire the necessary infrastructure, is not necessarily needed to start a workshop, and investment in a specific training for the artisans is not always required.

Furthermore, workshops do not necessarily specialize in the high-scale production of a few standardized items and are not always located in urban areas. Lastly, it is very tricky to use the term workshop in connection to groups of objects with similar characteristics, and not linked to any physical space of production. The author therefore suggests carefulness in using the term workshop, and defining it carefully and clearly what it is meant by it in each study where it is used.

All in all, this volume is informative and provides interesting insights into an important topic in archaeological research, which affects our understanding of economic, social, and technological aspects of past society.

It also demonstrates how commonly terms such as “workshop”, though they appear neutral, are based on preconceptions, and can therefore influence how we look at the evidence from the past. It is necessary, therefore, to clarify in each case what one has in mind when dealing with workshops in the archaeological record, to be conscious of how this can affect the interpretation of the evidence and tackle possible biases.