The Archaeology of Gardening

Pottery SherdsThis evening, while bracing for full throttle summer and the planting that goes with it, I prepped one huge planter (it took on three of those huge bags of dirt) adjacent to the patio. Before dumping in the dirt, and for reasons that will never be made clear to me, the word “drainage” bounced through my brain. So instead of just dumping in the dirt (and dooming a plant to drown), I looked about and gathered up some small cobbles (way larger than what in the archaeology business we call a Size Grade 1). I dumped what small rocks I could find into the planter, but it was a smattering and did not seem enough. So I looked around, and found a — or, if you prefer, an — historic archaeological solution: smash up the already busted up pottery, some terra-cotta, and put the sherds into the huge planter as foundation for drainage. Last week, Molly and I salvaged these sherds while trolling up and down the streets, eyeing the curbsides during the annual, city-wide dispose-of-anything-and-everything day. As I was situating the sherds in the bottom of the huge pot, I also thought about excavating northern Great Plains, North American midden mounds and Hellenistic garbage piles in the eastern Mediterranean Levant.

BackfillAncient and prehistoric pottery is everywhere, and more often than not, ceramics and pottery uncovered by archaeologists today has, throughout the course of its own life, undergone a series of adaptive reuses: the artifacts we uncover today have been recycled for a long time, by disparate cultures and for different reasons. In using my archaeological imagination, I also couldn’t help but thinking how Ancient Romans and Hellenistic Cypriots, and Ancient Mandan-Hidatsa, would have used busted pottery for a variety of purposes, either as backfill, drainage for planters, and so on.

An aside: there is something soothing about the noise of used terra-cotta bases smashing against a brick wall. To the right is a photo of an excavation unit from the PKAP archaeological dig of May-June 2012 on Cyprus. At the bottom of the deepest strata, you can see the terra-cotta back fill emerging from a 3rd-century BC Hellenistic site.


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