Vessels versus Sherds: Cross-Mending and Why Does it Matter Anyway?

Part I: Process  by Erica D’Elia Assistant Laboratory Director

If you received CART’s Biweekly Updates you probably heard us mention cross-mending. We didn’t have a lot of space there to explain why this process is so important. So, as promised, here is more information about cross-mending.

Mended Tin Glaze

Cross-mending is typically an analytical tool used most commonly with ceramic (as seen in the picture above) and glass vessels, but the brooch and paste gem we found in two separate units this season provides a succinct example as well. Cross-mending is the process of trying to reassemble vessels from sherds found all across the site. It can be a lengthy and difficult process. If you like doing puzzles, then cross-mending is a job for you! Cross-mending is like doing a puzzle; if you had a whole bunch of puzzles all jumbled together, no picture to guide you, oh, and most of the pieces of each puzzle were missing. Sound like fun yet?

Sometimes, when we catalog a sample we may notice that a few of the ceramic or glass pieces fit back together. Why is this artifact in several pieces, all found in one location? Perhaps it was thrown out and broke as it was tossed into the trash pile. Perhaps it was thrown away whole and got trampled sometime after deposition. But, in order to cross-mend we have to look for matches found in different units across the site.

So how does it work? Can we just toss all of our ceramic pieces onto the table and start trying to find mends? Not so fast. Imagine the disaster if we did that! The single most important piece of information for any archaeological artifact is its provenience. Before we can take any artifacts out of their bags they have to be labeled. That way, we will always know where each artifact came from. Otherwise this whole process would be pretty useless.

Some ceramic types are easier to mend than others, for example transfer-printed vessels typically have an image covering the entire surface. Undecorated vessels are harder because you only have the shape to help you out. There are some strategies you can employ, but for the most part it’s guess and check. Like a puzzle, I like to start with the “border” and try to mend the rim, base, or foot-ring first. These pieces are often easier to identify and match. Then, you can work your way to the interior of the vessel.

Cross-mending is not always super glamorous; don’t expect to find whole vessels. Even mostly complete vessels are pretty rare. Most of the time you will find just a few pieces that mend together. Now that you know how the process of cross-mending works stay tuned for more information on how this is ultimately used in site analysis.

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About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Artifacts, Colchester and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Vessels versus Sherds: Cross-Mending and Why Does it Matter Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Vessels versus Sherds: Cross-Mending and Why Does it Matter Anyway? | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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