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

Part II: Analysis by Erica D’EliaAssistant Laboratory Director

A few weeks ago, we talked about the physical process of mending sherds into vessels. As we’ve discovered, this is a difficult process and, at the end of it, most of your sherds will still not have any “friends” that will mend.mend

Even if you don’t find many mends you can still learn a lot from the process. You may start to notice similar patterns or even be able to tell from what type of vessel a small fragment came. This is called vesselizing. You can group similar patterns and vessel forms together to get an idea of how many vessels, or sets of vessels, you might have represented in your assemblage.

Now, let’s talk about what all this information can tell us. As I mentioned, cross-mending isn’t just about putting a puzzle together; it’s an analytical device. When you mend you can determine the minimum number of vessels you have. When you analyze your data, it is often helpful to look at numbers of vessels rather than sherds. This gives us a more accurate picture of economic processes, purchasing decisions, and use. Cross mending can also help to determine how many households you have represented at a site and the relationships between them. Various natural and cultural processes can move artifacts. Perhaps you found most of a plate in a trash heap, but a few smaller pieces scattered across a different area of the site. It could be that a vessel broke in the yard during use. If you broke a plate in your kitchen you would probably pick up the bigger pieces and vacuum up the rest. The same thing happened in the past; the larger pieces may have been picked up and thrown away, then later, when the yard was swept, the smaller pieces were scattered to the edges and that’s where archaeologists find them in the future.

We have only just started thinking about cross-mending our vessels here at CART. It will be exciting to see what we find. If you want to see a great example of cross-mending analysis in action check out this rosso antico teapot found and mended by our friends at Poplar Forest and this stoneware chamber pot from Mount Vernon!

Have I sold you on cross-mending? Are you thinking about breaking one of your own dishes so you can try to put it back together? (I understand the urge, but try to refrain, you don’t want to be one plate short at the dinner table come Thanksgiving. Go buy one at a thrift store instead!) If you just have to try cross-mending for yourself, our friends at Montpelier offer a lab workshop where you can do just that!

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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.
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