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The GRAPHTEC project

Graphite-painted pottery of the Balkans from the Neolithic/Chalcolithic period: an archaeometric study of ceramic technology and innovation processes in prehistoric Europe.

Graphite decoration is a distinctive decorative element that can be found on ceramics in almost the entire Balkan region during the 5th millennium BC. The aim of this interdisciplinary project is to better understand the technology of graphite-decorated pottery and its distribution in the Balkans.

The focus is on the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic pottery finds from several archaeological sites along the Struma Valley (Greece and Bulgaria) and the neighbouring regions.

Pic. 1: Ceramic vessel with shimmering silver-grey graphite decoration, Photo: Ecole francaise d’Athènes, P. Collet

As part of the project initiated and applied for by the University of Tübingen (Dr Silvia Amicone, CCABW), carbon isotope analyses of ceramics and graphite raw material in the form of geological samples and graphite cones produced in prehistoric times are being carried out at CEZA.

Technological adaptation and transfer processes as well as the appropriation of “foreign” ideas are always of great interest in archaeology. Such insights are made possible through the investigation of cultural and economic networks, particularly with regard to the underlying technological characteristics and the necessary skills within social groups. By focusing on innovation, adaptation and transfer processes of technological knowledge, this project will serve as a reference work not only for those studying the prehistoric Balkans, but also for other archaeological disciplines. This project will attempt to expand our current knowledge of the phenomenon of graphite-painted pottery with new interdisciplinary approaches.

This also includes carrying out carbon isotope analyses to identify possible raw material deposits of graphite that were used to decorate the vessels. The spectacular thing about graphite-painted pottery in general is that this carbon-based decoration, which was applied to the pottery before the firing process, has been preserved at all. As carbon oxidises in the presence of oxygen, this requires largely reducing firing conditions, the technical implementation of which is not yet fully understood.

Pic. 2: Sampling of a ceramic shard painted with graphite, Photo: University Tübingen, S. Amicone

The pottery examined in the project so far includes an experimentally produced vessel with graphite painting as well as numerous sherds from archaeological contexts. Of all the pieces selected for investigation, the graphite painting itself, the vessel surface next to the decoration and the interior of the sherd were sampled. The isotope ratios of the extracted graphite differ from the other areas of the pottery due to significantly higher C contents and δ13C values. The analyses also included a series of graphite cones from different excavation contexts. This was done to characterise the composition of these unusual objects, in the form of which the raw material “graphite” may have circulated in prehistoric times and which could also have served as “crayons” for the application of the decoration. There are some overlaps with the δ13C values determined for the graphite paintings on the pottery.

In addition to the mineralogical analysis of further sample material, there are also plans to expand the series of C isotope analyses. This also includes a series of geological samples taken in different parts of the study area. They will expand the data spectrum and help to identify significant differences between graphite raw materials and compare these with the analysis values determined for the ceramics.

The project is funded by the Excellence Initiative of the University of Tübingen (Athene Programme, project funding for young scientists) and the RISC programme of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts.