image/svg+xml257XII/2/2021INTERDISCIPLINARIA ARCHAEOLOGICANATURAL SCIENCES IN ARCHAEOLOGYhomepage: http://www.iansa.euReinventing the Wheel: Perpetual Innovation in Sinhalese Potter AssemblagesDeborah Winslow1*1School for Advanced Research, 660 Garcia St., Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505, USA1. IntroductionThe earliest appearances of potter’s wheels in the archaeological record have been documented comprehensively (eg. Berg, 2020; Evely, 1988; Rice, 1987, p.7, pp.128–136). The wheel’s advent is associated with early urbanism, artisanal specialisation, and socioeconomic diferentiation. Generally, it is seen as a technological step forward, even when employed for pottery shaping rather than throwing, complementing rather than replacing hand-building methods (Crewe and Knappett, 2012, p.178, p.181; Knappett and van der Leeuw, 2014, pp.76–77). The wheel’s rotative kinetic energy allowed potters to produce lighter, more symmetrical, and more standardised wares. Throwing also improved efciency and facilitated mass production (Roux, 2003, pp.2–3; 2010, pp.221–222). Therefore, when it sometimes has been observed that the wheel’s adoption was followed by its decline or even disappearance, this has posed a puzzle for analysts.Archaeologists have proposed diverse solutions to this puzzle, including: ancient political crises that produced ethnic diferentiation with parallel technological heterogeneity (Franken and London, 1995, pp.219–221); depletion of deposits of clay sufciently plastic and free of intrusions for wheel throwing (Magrill and Middleton, 2001, p.137); or the failure of wheel technology to be adopted by a sufciently large network of potters to achieve redundancy and ensure cultural transmission (Roux, 2010, p.228; also, Knappett and van der Leeuw, 2014, pp.82–83). Each solution answers to a specifc historical context; all accept that wheel-use decline is a setback in need of explanation. Here, in contrast, I present an instance in which wheel abandonment produced economic, social, and technological advancement, increasing incomes, social status, and productivity. My case concerns rural potters in Sri Lanka who gave up the wheel for some types of pottery. Doing so, they set of a cascade of other changes and thus transformed their industry’s “dynamic system” (Roux, 2003).Volume XII ● Issue 2/2021 ● Pages 257–265*Corresponding author. E-mail: dwinslow@gmail.comARTICLE INFOArticle history:Received: 3rdFebruary 2021Accepted: 16thAugust 2021DOI: words:potter’s wheeltechnological changelongitudinal ethnographydynamic systemsspatio-temporal scale20th& 21stcenturiesSri LankaABSTRACTThis paper describes a linked series of potter’s wheel reinventions and abandonments from the mid-20thcentury through 2013. The wheel is analysed as one element in a complex and dynamic assemblage of people, resources, technologies, meanings, places, and time. Primary data come from ethnographic observations and interviews in a Sinhalese Sri Lankan potter community followed since 1974. As they shifted from one potter’s wheel to another, these potters have altered social and physical supporting technologies for procuring and preparing clay, acquiring fuel, organising labour, and marketing pottery. Some, having reached the limits of a wheel’s capabilities and their own bodies, have abandoned the wheel in favour of moulds and mechanical presses, setting of more cascades of change. Their experiences help to clarify the adaptive capacities and limitations of both potter’s wheels and their users. As this story unfolds in often unanticipated ways, it reveals the importance of attending to spatiotemporal scale. Locally, the wheel highlights the relatively fast-changing afordances and constraints with which individual potters, households, and communities engage. But the wheel also brings into focus the slower moving consequences of regional heterogeneities and paths laid down by national colonial and post-colonial policies decades ago.
image/svg+xmlIANSA 2021 ● XII/2 ● 257–265Deborah Winslow: Reinventing the Wheel: Perpetual Innovation in Sinhalese Potter Assemblages2582. Methodology and results: longitudinal ethnographyAs a cultural anthropologist, my primary methods are ethnographic: participant observation, semi-structured interviewing, life history interviews, and key informant conversations. I also have consulted the Colonial Record Ofce Library in London, the National Archives in Colombo, and private archives to cull historical information from Administration Reports and other 19th and20thcentury sources. Fieldwork in Sri Lanka has totalled about 55 months: longer stays in 1973–1976 (33 months), 1992 (7 months), 2004 (2 months), and 2013 (9 months), with shorter trips of 1 to 6 weeks between.Here I focus on a potter village that I call Walangama. Typically, I resided with a Walangama family for months at a time. On each longer trip, I systematically visited almost every Walangama household, usually more than once, for conversations that lasted hours. I updated demographics and kinship information, learned about social and economic developments, watched people work, gossiped, and sometimes collected more specialised information, such as a one-time network survey and a series of life history interviews. I have compiled some of these data into a relational database. Other information, including that gained by participating in Walangama life, informs the qualitative aspects of this account. I also have visited other potter communities, tile factories, and dairies to create a larger picture. My historical information comes from interviews with older Walangama residents and retired ofcials, archival records, and secondary sources. Together, this information allows me to piece together my understanding of how the Walangama pottery industry has changed in the context of other changes locally, regionally, and nationally: a longitudinal ethnography.2.1 The early 20thcentury: the collapse of a traditional subsistence systemLike most Sinhalese villages, Walangama was once quite small (Denham, 1912, pp.30–33). Between 1881 and 1921, its population averaged 102 people, all of Potter (Badahäla or Kumbāl)caste. But after the advent of malarial control measures such as DDT, census records and my own counts show that the population rose quickly: 213 people (1952), 359 people (1964), approximately 600 people (1975), and around 1000 people in 2013 (Winslow, 2016, p.226 n.3). That mid-century jump, which doubled the population, was particularly detrimental to Walangama’s multi-pronged subsistence strategy.Walangama people did not always rely primarily on pottery-making; they preferred farming. They grew rice on their own felds and gardened dry grains and vegetables on nearby Crown (government-owned) lands. But pottery was a necessary fallback. The village’s land base is small and because it is located in the island’s drought-prone intermediate climatic zone, rice farming is unreliable; furthermore, Crown land access was never guaranteed. Pottery-making, too, had constraints: limited technology, inadequate workspace, and insufcient markets. Yet, while singly precarious, together farming, gardening, and potting once formed a resilient subsistence system. Unfortunately, by 1948, as Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon) achieved independence from Great Britain, Walangama was faced with the twin calamities of a rising population and the loss of their garden lands to coconut estate planters. Walangama stories of the 1940s were dismal tales of overcrowded houses, crying children, and chronic food insecurity.2.2 Post-independence: improving the potter’s wheelI frst heard those stories in 1974; by then, Walangama’s situation had improved. The upturn began in July 1949 when one Albert Perera appeared on his bicycle, sent by the government to start up a “Pottery Demonstration Centre.” Walangama residents had petitioned their new, post-Independence Member of Parliament for aid. The MP had responded not by giving them the agricultural land they sought but by convincing the Ministry of Industries’ Cottage Industries Division to include Walangama in its program to “assist those engaged in village pottery” (Samarasinghe, 1956, p.J4). This program was one of many through which the new government continued colonial social welfare policies rooted in Fabian socialism (Jayasuriya, 2001; Winslow, 2003, pp.53–54). By the time of Mr. Perera’s arrival, approximately 30 such centres had been established around the island (van Langenberg, 1951, p.GG19). As the Acting Director of Industries during the war years later wrote, “One of the main objects of government intervention was to popularise the use of modern wheels to throw and turn the clay body” (van Langenberg, 1951, p.GG21, emphasis added). Local “ofcers-in-charge,” such as Mr. Perera, as well as visiting inspectors, maintained a log of their activities. This log reveals that two months after Mr. Perera arrived in Walangama, he visited the Kurunegala railway station to “remove pottery wheels” – that is, to collect them to take to Walangama (Logbook: 8 September 1949).Walangama’s traditional wheels were “foor wheels” (bīma poruva), similar to southern India’s pivoted block wheels (Saraswati and Behura, 1966, pp.10–11). The 1948 foor wheels seem to have been unchanged from those described for Sinhalese potters decades earlier: “...a circular board about 2½ feet [76.2 cm] in diameter mounted on a stone pivot which fts into a larger stone socket embedded in the ground, the horizontal surface of the wheel itself standing not more than six inches above the ground” (Coomaraswamy, 1956 [1908], p.219). By 1974, when I frst went to Walangama, foor wheels were no longer used; but in 2008, I observed one in another village. I was impressed by its instability. The potter was able to throw small pots, but the wheel wobbled on its pivot and to exert sufcient pressure against enough clay to make larger vessels, she would have needed an assistant.The foor wheels were homemade, carved from circular sections excised from the buttress roots of trees (eg. Ficus retusa) found locally along streams. The round was roughly shaped with an axe, fnished with fner tools, and surfaced
image/svg+xmlIANSA 2021 ● XII/2 ● 257–265Deborah Winslow: Reinventing the Wheel: Perpetual Innovation in Sinhalese Potter Assemblages259with clay. The socket-and-pivot set was typically of granite, purchased from itinerant stoneworkers or recycled from older wheels. I also have seen sets made of iron (such as in Figure 2). The pivot was attached to the wheel’s underside with a mixture of an adhesive substance like jack tree gum, and fbrous fller such as human hair or coconut husk fbre.Potters used the foor wheels to throw of a hump. After forming the mouth, thick walls, and overall shape, they detached each pot from the hump, drawing a wire or thin strip of bamboo through the base high enough to leave the bottom open. After drying to leather stage, the pot was paddled (on the outside) against an anvil (on the inside) to thin the walls and extend them into a rounded bottom. If a foot was desired, the pot was set upside-down on the wheel, which was rotated while a snake of clay was attached