Analysis of Neolithic Pottery from Sites in Southeast Albania

Potteries are the most abundant findings among the archeological artifacts. Pottery analysis reveals information regarding the daily life and cultural aspects of the society of the ancient period. The technical skills of the ancient potters have been the subject of active research for gaining a deep insight of forgone culture. The Neolithic period is of great importance regarding pottery production, since the Neolithic civilizations brought in contact clay with fire to produce materials which are particularly hard and resistant to meet the requirements of the newly emerged needs for tools and resources at that time. In addition, it is generally accepted that studies at several Neolithic sites lead to contradictory findings regarding the pottery distribution, thus, putting into question the role of pottery as an exchange item in this period.

11.png Ceramic shards from Vashtemi

From an archaeological point of view, the Neolithic sites discovered in the plateau of Korca, situated in south-east of Albania, are of great importance, since within a rather small territory you find different sites that have been inhabited from Early Neolithic to Eneolithic. The sites of Vashtëmi and Podgori belong to the Early Neolithic, and the site of Dunavec belongs to Middle Neolithic while in Maliq the different layers represent the Late Neolithic and the Eneolithic periods. The considerably large number of Neolithic ceramics of various types, styles and decorations discovered at these sites can give information on the materials and technologies used for their manufacture at different stages of social development within similar environmental conditions and resources. The analytical data on the materials and technologies used for the production and decoration of the ceramics can complement the archaeologists’ observations of the local or imported character of the pottery and contribute for a better characterization and classification of the ceramic finds.

According to the literature, only a few archaeometric studies have been conducted concerning the chemical composition and/or provenance of the Neolithic pottery in Albania and especially for the ceramics from Early Neolithic sites of Podgori and Vashtëmi. The author has observed differences in both the composition and the quality of the ceramics from both sides concluding that a direct connection between the sites cannot be demonstrated.

Different X-ray techniques (EDXRF, Micro-XRF, XRD), Optical Microscopy (OM) together with various multivariate techniques are being used for the characterization of the raw materials and investigation of the technologies used for the production of ceramic finds from different Neolithic sites in southeast Albania. OM and XRD were used for the investigation of the internal texture of the ceramic body and their mineralogical composition while μ-XRF was used for the identification of the materials used for external decorations (paints and slips). EDXRF spectrometry was employed for the chemical composition determination of the pottery, since it is quite advantageous compared to other techniques due to the coexistence of three significant features; it is a non-destructive multi-elemental technique and the analysis requires less time and has a relatively lower cost than other similar techniques. The evaluation of the chemical data through simple elemental biplots and their treatment by means of multivariate statistical analysis (CA) led to the potential classification of the samples into distinctive groups and provided feedback for further discussion about their provenance.

The territory of present Albania was penetrated during the Neolithic period by cultural elements from various sources, which influenced its civilization. The evolution of Neolithic civilization can be followed in Albania over three periods: Early, Middle and Late Neolithic. A separate cultural development, here called Eneolithic, took place as a transitory stage leading from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age.

The Korça region consists of a large plateau located in the mountainous south eastern part of the country, along the western shores of the lakes Ohrid, Prespa e Madhe and Prespa e Vogël (Mikri). The fertile plateau of this region together with the existence of the shallow Lake Maliq, now drained, offered suitable living conditions for the early farmers. Due to these conditions this region represents the most intensely occupied area in Albania, especially during the Neolithic, Copper and Bronze Ages.

The classic phase of Early Neolithic in this region is represented by the Vashtemi culture. The site at Vashtemi is situated some eleven kilometers north of Korce. The excavations of 1974, revealed a deposit consisting of a single layer with three horizons, characterized more or less by similar types of pottery, namely red monochrome pottery in the main, pottery with white decoration on a red ground, and, very rarely, pottery with red decoration on white, ochre or light ground. This layer also contained pottery with’ impressed’ decoration, made with the finger-nails or with a pointed tool. Barbotine pottery was also found, but only in the upper horizons. All these features are equally evident in some huge deposits at the village of Podgorie, about eight kilometers northeast of Vashtemi. Previous research relied mostly on stylistic similarities and rough typological frequencies of the ceramic finds, conclude that Vashtëmi and Podgori belong to the same cultural group. Although, some visible differences especially in the quality of the white-on-red pottery, where the white paint is smoother and better-attached to the body of the pot in the Podgori ceramics than in Vashtëmi, point towards a differentiation between the two sites putting Vashtëmi as the earliest Neolithic site in that area. Differences in raw materials for ceramic productions between the two sites were also observed.

22.png Ceramic shards from Podgori

The last excavations (2006-2013) and core dates in Vashtëmi place it within the first wave of Early Neolithic settlements in the Korça basin. This recent study dates Vashtëmi between 6470-6370 cal BC and Podgori between 6070-5970 cal BC. Strong typological similarities of the finds from this area with the finds from the Early Neolithic in the area of Thessaly indicate a direct cultural report between them.

The most important sites of the Middle Neolithic period culture in Albania are those of Cakran (Central Albania) and Dunavec situated some five kilometers north of Korca. This period is mostly characterized by coarse impressed and Barbotine pottery, plain coloured ware, chiefly grey-black and black, and a finer pottery which differs from the two preceding types by more careful modelling and by its lustrous surface, generally dark grey or black. Amongst the different vase shapes, the most typical in this group are biconical cups with a variety of profiles and vases with four feet known as cult-rhytons. Ornamentation on both the common and the finer pottery shows knowledge of a number of decorative techniques. Incised geometric decoration and plastic decoration predominate; more rarely, one finds impressed decoration, encrustation in white, perforations, and designs painted in dark patterns on a light background.

Late Neolithic settlements have been found in a number of places in Albania, but the deposits discovered at Maliq in 1961 are considered the most representative. The deposits consist of different layers which extend from late Neolithic to the Eneolithic period. The Late Neolithic pottery is varied both in its shape and decoration. But what especially characterizes this level is a fairly fine pottery, with a polished grey-black surface; and also pottery painted before and after firing.

One type of pottery predominates, with monochrome motifs applied directly on to the natural clay, or on to a glaze of various ochre, cream or light red tones. The main decorative colour is brown and other colours like grey, dark red, orange are found less frequently.

The Eneolithic culture in Maliq is characterized by its pottery, especially the fine grey or grey-black pottery of various shapes and with fairly rich decoration of several kinds: painted, incised, encrusted, recessed, and in relief. For painted pottery grey is the predominant colour. Black paint is much less frequent, and when it occurs it is often combined with grey decoration.

Representative groups of 20 – 30 shards from the four Neolithic sites of Vashtemi, Podgori, Dunavec and Maliq were selected by the archaeologist and we were allowed to cut small pieces and use them for the analysis. The shards from all the sites belong to pottery with thick and thin walls. Most of them have dark red and black color and some of them are painted on the surface.

33.png Ceramic shards from Dunavec

A total of six clay samples, collected from sources around Vashtëmi (4 samples), Podgori and Maliq (one sample each) during the excavation season, were included in the study with the purpose of comparing their composition with our ceramic shards. The clay is not used anymore for pottery making in the villages around Vashtëmi and Podgori, but in some areas is still used as a building material (this information was obtained by the local construction companies).

Fresh cross sections of some of the shards were polished on successive grades of grinding paper (silicon carbide) and after cleaning and drying were used for optical microscopy and micro-XRF examinations. Standard thin sections have been prepared from the ceramic shards for the mineralogical and petrographic characterization.

The samples for EDXRF analysis were prepared in the form of thick pressed pellets.

A small number of samples (3 – 4) from each site were investigated for their mineralogical composition using thin section petrography and X-ray diffraction.

Samples with different chemical composition from each group were selected for these type of examinations.

The colour of the ceramic body varies from reddish-yellow to brown or reddish-brown. In cross section, the ceramic wall presents in general a bilayered texture, marked by an outer layer with lighter colour and an inner layer with darker colour (Figure below). It is generally accepted that the existence of this layer can serve either as a sign of a non-uniform firing in the whole body of the ceramic (insufficient firing time for the organic material within the clay to have been burnt out) or it can be an indication of the firing of ceramics in a reducing atmosphere followed by a fast final oxidizing stage.


Thin section petrographic examinations show that generally the fabric of the ceramic body is made of semifine clays with amorphous-microcrystalline structure and contains several voids with spherical and elliptical shape as well as different natural non-plastic inclusions, which belong either to the raw materials or were added as temper (Figure below). The grains of the inclusions are generally angular to sub-angular and range from 1 – 3 mm in size. They constitute 5% – 10% of the volume in the shards. The non-plastic inclusions are mainly composed of quartz, plagioclase, mica (muscovite), calcite and opaque minerals represented by hematite. Small potsherds and vegetal remnants (See Figure-(E)) were also identified in some of the shards from each group.


X-ray maps obtained by micro-XRF spectrometer on a small area (10 – 15 mm2) of the cross section of some shards allow an approximate identification of some of the mineral inclusions in the respective clays. Intensity distribution maps (Figure below) show the presence of Si, K, Ca and Fe rich particles, which can indicate the presence of the minerals rich in those elements, like silicates, calcite, K-feldspars, hematite, etc.


A limited number of samples from each site and the raw clays collected in the area of Vashtemi and Podgori were investigated with X-ray diffraction for the identification of main mineral phases.

Quartz and albite are the main mineral phases observed in the shards for Vashtemi and Podgori, while in the shards from Dunavec and Maliq in addition to them calcite, muscovite and orthoclase are also identified in different shards.

The mineralogical compositions show that the shards form all sides are made of similar raw materials. The clays used for the pottery reflect the Quaternary clays of the Korca basin and similar type of temper (clasts) were used for their manufacture. The main observed differences are related with the grain sizes (mainly semifine but also fine and coarse) and the use of biological material, which is not observed in every shard.

In conclusion we can state that separate clay deposits, close to each site, have been used for ceramic production. This is what we expected because the sites were active in different periods of time, except Vashtemi and Podgori which could have coexisted at least for some time. The inclusion of a few shards from Podgori in the cluster of Vashtemi and vice versa can be a weak indication of the exchanges that could have been exiting between the two sites. More research is needed to fully support this hypothesis. In addition we observe that in each site the shards with thin and thick walls are clustered together, which means that they are manufactured using the same type of raw materials.

Some of the investigated shards, especially those with thin walls from Podgori and Maliq (Late Neolithic), have signs of decorations with geometric motifs on the external surface. The shards from Podgori are mostly painted with white color on red background but one of the sherds is painted with bright red color, while the sherds from Maliq LN are decorated with red or dark brown colors on red background. Generally the examined shards from Dunavec and Maliq Eneolithic are not painted while in those from Vashtemi we could find traces of previously existing decorations in a few shards although they were not clearly visible.

Some typical examples of the examined decorations are presented in the Figure below. From Figure (A) it can clearly be observed that the white part of the decoration is rich in Ca while the red part is rich in Fe, which indicates the use of calcium white (probably calcite) and iron rich material (some kind of red ochre) for the white and red colours of the shards from Podgori. The increased Fe intensity of the red decorated area of the shard compared to the ceramic body indicates that the red colour is due to the application of a pigment and not any kind of red slip. The red decoration of the shard from Maliq LN (Figure (B)) is also rich in Fe but in this case it is associated with Ni and Cr indicating a different type of red ochre, probably from the deposits of iron-nickel mineral situated in Pishkash, Albania, north of the Ohrid Lake. Similar composition of Fe associated with Ni is found at the shard from Maliq LN (Figure (C)) and the dark colour of the decoration should probably be related with the firing process (firing in reducing atmosphere). It should also be mentioned that the composition of the pigments could be influenced by the process of their application on the ceramic body. Several researchers suggest that the decoration of the pottery surface was produced by using mineral pigments mixed with a clay-water suspension and applied as a clay slip. The black decoration of the shard from Maliq EN (Figure (D)) should probably have been prepared after the firing using bitumen as the black area is rich in sulphur with traces of vanadium, while manganese rich pigments (some kind of brown earth) are used for the brown colour decoration of the shards from Maliq LN and Vashtemi (Figure (E), Figure (F)). In most of the shards we have found black spots or small areas with black colour which are rich in Ca and P, similar to the ones in Figure (B), Figure (C). According to literature data they should be contaminations related with the environmental conditions of burial.


It is interesting to notice that calcite, iron oxides and iron and manganese compounds, such as magnetite and jacobsite, were identified in the respective white, red and black pigments used to decorate Cucuteni Neolithic ceramics as well as the Neolithic ceramics from North Greece. Red ochre and soot were identified in the red and black decorations of the Neolithic ceramics from Slavonia, Croatia, while iron minerals haematite and maghemite were identified in the red decorations of the Neolithic ceramics from southern Spain, the later being an indicator of the firing conditions.

44.png Ceramic shards from Maliq

The investigation of ceramic finds from the Neolithic sites of South East Albania with different analytical techniques reveal interesting information regarding the materials and the technology used for their manufacture.

The mineralogical compositions show that the shards from all sides are made of similar raw materials. The clays used for the pottery reflect the Quaternary clays of the Korca basin and similar type of temper consisting mostly of sand, crushed sherds and organic material in some cases were used for their manufacture.

The main observed differences are related with the grain sizes (mainly semifine but also fine and coarse) and the use of biological material, which is not observed in every shard.

The elemental compositions of the shards show that mostly medium coarse, non-calcareous clays were used for the ceramic manufacture in all the sites that cover all the Neolithic period. Separate clay deposits close to each site have been used for ceramic production, although the data suggest the possibility that different clays could have been used for different types or quality of pots especially in Maliq. The same clay deposits close to Maliq should have been used for a quite long period from the Late Neolithic to Eneolithic. The data don’t provide any significant clue that can indicate any connection between the Early Neolithic sites of Vashtemi and Podgori.

Micro-XRF spectroscopy was used for the examination of pigments on several decorated sherds mostly from the sites of Podgori and Maliq. The results show that Ca rich minerals (probably calcite) were used for the white colour, while different types of Fe rich minerals (ochre) were identified in the red colours. The dark brown colours were mostly prepared using Mn rich minerals but in one case we found the dark brown colour prepared with Fe rich minerals probably fired in reducing atmosphere. The black decoration of the shard from Maliq EN should probably have been prepared after the firing using bitumen as the black area is rich in sulphur with traces of vanadium. It should be mentioned that similar pigment types were found by other researchers on the Neolithic ceramics from different sites in Balkan and Europe.

(Source: “Investigation of Pottery from Different Neolithic Sites in Southeast Albania Using Various Analytical Techniques”, by Erinda Ndreçka et al.)

55.png Ceramic shards from Maliq

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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