Ceramics & Craft in Prehistoric Philippines

A review of Ceramic Production and Craft Specialization in the Prehistoric Philippines, A.D. 500 to 1600, by Lisa C. Niziolek.

Lisa C. Niziolek’s dissertation continues the long line of scholarship in the Central Philippines initiated by Karl Hutterer (1979) in the late 1970s. This work, which focuses on political transformations, builds on previous investigations carried out in the region and provides another dimension in understanding archaeological processes in the Philippines. Following in the tradition established by Laura Junker (1999), Niziolek’s work in the Central Philippines provides prehistoric correlates for William Longacre’s (1985) research program in the northern Philippines.

Niziolek’s dissertation examines the role of specialized craft production in the development of pre-modern complex societies, specifically, in the pre-hispanic coastal polity of Tanjay (A.D. 500-1600) on the island of Negros. Previous work in the region (e.g., Junker 1999) established the presence of a chiefdom-level society (cf. Peterson 2003) just before the arrival of the Spanish. Niziolek’s work combines ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological datasets to understand the emergence of craft specialization in pre-state societies. The major contribution of this study is the use of geochemical analysis (more specifically laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry) of ceramic samples and possible clay source to determine changes in ceramic production organization, thus filling a gap in our knowledge about ceramic production systems in premodern Philippines.


Chapter 1 of the dissertation provides the background by introducing the archaeology and prehistory of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and offers details on how these previous studies form the basis for Niziolek’s PhD research. This section will be very helpful for those interested in the archaeological processes in island Southeast Asia, especially during the period just before the arrival of European explorers. The author provides a coherent assessment of what has been done in the region (especially in regards to culture history) and how these previous studies relate to anthropological concerns. The chapter also offers a glimpse of the different cultural chronologies developed for the Philippines since the inception of archaeological work in the region. The author furthermore provides brief description of the chronology espoused by Wilhelm Solheim (2002) and Wilfredo Ronquillo (2003) that should be useful in understanding Philippine prehistory. It is clear however, that there is a need to update and standardize Philippine chronology and tie this ‘updated chronology’ to the general island Southeast Asian cultural sequence. In addition, Chapter 1 presents the larger Bais-Tanjay Archaeological Project, one of the first regional investigations in Southeast Asia that aims to look at the social, political, and economic change in the Bais-Tanjay locale of the island of Negros.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the dissertation survey the current theoretical issues in the relationship between craft specialization and political differentiation. These chapters elucidate the theoretical underpinnings in anthropological research of craft production and specialization vis-à-vis political economy. The in-depth discussion on the major themes and exhaustive review of the literature provide the background for the author’s argument: ceramic vessel morphology and geochemical variability decreases with increasing political differentiation. In the remainder of the dissertation, Niziolek utilizes ceramic assemblages obtained from the Bais-Tanjay region to test this research hypothesis.

The author then goes on to present two important political-economic models that have come out of Southeast Asian archaeology: Hall’s (1985) riverine-coastal states model and Bronson’s (1977) dendritic model. Various scholars (e.g., Junker 1999) applied these models to the archaeological analyses of the Bais-Tanjay region. Informed by theoretical discussions in the development of political economies (e.g., Earle, Blanton, Renfrew), Niziolek links political-economic strategies in pre-modern Southeast Asia to broader anthropological discussions in the emergence of political differentiation.

One of the larger contributions of this dissertation is Niziolek’s survey of craft production in prehispanic Philippines, as discussed in Chapter 4. She forefronts Southeast Asia (and the Philippines in particular), pointing out that the region is particularly interesting in the study of craft specialization and the development of political complexity because of: “(1) the uniqueness of political structures and political economic trajectories in the region that suggest a strong divergence from models about the role of craft specialization in complex society formation elsewhere in the world; (2) an unusually rich array of empirical evidence to support ideas about early forms of craft specialization, including numerous historical sources and long-term ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological research, in addition to archaeology; and (3) the relative lack of archaeological research on the topic of craft specialization and complex society development in Southeast Asia (and particularly the Philippines)” (p. 119). Drawing from previous historical, ethnographic, ethnoarchaeological, and archaeological investigations in the Philippines, Niziolek argues that production patterns in the region are clearly “embedded in the larger, regional-scale system of community specialization, with lowland populations exchanging agricultural products, marine resources, and craft products” (p. 221).

With the theoretical and historical background exhaustively discussed, Chapter 5 of the dissertation describes the methodology used to answer the major questions of the research: whether craft specialization, as seen in vessel morphological variation is also manifested in ceramic geochemical composition. The focus of this dissertation resonates with previous research done in the region and adds another dimension in the study of political economy in the Bais-Tanjay area by looking at the geochemical composition of ceramics and clay obtained from the research area. The study uses Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to analyze archaeological ceramics and to describe the ceramic and clay samples used in the project. The use of geochemical analysis in archaeology allows identification of resource procurement practices, manufacturing methods, organization of production, distribution and consumption patterns, and the effects of post-depositional processes on ceramic materials.

In this work, the author uses LA-ICP-MS to characterize the chemical composition of 284 earthenware sherds recovered from different types of sites in the Bais-Tanjay region and dated to various periods. Additionally, fourteen clay samples were analyzed to test the hypothesis that earthenware production was becoming centralized.

The results of the analyses described above are presented in Chapter 6 of the dissertation. Working on the hypothesis that ceramic production in Tanjay was becoming increasingly specialized and centralized, the author expected that the results of the LA-ICP-MS analyses would reveal an increase in geochemical homogeneity in the ceramic assemblage over time. The results, however, show a combination of localized and dispersed production, although previous morphological studies of the vessels indicate increasing standardization.

The geochemical analyses of the ceramics suggest that there are two distinct reference groups (Core A and Core B) and a minimum of four subgroups (Subgroups A1, A2, B1, and B2), associated with different localities (Core A: entirely from Tanjay sites [Santiago Church and Osmena Park]; Core B: predominantly Tanjay sites, but also includes multiple sites in the region [Mendieta, Aguilar, Turco, and Bacong]). These results suggest that Tanjay, or a location near Tanjay, was the likely ceramic-production center for the region. The existence of subgroups and their clustering are indicative of a complex production process in local A (i.e., the Tanjay site): A1 ceramics show strong geochemical homogeneity, a result that gives a hint of potters using one clay source, or utilizing the same earthenware production components or “recipe,” so to speak; A2 ceramics represent Santiago Church and Osmena Park sites, with no association with other samples from other sites, signifying that the A2 ceramics were restricted to Tanjay inhabitants. B1 and B2 subgroupings, on the other hand, include ceramic samples found at multiple sites. These subgroupings produced highly variable results indicating dispersed production; furthermore, the clay sources were different from those observed at the site of Tanjay.

Overall results suggest variability in production technology between sites, contrary to expected geochemical homogeneity because of the observed standardized vessel morphology. In addition, of the 14 clay samples analyzed, only one sample was a strong candidate as a source for the earthenware ceramics tested. However, with 55% of the analyzed samples belonging to the Tanjay sites, Niziolek concludes that the material pattern observed at Tanjay reflects centralized production.

Chapter 7 provides an example of the application of geochemical analyses to questions that focus on archaeological processes, particularly, the nature of production, distribution, and consumption of earthenware ceramics vis-à-vis political economy in the prehispanic Philippines. To achieve this goal, the author looked at the results discussed in Chapter 6 separately by site and by phase. The analyses provide her with a variety of results, from increases in the number of clay sources in the Aguilar and Santiago Phases at Tanjay to geochemical homogeneity in the Santiago and Osmea Phases, both in the latter period. Results of the geochemical indicators of standardization and specialization are not fruitful, however. According to the author’s analysis, depending on what geochemical signatures were used in the analyses, there is a pattern of both increasing standardization and decreasing standardization of compositional makeup over time. The varied results had the author concluding that “we may be seeing numerous independent full-time potters, working at the household level, locating themselves at the growing coastal port to take advantage of increased consumer demand. An increase in the number of potters overall may be responsible for the increase in compositional groups, meaning that more clay sources were being utilized in later periods than in the earlier ones” (p. 421).

Chapter 8 summarizes the research results and evaluates the contribution of geochemical analysis to archaeological inquiry. The results of the geochemical analyses suggest that there was no centralized location for ceramic production; rather multiple locales could have locally produced their ceramics. The study argues, however, that evidence from vessel morphology suggests increased standardization over time, thus supporting the model of increased specialization that could have resulted in craft specialization.

Overall, Lisa Niziolek’s dissertation fills a gap in the scholarship focusing on the Bais-Tanjay region of the island of Negros. Since Junker (1999) established the pattern of increasing ceramic standardization through vessel morphological analyses, this dissertation addressed the issue of geochemical composition, with results expected to parallel the apparent morphological homogeneity through time. Although the results points to a highly variable production and distribution systems, they open other interesting research questions that highlight local processes, which in turn, inform island Southeast Asian economic and political transformation.

Stephen Acabado
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Los Angeles


Bronson, B. 1977. Exchange at the Upstream and Downstream Ends: Notes Towards a Functional Model of the Coastal State in Southeast Asia. In Economic Exchange and Social Interaction in Southeast Asia, edited by K. L. Hutterer, pp. 39-52. Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia No. 13. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Hall, K. 1985. Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Hutterer, K. L. 1982. Houses Built on Scattered Poles: Prehistory and Ecology in Negros Oriental, Philippines, edited by K. L. Hutterer and W. K. Macdonald. University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines.

Junker, L. L. 1999. Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.

Longacre, W. A. 1985. Pottery Use-Life among the Kalinga, Northern Luzon, the Philippines, in Decoding Prehistoric Ceramics, edited by Ben A. Nelson, pp. 335-346. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.

Peterson, J.A. 2003. Cebuan Chiefdoms? Archaeology of Visayan and Colonial Landscapes in the 16th and Ê 17th Century Philippines. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society: Special Issue: Philippine Archaeology: Directions and Re-Directions, Vol. 31(March-June): 46-97, University of San Carlos, Cebu

Ronquillo, W. P. 2003. Philippine Terrestrial Archaeology (1998-2001) and Future Trends in Philippine Archaeological Research. Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society 31:98-118.

Solheim, W. G. II. 2002. The Archaeology of Central Philippines: A Study Chiefly of the Iron Age and Its Relationships. University of the Philippines, Quezon City, Philippines.

Primary Sources

Historic documents
Ethnoarchaeological information
Archaeological ceramics
Geochemical analyses

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois-Chicago. 2011. 553 pp. Primary Advisor: Laura L. Junker.

Image: A potter in the Philippines forming cooking pots using paddle-and-anvil. Copyright Lisa C. Niziolek, 2004.

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