My mother grew up in Dublin city. Along with the many street games they played as kids they used to collect chainies. These were pretty pieces of broken ceramics and pottery. They were collected and traded by the children like a form of currency.
Ceramics are an amazing paradox because they are at one time one of the most fragile and one of the most enduring elements of human civilization. Ceramics are man made. They are almost an integral part of human civilization, occuring all round the world from Ancient Japan in the East to Mesoamerica in the West. The earliest pottery dates from 30,000 BC.
Pottery developed independently in different human civilizations. In Asia, Europe, Africa and in the Americas. I don’t want to write a history of ceramics, but I do want to say that ceramics are integral to archaeology because of the fragile/durable paradox.
Fired clay ceramics can create beautiful vessels. These vessels are delicate and fragile. If you drop a bowl, a cup or a vase it will shatter and the vessel is lost. But the chainies, the smashed pieces of ceramic are not. They are pretty much indestructable. Because they are durable they hang around. They do not rot or crumble. They don’t wash away or burn up. They don’t rust or oxidise. Those little broken shards endure.
And because they don’t go away they are brilliant markers. If you can read the code of the chainies you can rapidly understand much about a culture. You can assess the age of the civilization that created the pottery. You can tell much about that civilization. Is the pottery made with utility in mind or is it artistic. Is it plain or glazed? Earthenware, stoneware, porcelain or bone china? Is it coloured, decorated? How? Are the images scratched into the clay, painted into the glaze or painted and glazed with a slip? The pottery tells you a tale of the people.
So what do the chainies tell you of the little girls in Dublin who collected them? At once you have a highly sophisticated society which can produce stunningly beautiful ceramics, and at the same time you have kids who collect stashes of smashed cups and saucers.
Do rich kids collect chainies?