The Levantine Ceramics Project (LCP) is an open-access, interactive website and digital publication, sponsored by the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR). The subject is pottery produced anywhere in the Levant, meaning the modern nations and regions of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt - from the beginnings of ceramic production in Neolithic times (c. 5500 B.C.E.) up through the Ottoman period (c. 1920 C.E.)—some 7000 years of history. The LCP is at heart a scholarly collaborative: archaeologists working throughout these countries share information in order to advance knowledge and enlarge understanding of Levantine social, cultural, and economic history. Throughout human history the Levant has been a pivotal zone: a hinge and a corridor between east and west, north and south. On this dynamic stage actors change, but the geography that frames, supports, and constrains their actions does not. Studying one period throws light on another. The LCP aims to make such study more open and more productive.
Why pottery? Pottery is powerful evidence: it leads us down a human path; it makes people and their activities visible. Of all material remains recovered by archaeologists, the most abundant is pottery. Since the sixth millennium BCE people have made clay vessels to store, prepare, cook, and serve food; hold perfume; ship commodities; burn oil for light; contain or serve as votive offerings; and help settle the dead in a more comfortable afterlife. Pottery occurs in every era and type of settlement, among every social group. Pottery provides evidence for dating buildings and other finds. Scientific analyses pinpoint origins and illuminate exchange networks. Vessel shapes, types, decorations, and quantities reflect behavior, tastes, ideas, and lifestyles. Pottery's ubiquity and variety make it a gold mine of data.
The LCP makes available data on ceramic wares, shapes, vessels, scientific analyses, kiln sites, and chronology. It is open access: anybody can search the site; anybody can register and submit information, whether long published or newly discovered. All information is linked to its originating author/contributor so as to preserve intellectual ownership. Submitters may choose from three privacy levels when adding information: fully public, to allow anyone searching the site to see it; LCP site contributors only; or fully private. In this way the LCP can function simultaneously as an archival resource for published, publically available information as well as a place for scholars to post and communicate with each other about work in progress.
The LCP was born out of a combination of idealism and frustration. The Levant’s magnetic pull on biblical and classical scholars, historians, and archaeologists has meant ever increasing excavation from the 19th century until today. The most abundant category of remains, found literally by the ton, was pottery - but 200 years of print publications created a morass of data and an overwhelmed system: unsearchable publications, inconsistent terminology, difficulties locating comparable data - all resulting in scholarship that narrowed perspectives rather than widening them. The time had come to devise a new, realistic way forward.
The LCP launched in 2011 with a two-part plan: 1) to build a web application for people to submit and search for information about pottery, and 2) to hold workshops where those who submitted information could talk with one another. In February 2012, we introduced a beta-version of the LCP at the First Workshop on Levantine Ceramic Production and Distribution. In advance, 45 contributors used on-line forms to submit data about ceramic wares, dates, shapes, types, and petrographic analyses. The beta-LCP was static; users could neither self-edit nor readily add new data. Yet workshop participants were excited because the site provided a simple format for viewing multiple categories of ceramic evidence at the same time.
In summer 2012 a seed grant from Boston University’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computational Research allowed us to build an alpha-version of the LCP in which users could submit, edit, and search for information. At the Second Workshop on Levantine Ceramic Production and Distribution, in February 2013, 58 scholars from 16 countries offered further ideas for improvement. The site underwent a third round of development over the summer of 2013. From October 2014-July 2019, we held 22 more seminars and workshops (for descriptions and summaries go here: https://workshops.levantineceramics.org) at various universities and institutes in the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Poland, Cyprus, Israel, and Turkey. Along the way we listened to the community and developed features to enhance research. The LCP is a product of collaboration, discussion, and development, still ongoing: it is built for the long haul, to keep pace along with the field.
The LCP began as an experiment in collaborative, open-access resource building, and as a gamble that a web-based application devoted to Levantine pottery could find an audience. By 2016, the experiment had succeeded. The LCP had grown to 194 contributors and just over 6000 vessels. We had built our first analytical tool – comparisons. Our annual page view count was around 50,000 across some 180 countries. In 2016, the LCP 'graduated' from experiment to stable resource, thanks to sponsorship and ongoing support from ASOR. As an ASOR research project and publication, the LCP contributes to ASOR's scholarly mission to advance knowledge and understanding of the Near East and Mediterranean worlds.
Since 2016, thanks to ASOR’s support, the LCP has become part of the field’s scholarly digital landscape. We have built new analytical tools – interactive maps, Light Table, upgraded search. We held international workshops from Ankara to Jerusalem, Warsaw to Leuven, Izmir to Nicosia, in which over 600 people participated. The number of contributors and amount of data on the site has continued to rise, along with site usage around the world. In 2021, the year that the LCP turned 10 years old, we had over 550 contributors, over 13,000 vessels, and received over 90,000 page views from every continent and almost every country around the world. The LCP experiment has become part of our field’s scholarly digital landscape.
The LCP makes disparate, hard-to-find data accessible, and provides tools to map, study, arrange, and re-arrange it for connections, ideas, and insights. Much of this material crosses borders, links regions, and illuminates intractable terrain. The Levant has always been a zone of connectivity through which people and ideas moved; the pottery left behind allows us to see them. Together, ASOR and the LCP help frame a vision of the Levant that rises above the current moment, and enables a new generation to ask and answer new questions, to understand the past – and perhaps therefore also the future – in different ways.