EMU Volume 20 – Chapter 6

The Contribution of Mineralogy to Cultural Heritage

Chapter 6. The struggle between thermodynamics and kinetics: Phase evolution of ancient and historical ceramics

R. B. Heimann and M. Maggetti

Making ceramics by firing of clay is essentially a reversal of the natural weathering process of rocks. Millennia ago, potters invented simple pyrotechnologies to recombine the chemical compoundsonce separated by weathering inorder toobtainwhatis more or less a rock-like product shaped and decorated according to need and preference. Whereas Nature reconsolidates clays by long-term diagenetic or metamorphic transformation processes, potters exploit a ‘short-cut’ of these processes that affects the state of equilibrium of the system being transformed thermally. This ‘short-cut’ is thought to be akin to the development of mineral-reaction textures resulting from disequilibria established during rapidly heated pyrometamorphic events (Grapes, 2006) involving contact aureoles or reactions with xenoliths. In contrast to most naturally consolidated clays, the solidified rock-like ceramic material inherits non-equilibrium and statistical states best described as ‘frozen-in’. The more or less high temperatures applied to clays during ceramic firing result in a distinct state of sintering that is dependent on the firing temperature, the duration of firing, the firing atmosphere, and the composition and grain-size distribution of the clay. Hence, the salient properties of the ceramics have to be assessed in a temperature-time-composition space. Owing to the variability of clay composition, the mineralogical processes during thermal transformation of clay minerals can be very complex, not least because most reactions occur far removed from thermodynamic equilibrium and hence are kinetically controlled; that is, they are time and temperature-dependent. Indeed, kinetics imposes constraints on thermodynamics by retarding reaction rates because of low temperatures, large temperature gradients present in primitive pottery kilns, short reaction times, inhomogeneously distributed reaction partners, and varying redox conditions triggered, for example, by ingress of air during reducing firing cycles. In the context of ceramic technological development over time, the role and development of pottery technology within complex societies is discussed. The close relationship between pottery development and changes in life/societal organization appears to be a major driver in this endeavour. In this chapter, the phase evolution of some typical ancient and historical ceramics will be traced using ceramic phase diagrams, i.e. chemographical expressions of Goldschmidt’s mineralogical phase rule. In particular, the systems CaOAl2O3SiO2 (in which most ancient low- to medium-fired ceramics can be accommodated), K2OAl2O3SiO2 (applicable to high-fired Chinese stoneware and European hardpaste porcelain) and Na2OCaO(Al2O3)SiO2 (typical of some ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian alkaline glazes and French soft-paste porcelain) are discussed.

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