3D Burial Vessels from the UFBA Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Over the course of the last month, I have been very fortunate to participate in a sponsored research initiative aimed at establishing international rapport with like-minded institutions in Brazil. While I was initially skeptical of my part in this endeavor–those of you that know me also know that 1) I don’t, or at least, didn’t, speak Portuguese; and 2) I typically work somewhere around (or close to) Texas–removing myself from all that is familiar, both personally and professionally, provided a much-needed distraction from what was quickly becoming my comfort zone. This opportunity also injected new life into my abstract thought process by allowing me to study a topic that is intimately familiar, yet also–in this case–extremely foreign.


The CRHR found a formidable partner in the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA) Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. There we were able to put our 3D scanner to work on a wide range of ceramic vessels from a collection that was excavated by Brazil’s first professional archaeologist (Valentin Calderon). The design, shape and function of these burial vessels are markedly different than those with which I have worked in the past.


Creating a 3D scan of an Aratu burial vessel.

The vessels are fairly large, and while I have become accustomed to vessels containing offerings, these vessels served as containers for human remains (referred to as urns). The urns are composed of one or two pieces; occurring with and without lids. Vessel size is variable (the scale at bottom left is 100mm, or 10cm) and may be related to the size of the individual being buried, but the shape is somewhat consistent; at least for those vessels that are assumed to have contained adult burials (vessels c, d and e). The smaller burial vessels (a and b) contained children. While I do not yet have a copy of the original data, there are numerous radiocarbon dates from human remains recovered in Aratu Tradition burials.


Aratu burial vessels in the Calderon Collection.
(click to enlarge)

From a visual inspection, it is evident that these are coil-built ceramics. All are undecorated sand/grit-tempered (where grit = small [natural] non-plastic inclusions < 1.5cm) ceramics. The burial urns are part of what Calderon defined as the Aratu tradition, which dates from A.D. 1000-1500 in Bahia. The type site for this tradition is the Guipe site, located in the industrial center of Aratu, some 16 kilometers from Salvador. More recently, three Aratu phases were defined as the Jaraguá, Itaci and Sapucaí by Ondemar Dias. The vessels from the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia appear to fit nearest forms 12 and 16 of the Aratu/Sapucai tradition (see Chmyz et al. 2009).


Perfis de bordas e formas de vasilhas da tradição Aratu/Sapucaí na região do Triângulo Mineiro. Formas 11 a 21. (Chmyz et al. 2009: Figure 2).

Basic features of the Aratu culture are: a) rolled [coil-built] ceramics, without decoration with smooth surfaces or graphite decoration; b) pear shaped funerary urns with and without lids, of 70-75cm high, small pottery employed as covers for the funeral urns; c) semi-spherical pots with undulated rims; d) primary burials in urns, outside the villages; e) circular villages with the huts circling a central square; located in high, smooth places; f) subsistence not based on the exclusive use of manioc. The absence of roasters and flat pottery seems to indicate that subsistence was corn, bean and peanut based; plantation routing enabled settlements during longer periods; g) elongated, chiseled and polished blades and heavy polished granite axes; simple small axes (8-10cm long); h) large stone and ceramic fuse wheels indicating the spinning of hammocks and coarse fabrics…; i) tubular pipes or funnel shaped; j) polished rock fragments with artificial depressions used for crushing grains (Martin 2008). It is not clear at present whether some form of correlation exists between lidded vessels and some other factor (size, age of interred individual etc.).


2D screenshot of one of the 3D scans of Aratu burial vessels.

There remains much to glean from a more formal study of these vessels, and we certainly have our work cut out for us. I am hard at work translating the relevant archaeological literature as quickly as I can, but–as it turns out–that’s a tall order. Over the coming weeks, I’ll begin introducing you to the various Brazilian ceramics (including other variants of the Aratu Tradition ceramics) that we were able to access and scan. Per our agreement with the Museu, the 3D scans, photos, and associated metadata produced throughout the course of this project will be made available in the CRHR’s digital repository near the end of this project.


Photograph of one of the smaller Aratu Tradition burial vessels.

An Unidentified Ceramic Burial Tradition

An additional burial vessel from the Calderon Collection falls outside of the identified burial traditions for this region of Brazil, is also an urn but much more rounded, and is corrugated as well as shell-tempered. Shell temper (thought to be marine shell temper) occurs frequently in locally-manufactured ceramics.

Burial vessels II-046.1, and II-046.2 from the Calderon Collection.

The size of the vessel is also unique. While larger than the Aratu Tradition ceramics typically used for children, it is still much smaller than those used for adults. While in Brazil, we had the opportunity to scan a few more vessels that appear to fit within this ill-understood ceramic tradition, and plan to delve into a discussion of these particular vessels in a forthcoming blog post.

Figure - Aratu and Unknown Tradition Burial Vessels

Unknown (a) and Aratu Tradition (b, c and d) burial vessels from the Calderon Collection.


We extend our sincere appreciation to the director of the Museu de Arqueologia e Ethologia, Claudio Pereira, for granting access to this collection. I am also very grateful for the aid of Mara Vasconcelos, whose guidance, patience, and language ability eased the challenge of communication. Thanks also to Lauren Selden for taking the 2D images of the vessels.


More to come on this research in the very near future.


Written by zselden

Selden (PhD, Texas A&M University, 2013) is a husband, father, US Marine Corps veteran, cyclist, kayaker, backpacker, hiker, climber, fisherman and general all-around outdoor enthusiast. His research is focused at the confluence of archaeological methods and digital technology, and he is particularly interested in the application of 3D technologies to archaeological problems, geometric morphometrics, network analyses, predictive modeling, archaeological theory, and archaeological science.

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