Craft Specialization

A Primer on Craft Specialization

Close up of hand of old woman weaving.
Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Craft specialization is what archaeologists call the assignment of specific tasks to specific people or subsets of people in a community. An agricultural community might have had specialists who made pots or knapped flints or tended crops or stayed in touch with the gods or conducted burial ceremonies. Craft specialization allows a community to get large projects completed—wars fought, pyramids built—and yet still get the day-to-day operations of the community done as well.

How Does Craft Specialization Develop?

Archaeologists generally believe that hunter-gatherer societies were/are primarily egalitarian, in that most everyone did most everything. A recent study on modern hunter-gatherers suggests that even though a select portion of the community group goes out to do the hunting for the whole (i.e., what you would imagine would be hunting specialists) when they return, they pass the knowledge ​on to the next generations, so everyone in the community understands how to hunt. Makes sense: should something happen to the hunters, unless the hunting process is understood by everyone, the community starves. In this way, knowledge is shared by everyone in the community and no one is indispensable.

As a society grows in population and complexity, however, at some point certain kinds of tasks became overly time-consuming, and, theoretically anyway, someone who is particularly skilled at a task gets selected to do that task for his or her family group, clan, or community. For example, someone who is good at making spearpoints or pots is selected, in some process unknown to us, to dedicate their time to the production of these items.

Why is Craft Specialization a "Keystone" to Complexity?

Craft specialization is also part of the process that archaeologists believe may kickstart societal complexity.

  1. First, someone who spends their time making pots may not be able to spend time producing food for her family. Everybody needs pots, and at the same time the potter must eat; perhaps a system of barter becomes necessary to make it possible for the craft specialist to continue.
  2. Secondly, specialized information must be passed on in some way, and generally protected. Specialized information requires an educational process of some kind, whether the process is simple apprenticeships or more formal schools.
  3. Finally, since not everyone does exactly the same work or has the same lifeways, ranking or class systems might develop out of such a situation. Specialists may become of higher rank or lower rank to the rest of the population; specialists may even become society leaders.

Identifying Craft Specialization Archaeologically

Archaeologically, evidence of craft specialists is suggested by patterning: by the presence of different concentrations of certain types of artifacts in certain sections of communities. For example, in a given community, the archaeological ruins of the residence or workshop of a shell tool specialist might contain most of the broken and worked shell fragments found in the whole village. Other houses in the village might have only one or two complete shell tools.

Identification of the work of craft specialists is sometimes suggested by archaeologists from a perceived similarity in a certain class of artifacts. Therefore, if ceramic vessels found in a community are pretty much the same size, with the same or similar decorations or design details, that may be evidence that they were all made by the same small number of individuals-craft specialists. Craft specialization is thus a precursor to mass production.

Some Recent Examples of Craft Specialization

  • Cathy Costin's research using examinations of design elements to identify how craft specialization worked among Inka groups in 15th and 16th century AD Peru [Costin, Cathy L. and Melissa B. Hagstrum 1995 Standardization, labor investment, skill, and the organization of ceramic production in late prehispanic highland Peru. American Antiquity 60(4):619-639.]
  • Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth of Indiana University continue experimental replication of craft technology at the Stone Age Institute.
  • Kazuo Aoyama discusses the Aguateca site in Guatemala, where an abrupt attack of the Classic Maya center preserved evidence of specialized bone or shell working.


  • Aoyama, Kazuo. 2000. Ancient Maya State, Urbanism, Exchange, and Craft Specialization: Chipped Stone Evidence from the Copan Valley and the LA Entrada Region, Honduras. Siglo del Hombre Press, Mexico City.
  • Aoyama, Kazuo. Craft Specialization and Elite Domestic Activities: Microwear Analysis of Lithic Artifacts from Aguateca, Guatemala. Online report submitted to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
  • Arnold, Jeanne E. 1992 Complex hunter-gatherer-fishers of prehistoric California: Chiefs, specialists, and maritime adaptations of the Channel Islands. American Antiquity 57(1):60-84.
  • Bayman, James M. 1996 Shell ornament consumption in a classic Hohokam platform mound community center. Journal of Field Archaeology 23(4):403-420.
  • Becker, M. J. 1973 Archaeological evidence for occupational specialization among Classic Maya at Tikal, Guatemala. American Antiquity 38:396-406.
  • Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. and Timothy K. Earle (eds). 1987 Specialization, Exchange, and Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Camillo, Carlos. 1997. . L P D Press
  • Costin, Cathy L. 1991 Craft Specialization: Issues in Defining, Documenting, and Explaining the Organization of Production. In Archaeological Method and Theory volume 1. Michael B. Schiffer, ed. Pp. 1-56. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Costin, Cathy L. and Melissa B. Hagstrum 1995 Standardization, labor investment, skill, and the organization of ceramic production in late prehispanic highland Peru. American Antiquity 60(4):619-639.
  • Ehrenreich, Robert M. 1991 Metalworking in Iron Age Britain: Hierarchy or heterarchy? MASCA: Metals in Society: Theory beyond analysis. 8(2), 69-80.
  • Evans, Robert K. 1978 Early craft specialization: an example from the Balkan Chalcolithic. In Charles L. Redman and et al., eds. Pp. 113-129. New York: Academic Press.
  • Feinman, Gary M. and Linda M. Nicholas 1995 Household craft specialization and shell ornament manufacture in Ejutla, Mexico. Expedition 37(2):14-25.
  • Feinman, Gary M., Linda M. Nicholas, and Scott L. Fedick 1991 Shell working in prehispanic Ejutla, Oaxaca (Mexico): Findings from an exploratory field season. Mexicon13(4):69-77. 
  • Feinman, Gary M., Linda M. Nicholas, and William D. Middleton 1993 Craft activities at the prehispanic Ejutla site, Oaxaca, Mexico. Mexicon15(2):33-41. 
  • Hagstrum, Melissa 2001 Household Production in Chaco Canyon Society. American Antiquity 66(1):47-55.
  • Harry, Karen G. 2005 Ceramic Specialization and Agricultural Marginality: Do Ethnographic Models Explain the Development of Specialized Pottery Production in the Prehistoric American Southwest? American Antiquity 70(2):295-320.
  • Hirth, Kenn. 2006. Obsidian Craft Production in Ancient Central Mexico: Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.
  • Kenoyer, J. M. 1991 The Indus Valley tradition of Pakistan and Western India. Journal of World Prehistory 5(4):331-385.
  • Masucci, Maria A. 1995 Marine shell bead production and the role of domestic craft activities in the conomy of the Guangala phase, southwest Ecuador. Latin American Antiquity 6(1):70-84.
  • Muller, Jon 1984 Mississippian specialization and salt. American Antiquity 49(3):489-507.
  • Schortman, Edward M. and Patricia A. Urban 2004 Modeling the roles of craft production in ancient political economies. Journal of Archaeological Research 12(2):185-226
  • Shafer, Harry J. and Thomas R. Hester. 1986 Maya stone-tool craft specialization and production at Colha, Belize: reply To Mallory. American Antiquity 51:158-166.
  • Spence, Michael W. 1984 Craft production and polity in early Teotihuacan. In Trade and Exchange in Early Mesoamerica. Kenneth G. Hirth, ed. Pp. 87-110. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Tosi, Maurizio. 1984 The notion of craft specialization and its representation in the archaeological record of early states in the Turanian Basin. In Marxist perspectives in archaeology. Matthew Spriggs, ed. Pp. 22-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vaughn, Kevin J., Christina A. Conlee, Hector Neff, and Katharina Schreiber 2006 Ceramic production in ancient Nasca: provenance analysis of pottery from the Early Nasca and Tiza cultures through INAA. Journal of Archaeological Science 33:681-689.
  • Vehik, Susan C. 1990 Late Prehistoric Plains Trade and Economic Specialization. Plains Anthropologist 35(128):125-145.
  • Wailes, Bernard (editor). 1996. Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe. University Museum Symposium Series, Volume 6 University Museum Monograph - UMM 93. University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - University of Pennsylvania.
  • Wright, Henry T. 1969. The Administration of Rural Production in an Early Mesopotamian Town. 69. Ann Arbor, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. Anthropological Papers.
  • Yerkes, Richard W. 1989 Mississippian craft specialization in the American Bottom. Southeastern Archaeology 8:93-106.
  • Yerkes, Richard W. 1987 Prehistoric Life on the Mississippi Floodplain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Craft Specialization." ThoughtCo, Sep. 21, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, September 21). Craft Specialization. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Craft Specialization." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).