Michael Deal, Archaeology Unit, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland

This paper was prepared for the Electronic Symposium "Across the Great Divide: Ethnoarchaeological Perspectives on Ceramic Assemblage Formation." Society for American Archaeology, 70th Annual Meeting, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 30-April 3, 2005. Please address comments and suggestions for improvements to the author (


The author has argued on a number of occasions that ethnoarchaeological research can be used to predict and identify prehistoric ceramic patterning associated with the households of potters (Deal 1988, 1994, 1998:70-76, 2000). For instance, ethnoarchaeological studies have provided archaeologists with valuable models for understanding the distinctive modes of pottery production and for identifying their archaeological traces (e.g., Balfet 1965; Peacock 1982; Santley et al. 1989). They have also suggested new techniques and criteria for the recognition of prehistoric production areas (Arnold 1991; Deal 1988; Nicholson and Patterson 1985, 1992; Stark 1985). Such studies are relevant to current research in household archaeology (e.g., Hirth 1993; Sheets et al. 1990), in that specialized pottery-making activity areas, other than kilns, are rarely identified at archaeological housesites.

Ethnoarchaeological research also indicates that the household assemblage of a potter differs from that of a non-potter due to various aspects of production and the differential use, or reuse, of the finished vessels. It is suggested here that a cross-cultural ethnoarchaeological comparison of the inventories of modern potting households might be useful for identifying prehistoric household assemblages. This paper traces the ceramic production sequence in terms of its various stages, spatial organization, and residues, in order to more fully understand the development of the potter's household inventory and it prehistoric counterpart.

Study areas

The research presented here is based on ethnoarchaeological research among the Tzeltal Maya and Greek Cypriots (Deal 1998; Deal et al. 1993). Both areas have had a long history of ethnographic, and more recently, ethnoarchaeological research devoted to pottery-making (e.g., Arnold 1991, London et al. 1990; Yon 1985). Furthermore, domestic potters in both regions still produce vessel forms with prehistoric prototypes, dating to the Maya Classic period and Cypriot Bronze Age (Deal 1998; Karageorghis 1990). Comparative information is drawn from several sources. In particular, Kramer (1997:184-212) provides a set of scale drawings of 40 Indian potting households that are directly comparable to the Maya and Cypriot field drawings. As with the Maya and Greek Cypriots, most Indian potters must organize their craft activities with consideration for other activities and size constraints of households (also see David and Kramer 2001:273-278).

The Maya research was conducted during two field trips to the Tzeltal Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico (1977 and 1979). The highland Tzeltal are predominantly corn and bean agriculturalists. Farming, as well as craft activities such as basketry, weaving and pottery-making, are practiced at the household level. In the villages of Chanal and Aguacatenango, 34 pottery-making households were recorded and detailed information was collected on pottery production tools and activities. Several other potters were visited in the Tzeltal and Tojolabal Maya areas and Guatemala Highlands. Chanal potters produce virtually all of the poorer quality vessels used within the community, while more finely made vessels are imported from specialist communities. By contrast, the five Aguatenango potters had moved to the village from the neighboring pottery specialist community of Amatenango and produce a wider range of vessel forms.

Among Chanal potters there is considerable variation in the intensity of production. Most Chanal households can be characterized as producing at a household production level, that is, a low frequency of pottery-making events, the production of small quantities of a limited number of vessel forms, and primarily household consumption. The major concern of these potters is to replace vessels broken the previous year or to add vessels if the household has grown in size. Sixteen Chanal households that produce 30 or less vessels per year would fall into this category. Other potters, who produce additional pottery to sell or barter within the community must be considered elementary specialists in a household industry. They make pottery more often and in larger quantities, although they generally produce the same vessel forms as the domestic potter. The remaining 13 households would fall into this category, although only four of these produce over 100 vessels per year (Deal 1998:Table 3.1).

The Greek Cypriot research was conducted in 1993 while the author was taking archival film footage of traditional potters of the Troodos Mountains area. The economy of this region is based primarily on vegetable farming and orchardry (i.e., fruits, nuts and vineyards; Cyprus 1991:143). Pottery making was once a thriving industry in a few Troodos villages (e.g., Hampe and Winter 1962; Matson 1974). All of the 13 active potters, as well as two retired potters, were visited during this research. Cypriot pottery-making is traditionally a household industry and nine of the potters are comparable to the Maya elementary specialists. Five other potters in the village of Kornos worked in pottery co-operative which produces for both national and foreign markets (Pettus 1993:28). The co-operative workshop is not included in this study.

Organization and Outcomes of Ceramic Production

Ethnoarchaeological information was used in two previous studies by the author to model the spatial organization of pottery production (Deal 1994, 2000). In these studies the physical focus of production was identified as the pottery production area. This area is composed of smaller specialized activity areas devoted to the processing and storage of raw materials, modeling, drying and firing new vessels, and storing newly fired vessels. A greater number of activity areas, tools and facilities and a greater generation of refuse is expected to result from an increase in production intensity (for discussion see Santley and Kneebone 1993), yet the size and organization of the production area may not change appreciably. Disposal areas for production waste may also be located within this area (e.g., Blitzer 1990:684) and microdebitage from production activities will be trampled into earthen floors of work areas. The ethnoarchaeological literature indicates that these activities tend to cluster around a single structure, which may be a dwelling unit or a separate workshop (e.g., Evely 1988:402; Kramer 1997). Even at the domestic level of production, a structure is needed for the storage of pottery-making tools and finished pots, as well as a place to work during rainy weather. In the following discussion this building is identified as the potting structure.

While household workshops do not conform to a "standard plan" (Blitzer 1990:683), they do reflect the distinctive spatial requirements of pottery production. Furthermore, the spatial configuration of production activities must conform to the general organization of houselots, and structural units within the houselots. Houselots in both areas are generally rectangular or square units with fenced or walled boundaries, which are entered from a street or pathway on at least one side. Chanal houselots average more than 3000 squaremeters in area, while the Cypriot houselots are much smaller, ranging between 300 and 650 square meters. Variations from the rectangular houselot shape can often be related to local topographic conditions. For example, one Cypriot housesite (Phini Household 2) was cut into a hillside. In both areas, where discernable, houselot shapes were variable in prehistoric times, yet rectangular configurations are common.

Both the Tzeltal Maya and Greek Cypriot build houses that are rectangular in floor plan. However, the Maya generally build separate kitchen and living house units, while the Cypriots build one-story, multi-room structures. All other structures on houselots tend to have smaller dimensions. Chanal houselots also include sweatbaths and outside corn storage bins, but sweatbaths are not common at lowland Tzeltal housesites and corn bins are more often inside in some Tzeltal communities (Blake and Blake 1988).

In Chanal, the main structures are entered from a hard-packed earthen patio, similar to the courtyards of Greek Cypriot houses. The latter are generally paved, although photographic evidence from earlier ethnographic studies suggest that this is a relatively recent practice (Hampe and Winter 1962; Taylor and Tufnell 1930). In some smaller households, the courtyard is almost completely surrounded by structures. In Maya houselots and larger Cypriot houselots, pathways connect the general patio or courtyard area to other facilities. In both areas, structures with similar function tend to be clustered together.

The three specialized production activities that produce distinctive archaeological traces are modeling, processing, and firing. There is some flexibility in the spatial organization of modeling due to the portability of modeling equipment (for discussion see Arnold 1991:100ff.). The coiling technique of vessel construction is used in both study areas. Tzeltal potters build vessels on a small stationary palette. Cypriot potters also use palettes but place them on a movable turntable (or "slow wheel"; Johnston 1974), which is rotated using the foot during vessel construction. Birmingham (1974:22-25) traces this type of wheel back to the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age. Despite the portability of this equipment and handheld finishing tools, there is a definite preference in both areas for modeling near the entrance of the potting structure. In fact, modeling is consistently done closer to the entrance of the potting structure than are processing or firing activities (Table 1). Most often it is done outside the structure, on the patio (or courtyard), to take advantage of natural sunlight. The portable equipment makes it easy to move the entire operation just inside the doorway if there is a change in the weather. Even in the specialist workshops of the eastern Mediterranean, there is a conscious attempt to set up fixed pottery wheels near windows or doorways for natural light (Peacock 1982:30). The Rajasthani potters studied by Kramer (1997) have a similar spatial organization, although much more variation is exhibited in the household workshop plans.

Table 1: Houselot location of specialized activity areas and average distance from the entrance of the potting structure.*


Tzeltal: Modeling Processing Firing
Roofed Structure 4 3 10
Patio/Courtyard 25 22 6
Other 0 4 13
Mean Distance (m) 3.5 4.2 5.7
Cypriot: Modeling Processing Firing
Roofed Structure 0 2 0
Patio/Courtyard 7 6 3
Other 2 1 6
Mean Distance (m) 3.3 7.2 13.6
Rajasthani: Modeling Processing Firing
Roofed Structure 7 10 -
Patio/Courtyard 29 28 26
Other 2 1 -
Mean Distance (m) 3.7 4.5 7.6

* Roofed structures include multi-room houses, separate house and kitchen units, sheds, etc. Patio/Courtyards include unroofed paved and unpaved areas and platforms. Other inlcudes houselot areas away from structures and patio/courtyard areas, and streets. Rasjathani information is based on scale drawings in Kramer 1997:184-212. "-" means information not supplied.


The processing of raw materials in both areas is associated with some sort of fixed facility. Among the Tzeltal Maya, clay and calcite temper are processed on heavy stone grinding equipment. This equipment is stored on or just off the patio, most often along the outside wall of the potting structure, and processing generally takes place at the storage location. Greek Cypriot potters keep a pile of raw clay near the wooden clay mixing trough, which is the focal point of processing. Clay sieving and mixing were done in separate locations in only one household. As with the Tzeltal grinding equipment, Cypriot mixing troughs tend to be located near the potting structure, and often adjacent to one wall of the structure.

The most striking difference between Maya and Cypriot pottery-making is their choice of firing methods. The Maya prefer open bonfires that vary in size according to the amount of vessels being fired at one time. For example, the nine Chanal households, in which potters fired only on their kitchen hearths had an average annual production of less than 21 vessels, while potters who fired outside in larger hearths averaged 83 vessels per year. The effects of wind are often cited as a major factor in the selection of outside, open firing locations (Arnold 1991; Rice 1987:156; Shepard 1976:176). However, Chanal potters tend to reuse a single location repeatedly. This would not be difficult since most potters required less than ten firing events per year, and could schedule firings at a time of the day when the wind is likely to be calmest (see Rice 1987:156). The only potter to indicate an alternate firing location was the potter who produced the most pottery (i.e., Household 4).

Preferred firing locations were along the edge of patios, either on or off the packed earthen surface. Hearths were always further from the main structures than other pottery-making activities, in order to avoid house fires and the pollutionof living and work spaces (e.g., Dodd 1987). Greek Cypriot potters use one of two styles of updraft kilns (London et al. 1990:62ff.). A circular, top-loading kiln is used in the mountain villages and a square-bodied, side-loading kiln is used in the foothills (or lowlands). Top-loading kilns are built against slopes to facilitate loading. As with the Tzeltal potters, kilns are built away from and often adjacent to structures to avoid polluting work spaces. In fact, one Kornos potter was forced to stop using her kiln because the smoke from firings was bothering her neighbors. In some specialist workshops in Greece, kilns are actually located in workshop buildings in order to provide a warm environment for working and drying vessels, and to prolong the potting season (Peacock 1982:30). Due to spatial limitations, Rajasthani open firing pits are located in household compounds, although some potters are forced to use open ground outside the compound or on the outskirts of the community (Kramer 1997:75).

After a firing event the potter is left with a quantity of vessels for sale and/or household use, as well as a quantity of broken or damaged vessels referred to as "wasters." Tzeltal potters put aside the more complete and partial vessels for repair or future reuse (i.e., provisional discard). Wasters were not significantly represented at Chanal firing hearths or around Cypriot kilns. In Tzeltal households smaller sherds are likely to be mixed with household trash, which is scattered about the houselot garden (milpa). According to London (1989a:221), Cyrpiot potters commonly sell the smaller sherds to builders for use as chinking materials in walls and temper in sun-dried bricks. In the Tzeltal specialist potting community of Amatenango, potters fire in the street, so that the streets of the community are littered with sherds. Kramer (1997:75) describes a similar practice in some Indian communities. Potters often recycle unfired sherds and ground up fired sherds in new vessels, as temper, or in special forms (saggers) used to protect vessels during firing (e.g., Banks 1985:272; Duncan 1998:165; London 1989b:77; Rye and Evans 1976:122).

The relative quantity of successfully fired and damaged vessels is referred to as firing loss rates. From a cross-cultural comparison of loss rates from different kinds of firing, Rice (1987:173, Table 6.1) suggests that high rates of loss are common regardless of firing technique. This information was not systematically collected for Tzeltal or Cypriot potters, but there are some anecdotal accounts. One Chanal domestic potter claimed to lose 50% of her large and small cooking jars (ollas). A Tojolabal potter visited in 1977 in Yocnajab also claimed high firing losses (see photographs). Reina and Hill (1978) made extensive observations of Maya and Ladino pottery firing in Guatemala. They indicate that several techniques were used to reduce the risk of breakage, including preheating and prefiring of vessels, firing fewer vessels at a time, using split-wood fuel, and even the ritual burning of candles and incense ( Reina and Hill 1978:115, 144). Despite these efforts, losses around 10% were reported for Maya potters of Chinautla and Mixco, but much higher rates for the Ladino potters of Salamá, where they observed large piles of discarded, damaged vessels in the houselots (Reina and Hill 1978:40, 44, 130). Stark (1985:174) also reports a 12% firing loss for the Maya potters of Ticul, Yucatan. London (1989b:76) reported only a 2% breakage rate for 1880 vessels over a two month period in Kornos. However, stacks of large broken sherds were observed by the author at one Cypriot kiln site in 1993 (Kornos Household 3), where the entire load had been ruined when the kiln wall ruptured during the previous firing. Probably a low but steady loss rate can be attributed to both areas.

Domestic potters often do not produce enough new vessels to require dedicated storage space. Newly fired vessels are merely stored with those currently in use. However, elementary specialists generally do have to make space for the vessels they have made for sale. Tzeltal potters make space in the principle dwelling or separate kitchen unit, although newly fired pots are often stored in the rafters or other raised area (Table 3). By contrast, Cypriot and Rajasthani potters generally have a dedicated storage room (in a multi-roomed dwelling) or a separate storage building. There is often a specified overflow area as well. Dedicated storage areas might be visible in archaeological contexts since they often lack evidence of features and artifacts associated with other activities.

Table 2: Storage locations for fired ceramics, reported for households that produce vessels for sale.

Fired Vessel Storage Tzeltal Maya Greek Cypriot Rajasthani*
Multi-roomed Dwelling 2 1 0
House Unit 6 0 1
House and Patio/Courtyard 0 0 1
Kitchen Unit 2 0 0
Dedicated Storage Room/Area 0 4 12
Storage Room & Dwelling 0 1 0
Storage Room & Structure Roof 0 0 1
Roof of Structure 0 0 2
Roof & Patio/Courtyard 0 0 1
Circum Patio/Courtyard 2 0 1
Separate Storage Building 0 3 0
Storage Building & Kitchen 1 0 0
Totals (n=41): 13 9 19

* Based on storage locations identified in scale drawings of pottery-making households in Kramer 1997:184-212.

Ceramic Reuse by Potters

In general, potters will have the same range of domestic vessel requirements as non-potters, but the two groups are likely to differ in the relative size and quality of household inventories. Non-potters, especially in poorer areas, are very careful to choose the best quality vessels for their homes. Vessels of inferior quality are more difficult to sell, even if repaired, and potters will often put these vessels aside for their own use. Therefore, potters tend to have more vessels in provisional discard due to the higher mortality rate of these flawed vessels, as well as through breakage during firing (as discussed above).

Ceramic production was one of the seven categories of vessel reuse identified by Deal and Hagstrum (1995:114) for the Tzeltal Maya and Wanka of Peru. A vessel is considered to be in a state of reuse when it can no longer be used effectively for its intended function. Damaged vessels are reused by Maya and Wanka potters for the storage of raw clay, unfired sherds (for recycling), calcite temper, and sand. Containers of other materials, including gourds, wood, metal, and plastic, are also used for storing raw materials. Broken vessels are used to hold water for handwetting during vessel modeling, and the use of potsherds to protect vessels during firing is widespread in both regions. Among the Wanka large sherds are used as kiln doors and handles are used as kiln furniture to prop vessels (Hagstrum 1989:175). Of the 409 reused jars recorded for the Tzeltal, 55 cooking jars and eight water-carrying jars were being reused in production related activities (i.e., 15%). In Chanal, reused vessels averaged more than 20% of the household inventories. The Greek Cypriot potters also make extensive use of wasters. Large sherds are used to close kiln roofs and doors, and to raise vessels from the kiln floor (e.g., Hampe and Winter 1962:figs. 44 and 45; London et al. 1990:62, figs. 77, 79, 84; Taylor and Tufnell 1930:119). Sherds are also used to carry charcoal from the house to light the fire in the kiln (London 1989a:221).

Numerous other cases of vessel reuse in ceramic production activities have been recorded in the ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological literature. Reina and Hill (1978) give several examples from Guatemala. The Maya potters of Chinautla and Chiantla use broken potsherds in their open fires to conserve heat, to prevent gusts of wind from disturbing the fire, and to prop up unsteady vessels (Reina and Hill 1978:40, 107, plate 182). In San Cristóbal Totonicapán broken vessels provide a platform for the kindling used in the fire, while in Santa María Chiquimula potters reuse necks and handles broken from wasters as vessel props, and in San Raimundo broken pots are reused as props for firing tortilla griddles (comales; Reina and Hill 1978:49, 76, 86, plate 61). In the Ladino communities of Trancas and El Barrial, broken tortilla griddles are placed on the heated ground as a base for the vessels to be fired (Reina and Hill 1978:175).

In South America, Duncan (1998:144) reports that the potters of Ráquira, Columbia, use broken sherds to support vessels during modeling. Broken vessels are also reused for soaking clay and large sherds are used in kilns to separate vessels from the flames (Duncan 1998:165, 169, 174). Banks (1985:272) indicates that the Morrope of northern Peru put broken sherds on the top of open pit fires to help maintain an even temperature and to prevent the covering of straw and dung from falling in among the vessels being fired. The Shipibo-Canibo use sherds in kiln construction and as scoops for removing charcoal from kilns (DeBoer and Lathrap 1979:111, 112). The Aymara also use sherds for scraping vessels during modeling (Tschopik 1950:209).

Kramer (1997:72) also reports extensive reuse of broken vessels and sherds for Rajasthani potters. Broken vessels are reused as containers for raw materials (i.e., dry and wet clay, water, ash for padding, and pigments) and fuels (i.e., donkey dung, sawdust, and wood). Some vessels are intentionally broken for reuse as molds for bread griddles (Kramer 1997:51, fig. 23). She also indicates that an important feature of potters' workshops, households, and neighborhoods, is enormous piles of fired potsherds (15 by 15 m or larger). The sherds are used over and over again as "... molds, palettes, rotary devices for pots being decorated, rests for vessels being paddled or left to dry, or to cover leather-hard pots arranged in preparation for a bonfire" (Kramer 1997:73; fig. 32). This is a distinctive form of provisional discard that is not evident in Maya or Greek Cypriot contexts, and seems to be related to the frequency and scale of production, as well as spatial constraints within household compounds and neighborhoods. Rye and Evans (1976:122-123) report that Pakistani potters reuse broken vessels to hold slips and other materials, and to serve as molds, while large sherds serve to close the openings of kilns, and for scraping and polishing vessels during modeling. Elsewhere, the Hopi-Tewa of Arizona used sherds to protect vessels being fired, as well as vessel scrapers during modeling, and as design templates (Stanislawski 1969; 1978:221). Large sherds are also used to protect vessels during firing by the Bedik of Senegal (Atherton 1983:93), and in Upper Egypt sherds are used to separate layers of vessels being fired in kilns (Nicholson and Patterson 1985:230, plate 11).


The criteria most frequently used in the archaeological literature to recognize potting households are the presence of pottery-making tools, raw materials (clays, tempers and pigments), and kiln features and furniture such as vessel props and sherds used to protect vessels during firing (Arnold and Santley 1993; Ashmore 1988:164-165; Balkansky et al. 1997; Bryant and Brady 1986; Curet 1993:429; Johns 1977; Pool 2000; Santley et al. 1989:112ff.; Stark 1992:187ff.). Among the Maya, the tool form most often identified by archaeologists is the smoothing stone (e.g., Bryant 1988; Sheets 1979:40-41). Inorganic trace residues and microdebitage have largely been ignored as hard evidence of pottery production. In particular, ethnoarchaeological research suggests that heavy raw material processing tools, often in the form of reused corn grinding equipment or river cobbles, will show distinctive wear-patterns and residues (Deal 1988; Hayden 1987). Moveover, they are likely to be left when the housesite is abandoned. Microdebitage analysis, although a time-consuming process, has also been used successfully in fine-grain studies to determine activity area and household function (e.g., Manzanilla and Barba 1990; Metcalfe and Heath 1990).

In Cyprus, as well as Greece, there is a noticeable lack of evidence for prehistoric, Bronze Age pottery production areas, or workshops (Dickinson 1994:102; Jones 1986:874; Tournavitou 1988). Kiln features are the primary evidence for identifying workshop sites on Crete and mainland Greece (see Betancourt 1985:117-119; Davaras 1980; Evely 1988; for Near East see Falconer 1987:252; Majidzadeh 1977), but such features are almost non-existent in Cyprus (Jones 1986:880, note 46). In the literature on Bronze Age Cyprus, there is considerable disagreement as to whether production was at the level of the household industry or specialist workshops (Frankel 1988). This is an important assumption that influences our understanding of social and economic complexity for Bronze Age Cyprus. A similar argument can be made for the Classic Maya (Stark 1992:164). Pool (2000) suggests that a variety of economic, social, and environmental factors come into play when potters have a choice between kilns and open firing. For example, potters that produce coarser utilitarian wares may opt for the less costly and time-consuming open firing, while kilns may be used to fire vessels with finer pastes and decorated surfaces (Pool 2000:73).

Identifying pottery production sites is obviously important for establishing the level of production at prehistoric sites. However, a review of previous ethnoarchaeological reports from Cyprus indicate that the criteria used by Mayanists may not be entirely applicable to the Cypriot situation (see London 1989a, b). To begin with, raw materials are not kept on hand year round, as they are among the Tzeltal Maya. Pottery-making equipment, such as modeling tools, turntables, and clay mixing troughs are made from perishable materials. Further, abandoned kilns are often dismantled and the parts recycled as building materials, and wasters are removed from the kiln site and reused or sold. However, the ethnoarchaeological literature also indicates that modern potters consistently use the same locations for production activities and that kiln bases are generally left intact (London 1989a, b).

It seems that any attempt to identify prehistoric household ceramic production should begin with a consideration of the spatial organization of production itself. However, this should be complimented by surviving information on raw materials and tools of production, trace residues, microdebitage, and characteristics of the household ceramic assemblage itself. Statistical data on vessel frequencies and type diversity can also be used to identify possible pottery-making households within archaeological settlements (Rice 1987:178-179). Information from Chanal and Aquacatenango (Table 3) indicate that potters in these communities have more locally made vessels and function types in the inventories than non-potting households. This can be directly related to production activities, in that potters are more likely to repair and reuse flawed vessels from firing. They are also less likely to purchase vessels from outside the community when they can produce them for themselves. Reused vessels are also closely associated with the storage of raw materials and production activities. For example, the frequency of reused vessels and vessels in provisional discard increases dramatically with the number of potters in Chanal households (see graph).

Table 3: Comparison of Potting versus Non-potting Households for Chanal and Aguacatenango (Deal 1998:72). Note that some non-potters in Aguacatenango collected calcite to trade to potters and that only five Chanal households had no raw materials on hand.

Potting Households Non-potting Households
Stored Clay 25 (78%) 0
Stored Temper 22 (69%) Occasional
Smoothing Stones 14 (42%) 0
Metates per Household 2.1 (n=28) 1.4 (n=22)
Locally-made Vessels 36.8 (n=25) 26.2 (n=24)
Functional Vessel Types 7.1 (n=25) 5.2 (n=24)

As archaeologists, we must exploit every possible source for new ways of thinking about archaeological phenomena (Clarke 1972). The archaeological phenomenon addressed here is the identification of prehistoric household pottery production. Archaeologically relevant data, drawn from ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological research, can be used to model production activities and to explore variability among contemporary pottery-making cultures. This in turn can provide archaeologists with new ways of thinking about and identifying prehistoric ceramic production.

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