Archive for the ‘ceramic archeology’ Category

Where We All Belong

December 20, 2015

Any visitor to the Grand Canyon can appreciate the enormity of space confronting them.  This expanse is as awe-inspiring to the eye as it is difficult for the mind to fully fathom.

Which, obviously, brings us to the complete redefinition of the ceramics scene during the era of England’s North American colonial adventure.  European potters of the time had embarked on a series of transformational explorations rarely matched before or since.  Every household aspired to own a piece of this ‘great leap forward.’  Marketing efforts by the likes of Josiah Wedgwood aimed to fulfill those aspirations.  It was a race to the top motivated by status, technology, and money… 

From this pinnacle of success one could look down, all the way down to the most marginalized, dispossessed communities in colonial society: indentured Irish and Scottish immigrants, decimated indigenous tribes, enslaved Africans. 

These communities also marveled at the fancy new wares.  But slaves, Indians, and indentured servants didn’t fit Staffordshire’s advertising profile.  So they did what people had done since Paleolithic times.  They dug up whatever local clay was available, hand-formed it into rudimentary but useable pottery, piled wood over it, and set the lot on fire.  A small batch of what is now called "Colonoware" soon emerged from the ashes. 

Colonoware is a unique pit-fired pottery type because much of it crudely but intentionally mimicked the Colonial era’s refined ceramics.  It was, in fact, a mash-up of West African, Late Woodland, and early Irish/Scottish styles, flavored with the full force of Stoke-on-Trent.

Archeology tells us marginalized communities occasionally owned cast-away pieces of refined ceramics, chipped, broken, or otherwise conferred upon them by society’s betters.  Archeology also tells us Colonoware was found in households at every level of colonial society, from the lowliest hovels to the kitchens of governor’s mansions.  

And why not?  Not every kitchen supply needed storing in fancy pottery.  Many cooks would even assert that certain dishes were best prepared in these crude earthenware pots.

Nobody held Colonoware, or those who made it, to any standard of beauty or status.  Nobody at the time even thought to give Colonoware a name.  But it spanned the chasm between the Industrial Revolution and the Paleolithic.  And it did so in the intimacy of colonial homes across all ethnic, social, and economic boundaries.  Except for that, Colonoware would hardly be worth noting at all.

Readings:

Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.

The Hit Parade #10: The Venus of Doln Věstonice

February 22, 2015

“Where to begin?  Ah yes, at the beginning.” – Bilbo Baggins.

Vénus-de-Dolní-VěstoniceBetween roughly 30-40,000  years ago (+/- a few millennia) somebody got the idea to create art.  Thus began human beings.

Who knows what sorts of wood carving, bark weaving, or natural dye paintings have decayed into nothingness over the centuries.  About all that remains are cave paintings, bone etchings and, of course, clay figurines.

Imagine being the very first person to pull a ceramic object from a fire pit.  You just transmuted one material into an entirely different one – on purpose.

People had used clay to line fire pits, make adobe bricks, and even to model animals (they still sit, unfired, in some of those ancient caves) for a few thousand years before this moment.  But in what is now eastern Europe, something new happened.  Thousands of clay pebbles were made specifically to toss into the hottest parts of an open hearth fire.  Some exploded, others didn’t.  Divination, perhaps?  Or just entertainment – the thrill of pre-historic fireworks?

These same forgotten people also made little clay figures and tossed them into the fire.  The figurine shown here is a survivor of that pit, and of the ensuing 25,000 years.  It was uncovered near the Czech village of Doln Věstonice in 1925.  It’s small, like the many other ceramic objects found at the site.  About 4.4. inches tall by about 1.7 inches at its widest.

This figurine has been dubbed the “Venus of Doln Věstonice.”  It is the most evocative Paleolithic sculpture yet unearthed.  To a modern eye it represents a sophisticated reduction of elements to the utmost essentials.  When looking at this object, the overwhelming impulse is to ask “why?”  And “why” is the most powerful word ever devised.

People will wonder into the unimaginable future why the Venus was made.  There will never be an answer.  I’m content just looking at this awe inspiring figurine as if I’m looking directly into the eyes of the first real humans.  Shivers.

Reading:

The Emergence of Pottery.  Barnett and Hoopes, eds.  Smithsonian Press/Washington DC.  1995.

World Class Connoisseurs of Salt-Fired German Stoneware

May 4, 2014

They say Germany’s two greatest contributions to Western Civilization were the Reformation and hops in beer.  And both happened at about the same time.

As condensed history, so it goes.  But hops also radically impacted pottery history.  Everybody wanted beer once early 16th century brewers, village housewives mostly, began producing it.  Kids even got their diluted “little beer” for breakfast.  And the best beer containers, before mass produced glass, were stoneware bottles.  Demand skyrocketed.  Germans had been tinkering with stoneware since the 10th century.  But 16th to 18th century salt-fired German stoneware became world renowned because of beer.

Unfortunately Germany’s Rhineland district, where the best work was made, was a playground of war for centuries.  Whole communities were continually uprooted by chronic warfare.  Rhennish potters from Raeren, Freshcen and Siegburg ultimately ended up in the somewhat calmer Westerwald region.

Along the way they picked up improvements in clays, sprig decorations, and brilliant manganese and cobalt highlights.  Their work spawned off-shoots, reproductions, fakes and revivals long after their dominance had passed.

German stoneware was so popular, English potters couldn’t prevent caveats from diluting their July 22, 1672 Parliamentary Order in Council meant to insulate local markets.  The final bill prohibited imports of “any kind or sort of Painted Earthen Wares whatsoever except those of China, and Stone bottles and Juggs.”

Tons of German stoneware, literally, were shipped to England’s North American colonies during the 18th century.  Ironically beer bottles and beer mugs, “krugen” and “cannen,” were not the top imports.  Chamber pots were.  But drinking vessels were close behind.  And they were scattered almost as far.

Colonists weren’t the only admirers of salt-fired German stoneware, however.  Many Native American burial sites included Westerwald jugs.  When pottery is done well, there are no boundaries to how far it will be collected.

a_westerwald_stoneware_pewter-mounted_armorial_jug_17th_century

Readings:
Stoneware in America.  Robert Hunter, ed.

Stoneware: White Salt-Glazed, Rhenish and Dry Body.  Gérard Gusset.  National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, Environment Canada/Ministry of the Environment, Ottawa, Canada.  1980.

 

A Funny Thing About Agateware

February 24, 2013

Everything about 18th century English Agateware was odd.  Maybe curious is a better word.  Production, sales, and public interest rose and fell in tandem with lulls between other ideas and fashions.  That is, agateware was so bizarre that people took note.  Until something else came along…

Of course, “agateware” (sometimes called “scroddled” ware in the US) refers to swirled layers of colored clays mimicking agate-like surfaces.  There were, are, two kinds.  Thrown (on a wheel) and laid (molded). 

John Dwight made the first recorded thrown agateware in the 1670’s.  Dwight’s Fulham shop was an innovation hotspot but he didn’t make much agate.  When Thomas Whieldon began, in the 1740’s, staining white clays instead of combining different clays of different color breakage dropped and production rose.  By the 1750’s Stoke-on-Trent potters were laying pre-mixed agate strips into molds giving more finely striated surfaces.  Production and sales jumped further, but continued to fluctuate until mass produced English porcelain nailed the coffin lid in the 1780’s.

Current opinion regarding this temperamental pottery’s inspiration points to T’ang Dynasty China; European excavators (robbers) of T’ang funeral sites brought (smuggled) examples of T’ang agateware back to the curiosity cabinets of European gentlemen collectors (fences). 

Potters by then could (and did) copy anything these gentlemen might show them.  Laid agate from 1750 onwards certainly looked technically similar to T’ang work.  This was the era of cheap European knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.  But China was weakening.  European missionaries and other no-account foreign devils freely roamed the countryside, digging up whatever they chose.

Dwight’s thrown agate happened much earlier, however, when controls were not so porous.  Even if T’ang relics were smuggled out then, Dwight was still “just” a potter – industrial pottery magnates were a couple generations away.  Could he have been that close to the Gentleman collector strata of society?  Or did Dwight rather see humble marbled pilgrim costrels from France or Italy and, in pondering those, he stumbled upon agate layered clays?

Or maybe he thought it up all by himself.  Of course, the idea that an old potter could think something up all by himself, when someone on the other side of the planet did it 900 years earlier, is ridiculous.  Where would be the fun in that?

Readings:
Ceramics in America, 2003.  Robert Hunter, Ed.   University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2003.

If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

China-Trade Porcelain.  John Phillips Goldsmith.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

 

Cheesequake

December 9, 2012

Cheesequake potters were lucky.  The little village lay next to a massive deposit of excellent stoneware clay in the Amboy region of New Jersey.  The Morgan family in Cheesequake owned the deposit.  These master potters, along with their allies the Warne and Letts families, dominated Jersey markets during the late Colonial era.

Potters near navigable waterways throughout the Colonies could purchase Morgan’s clay.  The combined Crolius and Remmey clans of New York City were particularly important customers.  These two long standing pottery families intermarried, with shops always next to each other.  Their territory significantly overlapped that of the Morgans.  But unlike Morgan, they did not sit atop hectares of superlative clay.  A previous source on “Potbakers Hill” in lower Manhattan had been swallowed up by the fast growing metropolis.  Today that spot is called “City Hall.”

So the New York Crolius/Remmey’s were dependent on the New Jersey Morgans.  Maybe their relationship was amicable.  But why was William Crolius lurking about on 1786-90 Amboy NJ tax roles?  Poking around for an exposed seam off of Morgan’s property?

The British, ever aware of the value of a good pot shop, sent a raiding party on August 8, 1777, to ransack Continental Captain (later General) James Morgan’s stoneware shop during the Revolutionary WarJohn Crolius lost his pottery to the Red Coats a year earlier due to his patriot proclivities.

After the war, thanks to canals and (eventually) railroads, Morgan’s clay almost single handedly supplied the 19th century avalanche that became The Age of American Stoneware.  The Remmey/Crolius clan withered on it’s lofty perch in Manhattan.

But the Crolius/Remmeys seem to have not given up easily.  Joseph Henry Remmey owned the Morgan pottery for a time in 1820.  In 1822 Catherine Bowne, James Morgan’s granddaughter, obtained the shop and ran it until 1835.  Clay supply success eventually eclipsed the Morgan’s own pottery business.  Potters everywhere now worked with their clay.

About all that remains of the Morgan, Werne and Letts potteries, the Crolius and Remmey potteries, and the Amboy pits themselves is archeological interest.  You can still study mute examples of this fabled material – thrown, fired and salted – in museums and Historical Societies.  But if you took a Morgan jug out from a glass case today and put it’s mouth to your ear, like a sea shell, maybe you could hear the battles that once raged over those clay pits.

Readings:

Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Decorated Stoneware Pottery of North America.  Donald Webster.  Charles Tuttle Co./Rutland Vt.  1971.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

American Stoneware.  William Ketchum.  Holt & Co./New York.  1991.

Early Potters and Potteries of New York State.  William Ketchum.  Funk & Wagnalls/New York.   1970.

Cylinders

December 11, 2011

Everybody likes to look at pictures.  Especially when the topic is pottery.  So when writing about pottery, a sure way to bore readers is to omit pictures of pots.  Perhaps it’s just difficult for some potters to know what’s going on in the story without a picture every now and then to help them out…

Pictures of broken shards probably don’t count.  Even though quite often more of the ‘big picture’ can be learned about a type, technique or trajectory of development than by looking at just the whole thing.

So what about plain unglazed cylinders?  No bottoms, no tops, just plain, straight sided cylinders.  Pretty boring stuff.  But taking a step back to look at the bigger picture can be instructive.  And hopefully, not always boring.

Some Redware potters, like Hervey Brooks of Goshen CT, kept various sized cylinders about the shop.  On hearing of these, my fist thought was trimming chucks.  But Hervey didn’t trim his pots.

One day it hit me – put a cylinder on a table, fill with a material and scoot into a bucket or quern (grinding stone basin). Seven times for lead, once for “loam,” (clay).  Maybe add a little copper or manganese for extra color (or maybe pigs blood, but that’s another story).  An ingenious way to measure out glaze materials.

Works every time.  Hmm.

Ps.  For those who need pictures, here’s a couple cylinders I keep around my shop.  But these actually are trimming chucks.

Chucks

Readings:

Hervey Brooks, Connecticut Farmer-Potter; A Study of Earthenware from His Blotters, 1822-1860.  Paul Lynn.  State University of New York College at Oneonta/New York.  1969.

Lead Glazed Pottery.  Edward Atlee Barber.  Museum of Philadelphia/Philadelphia.  1907.

 

Movie Night

February 27, 2011

Several thousand years before anyone knew there would be an Oscar Awards Ceremony, or even a film industry, there was animation.  Well, really there was pottery.  More specifically, there was an earthenware goblet discovered in Shahr-e Sūkhté, also known as “The Burnt City,” an archeological site in southern Iran dating back over 7,000 years.  Archeologists who dug up the goblet in 2008 estimate it to be about 5,200 years old.

It seems the people who made and used this goblet were a peaceful group (to date, not a single weapon has been discovered there).  The Burnt City was huge at a time when cities were pretty new.  The locals spent their time weaving and inventing stuff.  Like backgammon, rudimentary brain surgery, and how to insert a glass eye into the eye socket of a very tall woman.  And animation.

The goblet’s slip decorated rim consists of a series of gazelles alternating with idealized trees.  Researchers transcribed the goblet’s imagery along a continuum so all the way around could be seen at once.  This methodology is often done on many types of pottery, from pre-Columbian to modern, to better study iconography.  The results look like an intentionally repeated representation of a single gazelle leaping up to eat something off of a tree.  This imagery was put on an mpeg file so it could be played as an animated “film.”  The results are fascinating.

Obviously, nobody today can know the intentions of the potter.  But it isn’t hard to imagine someone getting the idea for an animated sequence.  Story telling as fodder for imagery has been around as long as there have been pots to decorate.  So a cartoon about a gazelle?  Why not?

Link:

http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/March2008/04-03.htm

How to Survive a Shipwreck

September 26, 2010

Despite Hollywood’s glamorization of sunken treasure ships, few galleons sank during the lucrative China Trade era.  But on January 3, 1752, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Geldermalsen went down near the straights of Malacca en route from Macao, China to its home in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

At sunset a reef tore the Geldermalsen’s keel apart.  The surrounding waters were shark infested.  Most sailors then couldn’t swim.  Miraculously, several crew members made it to shore.  But piracy was rampant in those waters, and the survivors were strangers in a strange land.  So even more miraculously, they evaded capture and returned home.

Their trial began two months later.  It was VOC policy to charge any crew who abandoned their ship with “gross treason.”  A guilty verdict meant death.  Fortunately for the hapless crew, they were let off.

Fortunately for us, their ship was discovered 233 years later with most of the 150,000 pieces of porcelain on board intact.  Buried under a blanket of tea.  When combined with the VOC’s scrupulous archive of invoices, this find offers a priceless record of 17th and 18th century China Trade porcelain.

The VOC was one of the first international trade cartels.  As such, they cared only for profit (ie: volume vs. fancy, difficult to pack items).  Huge returns were made on teacups alone.  Ships could carry over 100,000 teacups in a single load, with room to spare for other orders.  Teacups could be densely packed because they didn’t have handles.  Only chocolate cups did until around 1750.

To fill these massive orders, some factories in Jingdezhen were entirely geared toward European designs.  Enameling workshops popped up around European trading posts in Canton and Macao to quickly decorate plain porcelain – a Chinese version of cheap Chinese knock-offs of up-scale Chinese products.

East Indiaman sailors were allowed small personal purchases of more elaborate work on the side, in quantities corresponding to rank, as compensation for relatively poor wages.

During the Trade’s heyday, porcelain generally functioned as the ship’s ballast.  Above that went bales of tea.  The best tea went in lead-sealed crates to preserve freshness.   (During America’s China craze, “tea chest lead” was a prized source of glaze material for redware potters.)

The Geldermalsen’s load was typical: simple teacups, bowls, plates, etc.  But hardly any teapots.  The salvage crew didn’t mind, though.  After sifting through tons of decayed tea to get to the porcelain, most said they’d never drink tea again.

Geldermalsen cargo Recovered cargo from the Geldermalsen.

Reading:

The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain. CJA Jörg. Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.

China-Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

Beaker People

April 25, 2010

Some say it’s the fringe characters that prevent stagnation and propel a society forward.  Others might counter that the fringe hasn’t done the United States any favors since the year 2000.  Lunacy aside, one thing is sure.  Rogue potters have left an indelible impact on the greater story of European and American ceramics.

One could almost say it all began with such scoundrels.  As the Late Neolithic moved into the Early Bronze Age, a raucous band scourged across Europe.  They began near the mouth of the Tagus River in Portugal and split into two paths, one roughly following the Atlantic coast northwards and the other arching through Italy, central Europe and Germany.  They eventually met up again in the British Isles.  There they made some major additions to Stonehenge, turning it more into what we know it as today.  Then they faded into obscurity.

Not much else is known about these people.  Except that they seemed to be good potters.  That is, their principle calling card (for modern archeologists anyway) was a distinct type of pottery with horizontal bands of geometric patterns.  Their most recognized form was a pitcher, or “beaker,” with a somewhat oversized but functional spout shaped like the lower mandible of a parrot’s beak.  The parrot beak spout survived long after its makers faded away.  It was not uncommon even on early Italian maiolica ewers.  The spout decanted wines from Bordeaux and followed the wine trade from that region into 14th century Plantagenet England.

The prevalence of those pre-historic beakers, and the continued association of their distant offspring with wine and alcohol, led some archeologists to speculate that they may have been used in rituals “dedicated to some fermented drink.”   If that was so, the theory continues, then perhaps their makers peddled intoxicating brews – served in those beakers – as one method of subjugating invaded populations.

Who knows?  In any event, to this day we that’s how we identify them: as the “Beaker People.”

Reading:
The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain.  Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

The Poor Potter is Dead, in Three Parts.

September 17, 2009

Part One:Rogers Jar
The poor potter is Dead, and the Business of making potts and panns  is of little advantage to his family, and as little Damage to the Trade of our Mother Country.”
William Gooch, Royal Governor of Virginia in his 1745 status report to the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations regarding Yorktown potter William Rogers.

Gooch had regularly dismissed this poor potter  to the Commissioners since 1732.  Yet during that time Rogers operated a huge earthenware and stoneware manufactory.  He made everything from crocks to bird houses.  His specialty was Fulham style stoneware mugs, fired in special saggars.

Rogers didn’t just make pottery.  He flaunted it.  His wares were traded (in his own ships)  from New England to the West Indies.   His operation was probably the largest of it’s kind in Colonial America at the time.  I’ve visited his kiln site.  It’s huge.  (It’s not far from where a British army under Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington’s Continental Army and their French Navy allies in the last major military clash of the Revolutionary War thirty four years later.)

Rogers also ran a brewery, was “Surveyor of the Landings, Streets and Cosways in York Town” (allowing him to use his shards to pave streets), and Captain of the Troop.  In short, he was one of the wealthiest people of the colony.

Royal governors were supposed to enforce laws suppressing colonial production of consumer goods.  Such goods were meant to be purchased from factories of metropolitan England.  But many governors, like Gooch, supported the locals by issuing bogus reports about “poor potters” and such.  It’s possible Rogers was just a pottery owner, given the extent of his other activities and his wealth.  Who ever heard of a rich potter?  Still, all existing accounts of him highlight his potting activities.  So I prefer to think of him as the country’s first major pottery figure.

If he wasn’t, why should Gooch mention him at all?

Readings:
Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

Domestic Pottery of the Northeastern United States, 1625-1850.  Sarah Peabody Turnbaugh, Ed.  Academic Press/New York.  1985.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

The “Poor Potter” of Yorktown.  C. Malcom Watkins and Ivor Noel Hume.  United States National Museum Bulletin 249.  Smithsonian Institution Press.  1967.