Archive for the ‘pit firing’ 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.

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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.