As archaeologists exploring a new site, we’re initially focused on figuring out 1) what happened and 2) when. Our questions will become more interesting as we learn more, but for now we need to determine the basics: how the walls at the site add up to a structure (or possibly more than one), when it was built, what kind of building it is (a house, or something else?) and when it was in use.
As we excavate different parts of the site, and later clean artifacts in lab, we’re keeping an eye on the likely dates of the items that we find. There are several different ways that we determine dates of individual items:
- We may be able to estimate a date range based on the style of a piece, much the way that a keen car enthusiast can distinguish between a classic Mustang and the modern version.
- We may use information about when a particular manufacturing technique was invented, so that, say, a glass bottle with particular kind of scar on its base must date to after 1905, when the machine that leaves that mark was first used.
- We may find markings on the artifact that identify the manufacturer and allow us to determine the approximate date of a piece. Such marks, called maker’s marks, are fairly common on ceramic tablewares like plates and cups and tea pots.
If you happen to like browsing antique shops or rummaging through estate sales, you’ve probably encountered maker’s marks before. They’re usually printed or impressed on the base of a ceramic piece, like this:
The marks vary considerably. They might include the manufacturer’s name, images or logos, place names, pattern names, the year that the company was founded, and so on. In this particular case, the mark consists of an image of a crown with the manufacturer’s name (Taylor & Kent) and location (Longton, England). Manufacturers changed their marks fairly often, adding different bits of text or changing their logos– a stroke of good fortune for those of us who want to date these things. All we have to do to date the piece is to know when each company used each mark and when they switched to the next variation.
That’s where Geoffrey A. Godden comes in. Godden was an antique dealer and ceramics expert who referred to himself as a “Chinaman” (meaning a dealer in china). He wrote numerous books about British pottery, including his famous Encyclopedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks, which lists more than 4000 maker’s marks. (Godden died last year, at the age of 87; his obituary, including photos of him scrutinizing pottery on Antiques Roadshow, is here, in the Telegraph.)
Godden’s book, like other dictionaries of marks, is a painstakingly compiled list of pottery manufacturers, the marks that they used, and the dates that each mark was in use. To determine the date range for a piece of pottery, you simply look up the maker’s name and find the mark that matches the one on your piece.
For example, Godden lists Taylor & Kent as one of the Staffordshire potteries, based in Longton, that began doing business in 1867. Then he provides six different marks, each used in a particular time frame.
The mark on my saucer matches number 3810, the one in the upper right, with a date range of circa 1912+. That means that the saucer could have been made any time after about 1912. It also implies that the saucer might be before ca. 1939, when the rearing horse mark came into use, but that’s not certain– manufacturers might use different marks at the same time, but on different pieces or patterns.
Looking up dates for marks can be pretty satisfying, but as archaeologists we often have a harder time of it than most collectors would. Imagine, for example, how you’d look up these marks, on sherds found at the site this past week:
We can see snippets of images, as well as a few words, on each sherd, but it’s an awful lot more difficult to deal with marks when we don’t have a manufacturer’s name to look up! Still, with a bit of persistence and a lot of patience, we can often match even these fragments to a particular maker’s mark. I’ll explain more about how we find a match for such fragments in a future post.