Artifact of the Day for May 31st, 2017 — Pearlware saucer

What a rainy day…with several successive showers it was a bit challenging, but we prevailed. Although at one point, we abandoned Nic to the rain! [zoom in to see he doesn’t seem too bothered!]

Nic is entirely too happy to be digging in the rain.
Nic is entirely too happy to be digging in the rain.

Today’s artifact came from the basement area of the structure. Faisal and Bjorn have been doggedly removing giant boulders and buckets of mud and 1960s garbage. At the base of one of the basement walls, tucked in under some large boulders came this:

Pearlware Spongeware Saucer
Pearlware Spongeware Saucer
Underside of saucer
Underside of saucer

This was quite exciting as it is the only complete piece of ceramic we have recovered from the site to date!

Our piece is what is known today as pearlware, but this is a term that did not really exist back at the time this piece was new. The history of pearlware is quite interesting (and long!) but here is a brief summary:

The most inexpensive type of pottery used for tablewares in Britain in the later 1700s was something called creamware. These ceramic pieces had a creamy off-white colour clay, and a glaze that was tinted very lightly green by iron oxide. The resulting ceramic looks creamy white and even somewhat dingy. Creamware dates from approximately 1762-1800.

In an effort to produce ceramics that looked more like expensive, hard to get and very prestigious porcelain pieces from China, potters in Britain experimented with a glaze that had a small amount of cobalt added to it. This in essence worked like laundry blueing, where the blue tint cancelled out the yellow/green tint and made the ceramics appear brighter and whiter. These pieces were called China glaze if the decoration style looked like Chinese motifs or Pearl White if not. Pearlware dates to approximately 1775-1840, but is in decline after 1820.

So the glaze of this saucer gives us one clue as to its age. You can see on the underside of the saucer that where the glaze has pooled, it has a definite blue tint to it. So it falls into the pearlware category.

The second piece of information we have is the decoration style. This style is known as spongeware, because it was made by applying paint dabbed on by a sponge, and then the glaze is applied on top. Common sponge designs are diamonds, stars, daggers, flowers, scrolls, geometric shapes, and eagles.

In our particular case, there are two different sponges cut into different shapes. One forms the pattern around the outer rim of the saucer, and the other the small dots inside the rim. This type of decoration appears to have been almost exclusively destined for markets in the United States and Canada from 1820-1860. Later spongeware examples (1840-1860) have the same kind of decoration style but no longer have the pearl glaze on top.

It is estimated that only 1-2% of sponge decorated wares were marked by their manufacturers! Check out Part 1 of Maker’s Marks for a discussion of how makers marks are useful in archaeology.

Unfortunately, our piece does not have a maker’s mark, but we know that most potters who produced sponged or painted wares did not mark their wares. In addition, the sponges cut into different shapes were sold by suppliers to potteries, it is not possible to ascribe a certain shape or style of decoration to a particular potter.

Even so, there are slight temporal variations in decoration style that can help us to date a particular ceramic piece, even without a maker’s mark. Cut-sponge designs are most popular in Britain from the 1840s to the 1870s, but are introduced in the 1820s. Coupled with the pearl glaze, this suggests our piece must have been manufactured some time between 1820-1840.

Unfortunately, the problem with ceramic pieces is there is often a lag associated with them. Pieces can be kept and used for a long time after manufacture, so we don’t know how well this saucer relates to the occupation of this structure. But certainly it gives us another piece of information to add to our understanding of the site.

In looking through the washed ceramics back in the lab, I can see at least two other pieces from saucers similar to this one. Now we have a complete saucer, it’s easier to identify the little fragments!

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