Eastbourne Ancestors: Community Excavation Pottery Workshop 2012

Today, Luke Barber from the Sussex Archaeological Society visited the Eastbourne Ancestors Project to run a pottery workshop for our volunteers. The focus was on the material found at this year’s community excavation from the Medieval Manor House (Pocock’s Cottages) in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Luke explained that as a pottery specialist he isn’t just interested in spot dating contexts for archaeologists, but that he analysis the form, fabric, function and origin of pottery artefacts to find out more about the site and it’s use over time.

To better understand what a ceramicist does, Luke explained his routine for analysing assemblages of pottery. He begins by sorting the bags into context order and then uses the archaeologists context information to see which numbers have stratigraphical relationships as this may help with dating the pottery.

Luke also explained that when dating pottery assemblages from an urban environment it helps to look at pottery from local rural areas to see how the fabrics and inclusions differ and the area isn’t as disturbed. This can then give you an idea as to the chronological differences and the variations over time of pottery form, fabric and inclusions. Producing a town-wide pottery study is easier than a county-wide one as the county analysis will be made up of several towns that buy/trade pots from varying locations, so there will be a range of forms/styles and fabrics present. A town is more likely to buy from one production centre, whereas a county will have evidence from varying centres. There are several kiln sites in East Sussex, as yet none have been identified for the Saxon period as these tended to be ‘bonfire kilns’. Evidence for Medieval kilns can be found at Ringmer, Hastings, Pevensey and Abbots Wood.

Pottery temperings were then discussed by Luke, in Sussex this is heavily based on flints, with the common agents being flint, shell, sand and stone. In the Post-Roman period it is rare to find calcined flint inclusions, if you do find them the pottery is likely to be Prehistoric in origin. The Early Saxon period in Sussex is more sand based than flint, with the vessels very well made, with more coarse pottery in the Later Saxon times. In the Saxon and Medieval periods alluvial flints are used, these are identified through the inclusions being multi-coloured. The volunteers then had a go at sorting bags of pottery into fabric types. Luke discussed how to tell fabrics apart and explained that each pot will be different. This is because they are handmade and percentages of inclusion types will vary, even though they may be part of the same fabric type. To keep the consistency of known fabrics, it was suggested that we put examples of those that had been classified in front of us whilst we work through the assemblage.

We then learnt about the varying forms of ceramics, how to tell the difference between cooking pots, jars and bowls based on the curvature of the fragments from the rims. Also Luke showed us how to tell if a vessel had been used for cooking by looking for sooting on the external walls.

Once the bags of pottery had been sorted into context numbers and grouped into Post-Medieval, Transitional, Medieval, Anglo-Saxon and so on then the volunteers looked at the fragments through a hand lens (x10 mag). Luke then used a snipper tool to snip a corner off each piece so that the volunteers could analyse a ‘fresh-edge’ of the fabric to see what type of inclusions were used.

Volunteers Paula and Maisie had a mixed bag of pottery fragments which they determined as Early Post Medieval. The assemblage included Frechen fragments (German Stoneware), from the late 15th Century found around the Rhine area, also Cologne, Sigburg, Langeware and Vestivald. By the mid 16th-17th Century Frechen floods into England and then rapidly disappears in the 18th Century when we produce our own Stoneware products.

There are different types of stoneware and Luke gave us descriptions on the types we were likely to find; Borderware is pale and has a fine fabric. London Stoneware has lots of black dots in the fabric caused by iron inclusions. In 1750 there is a divider between the Early and Late Medieval periods after which the Late Post Medieval London Stoneware has no black dots.

Luke also discussed other pottery types including Tin Glazed Earthenware which was in use from the 17th to 18th Centuries and had more of a blue tinge than white in the 18th Century to mimic Chinese pottery. By the 19th Century this type of pottery was rare and used for things like ointment pots. As most things are, Tin Glazed Earthenware was first utilised by the rich as an import and later on was used by the poorer people as everyday items like chamber pots. The fabric is buff coloured, slightly yellow with Tin Glaze very thick and visible that bits may crack and drop off. The glaze gives a white background so that the potters could create Chinese style pottery.

Staffordshire White, also known as Staffordshire Type if it was not found in Staffordshire, is another pottery type. It’s easy to identify as it has a soft glaze with a distinctive dimpled surface, almost like orange peel. It was in use from 1725 onwards, until 1775 and produced tea drinking items and chamber pots. It was a tough, but brittle pottery fabric.

The Late Post Medieval period, 1700-1900+, was the time of the Industrial Potteries e.g. Staffordshire and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. During this time Wedgewood Creamware appears (1750/1760-1820) and pushes out the Staffordshire Whitewear. True Earthenware is made from Kaolin clay and as usual is first used by the upper classes and then by the lower classes in the Early 19th Century. It is distinctly yellowish if compared to a piece of true white pottery, and is used for items such as plates and bowls. Some items have been found with raised (moulded) patterns.

Pearlware was around between 1780-1830 and replaces Creamware. It’s made by Wedgewood and is blue in colour, with cobalt added to the glaze to mimic Chinese porcelain. It’s easy to recognise, if you look where the glaze is thicker at the base of the vessel to see the blue colouration. Common forms are blue shell, riccoco or ‘flow blue’ where the transfer is allowed to run. These pieces can be found in the 19th Century as part of peoples dinner services.

From Pearlware Luke then moved on to discuss Transfer Printed Plainware of the 1830’s-40’s. This pottery type is quite pale and has common decorative patterns of Asiatic pheasants, willows and wild roses. Blue, green, red and purple colours were used in the painting of the decorations.

English Stoneware was in use from the 19th to the Early 20th Century and was made in Derbyshire and London.  Yellow Ware is also typically 19th Century and was also made in the Midlands around the Derbyshire area. The vessels took the form of bowls and chamber pots and you can still buy pieces today as kitchen ware (mixing bowls with beige outer and white inner glaze). Rockingham pottery is a white earthenware with a dark glaze which was available in the Late 18th to 19th Century in England. Porcelain was also in use in the Mid 18th Century, expensive and rare there were two types; English and Chinese.  English Porcelain should be translucent, unless it is covered with glaze, a broken edge will look vitrified (like glass) due to the high temperature of firing. The Chinese Porcelain is thicker in appearance and it has an unglazed base evident on the foot ring of the vessel.

There are several different types of local wares in Sussex which were made throughout the two Counties. Unglazed Earthenware, for example flower pots, indicates a kitchen (growing herbs) or garden assemblage. Glazed Red Earthenware is hard to date but is used to create larger vessels with thicker walls and good glazes. Potters have to specialise in the production of larger vessels to the fill the gap in the market left by the competing fine-wares of other potteries, e.g. Staffordshire potteries.

After the pottery fragments had been sorted the volunteers counted the number of sherd fragments and then weighed them to get an estimate of the number of vessels present. Then the EVE was measured to check the curvature of the vessels.

I spoke to volunteer Val about her experience of the pottery workshop; she found Luke’s enthusiasm for pottery positive and thoroughly enjoyed the session,

‘We split into small groups and were really ‘’hands on’’ with the pottery sherds from the Pococks Cottages Community Excavation Summer 2012. It really was the best way to absorb information, being able to analyse and study fragments for one-self.’

Thanks to Luke Barber for such an informative workshop. Thanks to Val, Paula and Fran for taking excellent notes and Maisie for her own blog piece too. Our volunteers are now looking forward to practicing their new skills on the pottery in the Eastbourne Museum Service collection and helping with the Pocock’s Cottages assemblage.