Of all the types of artifacts from the mundane (mortar, bricks, nails) to the sexy (buttons, bottles, thimbles) there is one that stands out from the rest. One type that archaeologists dream of, what they want to devote their lives to, and whose discovery on a site halts all work for the day for “oohing,” “aahing,” and cooing.
These artifacts are of course ceramics, also known as “catnip for archaeologists,” and can give insight into the age of a site, as well as the people who interacted with that area. Even the tiniest sherd of a broken plate can provide loads of information if the right data is collected.
But how do these magical sherds of information come into the possession of archaeologists? Spoiler: I’m going to tell you, so get ready to learn.
Excavation of Ceramics
Ceramics, like all artifacts at Montpelier, are found through careful field excavation. Once a site is identified and research questions are designed, the field crew lays out a grid of five foot by five foot units and assign each a unit number that is specific to that section of the grid. Once grass and topsoil are removed the unit is ready for full excavation.
Although dirt SOIL may all look the same to Average Joe, you may be (un)surprised to learn that it’s not! In fact, changes in soil texture, color, and inclusion types can tell you about the deposition of a site. In general, as you dig further down into the ground, things get older. Additionally, each layer of soil deposited represents a different event. We refer to each of these different layers as “strats” (strata, stratum) and this is what the field crew spends their time exploring.
The crew carefully excavates each stratum and, once they notice a change in the soil, declare it a new stratum. Various types of samples from each stratum are sent down to the lab. The sample type that generally has the sexiest of artifacts is referred to as Dry ¼”. This name is a bit mysterious, until you learn that the crew sifts dry soil through… a ¼” screen! After the soil all falls through the screen, you’re left with the artifacts, such as ceramics.
Those Dirty, Dirty Ceramics
Upon completing a stratum, the field crew will “close” the artifact bag by sorting the artifacts into appropriate categories (e.g. iron, glass, ceramic, limestone, etc) and send the sample down to the archaeology lab for processing. At this point the artifacts are filthy, and need to be cleaned. Luckily, we have a state of the art lab with the best materials that money can buy…
See? State of the art. It is 2019 after all. But dry brushing ceramics is an exercise of moving dirt around on an object, so we use a highly controversial, and potentially dangerous, solvent: dihydrogen monoxide. In its gaseous form it causes burns, if inhaled you will likely die, and it can lead to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.
Yep, we add water! Water is essential to the archaeological process, and we are very much thankful for its magical cleaning properties. The downside to water is that it makes things wet, and wet things tend to mold in closed bags, so the artifacts are left to dry for a few days.
At this stage in the process our ceramic friends have been found, cleaned, and dried, but they are ever so lonely and yearn for companionship. Here at Montpelier we have found that it’s easiest to sort the ceramics by ware type and decoration before we start to further process them. Essentially we take each sample and divide it up depending on what type of ceramic it is. Is it transfer-printed? Then it goes into the transfer-print bag. Does it look like somebody vomited on a plate and tried to pass it off as chic? Then it goes into the Whieldon-Wedgewood bag.
Once the ceramics have been reunited they need to be properly identified and cataloged. Archaeologists love collecting data, and ceramics definitely produce a lot of data points. The ceramics are cataloged based on their ware type, the vessel form (plate, bowl, mug), what decorations they have, what color those decorations are, and a myriad of other diagnostic characteristics.
One important–but bizarre–data point is whether the artifact is G2 or L2. What does that mean? Well: does that ceramic sherd fit into a 2cm x 2cm box, or is it larger than a 2cm x 2cm box? Though seemingly odd, there is a method to this madness. At Montpelier, we only label G2 ceramics because they are sufficiently large enough to affix provenience information. Provenience is essential to all archaeological analysis. Essentially, provenience refers to where the artifact came from, and, if provenience is lost, then the artifact becomes much less useful. Ultimately, these sherds are going to be spread out on a table and fit back together, and by labeling G2 ceramics in 4pt font we are able to preserve this provenience information.
On that label is information about the provenience: the site number (44OR249) which is registered with the state, the inventory number (41586) which is specific to that sample and connects it to the unit and strat, and the catalog letter (FAL) which is assigned during cataloging. The inventory number and catalog letter combination is unique to a specific artifact, and no other artifact will have the same combination.
The Fun Begins: Vesselizing
Once the ceramics are labeled, they are ready to be vesselized. In general, human beings don’t use ceramic sherds, they use ceramic vessels. It’s more useful to know how many plates, bowls, or cups somebody owned rather than how many pieces those broken plates produced. Like I said before, the ceramics are spread out by type and, during our Lab Analysis Program, expeditioners start matching up the sherds.
It’s as much fun as it looks! There is nothing more exciting than finding a mend and getting to slam on the celebratory cowbell while grinning like a fool and lording over the mend-less peasants.
Of all the ceramic types, transfer-prints have the potential to be the most useful. The patterns have been historically documented by ceramic aficionados and dates can easily be produced. This, however, is not the easiest thing to learn and takes years of practice and experience. If asked what pattern a ceramic is most people would give the following face:
Luckily for the James Madison’s Montpelier Archaeology Department, there is a ceramic expert in our volunteer corps. Naturally, this is the lovely and radiant Madame Leslie Bouterie.
Leslie does a lot of work for the Transferware Collector’s Club (TCC) and has a mighty collection of Blue Willow ceramics in her personal collection. (In fact, you can see some gems from her collection on display in the Dining Room!) She scours the TCC database for our patterns and has been a tremendous help with our identification. It is not uncommon for Leslie to be presented with a tiny little sherd and she’s able, usually without a database, to give you a host of information.
The information that Leslie can give us extends far beyond the reaches of the lab, and she has helped us tremendously with our post-excavation analysis. During the excavation for the Fenceline (which separated the domestic quarters of the house slaves from the artisans in the stable quarter) we discovered a tiny sherd in the bottom of a paling scar. “Wow what a pretty little piece of purple transfer-print with some lettering” we thought without much more questioning.
Flash forward: it’s the Ceramics Lab Analysis program and the expeditioners are mending. The expeditioners found more purple transfer print with similar writing, and lo and behold, they match and together spell out “Tear for Poland”!
From this information Leslie was able to give us a date range of when (1834–1847), who (George Phillips), and where (Staffordshire) the ceramic was manufactured. In turn, we were able to get a very close date for the contents of the paling scar along the Fenceline, helping us better interpret and understand the site. This ceramic mend is currently on display in the lab as our featured exciting artifact, which it certainly deserves the honor of.
Hopefully now you can see why ceramics are “catnip for archaeologists”: they have the potential to yield a wealth of valuable information. Our job would be much harder without ceramics, and if you want to get some hands on experience, I encourage you to come to our Lab Analysis Expedition program. Who knows, you might get to slam on that cowbell and lord over everybody else!
Ben Kirby, MA
Ben Kirby oversees the daily operations of the Archaeology Lab. He has a BA in Anthropology and BS in Chemistry from the College of William & Mary, and an MA in Historical Archaeology also from William & Mary.