• Figure 1
    Figure 1

    Jug, Donyatt, England, 1600– 1650. Lead-glazed earthenware. H. 9". Catalog no. Colo-J-7584. (Courtesy, National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park; photo, Gavin Ashworth.)

Taft Kiser
Seventeenth-Century Donyatt Pottery in the Chesapeake

Today, largely as a result of the surge of archaeological research in the last three decades, historical archaeologists are readily able to identify most historic ceramic wares. This has not always been the case, however, as evidenced by the example of a slip-decorated redware jug (fig. 1) recovered in 1935 by the National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park, from a colonial period well at Jamestown Island, Virginia. It was cataloged following its recovery as eighteenth-century American slipware, “probably of local manufacture and representative of the middle eighteenth century.”[1]
Recent archaeological research in the Chesapeake has discovered similar types of pottery in seventeenth-century contexts. These discoveries, along with consultation with English ceramic specialists, have helped to attribute these wares as products of the Donyatt potting region.[2]

Located about ten miles southeast of Taunton, England, Donyatt lies in a well-known potting area, with competing kilns including Chard, Honiton, and Wrangway. Donyatt was the largest, burning its first pots in the eleventh century and continuing until the 1930s. Early postmedieval potteries typically had small distribution areas, but Donyatt’s advantageous location allowed its wares to reach the ports of Bristol, Plymouth, Exeter, and Lyme Regis.[3]

Donyatt potters produced many elaborate forms such as puzzle jugs, but much of the production was utilitarian, with a plain lead glaze. By 1600, they used splashes of copper oxide green to color their wares.
Potters also began producing sgraffito slipwares by 1600. The earliest examples are decorated with simple patterns of incised lines. The decoration became more elaborate through time, as demonstrated on a circa 1666–1690 bottle decorated with birds and letters from St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Wet-sgraffito decoration, made by brushing a light slip on a darker, wet clay body, is the most common type of sgraffito on Chesapeake examples. A comb or stick was then incised through the wet slip revealing the clay body beneath. Even the potter’s fingers were sometimes used to create some of the wet sgraffito designs. 

Donyatt potters also employed simple slip-trailed devices to decorate their products, such as a spiral spinning out from the center of a dish, which was common from circa 1630 to 1720. As well, sgraffito decoration was sometimes used in combination with slip trailing. 

A total of thirty-three Donyatt vessels have now been identified from seventeen sites in the Chesapeake region. The earliest example is from a circa 1620–1622 context at Martin’s Hundred and the latest from circa 1765 at Williamsburg. Shapes represented in the Chesapeake include dishes, bowls, jugs and jars, one bottle, and one chafing dish, and most are slip decorated with one of the distinctive slip techniques employed by the Donyatt potters. 

And what of the redware jug in the museum collection of the National Park Service at Jamestown? In the early 1990s, while examining the pottery collection at Jamestown, curator Beverly Straube spotted the “eighteenth-century American jug.” Familiar with the wares of the Donyatt potters, she immediately recognized its misclassification. In a momentary glance, almost four centuries of history came full circle with the reclamation of the jug’s rightful heritage. The latest catalog entry correctly identifies it as Donyatt slipware, circa 1600–1650.

Taft Kiser 
Historical Archaeologist and Ceramic Specialist

  • Figure 1
    Figure 1

    Jug, Donyatt, England, 1600– 1650. Lead-glazed earthenware. H. 9". Catalog no. Colo-J-7584. (Courtesy, National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park; photo, Gavin Ashworth.)

Ceramics in America 2001

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  • [1]

    John L. Cotter, Archeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1958), pp. 70–74, pl. 78. Although shown in pl. 78 with seventeenth-century slipware, it is identified as eighteenth-century American in the text on p. 70

  • [2]

    Richard Coleman-Smith and Terry Pearson, Excavations in the Donyatt Potteries (Chichester, Eng.: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 1998); John P. Allan, Medieval and Post-Medieval Finds from Exeter, 1971–1980 (Exeter: Exeter City Council and the University of Exeter, 1984), p. 135.

  • [3]

    Coleman-Smith and Pearson, Excavations, pp. 401–402.