Review by Silas D. Hurry
The Harlow Pottery Industries

Wally Davey and Helen Walker, with contributions by Richard Bartlett, Mike Hughes, and Alan Vince. The Harlow Pottery Industries. Medieval Pottery Research Group Occasional Papers 3. London: Medieval Pottery Research Group and English Heritage, 2010. 198 pp.; 80 bw illus., 3 colorpls., 34 tables, 3 appendixes, bibliography, index. £18.00 (softcover).

This, the third of the Occasional Papers published by the Medieval Pottery Research Group, examines the history and archaeology of the pottery industry in Harlow, on the western edge of Essex, that was in production from the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries. The Medieval Pottery Research Group was established in 1975 to bring together interested parties to investigate ceramics in Great Britain from the Roman period to the sixteenth century. Its area of research subsequently expanded to include pottery of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, as well as post-Roman ceramic building materials. The first two Occasional Papers explored and defined typologies, establishing grammar and syntax for ceramic descriptions, both physical (paste and glaze) and morphological (vessel form).[1] These standards are applied to the Harlow material so that a consistent set of traits and characteristics is recorded for the ceramic group under discussion.

For archaeologists working in North America, perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume is a truly complete description of the Metropolitan slipwares produced by the Harlow industry. These red-bodied slipwares, found on seventeenth-century sites in the English colonies, are one of the most poorly defined ceramic types used and thus are frequently abused by archaeologists working on such sites in North America. While Nöel Hume’s Metropolitan slipware description in his classic Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America is widely available, the type is often misidentified or, more lamentably, used as a catch-all category for red-pasted slipwares.[2] When Carl Steen was researching a group of red-pasted slipwares that he eventually identified as a southeastern Pennsylvania product, for example, several researchers initially pointed him to Metropolitan slipware.[3] The new volume on the Harlow potteries should go a long way toward correcting this problem, with clear vessel and decoration descriptions, and a large number of line drawings. While the drawings are excellent, the addition of photographs would have aided identification. The color illustrations of the pottery are limited to three interior plates and the cover, although the paucity of photographs probably contributes to the book’s reasonable retail cost.

Anyone undertaking archaeological work on early colonial English sites would benefit from this volume. The discussion of the pottery industry’s history is well laid out and helps the reader to appreciate the scale of the industry and the range of distribution of the material. The volume is dedicated to the memory of Richard Bartlett, who was responsible for much of the historic research and its integration. The clarity of the typological descriptions and the well-drawn illustrations will allow any “pottery person” to identify the fruits of the Harlow industry within a collection. While these ceramics are generally a minority ware within any colonial collection in North America, reliable identification will add greatly to our understanding of ceramic history and use, and perhaps more important, minimize the misattributions that are common with this type.

The Harlow Pottery Industries includes three appendixes, providing materials identification to complement the typological analysis. Appendix I details the results of an analysis of Harlow ceramics using inductively coupled atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES) and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). These provide elemental profiles of the make-up of the ceramics. As part of this study, additional medieval examples from Harlow were compared. The results showed continuity in ceramic make-up between the transitional and postmedieval productions. Appendix II investigates the elemental constituents of the slips used in the decoration. For this study X-ray fluorescence (XRF) was utilized, a technique that is being increasingly applied to a range of archaeological questions and has the great advantage of being nondestructive. Appendix III, written by the late Alan Vince, whose career brought much science to bear on ceramics questions, explores the clay mineralogy of the ceramic paste using thin-section analysis and petrographic examination. This allows for comparison between pastes and within a defined type. Vince analyzed four distinct types: Medieval Harlow ware, Transitional Harlow ware, Metropolitan slipware, and “blackware,” the latter a type of black-glazed (iron- oxide-stained) utilitarian earthenware made in the Harlow potteries. Variations seem to relate to the parent material of the clays and may, in part, be a by-product of the clay preparation and affected by the firing process. In general, the medieval paste is different from that of the Transitional type, whereas the Metropolitan slipware and the blackware are more similar to it.

For historical archaeologists working on seventeenth-century English colonial sites, this book is a must-have. The complete exploration of a local pottery industry is a welcome addition to our “pot literature.” Anyone interested in local pottery production and distribution in early modern England also would benefit from reading this book. The description of the history of the Harlow potteries is quite thorough and serves as a good model for local production. The volume’s explanation of ceramic types, with their very complete descriptions of pastes, glazes, and forms, along with the technical analyses contained in the appendixes, bring the full weight of science to bear, though for some casual readers this material may seem too technical and difficult to follow. It is hoped that this is the first in a series of such explorations into pottery manufacturing sites. Only by studying production sites can one obtain an appreciation for the range of variation and what is typical for a given industry. This study joins the ranks of other outstanding pottery examinations, such as Border Wares by Jacqueline Pearce, J.E.C. Edwards, and D. Lakin, and Excavation of the Donyatt Potteries by Robert Coleman-Smith and Terry Pearson.[4]

Silas D. Hurry
Historic St. Mary’s City, Md.

Ceramics in America 2012

  • [1]

    Medieval Pottery Research Group, A Guide to the Classification of Medieval Ceramic Forms, Medieval Pottery Research Group Occasional Papers 1 (Over Wallop, Hampshire, Eng.: BAS Printers, 1998); Anna Slowikowski, Beverley Nenk, and Jacqueline Pearce, comps., Minimum Standards for the Processing, Recording, Analysis, and Publication of Post-Roman Ceramics, Medieval Pottery Research Group Occasional Papers 2 (London: Medieval Pottery Research Group, 2001). 

  • [2]

    Ivor Nöel Hume, A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).

  • [3]

    Carl Steen, “Pottery, Intercolonial Trade, and Revolution: Domestic Earthenwares and the Development of an American Social Identity,” Historical Archaeology 33, no. 3 (1999): 62–72.

  • [4]

    Jacqueline Pearce, J.E.C. Edwards, and D. Lakin, Post-Medieval Pottery in London, 1500–1700, vol. 1, Border Wares (London: H.M.S.O., 1996); Robert Coleman-Smith and Terry Pearson, Excavation of the Donyatt Potteries (Chichester, Sussex, Eng.: Phillimore, 1988).