As long as new archaeological sites are excavated and old archaeological collections are analyzed, new ceramic discoveries will appear. What we find out about them is significant, because whether they were used to furnish homes or public buildings, to store or prepare food in the kitchen or dairy, or placed before eager diners, historic ceramics are as varied as the people they served. These objects, always easily broken, rapidly changed in form, decoration, and ware, yet they communicate their purpose to us by revealing who made them, and when and why they were made. And, based on where they are found, they even tell us about those who bought, used, and discarded them. From locations as diverse as Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and Monterey, California, when it was the capital of the Mexican Republic province, all of this year’s New Discoveries are archaeological finds, and they pose stimulating questions and provide intriguing glimpses into the past.
Try to imagine what Robert Cotton at Jamestown was thinking as he pressed pipe clay into a Powhatan basket in 1608–1610, or David Drake, the legendary Edgefield potter, as he signed the bottom of a stoneware jug as a freedman on January 25, 1868. Consider the specialized uses of three vessels on diverse British sites in rural colonial Virginia: a circa 1613–1625 Normandy stoneware drug jar, a circa 1700 delftware salt cellar, and an eighteenth-century Langerwehe stoneware butter churn. Was punch improved when strained through a refined stoneware vessel at the Chew Mansion in Maryland in the 1700s? Did hungry Trinity College students in the eighteenth century even notice that the plates from which they ate bore their cook’s name? How did ordinary terracotta flowerpots express the scientific knowledge and wealth of the powerful and elite in Federal-period Massachusetts? In the 1820s, what ceramics were fit for the table of French royalty living in New Jersey, or a Scottish emigrant and his family in rural New York?
Ceramic vessels can literally speak to us, as does a circa 1792–1820 creamware jug that commemorates a British Royal Navy hospital. But why was it found at Fort Johnson, South Carolina, a place built to defend against the Royal Navy? A whiteware cup found in California surely delighted its young owner in the 1830s, and one can only imagine the disappointment when it fell, with no means of repair. Each object has its own story, if we take the time to read.
Merry Abbitt Outlaw