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Merry Abbitt Outlaw
New Discoveries - Introduction

PORCELAIN AND POTTERY — they are my mystery. The world exists in order that we may create from it their excellence; and so that I—I myself—can communicate to others that beauty which else they might never see. I should understand something now, should I not, of that grace and those forms, dug from and shaped to transcend this dreary place where we scratch about and wait to die? Clay scrabbled out of the dungy earth, mixed with water, with sand, with flint, with ashes of bones; kneaded, caressed and moulded by patient hands; fired in the kiln and put to work to ease our lot, to add comfort and a little style to our necessity to eat, to drink, to wash, to excrete; or set up simply to be admired like music, for our dignity and pleasure; and like our own flesh, doomed at last to be shattered and discarded, rubbish trampled back into the ground whence it came. What else thus bodies forth the nature of life and manifests, from the finite, the infinite? 

—Richard Adams, The Girl in a Swing, 1980

Around 1618, a potter working in the Westerwald region of Germany applied intricate molding to the midgirth panel of a stoneware jug depicting the parable of the Prodigal Son. From Luke 15:11–32, the chronicle was commonly used in the seventeenth century to symbolize themes of extravagance, repentance, and forgiveness. When the wasteful, wayward son repented and returned to his family, his compassionate father forgave him. He told his servants to “… bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry; For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” 

Soon after it was brought to Virginia, a jug of this type was shattered and discarded in an early-seventeenth-century well at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Recently found in the course of archaeological excavations, the broken sherds have been reassembled, bringing the magnificent lost vessel back to life. Once again it shares its enduring lesson, just as it did with those who long ago helped establish the European foothold in America.

Whether made “to ease our lot in life” or “simply to be admired like music,” the New Discoveries reported this year are linked by a common theme—ceramics that incorporate the human figure. Most are archaeological, ranging in time from circa 1618 to 1900, and their subjects vary from the heavenly to the earthly. The Prodigal Son jug from Jamestown is the oldest figural object included in this year’s array of New Discoveries. Next oldest is another exciting find from Jamestown. Excavated in the 1950s, it is part of a seventeenth-century mold for a toy soldier made of clay. White ball clay or terracotta toys or figurines are often recovered from seventeenth-century English, Continental, and American sites. But the discovery of a mold used to manufacture them domestically is exceedingly rare, perhaps unique.

Dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the recently excavated Lewis pottery complex in Buckley, Wales, is reported. Included in the report is another figural object—a molded bearded face that was recovered from the site. Analyses of artifacts and features from this significant site are ongoing, and have the potential to reveal that vessels made there may have reached America. 

Unquestionably reaching America from England is an amazing assemblage of StaVordshire slipware vessels discarded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. This important assemblage was recovered during 1976 excavations. The author identifies several dishes made by Samuel Malkin, a well-known StaVordshire potter, including the bat-molded sunface dish that illustrates the cover of this year’s journal. 

An important eighteenth-century figural discovery are the five English soft-paste porcelain figures handed down in a family directly descended from the Ogle governors of Annapolis, Maryland. Documentary evidence suggests that Benjamin Ogle may have purchased them when he was a young student in England in the mid-1760s. Purely decorative, these figurines illustrate the sophisticated consumer behavior of elite Americans toward the end of the colonial period. 

The products of two American pottery kiln sites dating to the late eighteenth century are presented this year. One article examines the Bellarmine-type faces recently recovered from the 1770s Richards stoneware kiln in Lamberton, New Jersey. Briefly mentioned in Ceramics in America 2001, these sherds have since been associated with small jug fragments also found at the site. It is argued that rather than remnants of a “Bellarmine-like” tradition, the faces are reflective of pottery styles of the period. 

The other late-eighteenth-century kiln products article presents some of the circa 1793–1799 Jacob Meyer, Jr. earthenware forms found at Mount Shepherd, North Carolina. Moravian born and raised, Meyer was trained by the master potter Gottfried Aust in Salem, North Carolina. Since the Moravian religion strongly promotes peace, archaeologists were surprised to find that this independent minded craftsman was turning out stove tiles bearing military motifs. 

Representing the only hand-molded New Discovery figure is a unique terracotta skull dating circa 1830–1860. It appears to have been made on a domestic site in Loudoun County, Virginia, where it was found. The author convincingly argues that it was an element of a malevolent curse stemming from African-American or German-American folk religion.

Finally, three recent nineteenth-century American discoveries demonstrate the importance of recovering and analyzing pottery waster deposits. Dating between 1863 and 1868, yellow ware and Rockingham ware wasters from the Coxon Clinton Street Pottery in Trenton, New Jersey, comprise one deposit. Although most of the collection is undecorated, the recovered relief-molded figural sherds supply the dates for the assemblage. On the other hand, reexamination of Anthony Baecher’s 1864–1889 shop site in Winchester, Virginia, exposes the faceless everyday earthenware products of a potter who is exceptionally well known for his figural folk art creations. Of the thousands of sherds examined from the site, only two appear to be fragments of figurines. Lastly, analysis of wasters from the Baynham site near Trenton, South Carolina, made it possible for one archaeologist to identify an intact Albany-slipped stoneware face jug auctioned on the internet site eBay.com. The maker’s mark and distinctive neck and handle reveal not only that Mark Baynham made the vessel, but also, for the first time, that he made face jugs!
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Ceramics in America 2003

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