Using Ceramics to Understand MSU’s Past: Interpretations & Conclusions

I’ve recently presented my research at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum. (UURAF) My research involved analyzing ceramics sherds (recovered during 2010 & 2011 summer archaeology field school) to develop interpretations about those who once lived on MSU. The majority of the ceramic sherds recovered were undecorated earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.

ceramic frags
ceramic frags

Interpreting data included the determination of socioeconomic indicators by using Miller’s price-scaling index method. This is a classification system that identifies the type of ware and decorative technique, then cross-references data with a variety of pricing guides by maker and merchants. Index scale ranges from 1.0 – 4.0. The least expensive, such as undecorated ware would have score of 1.0. The second least expensive, such as decorated ware would have a score of 2.0. The second most expensive, such as transfer print would have a score of 3.0. Finally, the most expensive, such as porcelain would score a 4.0.

Other interpretations about the ceramic types is that earthenware was popular during the 18th and 19th centuries. Undecorated earthenware is the most commonly occurring ceramic type. This category includes whiteware, pearlware, and terracotta. The majority are undecorated; however there are a few printed earthenware sherds in this category. Porcelain is the second most found ceramic type. Porcelain is thin and translucent and is often considered a luxury item. The majority were undecorated, but one had a blue transfer print of the marker’s mark. There were also a few transfer blue floral designs which appear to be from the same vessel. Stoneware is the third most common ceramic type recovered. The stoneware pieces include undecorated industrial pottery, possible kitchenware and unidentified pieces of vessels. Stoneware is denser than earthenware, it is chip resistant, water tight, and can withstand high and low temperatures. Semi-porcelain with and without a print. Semi-porcelain looks like porcelain except it has little to no translucency. Production of semi-porcelain ware began in the 19th century. We only found a few pieces of this type of ceramic. Yellow-ware (earthenware) with Rockinghamware design was popular in the 19th century. We found two pieces of this category. Mochaware (stoneware) is worth more because of its decoration. Used from the late 18th century through the early 20th century. We found only one piece.

The ceramics sherds found during the CAP 2011 field school were from a trash dump from the 19th century, and could be associated with College Hall or some of the early dormitories. College Hall housed classrooms, offices, laboratories, etc. The majority of the ceramics pieces most likely represent dishes, and possibly laboratory items. Most of the ceramic pieces were undecorated earthenware, which according to Miller’s index has a rating of 1.0 or least expensive. Even though a few sherds represent more expensive ceramics, the total assemblage is consistent with what we might find from a dormitory dining hall and possibly some faculty housing. The porcelain was the second most commonly found ceramic, which is rated a 4.0 on Miller’s scale or worth the most. These ceramic pieces could have been from the dining hall, but could also have belonged to professors.

It’s difficult to look at any object the same without coming up with analytic interpretations on its context. I’ve attended the field school in which many of the sherds were recovered, this made my experience even more meaningful and rewarding. It is interesting to find so many sherds that together support the date of the trash area as well as the origin of the trash. CAP dares us to think “what is beneath our feet?” Items as simple as ceramics can teach us a lot about our past, and through research we are able to preserve our cultural heritage as well as educate others.

Author: Circe

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