Transfer-Printed History

My group’s first test pit, BW-N:TP 5, was lacking in the artifact department. Even after three levels all we had collected artifact-wise was brick and an assortment of glass pieces. Most archaeologists will tell you that a dig that doesn’t produce artifacts can still tell you everything you need to know, but they will also probably tell you that it is a whole lot less exciting.  This is the truth. I have come to really understand and appreciate the ground, features, dirt, and soil changes of a test pit, and when I say this I am being truthful. I learned this best through TP 5.  We dug five levels total, down approximately 50cm, and did it all for an unexplained soil change. We did, however, find one notable artifact, a nicely sized rim piece of a transfer-printed whiteware plate.

I found it in the north wall of level three, near the north-east corner. It was protruding from the wall and I probably would have missed it if it hadn’t been for Dr. Goldstein reminding me that our walls were supposed to be flat, whoops. As I worked on the north wall I started to see the edge of the piece; Dr. Goldstein advised me to leave it alone and finish the level so that it could be mapped. This is so hard to do, as soon as you find something, especially in an area where you have not been finding any artifacts.  You want to dig it out and see it clean and in all its glory! But I waited until we were done with level three. Then Dr. Goldstein made the decision to let me dig it out. She was sure to explain to my group and I that normally you would never dig something out of a wall–you would extend the entire pit–but because our field school is on a time limit and we were not going to extend the pit, she allowed me to carefully dig it out. I was so excited when it finally came free, it was a “real” artifact and it was just so pretty!

The next part was to clean it, which I did very carefully (I really don’t want to be the person to break an artifact) with a soft brush, my bandana, and water. I used a rim chart to find the approximate radius of the piece, which came out to be about 14cm and, therefore, the approximate diameter of the plate would have been 28cm.  Most likely this would have been a dinner plate. I decided to find out a little more about transfer-printed whiteware in general. Whiteware is a type of ceramic that is known as earthenware, which is a softer type of ceramic. It came about in the 1820s when people were starting to move away from using pearlware. The glaze on whiteware appears whiter than pearlware, but they are decorated in basically the same way. The 1820s – 1880s was when transfer-printed whiteware was the most popular.  Transfer-printing blue designs on whiteware was mostly done in the later 1800s. Because the art of transfer-printing was constantly being perfected you can use little time tricks to help identify when the piece would have been made.  Older pieces have blurred lines from the imperfect transferring methods of earlier times.  As the art was perfected the lines and designs became more clear and crisp.

It’s amazing that finding something like a piece of a broken plate can be so exciting, but it’s not just the find that has interested me so much, it’s the idea that this little artifact used to actually have function.  It belonged to someone and, before that, someone put work into making it. It makes me wonder if 100 years from now people will be digging up our garbage, find a piece of a plate and take the same amount of interest as I have in this little piece of transfer-printed history.

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