During archaeological excavations, some of the most ubiquitous artifacts unearthed are ceramic sherds that were once part of bowls, plates, vases, or other decorative pieces. It is relatively easy to appreciate the skills and techniques that go into the creation of meticulously crafted ceramic vessels. …
The presence of international students on campus began early in MSU’s history. Not even two decades after MSU’s founding, four international students were enrolled for the fall semester in 1873. Two of these students were from Japan, one from Holland, and one from Canada . …
This summer was an eventful one for the Campus Archaeology Program field crew! We monitored construction, conducted several pedestrian and shovel test surveys, excavated one test unit, conducted lab analysis, and helped with the IB STEM archaeology camp and grandparents university. Plus, we uncovered an entire cow skeleton! Below you can read in more detail about each project.
So far this year, I have been examining the ceramics from various assemblages associated with early Michigan State. While I have looked at what types of dishes were present and how they were used, I have not looked at how these assemblages compare to other …
During this semester, I have been working through some of the decorated ceramics that were found in the Gunson assemblage (Find more information about the excavation here). Working toward the goal of generating a better picture of what types of vessels were found and the …
Happy Fat Tuesday! After flocking to the nearest paczki-filled bakery, I hope that you sit down and enjoy your Polish donut on some fine china. Perhaps, if you’re historically or archaeologically inclined, you might want to enjoy your treat on a nice British ceramic plate. Enter: the Berlin Swirl pattern.
Here at CAP we’ve encountered the Berlin Swirl pattern in both the West Circle Privy, and the Saint’s Rest trash area. Lisa Bright has researched the specifics of the Berlin Swirl fragments found in the historic privy on campus. The ceramics found in the privy are all characterized as institutional whiteware. The following is taken from Lisa’s summary of the privy assemblage from the forthcoming West Circle Privy Report:
“The Berlin Swirl pattern is characterized by a series of paired plumes following the rim of the plate, or around the body of cups. Interestingly there are two different manufacturers of this plate represented; Mayer Brothers & Elliot, Mayer & Elliot, and Liddle Elliot & Son. Although the pattern was produced in a wide variety of vessel types, the privy only contains dishes of varying size, and handless cups and sauces. Plates were produced in dimensions from 6” to 10 ½”. The privy contained many ceramic fragments, but many of the ceramics could be reconstructed. Of those with half or more of the vessel present include: 3 handless cups, 2 saucers (6” diameter), 1 small bowl (5.3” diameter), 1 small plate (6.3” diameter), 1 medium plate (7.5” diameter), and 2 large plates (9.5” diameter).
A Berlin Swirl plate bears a British registered design mark indicating a production date of December 18th, 1856; It was produced by Mayer Brothers & Elliot. Mayer Brothers & Elliot produced ceramics under that name between 1855-1858. They changed the name to simply Mayer & Elliot and continued production between 1858-1861. In 1861 the name was changed to Liddle Elliot & Son, which produced ceramics from 1862- 1869. After 1869 the name was once again. This provides a narrow date range of 1855- 1869 for the production of the Berlin Swirl plates recovered from the privy. There are additional illegible stamps on the base of the plates.”
We’re still in the midst of re-analyzing the ceramics from the trash pit, but it appears that additional Berlin Swirl forms may be present such as the soup tureen or tea set!
In the late 1800s, Americans were thought to favor “plain white vessels with comparatively unobtrusive molded decoration” (Lawrence and Davies 2010:304). By contrast, countries within the British Empire chose transfer prints with bright colors over the whiteware of their American counterparts (Lawrence and Davies 2010). By the 1840s, the first “Berlin Ironstone” appears under the maker’s mark T.J. & J.Mayer. This article provides a brief history of the progression of this style leading up to the Berlin Swirl pattern found on campus. The embossed style and edging of the Berlin Swirl pattern illustrates the craftsmanship involved in the molding of these pieces. One researcher even hypothesized that the stylistic curvature of the mold, in addition to the tall jugs and posts with paneling, may have been designed by persons involved with some familiarity with architecture.
The Civil War disrupted the trade of British-manufactured ceramic wares to the American market and Brooks (2005) has hypothesized that the rise in exports of white Berlin Swirl patterns to Australia is a response to the declining American demand. Archaeological excavations in Australia demonstrate that Berlin Swirl is found at various sites during the American Civil War (Lawrence and Davies 2010). The Berlin Swirl pattern is noted in a volume with a title that really says it all, “Good Taste, Fashion, and Luxury: A Genteel Melbourne Family and Their Rubbish” (2014), a detailed review of a wealthy family with a large collection of ceramics. Clearly, the Berlin Swirl was considered desirable enough to make it to the dinner table of a wealthy Australian family. However, the pattern also occurs at sites associated with decidedly lower class families. The Museums Victoria Collections has a wonderful review of the archaeology of the “Little Lon” working class district, a poor mid to late 19th century neighborhood in Melbourne, where many lower income and transient individuals took up residence. Fragments of Berlin Swirl ceramics were found during an excavation in the late 1980s but, interestingly, many of the ceramic pieces feature patterns or designs that are flawed in some way. Perhaps the rejected wares not suitable for sale to the American market were making their way to the working class neighborhoods in Australia.
The maker’s marks on the bases of the Berlin Swirl fragments in the privy provide tight date ranges for deposition and use. While researching this blog, I was reminded of how powerful maker’s marks are for historical archaeologists, not just in terms of dating but also in thinking about trade relationships around the globe. The Australian examples from both high and low income neighborhoods also remind us that ceramics can speak to aesthetic choice/selection as related to social class. I found it interesting that the working class neighborhoods were incorporating elegant china into their households likely as a result of a decline in the American market due to the Civil War! Archaeological analysis proves, yet again, the interconnectedness of consumer demand for products, status-related items, and increasingly global economies.
Author: Amy Michael
Brooks, Alasdair. “An archaeological guide to British ceramics in Australia 1788-1901.” (2005).
White Ironstone China Association Inc. White Ironstone Notes Vol 5 Issue 3 – Winter 1998.
Hayes, Sarah. Good Taste, Fashion, Luxury: a genteel Melbourne family and their rubbish. Vol. 5. Sydney University Press, 2014.
Lawrence, Susan, and Peter Davies. An archaeology of Australia since 1788. Springer Science & Business Media, 2010.
There are many different ways that we can date a site or specific artifact. We can look broadly at the contextual history of the area, look at how a glass bottle was constructed, or use construction material like nails to create broad date ranges. Specifically …
In Part 1, I introduced how porcelain is produced and its long history in Asia and Europe. Today, after centuries of history, porcelain finally comes to the Americas (what a surprise!). Porcelain first came to the Americas not long after it made its appearance in …
Last week I spent some time in the CAP lab with Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright resorting and accessioning artifacts from the 2008 and 2009 Saint’s Rest rescue excavation. This excavation uncovered many ceramic artifacts (among other items) including plates, bowls, and serving dishes. Among the many fragments of whiteware, Lisa showed me one fragment that stood out: part of a plate, embossed with a pattern of figs and bearing a Wedgwood maker’s mark.
If you’ve ever found yourself deep in the throes of an Antiques Roadshow binge-watching spiral, chances are you’ve heard of Wedgwood china. Perhaps you’ve seen pieces of Wedgwood’s iconic blue jasperware decorated with Greek figures in white bas-relief. Or, perhaps you’ve seen one of Wedgwood’s Fairyland Lustre Art Nouveau vases, opulently adorned with jewel-toned elves and dragons. Since the founding of the company in 1759, Wedgwood has graced the tables of such dignitaries as Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III, Catherine the Great of Russia, and President Theodore Roosevelt (1). And, as the Saint’s Rest bowl fragment indicates, Wedgwood also graced the tables of MAC. For my blog post, I researched Wedgwood to get a better idea of how a piece of the ceramic dynasty made its way to our campus.
The story of the CAP Wedgwood begins in the 17th century in the rural English county of Staffordshire. The soil in Staffordshire wasn’t much for farming, but the region was rich in clay, salt, lead, and coal – key ingredients for making pottery. The use of coal for fueling kiln fires gave Staffordshire potters an advantage over other rural workshops that still depended on timber for fuel (2). For centuries, Staffordshire was known as a prominent center for pottery production and innovation.
The Wedgwood dynasty began with a Staffordshire potter named Josiah Wedgwood (1). Born into a family of potters, a leg amputation left Josiah unable to work as a “thrower” in his family’s workshop (3). Instead, he developed an interest in experimenting with formulas and design. Wedgwood developed a durable, attractive, cream-colored type of earthenware that gained favor with Queen Charlotte (3). The serving set he made her pleased her so much, Charlotte agreed to allow Wedgwood to call himself the “Queen’s Potter” (1). This celebrity endorsement set Wedgwood’s sales booming.
Over the years, Wedgwood continued to innovate. He developed two new types of stoneware known as Black Basalt and Jasperware (3). Both are known for their matte, biscuit finish. Jasperware was produced in a variety of colors, though light blue was the most iconic. White ornamental appliques were molded separately and baked onto the pottery in emulation of Roman cameo glass vases. In 1773, Wedgwood developed a method of transfer printing enamel (4). This decorative technique reduced inconsistencies, eliminated the need for hand-painting decorations, and gave customers a wider array of customization options (3). Perhaps Wedgwood’s greatest innovation was as a businessman. Wedgwood sold his products via printed catalogs and advance orders (5). Since he knew which pieces his customers wanted, he was able to reduce waste and therefore costs.
So how did we get from the elegant designs of the Staffordshire Potteries to the humble piece of CAP Wedgwood? The answer is in the design: white ironware, to be precise.
The ceramic game changed in 1813 when a Staffordshire potter developed a new type of vitreous pottery dubbed “ironstone china” or, sometimes, graniteware (6). In the 19th century, ironstone quickly gained popularity as a cheap, mass-producible alternative to porcelain. It was especially popular in the America. In the 1840’s, undecorated white ironstone headed for America comprised the largest export market for Staffordshire’s potteries.
In contrast to England, where customers favored elegant designs, American consumers preferred plainer tableware (6). In the 1850’s and 60’s, however, English potteries (including Wedgwood) decided to introduce some whimsy into the American market. Potteries began embossing designs inspired by the American prairies. Stoneware from this era were commonly embossed with grains such as wheat, corn and oats, or fruits such as grapes, peaches, berries, and— like the CAP Wedgwood—figs. Because of its durability and popularity in rural America, this china became known as “farmer’s” or “threshers’” china (6).
So, there we have it. The CAP Wedgwood fragment from Saint’s Rest may have made its way to campus as a piece of thresher’s china. Its durable form and folksy fig design likely appealed to someone living at a rural Michigan college.
In parting, I’d like to leave you with some (non-alternative) facts about Josiah Wedgwood, a fascinating figure in his own right.
Fact 1: We may have Josiah Wedgwood to thank for theory of evolution. Wedgwood was the grandfather of both Charles Darwin and Darwin’s wife, Emma (7). Inheritance from the Wedgwood fortune is often credited for allowing Darwin the leisure time to sail on the S.S. Beagle and formulate his theory of evolution.
Fact 2: Apart from his pioneering efforts in the ceramics industry, Wedgwood was a prominent abolitionist (8). In the late 18th century, he commissioned and paid for a series of iconic cameo medallions that became the emblem for the abolitionist movement. The design depicts a kneeling slave beneath the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” The figure is prepared in Wedgwood’s own Black Basalt against a white background. It became fashionable for men and women to wear these medallions, which helped popularize the abolitionist cause.
Archaeologists care a lot about garbage. We can learn a great deal from looking through what people throw out, how much they throw out, and when they throw it out. Because trash is the byproduct of what humans consume and use in their daily lives, …