Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kilns Gone Wrong

Earthenware separating bars, Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum
There are archaeological sites where evidence of the production of stoneware and earthenware are found. Often these sites are called "transitional" with the implication that the potters were moving from working with earthenware to stoneware. However, my thoughts are that many of the potters, particularly in regions with less potters, or with higher levels of competition, met the market demands by making both either simultaneously or attempting to make both at some point in their production. For example, the William Rogers site in Yorktown, Virginia was making both stoneware and earthenware. There are certainly numerous sites where the potters did in fact move from earthenware to stoneware, such as the Thompson potters in Morgantown, West Virginia (on which topic I highly recommend an article on these potters in the 2011 Ceramics in America).
REALLY overfired bar used on the top of a jug -- the ring in the middle was the top of a jug! Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum

Closeup of the melted bar. Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum
The (nerdy) humorous thing is to see archaeological evidence that potters who may have been more familiar with one material (i.e. earthenware), may not have been familiar with the other (i.e. stoneware). Which explains why sometimes you read about potters being brought in for their expertise in one material or another. For example, when I was recently at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, I saw a collection from the Piercy Pottery site. This was primarily an earthenware production site, but there was some evidence of stoneware production as well. I should say that there is speculation that because the amount of stoneware wasters are so low, the attempts at stoneware production were made in the late 18th-century when the site was rented by another potter who went on to make both earthenware and stoneware. Either way, the wasters revealed that at some point their stoneware attempts went horribly wrong! The stoneware separator bars they made are also some of the thickest bars I have seen yet, which is not surprising after seeing their earthenware separator bars (first photo at top). 
On left, bisque stoneware separator bar and fired salted separator bar on right. Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum
Their method of stacking the stoneware pottery seems more precarious, too. Typically, one wants to balance the weight of the pieces over another, placing rims, bases, and other points of weight on top of each other.
Bar adhered to base of jar, with indentation showing where the rim of another jar rested during firing. Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum

How the base of the jar rested above the rim of the other vessel-- off center! Piercy Pottery site. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Museum
I said that this was humorous because I reflect on these pieces both as a potter and as a scholar. As a potter, I can only imagine the horror on the workers' faces when they opened the kiln and their experiment had gone horribly wrong (been there, done that!). I chuckle sometimes because I think there were a lot of "oh, poop!" moments historically, just like there are in contemporary potters' lives. And as a scholar, I reflect on the attempts of pottery production sites to challenge an import market, a growing population of potteries, and the changes in the uses of utilitarian vessels and forms.
For more information on the Piercy Pottery site, be sure to check out Barbara Magid and Bernard K. Means' article in the 2003 Ceramics in America. You can read the text here, but you miss the beautiful photos!


Dennis Allen said...

Could they have been staggering the pots so as to tie the whole stack together?

Liberty Stoneware said...

That is a possibility, but for the most part, at the other kiln sites there's not a lot of staggering going on, just tall stacks of pots on top of one another, supporting on either side by other pieces of kiln furniture. Because the stoneware wasters at this site were largely over-fired and warped, I would make a good guess at the fact that they may have been unfamiliar with some aspects of stoneware manufacture, or at least the firing!