Thursday, March 13, 2014

Earthenware Kiln Furniture

In taking down the exhibition at the North Carolina Pottery Center, I had a few moments to handle and ponder over the earthenware kiln furniture that was on display. As esoteric as kiln furniture may be, it is an incredible insight into pottery production. When I look at kiln furniture, I don't just get excited about the individual fingerprints that usually cover the surface, I see in my mind how the pots were stacked in the kiln using each piece. That may sound a little weird, but that is how my brain works- see a piece of kiln furniture, see a stack of pots. Or else you can watch my eyes shift around as I study the kiln furniture while I am trying to stack the pots in my brain.

These particular pieces come from the William Dennis site in Randolph County, North Carolina. This also happens to be the same site where Hal Pugh and Eleanor Minnock Pugh have their pottery shop, New Salem Pottery. Drawing from their text panel in the exhibition, here is a little background on the Dennis potters:

Located in North Central Randolph County, NC, the property was settled in 1766 by the Thomas Dennis Family who along with other Quakers had relocated from Chester County, Pennsylvania. The property sat astride the Trading Road (formerly the Indian Trading Path) which extended from Petersburg Virginia into South Carolina. The location and the existence of large beds of earthenware clay made it ideally suited for a pottery. William Dennis (b.1769) and his son Thomas (b.1791) were the earliest documented potters working at the property. William, a Quaker opposed to slavery, apprenticed George Newby, a 12- year old African-American youth, to learn the pottery trade in 1813 which lasted nine years until 1822.  Archaeological evidence and extant collections reveal that the Dennis potters not only made simple, utilitarian lead-glazed earthenware, but also a variety of decorative slipwares and thinly turned tablewares. William moved to Indiana in 1832, selling the land where the house and pottery stood to Peter Dicks, a Quaker businessman and potter who lived in the nearby community of New Salem.
The site was discovered in 1974 by Hal and Eleanor after plowing a garden spot. After several years of research the site was identified as belonging to the potter, William Dennis. In November of 1997 Tom Hargrove of Archaeological Research Consultants, Inc. conducted non-evasive geophysical surveys at the William Dennis site to determine its subsurface integrity. A very distinct classic kiln signature was shown to exist and a decision was made to focus on a test excavation at the kiln site. Fieldwork began in March 1998 and excavations were done by Dr. Linda Carnes-McNaughton and volunteers. Units confirmed the anomaly or feature at the Dennis kiln site was the foot print of a 10 by 10 foot square kiln constructed with two foot thick fieldstone walls and lined with brick.  This square design, which is the first excavated in North Carolina, appears to be of Quaker tradition.  Two later examples of this style of kiln have been found in NC at Quaker pottery sites.
Earthenware kiln sites, particularly early, have the closest thing to a contemporary kiln shelf used in the firing. Predominantly, large, flat pieces of clay do not show up in stoneware kiln sites, and show up in incredible numbers in earthenware sites. I think this has more to do with the fact that salt adheres better to large, flat surfaces, so having fewer contact points provided for a better firing. Some stoneware sites I have looked at do have a few of these slabs of clay, but nowhere in the numbers as they show up at earthenware sites. 

These pieces in earthenware kilns, though, are not as large as contemporary shelves. They tend to be made in much the same way that roof tiles are made (slabbed out, certain thickness, certain width, and texture on one side). They end up being longer than they are wide. They also sometimes have grooves on one side (like roof tiles), made either with fingers raked across the surface or a tool. This provided for less contact points too, because even though salt was not used, the glazes sometimes ran, and some pots were fully glazed (meaning the exterior of the foot was glazed). In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Moravians there were literally using roof tiles, with the cut out holes, or tabs for hanging the tiles, still on the piece, but clearly stuck in the kiln between a few pots. That example may also reveal how roof tiles were fired.

Rim on the kiln furniture
Rim on the kiln furniture (same piece as above)
 As in the photo above, you get a chance to see parts of a pot adhered to the kiln furniture because a glaze ran. 
Then you also have examples where two tiles are stuck together. It's moments like these when contemporary potters can be empathetic for historical potters. Think of when a glaze has totally run off on you, destroyed a shelf, or destroyed another pot.

In other notes, I am back in the shop this week, rampantly working to get pots finished for loading the kiln next week!

For more information on the Dennis site and the excavated material, see the 2010 Ceramics in America publication with an article entitled "The Quaker Ceramic Tradition in Piedmont North Carolina" by Hal and Eleanor. As an exciting note to end on, this year the William Dennis site was approved for the National Register of Historic Places.

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