Working with Ceramics in the Lab

Bryn cataloging spouted Chinese stoneware jars. Some of the artifacts are nearly intact...

This week was very busy! In the classroom, our readings and lecture focused on ceramics. We discussed how ceramics are produced and decorated, and the attributes that make it possible for archaeologists to understand something about the method and date of manufacture of ceramic artifacts. The attributes studied by archaeologists include color, the hardness of the paste (the material the body of the ceramic is made from), the thickness, color, or texture of the glaze, and whether a ceramic artifact is hand-painted, or decorated through transfer printing, a decal, or being formed in a mold. Different techniques have been used to make and decorate ceramics at different times and in different places, and learning how to identify different attributes of ceramics helps archaeologists to say something about where a bowl, plate, or jar came from, and when. This information helps make it possible to say something about the kinds of lives that people lived in the past at the Market Street Chinatown – where were they getting their plates and cups? Were their ceramics made in China, England, or the United States? What was their economic situation like?

...and some artifacts are broken! Lynsie is piecing together a large stoneware vessel.

As we opened boxes, we found that the artifacts varied greatly in type, size, and condition. Some of the artifacts are intact or nearly so, while some are fragments the size of a fingernail. Some boxes, such as that in the picture to the left, contained many pieces that fit together into a single artifact – in this case a large Chinese stoneware storage vessel. We have seen a wide variety of ceramics, including pieces manufactured in England, China, and the United States, in a wide range of conditions, from highly fragmented to whole. Although it is exciting to recover whole artifacts, even small fragments can tell us a great deal. In fact, sometimes broken artifacts allow us to see details of their manufacture that would not be visible otherwise, giving clues as to the type of clay used, the firing temperature, or the manufacturing technique employed. Many artifacts fall somewhere between small fragments and whole vessels, and look instead like this week’s artifact of the week.

Artifact of the Week

A large Chinese exportware bowl, decorated with the FitzHugh pattern.

This week’s artifact is a large bowl of Chinese export porcelain decorated with a pattern known as FitzHugh. Export wares are ceramics made specifically for export from China to Europe or the United States. On the interior of the bowl, the decoration is said to represent the traditional skills of the Chinese scholar: calligraphy, painting, music, and chess. This pattern was first used in the late eighteenth century, but remained popular in the nineteenth. FitzHugh is one among many varieties of blue on white underglaze decoration. Ceramic pieces with the FitzHugh pattern would have been expensive, and are considered luxury goods. Such goods were not used every day, but saved for special occasions or display. Often luxury goods that archaeologists find are older than other artifacts found near them, because these special artifacts are protected from the risk of breakage associated with everyday use. This may have been true for this bowl. Archaeologists often call these artifacts that are owned and used over long periods of time heirlooms. Eventually, however, this artifact was discarded along with artifacts of everyday life, such as Chinese stoneware jars, European stoneware, tableware, and glass bottles.

4 thoughts on “Working with Ceramics in the Lab

  1. One thing that I have been thinking about as we have been opening boxes is how ‘Chinese’ so many European ceramics look. European, and later U.S., potters really invested a great deal of effort in decorating many of their wares to look like Chinese export porcelain. Although the European/U.S. and Chinese ceramics are fairly easy to tell apart, I find it very interesting to think about the extent of this influence, and then the meeting of these two wares – European/U.S.- manufactured cermaics that imitate Chinese wares in decoration, and Chinese export ceramics – at the San Jose Chinatown.

    • Ezra, this is a really good point, something that I have been thinking about as well. Chinese porcelains in many ways dominated the aesthetics of the European market since the early 1500s; even in colonial Mexico, pottery guilds promoted design motifs and colors that emulated Chinese porcelain wares. At the same time, Chinese ceramic producers worked to produce wares that would appeal to the tastes of their European customers. So by the mid 19th century, when the Market Street Chinatown was established, this marketplace cultural interchange had already been going on for several centuries. I’m particularly curious to see how residents of the Market Street Chinatown incorporated European and U.S. manufactured ceramics into their daily lives – how similar in form and decoration were the non-Chinese ceramics that they used?

  2. I am working on ancient ceramics from The Bronge Age. This site is great but can you tell me what kind of analisis are you using for those ceramics?
    And if you know some other sites, please send me some adreses.
    Thanks and good luck!

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