Sunday, December 13, 2020

Unearthing Time Periods - Jackfield

In our last post we discussed the good fortune historic archaeologists enjoy upon discovering coinage on an archaeological site, particularly in the discrete context of a feature. Few artifacts other than coins have their date of manufacture literally stamped directly on them. Naturally, these artifacts greatly aid in determining the age of a site, or a portion of a site.

Other artifact types can also help determine when a site was inhabited. Certain types of ceramic wares for example are known to have relatively short periods of manufacture, and this in turn can aid an archaeologist in narrowing down the potential window of occupation. With respect to the mid to late 18th century there are a number of ceramic types that can be attributed to this time period.


A refined earthenware ceramic known as Jackfield is one such type. Produced in the region of Shropshire, England between 1745 and 1790, this ceramic is characterized as thinly turned, with a paste that turns a purple/grey after firing and is covered in a lustrous black glaze. Typical forms include tea pots and pitchers as well as mugs and bowls.

 Although associated with the town of Jackfield in Shropshire, this ware was also commonly produced in Staffordshire by potters such as Thomas Whieldon, with a redder hued body. This recognition of a broader area of manufacture has led some scholars to endorse the term “Jackfield-like”, or even “blackware” when referring to these pieces (Barker and Halfpenny (1990). The choice to produce a black glazed ceramic is a curious one, as at this time English and other European potters were endeavoring to create a white ceramic to mimic the superior export porcelains arriving from the East. According to Hume, in his much referenced A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, examples of Jackfield ceramics are common on American sites of the 1760’s (pg.123).

Not unlike instances of counterfeit coinage, imitation or debased forms of Jackfield were made in the colonies by regional potters. Here, the intention was not to swindle someone out of their goods with fake currency, but rather an effort to “keep up” with the latest trends and styles originating out of England. While exhibiting a similar solid black glaze, these Jackfield-like examples constructed of regionally sourced clays have an orange body typical of redwares as opposed to a purple/grey body, and are generally thicker in cross section than their English counterparts.

As with coins having the potential to be in circulation for decades after minting, so too can ceramics be in use long after their run of manufacture has ceased. These factors are taken into consideration when using these artifacts to evaluate the age of a site or feature within a site. Historical archaeologists analyze ceramics based on the mean date or the midpoint in the period of manufacture for an identified ceramic. This mean date for each ceramic type is recorded and the average of all ceramics identified and analyzed is utilized in determining the approximate date of the site.  In addition, the behavior of curating heirloom ceramics – think your grandmother or great-grandmother’s “good” china plates – is a phenomenon, that if not recognized as such during analysis of a ceramic assemblage could greatly skew age estimates (particularly for domestic sites) several decades earlier than when the actual site occupation took place.

We hope this brief description of just one of the tools archaeologists use to analyze the past was of interest and a greater appreciation is realized as to the significance of the broken pottery recovered from archaeological sites.  Please visit our online collections.  


Barker, David and Pat Halfpenny

(1990) Unearthing Staffordshire: Towards a new Understanding of 18th Century Ceramics City of Stoke-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, EnglandHume, Ivor Noel

(1969) A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (reprint)


For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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