Friday, April 26, 2019

The Mysterious Abraham Miller Pottery

In some of our previous blog posts we have looked at other ceramics produced in the early years of the 19th-century in Philadelphia (for example, see Made in America: Philadelphia Queensware Pottery in the Early 19th Century, December 16, 2016), but now we turn to some pieces that are a little more mysterious.

Philadelphia was the largest urban area in the United States at the turn of the 19th-century and many important potteries operated there. Several of these potteries were located in the oldest sections of the city. One of these was the Abraham Miller Pottery on Zane Street (now Filbert) between Seventh and Eighth Streets. An earlier pottery, owned by Daniel Topham, was established on this lot in the 1760s. Topham is believed to have produced mainly red earthenwares (redware) at his pottery, using clays dug from nearby parts of the city. Following Topham’s death in 1783, the property was purchased by Andrew Miller, Sr., who also produced redwares.  Miller appears in the 1798 federal tax assessment as owning a “house & Lott in Zan st” as well as a frame stable and brick pot house.By 1799, Andrew Miller, Sr’s oldest son Andrew, Jr. had joined him in the running of the pottery. His younger son, Abraham, is listed in city directories for 1806-1808 as a “potter” and it is not known if he was a partner at that time.

In 1809, the two sons took over the operations of the pottery from their father. They became known for production of “Common coarse earthen ware”, mainly in the form of black and brown tea pots. Andrew, Jr. died in 1821 and their father in 1826 and Abraham took control of the pottery. He soon added black and red tea and coffee pots, portable earthenware furnaces, fire bricks, sugar molds, and other ceramic wares to the production.  Miller became highly successful and moved the manufacturing portion of his works to a new site on James Street, while retaining the warehouse at Zane Street. In the 1850s, he bought property on Callowhill Street and moved his operations there. 

Advertisement for Abraham Miller’s pottery on Callowhill Street (from Susan Myers 1980)

The State Museum of Pennsylvania (TSMOP) curates several pieces of Abraham Miller’s pottery. We know that this is Miller’s work due to the fact that these pieces are marked on the base with “ABM MILLER”, as seen in the photo below. “Maker’s marks” such as this one were often used by potteries to identify their work to the public. A maker’s mark can consist of a company name, an individual’s name, or even a symbol, such as an anchor or an eagle. 

Abraham Miller Maker’s Mark on base of bowl

 Although archaeological excavations have been conducted on the site of the Topham and later Miller pottery in Zane Street (the Metropolitan Detention Center Project, site 36Ph91), most of the recovered artifacts reflect only Topham’s redware production here. No marked or specifically Miller-identified pieces were recovered from this site.

However, marked Abraham Miller ceramics have been found elsewhere in Philadelphia. The pieces of Miller pottery in the TSMOP collections were recovered from two archaeological sites about two blocks from the Miller pottery on Callowhill Street - sites 36Ph49 and 36Ph84.  Site 36Ph49 was discovered during investigations for the Gateway Redevelopment Project that were conducted in 1991. The Gateway parcel was located within the block bounded by North 15th, North 16th, and Spring streets and the Vine Street expressway exit ramp.\

A bowl, a baking dish, and two plates with Miller’s mark were recovered from 36Ph49. The two plates are identical and may have been part of a set. They resemble yellow ware in color but have a hard white paste and dimpled glaze that looks like orange peel, which is usually indicative of salt-glazing (adding salt to the firing process).

Plates from site 36Ph49

Orange peel-like dimpling in glaze of plate, indicating salt-glazing in the kiln

The bowl is cream colored and unevenly shaped with orange peel dimpled glaze. It is reminiscent of creamware but is too thick and poorly glazed to be categorized as such. 

Cream colored bowl from site 36Ph49

The baking dish is also a thick and poorly glazed piece with a greenish-yellow color and vitreous paste.

Baking dish from site 36Ph49

Baking dish from site 36Ph49 showing over-fired glaze and maker’s mark

Site 36Ph84 was located approximately a block north of site 36Ph49 under what is currently the Vine Street Expressway and was discovered during surveys for that project. Once a residential neighborhood, the buildings here would have been demolished to make way for the highway. A bowl and a plate with Miller’s mark were discovered at this site. The plate is the same size and design as the two plates recovered from site 36Ph49 except that the appearance is more in line with a typical yellow ware piece.

Possible yellow ware plate from site 36Ph84

The wide-lipped bowl is similar to the baking dish from 36Ph49. The appearance of the glaze is a greenish-yellow and is burned and bubbled in many spots. This piece is heavy and thick with a hard paste.
Greenish-yellow bowl with over-fired glaze from site 36Ph84

Back of bowl from 36Ph84 showing over-fired glaze 

So, what do we make of these strange pieces that don’t exactly “fit the mold”? Abraham Miller is known to have experimented throughout his career with various types of earthenwares – porcelain, white earthenware, queensware, yellow ware, Rockingham-like brownware, and bisquit. It is quite possible these pieces in the TSMOP collections represent examples of the experimentation of Abraham Miller in his pottery. Perhaps he was trying to invent a new type of pottery by putting together different combinations of glazes, pastes, and firing techniques, but couldn’t quite perfect it before his death in 1858.

Until more is known about Miller’s work, it is possible to continue to speculate about these unusual specimens. And to wonder what other interesting pieces may be in the collections that are not marked with Miller’s name…

We hope you have enjoyed this post and encourage you to read more about this early industry in Pennsylvania and potteries in your community. A current exhibit at Landis Valley Farm Museum ( highlights some of the redware potters of Pennsylvania and includes pieces from the archaeology collection of the State Museum.  Preserving the history and works of these early crafts is important in recognizing the value of archaeology in our communities and appreciating our heritage.
Sources Used and Additional Reading:
Barber, Edwin Atlee
1893    Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. Reprinted 1976 by Feingold & Lewis, New York, NY.

Myers, Susan H.
1980    Handcraft to Industry: Philadelphia Ceramics in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Ramsay, John
1947    American Potters and Pottery. Tudor Publishing Co., New York, NY.

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

Friday, April 12, 2019

A Different View of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Paul A. Raber
Heberling Associates, Inc.

Like the rest of us, archaeologists get set in their ways. They become used to looking at the same types of archaeological sites and doing so in the same ways. Sometimes it takes an outside force to pull them away from their pet subjects and ingrained habits. Cultural resource management (CRM) studies required by federal and state historic preservation laws and regulation have served this purpose in North American archaeology over the past half century. Archaeological field studies directed by the dictates of project design have come to dominate the practice of archaeology in the United States, with highway improvements and public works projects defining areas of required archaeological testing and study. Archaeologists may grumble about the limitations imposed on their interests by project boundaries and scopes—the really great site that we know is just outside the project area—but CRM studies have benefited the discipline of archaeology by directing the attention of archaeologists to settings and sites that we might otherwise have ignored.

Recent archaeological studies in connection with a highway project in southwestern Pennsylvania highlighted this phenomenon. Proposed federally-funded improvements to State Route 519 in North Strabane Township, Washington County required that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), Engineering District 12-0 consider possible project effects to archaeological sites. Among the precontact archaeological sites discovered during preliminary surveys was a small site overlooking a tributary to Chartiers Creek. Initial testing and subsequent large-scale excavation of site 36WH1729 revealed the remains of numerous brief encampments there, almost all of which dated to the Early and Middle Woodland periods, roughly spanning the period 1000 BC to 1000 AD (Raber 2018). This was a time of profound change in the Native cultures of eastern North America, witnessing the first sustained experimentation with plant crops, new technologies like pottery, and connections with regional ceremonial complexes like Adena and Hopewell based in the Middle Ohio River valley to the west (see previous posts here and here, for example).

Our understanding of this period and the ties of local peoples to the Adena and Hopewell complexes, however, has been heavily influenced by the traditional focus on the sometimes spectacular remains found at mound sites like McKees Rock Mound and dozens of other burial mounds in southwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent regions of the upper Ohio Valley, or those uncovered at semi-permanent hamlet or village sites like those at the Fairchance Mound and Village site in nearby West Virginia. Available archaeological information is heavily biased towards those site types.

The work at 36WH1729 joins several other recent studies in drawing attention to the distinctive set of activities and the use of local resources that occurred at small, briefly occupied campsites in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere in Pennsylvania (see Nass and Henshaw 2017; Raber 2017a, 2017b). Such studies have contributed detailed information on what happened at these small sites and how the sites were related to seasonal occupations at larger base camps and other specialized sites through large-scale exposures and intensive post-excavation studies of artifacts and features.

The excavations at 36WH1729 exposed roughly 26% of the core site area, recovering more than 6400 stone artifacts and pottery fragments and 178 kg of fire-cracked rock. The exposure of 93 m2 revealed twelve confirmed or likely pre-Contact cultural features, all of which seem to have been hearth or hearth remnants, as would be expected at small, briefly occupied camps, where the family or task group present would have gathered around a hearth to cook, socialize and conduct most of the varied activities documented in the excavated remains. We defined the dates of occupation with 15 radiocarbon dates on charcoal taken from features and other contexts.

The results of excavation and post-excavation analyses provide a detailed picture of life at a  small upland camp used repeatedly during the Early and Middle Woodland periods. Studies of microscopic wear on stone tools allowed us to characterize some of the activities that occurred at successive camps at 36WH1729, while analyses of pollen and residues on both stone tools and pottery expanded our knowledge of the local environment, activities, and the materials obtained and used at the site. Small groups—probably nuclear families—camped here for short periods during the fall, hunted white-tailed deer and other game, and collected nuts and other wild plants available in the cleared areas around the site. Much of the activity seems to have focused on the collection and processing of black walnuts, the butchering of deer carcasses for meat, and the working of hides, bone, and antler. Most of the meat, hides, and nuts were processed and preserved to be later used or consumed at seasonal camps.

These tasks were accomplished using flaked stone tools of local Uniontown chert that was obtained within a short distance of the site. Some 97% of the toolstone used at 36WH1729 was Uniontown chert obtained from nearby—but currently undefined—sources. The site was occupied for perhaps a few days or a week during the fall, when the nut crop and game could be harvested in the vicinity of the camps. The inhabitants returned to base camps or hamlets along the larger streams’ drainage for the winter season. They must also have used nearby Early and Middle Woodland period burial mounds, but there is no evidence to indicate that they visited the mounds while camped at the site.

The studies at 36WH1729 provided a new perspective on life during the Early and Middle Woodland periods in the upper Ohio Valley, one very different from that derived from the traditional focus on burial mounds and villages. The daily lives of families and small bands, and their intimate knowledge of the changing local environment evident in the use of resources like Uniontown chert, deer and wild plants, are all delineated in the material remains from small sites like 36WH1729. As the body of our knowledge of small sites accumulates, we can ask new and more detailed and relevant questions about how the past inhabitants of the region lived and adapted to changing conditions.

Our ability to ask such questions, however, depends on paying attention to the small sites that were critical parts of past settlement systems. Giving such small sites their due reflects the major impact CRM archaeology has had on the study of the past.

Nass, John P, Jr. and Marc Henshaw
2017    The Value of Small Sites for the Study of Late Woodland Subsistence: An Example from Southwestern Pennsylvania. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 33:27-48.
Raber, Paul A.
2017a  The Significance of Small Sites in the Upper Ohio River Drainage: Investigations at 36WH1619. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 87(1):1-28.
2017b  Eight Thousand Years on the Banks of Aughwick Creek: archaeological Studies at 36HU224, The Pogue Bridge North Site. Byways to the Past Series. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

2018    The Early and Middle Woodland Periods at Small Site in the Upper Ohio Valley: The Evidence from 36WH1729. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 87(1):1-28. 

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