Sunday, February 28, 2021

Broken Pottery’s Role in Archaeology - Colonial Ceramics Series

This week we continue our series on early historic ceramics often recovered on archaeological sites and their significance in the historic and archaeological record. Past posts have discussed Jackfield (1745-1790) and Scratch blue (1744-1775) ceramics. Colonial ceramics of the 17th & 18th century are typically divided into three categories: Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain. These categories are derived from the clays used in manufacture as well as the firing techniques. Scratch blue is a salt-glazed stoneware, as its name implies it is a harder, more durable ceramic. The clay body is vitrified meaning non-porous, due in part to firing it between 1200-1300 degrees Celsius.

 Earthenware ceramics 

 Earthenware ceramics are fired at lower temperatures in the range of 900-1050 degrees Celsius. This lower firing means that the vessel doesn’t naturally hold liquids, and required a glaze be applied to either the interior or exterior surface for it to hold liquids. Not all vessels were glazed, flowerpots are an example of unglazed earthenware. This category of pottery was relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, making this the most prolific of the ceramic types of the period. Porcelain required white clays that could withstand kiln temperatures over 1300 degrees Celsius. They were more difficult to produce and their delicate nature meant they were not as commonly used in working class households. Archaeologists rely on ceramics not only as a tool for dating archaeological sites and features, but also to examine socio-economic conditions and consumer behavior. For many people a broken piece of pottery is viewed as rubbish, for an archaeologist it can contain a wealth of information and lead to an understanding and appreciation for the occupants of the site or household, and the potter who produced the ware. 

  Fragments of 18th century pottery recovered at Fort Hunter (36Da159)

Our focus this week is on another earthenware ceramic appropriately termed slipware for their manor of decoration. This coarse buff or yellow-bodied clay was frequently decorated with a combed pattern utilizing iron oxide or manganese slip under a clear to pale-yellow glaze. Slip is a combination of water, clay, and minerals developed by the potter to create a solution for decorating pottery.  Some vessels were decorated with dark spots or dots, leading collectors to identify these as “dot” wares. (Hume 1970) Produced in England (1675-1770) it is associated with a district known as Staffordshire, but other English and Dutch potters were producing slipware as well. These distinct vessels with dark brown decoration and yellow-gold colored body occur frequently on 18th century sites in Pennsylvania. Their period of manufacture is longer than that of Jackfield or Scratch-blue stoneware, but variations in pattern, level of clay refinement and the later use of clay molds aids in refining dates of manufacture and in some cases, the potter. 

Various forms of combed slipware from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania


Image of slipware vessel, comb slip decoration with dot pattern on rim.

Collections of The State Museum, Archaeology

Curated among the broken pieces of pottery from excavations in Philadelphia in the 1970’s, is an assemblage of slipware recovered from 121-123 Market Street.  Excavation of the well discovered at this location, produced an assortment of pottery, wine glasses and a William III half-penny (1694-1702). Archaeologists analyzed the artifacts recovered from the well and determined the well had been sealed around 1760, creating a time capsule of its use by the household. Reconstructed vessels would later connect these broken pieces of slipware pottery with their creator, Samuel Malkin (1668-1741). 

Samuel Malkin plates, close-up of initials S and M on either side of dot

Samuel Malkin’s pottery has been traced to Burslem, North Staffordshire, England during the period of 1710-1740. His pottery was among hundreds of small craft potteries located there, and it is estimated that by 1800, they employed more than seven thousand workers. Among the reconstructed slipware vessels from Philadelphia were several vessels with relief-decorated designs. Two of the vessels  contained large dark brown dots, four crosses and the letters S and M. Identified as press molded, this method of production was employed by others, but Malkin was one of the last utilizing this technique, and by the end of the 18th century this process had greatly declined. The use of relief decoration allowed for more elaborate designs than wheel thrown vessels and while labor intense to produce, these “signature” pieces provide a direct link to the potter.  The increased demand for quality ceramics not only in England but also in the colonies provided a market for skilled potters such as Malkin.

Two additional vessels reconstructed from the well provide a more iconic image of these early potters and demonstrates the social and cultural artistry often employed by these skilled craftsmen. The design of these vessels described as “sunfaces” are attributed to Samuel Malkin based on research by David Orr (personal communication). Dr. Orr, retired Senior Regional Archaeologist for the Northeast Region of the National Park Service, has examined multiple vessels created by Malkin and believes these to be among his creations. Orr has suggested possible religious connotations depicted by the celestial suns and the multiple examples of biblical phrases on other Malkin vessels. It’s doubtful we will ever know why these faces were chosen or their symbolism for the consumer, but the craftsmanship of Samuel Malkin nearly 300 years ago is preserved in those broken pieces of pottery allowing future generations to appreciate and understand his story.

1 Probable S. Malkin plate on display at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

2  Sunface plate in collections of The State Museum

We hope you will continue to follow our blog to learn more about the incredible ceramics that have been recovered by archaeologists from across the Commonwealth. The preservation of these objects provides a personal glimpse into the lives of early colonists and of the potters who produced them. German immigrants who became potters in Philadelphia, Lancaster and York developed their methods and refined the clay available locally to produce ceramics that would replace those from Europe and led the way for many artisan crafts throughout the colony.

Advancements in science have allowed archaeologists to analyze clay sources and trace them to regions and in some cases potters.  Archaeologists have the unique ability of finding the stories of everyday life through the evidence of the past- even if it is only a broken piece of pottery.

Please visit our website for additional objects from our collections at;

For additional examples of Samuel Malkin pottery visit the on-line collection of the British Museum;



Dean, Darron. "A Slipware Dish by Samuel Malkin: An Analysis of Vernacular Design." Journal of Design History 7, no. 3 (1994): 153-67. Accessed February 25, 2021.

Hunter, Robert. 2003. Ceramics in America 2003. Milwaukee, Wis: Chipstone Foundation. Samuel Malkin in Philadelphia: A remarkable Slipware Assemblage. David G. Orr

Noël Hume, Ivor. 1970. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Fishing for Evidence: River Weirs in Pennsylvania

Throughout time, rivers have played an essential role in the settlement patterns of Pennsylvania’s inhabitants. Rivers helped to define travel routes, provided fresh water, and were a bountiful source of food. Pennsylvania’s rivers have changed considerably since the arrival of Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries due to floods and human impact, but evidence of past fishing activities is still apparent today in the form of stone river weirs often visible during periods of low water. River or fish weirs are stone structures made by Native Americans and European colonists to corral and trap fish. This blog will discuss the forms and distribution of these features in Eastern Pennsylvania’s rivers.

The existence of fish weirs or fish traps in Pennsylvania has received relatively little attention from archaeologists, and only 10 such sites have been formally recorded with the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files (P.A.S.S). Additional sites have been described in publications or identified but not yet recorded. A 1969 publication identified 36 fish traps in Maryland on the Potomac River between Point of Rocks, Maryland and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (Strandberg and Tomlinson 1969:312). Preliminary data from a 2019 Fish Wier Recording Survey conducted by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology identified 750 fish weirs from more than 10 states, including 141 in Pennsylvania. Following North Carolina, Pennsylvania has the second highest concentration of weirs identified in this survey.

Locations of 750 Fish Weirs Identified in the North Carolina Fish Weir Recording Project (Cranford 2019). 

Until recently, factors that impeded the identification of fish weirs were a lack of high-quality satellite imagery (or difficulty obtaining historic aerial imagery), difficulty identifying these features from the ground, a lack of associated artifacts, or a lack of interest from the archaeology community. With advancements in technology and increasing access to high-quality satellite imagery through Google Earth, however the reliable identification of fish weirs is now possible. By accessing multiple years’ satellite imagery, the weirs appear and disappear with the rise and fall of water levels. Due to environmental factors from climate change and ongoing threats from human activity, the need to record these structures is even more critical.

During a brief period of the year, a prominent fish weir is visible from the I-83 bridge in Harrisburg, PA, facing south. (image: Melanie Mayhew)

Along the Eastern Coast of the United States, weirs most frequently take the form of “V”-shaped or multiple “V” or “W”-shaped structures. Multiple-“V” shaped weirs had the advantage of being useful for capturing migratory fish on both their downstream and upstream journeys (Rogers 1993). The tips of the “V”-shaped weirs could be opened or closed depending on direction of the fish or eels’ travel. Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers are habitat for migratory fish, such as shad, eel, and sturgeon. Populations of these fish have greatly diminished due to overfishing, pollution and in the case of the Lower Susquehanna River Valley, four large hydroelectric dams. Surveys have shown that “V” and multiple-“V” or “W”- shaped weirs on the East Coast extend from Georgia, through Pennsylvania and into New England. Additional historic period weirs also exist which may have been associated with canning factories or other historic fishing activities.

Establishing dates for stone weirs has proven to be difficult, even in areas where they have received attention from professional archaeologists. The traps or weirs located on the Potomac River by Strandberg and Tomlinson are attributed to pre-contact Native Americans or early colonial settlers. Moreover, several clusters of fish weirs in Pennsylvania are near pre-contact or contact period Native American village sites, further suggesting that these locations may have been used prior to the arrival of Europeans, although their continued use by early European settlers cannot be ruled out.

Fish weirs or traps are often located at natural rapids such as these on the Susquehanna River (image: Google Earth).

Recognizing cultural landscapes is an important line of research for archaeologists as we strive to improve our understanding of past cultural behavior. Discussions with indigenous peoples can provide additional lines of evidence that will add to our knowledge of how weirs were made and used. Examination of archaeological collections containing dietary fish remains recovered from within close proximity of these weirs improves our understanding of early diets. Modern technologies, such as satellite imagery and LiDAR are non-destructive options for gathering useful data. Recognizing and recording cultural landscapes is an important endeavor for archaeologists seeking to better understand and preserve the past.

Visit The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Online Collections


Record an Archaeological Site


Additional Information about Fish Weirs:

Cranford, David

2019      A New View of Southeastern Stone Fish Weirs. Poster presented at the 2019 Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Jackson, Mississippi.

Lutins, Allen

1992      Prehistoric Fishweirs in Eastern North America. MA thesis, Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, Binghamton.

Rogers, Anne Frazer

1993      Fish Weirs as Part of the Cultural Landscape. Paper presented at the 1991 Appalachian Cultural Resources Workshop, Asheville, North Carolina.

Strandberg, Carl H. and RayTomlinson

1969      Photoarchaeological analysis of Potomac River fish traps. Am. Antiq. 34:212-219.

2021  Dozens of ancient eel weirs uncovered in Susquehanna. Bay Journal    

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

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