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 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)
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
Samuel Malkin plates, close-up of initials S and M on either side of dot
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; https://www.phmc.pa.gov/Museums/Online-Collection/Pages/default.aspx
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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1316113.
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