Friday, October 4, 2013

Studying for ceramics final!
This time last year I had the opportunity to sit in on Dr. Kathleen Deagan's Historic Ceramic Analysis class taught at Flagler College.  I couldn't believe my luck that after all my years stalking Dr. Deagan that she agreed to teach one night a week in my backyard.  Her dedication to St. Augustine and to historical archaeology knows no bounds.  It was a dream of mine to turn my copious notes and photos from the class into a series of blog posts to share with the public.  Dr. Deagan graciously gave her blessing, I hope to not let her down.  So let us begin!

Day 1 – Class Notes

The first few weeks we focused on the "what" of historic ceramics.  While it's critical for us to know our data, it's also critical to know the how's and why's too.  Dr. Deagan began the class with a review of processual and post-processual archaeology, historical archaeology, and examples of the far ranging sites archaeologists study.  When it comes to considering a whole site and what it means, artifacts are the bridge. 

"Where have you worked?" was the first question asked by a student enrolled in the class.  Dr. Deagan modestly answered with a short list of sites in Haiti, Dominican Republic, and St. Augustine (downtown and at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park).  I will keep my veneration as brief as I can, but know Kathy Deagan wrote THE book on ceramics in our part of the world.  She's authored 8 books, 65+ professional articles, and received the Society of Historical Archaeology's highest honor the Harrington Award for lifetime achievement.  You can read her bio and CV on the UF Department of Anthropology webpage. 

The class took place at Flagler College located in downtown St. Augustine.  Our city, she argued, is the best place to learn historic ceramics as we have all the time periods represented here: Spanish, French, Dutch, English, American.  "No matter where you go after 1492, global world goods were exchanged all over the world; they became regularized."  Given the time period of sites around the world, you get some of representation of historic ceramics.  Dr. Deagan emphasizes that here in St. Augustine you get ALL historic ceramic types.  After this class students should be able to go anywhere and do a historical ceramic project.  We will first focus on ceramic analysis- things you always do like count and record.  Then we will have an opportunity to focus on one type for an end of term project and dive into deeper questions.

The assigned text book for the class was Kathy Deagan's Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800: Ceramics, Glassware, and Beads.  You can pick up a copy on Amazon or through your local library.  It is currently out of print, so copies are rare. The other assigned book was Ivor Noel Hume's A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America, namely the slipware and stoneware sections.  

Don't fret if you can't find a copy of Deagan's book- the primary resource we used throughout the class was the Florida Museum of Natural History's Digital Type Collection.  This free on-line resource allows you to browse the list of types, view specimens (such as my favorite, San Luis Polychrome), and view pages of examples of each type (SLP alone has more than 60 images posted).  The database comes from original specimens physically curated at the museum.  While access to that area is restricted, they've done a wonderful job in making the information readily available to the public.    

Screen cap of my favorite page on the Internet.

People and Pottery

With essential resources added to our ceramic analysis toolbox, we tackled the issue of why ceramics are so important to archaeologists.  Selection of bullets from my notes:
  • The primary reason ceramics are of utmost importance is because pottery preserves well.  It doesn't degrade, which is critical.  
  • Ceramics have also been intensively studied.  More than just cooking and eating, ceramics can tell us about the intentions of people who used them.  Someone in the past had the idea of purpose in mind when making and using pottery, ceramics are the expression of that.  "Why does Chinese porcelain have gardens, temples and pagodas but English pottery gets historical scenes of ships?"  
  • Context is important, we need to consider what is going on at the time of deposition.  Ideology is important- what's interesting to a culture, what are they supposed to do.  To borrow an example from prehistoric pottery, why are some St. Johns sherds plain but others are stamped?  For holding ability when stamped an add more friction, or to add more surface space during firing.  
  • What can vessel form tell us?  Used for serving?  Elements are not just for fun, they are intentional and tell us about function.  
  •  Then we considered a range for ceramic forms: pots, tea cups, figurines, pipes.  Economy, trade networks, social connections, and symbolic meaning can be further understood by studying ceramics.  Dr. Deagan ended the lecture by asking us to consider: What would a tea cup mean in a prehistoric burial? 
 Ceramic Typology

 The class followed a syllabus organized by ceramic type.  Dr. Deagan defined types as a set of ceramics that has a specific and unique combination of physical attributes.  Three key attributes: paste, surface treatment, decoration. Paste is most important. 
There are four categories of paste.  (text taken directly from my notes)
1) Coarse earthenware.  Terra cotta, refers to low fired clay at temps 800-900 degrees.  Majority of human history everywhere is coarse earthenware.  Grainey, porous, hard and fired, and will stick.
A) untreated, unglazed
B) surface displacement (checks, punctuates, incising)
C) scraping, polishing, smoothing
D)painting, pigment or adding a mineral to the surface
E) lead glazing
F) slip
G) tin enamel, only on course earthenware

2) Refined earthenware, 1790s introduced.  Higher temperatures up to 1,300 degrees. Thinner, harder, tongue doesn't stick.  Bite it. Usually a lighter color, more compact.  Hardness of the paste.  Thinner, really even. Always lead glazed.
               E) Lead glaze surface treatments, that's it

3) Stoneware, since late medieval times.  Salt glazed. Klinky, scratchy.  Other types are not salt glazed.
               H) salt glazing
               Or can be untreated or unglazed
               Can have surface displacement, only a few kinds that display that

4) Porcelain.  Asian, fired at 1300-1450 centigrade.  Closest pottery to glass.  Special white kaolin clay.
     Lead glaze, really looks the same (clear)

Check back next week as we dig deeper into the first paste type, Coarse Earthenware!

Other posts in the #ceramics101 series (will provide link as they are posted):
Week 1 - introduction
Week 2 - Unglazed and coarse earthenware: Part 1 Prehistoric; Part 2 Olive Jars; Part 3 European
Week 3 - Slipware and lead-glazed pottery
Week 4 - Majolica- Morisco tradition
Week 5 - Majolica- Italianate tradition
Week 6 - Majolica- Mexico City tradition
Week 7 - Majolica- Puebla tradition
Week 8 - Delft & Faience
Week 9 - Porcelain
Week 10 - Refined Earthenware
Week 11 - Stoneware

Text and images: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff using notes from Dr. Deagan's Fall 2012 Historic Ceramic Analysis class at Flagler College.  Please note any errors and inaccuracies are mine.  Endless thanks to Dr. Kathleen Deagan to giving her blessing to this blog project last year.  


Florida Museum of Natural History, Digital Type Collection, Historical Archaeology (

Deagan, K. A. 2002 Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean 1500-1800.Volume 1: Ceramics and Glassware.  Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press (Volume 1). (paper). 

Noel Hume, Ivor 1980 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Knopf.

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