The following is a basic introduction to pottery in archaeology, focusing particularly on the ceramics of the medieval period. The bibliography at the end provides references to more detailed and comprehensive sources.
The study of pottery is an important branch of archaeology. This is because pottery is:
Small fragments of pottery, known as sherds or potsherds, are collected on most archaeological sites. Occasionally whole vessels are found, particularly where they have been used as grave goods or cremation 'urns'. These are important in providing us with a type series of vessel forms, although broken vessels can be just as useful for this.
In Britain, pottery was made from the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period onwards, although some parts of the British Isles were aceramic (did not produce pottery) at various points in time.
Prehistoric pottery is handmade (i.e. not wheel-turned). The clay from which it is made often contains pieces of burnt flint or other stone and the pottery appears very coarse. This crudeness is related to the function of the vessels, which had to withstand thermal shock when placed on a fire for cooking. Fine vessels with incised and stamped decoration were also made.
By the 1st century B.C., wheelmade pottery was being imported from the Roman world and finer 'Belgic-type' vessels were being produced in East Anglia. Highly decorated tableware, including fine red and whitewares, were available during the Early Roman period. Imported wares, such as fine red samian from Gaul, were popular, and wheelmade pottery was manufactured in Britain. Most Roman pottery, however, consisted of coarse sandy greywares which were used for cooking, storage and other daily functions.
By the early 5th century, the art of pottery manufacture with a wheel had been lost (or was simply not required) in Britain. Whilst some areas, such as Cornwall, continued to import fine pottery from the Continent, other areas reverted to handmade vessels in similar forms to those of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Plain cooking vessels and decorated 'urns' were again common. The similarity between Iron Age and Saxon pottery, particularly in East Anglia, can cause problems where no other dating evidence is available.
There is a large amount of archaeological evidence for the pottery industry from the Middle Saxon period onwards, in the form of products and production sites. The main requirements of the industry were:
This means that production sites were generally situated on clay subsoils near woodland in rural areas.
Rural potteries probably only operated part-time and the potters were peasants who spent most of their time farming. It was a family industry, continuing through generations. Clay pits were usually dug quite close to the kiln, on the peasant's croft or common. However, in the Middle and Late Saxon period (mid-7th to 11th centuries), many potteries were based in towns.
Kilns are divided into single, double and multi-flue types. Their superstructures not easy to reconstruct. Several experimental kiln firings have been carried out. These have provided us with information on what could and couldn't work, and are useful for interpreting the remains of structures in the ground.
The single flue type was in use from the Late Saxon period to the 13th c., and was superseded by the double flue type. Multi-flue types were also used later, allowing greater capacity and needing peat or coal as fuel. Methods of stacking vessels in kilns are interpreted from excavated kilns which contain partial loads, but can also be reconstructed from kiln scars on glazed pottery and kiln bars, and from the direction of glaze drips on decorated vessels. Firing was a slow process to raise the temperature gradually to 1000Â°C. It took about 12 hours plus cooling time.
Few workshops have been excavated, but most consist of buildings and sheds which were probably used to store the raw materials and leather-hard pots, as well as a manufacturing area.
The same basic techniques were used and the same types of vessel were produced in different areas, but the pottery has a regional character. Inclusions in the pottery, to prevent shrinkage in the kiln, vary between geological regions. Differences in style and fabric helps pottery specialists to identify vessels which are not of local manufacture.
Potters are very rarely mentioned in documentary evidence before the Late Medieval period, and were probably some of the lowest-status craftsmen.
There is no direct evidence for type of wheels in use before the 13th century, after which a few illustrations survive. Similarly, there is little evidence for tools used. Combs, knives etc. were probably employed, but these would be difficult to distinguish from domestic ones. Also, specialized antler and bone tools and stamps were used to decorate pottery, and a few of these have been found.