The Museum of History and Technology:
North Devon Pottery and Its Export
To America in the 17th Century
C. Malcolm Watkins
Figure 1.—North Devon sgraffito cup, deep dish, and jug restored from fragments excavated from fill under brick drain at May-Hartwell site, Jamestown, Virginia. The drain was laid between 1689 and 1695. Colonial National Historical Park.
NORTH DEVON POTTERY
AND ITS EXPORT TO AMERICA
IN THE 17th CENTURY
Recent excavations of ceramics at historic sites such as Jamestown and Plymouth indicate that the seaboard colonists of the 17th century enjoyed a higher degree of comfort and more esthetic furnishings than heretofore believed. In addition, these findings have given us much new information about the interplay of trade and culture between the colonists and their mother country.
This article represents the first work in the author’s long-range study of ceramics used by the English colonists in America.
The Author: C. Malcolm Watkins is curator of cultural history, United States National Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
Pottery sherds found archeologically in colonial sites serve a multiple purpose. They help to date the sites; they reflect cultural and economic levels in the areas of their use; and they throw light on manufacture, trade, and distribution.
Satisfying instances of these uses were revealed with the discovery in 1935 of two distinct but unidentified pottery types in the excavations conducted by the National Park Service at Jamestown, Virginia, and later elsewhere along the eastern seaboard. One type was an elaborate and striking yellow sgraffito ware, the other a coarse utilitarian kitchen ware whose red paste was heavily tempered with a gross water-worn gravel or “grit.” Included in the latter class were the components of large earthen baking ovens. Among the literally hundreds of thousands of sherds uncovered at Jamestown between 1935 and 1956, these types occurred with relatively high incidence. For a long time no relationship between them was noted, yet their histories have proved to be of one fabric, reflecting the activities of a 17th-century English potterymaking center of unsuspected magnitude.
The sgraffito pottery is a red earthenware, coated with a white slip through which designs have been incised. An amber lead glaze imparts a golden yellow to the slip-covered portions and a brownish amber to the exposed red paste. The gravel-tempered ware is made of a similar red-burning clay and is remarkable for its lack of refinement, for the pebbly texture caused by protruding bits of gravel, and for the crude and careless manner in which the heavy amber glaze was applied to interior surfaces. Once seen, it is instantly recognizable and entirely distinct from other known types of English or continental pottery. A complete oven (fig. 10), now restored at Jamestown, is of similar paste and quality of temper. It has a roughly oval beehive shape with a trapezoidal framed opening in which a pottery door fits snugly.
Figure 2.—Sketch of sherd of sgraffito-ware dish, dating about 1670, that was found during excavations of C. H. Brannam’s pottery in Barnstaple. (Sketch by Mrs. Constance Christian, from photo.)
Following the initial discoveries at Jamestown there was considerable speculation about these two types. Worth Bailey, then museum technician at Jamestown, was the first to recognize the source of the sgraffito ware as “Devonshire.” Henry Chandlee Forman, asserting that such ware was “undoubtedly made in England,” felt that it “derives its inspiration from Majolica ware ... especially that of the early Renaissance period from Faenza.”
Bailey also noted that the oven and the gravel-tempered utensils were made of identical clay and temper. However, in an attempt to prove that earthenware was produced locally, he assumed, perhaps because of their crudeness, that the utensils were made at Jamestown. This led him to conjecture that the oven, having similar ceramic qualities, was also a local product. He felt in support of this that it was doubtful “so fragile an object could have survived a perilous sea voyage.”
Since these opinions were expressed, much further archeological work in colonial sites has revealed widespread distribution of the two types. Bailey himself noted that a pottery oven is intact and in place in the John Bowne House in Flushing, Long Island. A fragment of another pottery oven recently has been identified among the artifacts excavated by Sidney Strickland from the site of the John Howland House, near Plymouth, Massachusetts; and gravel-tempered utensil sherds have occurred in many sites. The sgraffito ware has been unearthed in Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Such a wide distribution of either type implies a productive European source for each, rather than a local American kiln in a struggling colonial settlement like Jamestown. Bailey’s attribution of the sgraffito ware to Devonshire was confirmed in 1950 when J. C. Harrington, archeologist of the National Park Service, came upon certain evidence at Barnstaple in North Devon, England. This evidence was found in the form of sherds exhibited in a display window of C. H. Brannam’s Barnstaple Pottery that were uncovered during excavation work on the premises. These are unmistakably related in technique and design to the American examples. A label under a fragment of a large deep dish (fig. 2) in the display is inscribed: “Piece of dish found in site of pottery. In sgraffiato. About 1670.” This clue opened the way to the investigation pursued here, the results of which relate the sgraffito ware, the gravel-tempered ware, and the ovens to the North Devon towns and to a busy commerce in earthenware between Barnstaple, Bideford, and the New World.
This study, conducted at first hand only on the American side of the Atlantic, is admittedly incomplete. Later, it is planned to consider sherd collections in England, comparative types of sgraffito wares, and possible influences and sources of techniques and designs. For the present, it is felt the immediate evidence is sufficient to warrant the conclusions drawn here.