Pottery at Jamestown

Archeological excavations at Jamestown have revealed that several different types of pottery were used at the settlement. Among some of the nearly 100 variations of pottery found at the site, the most common were numerous types of coarse earthenware which were locally made, and a fine tin-glazed earthenware which would have been made predominately in England, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. Archeological evidence suggests that utilitarian earthenware was made at this site and that it was fairly well crafted.

When the English first arrived at Jamestown, they had only the basic necessities for survival. Some containers used for eating and storing goods were made of wood and metal. Settlers began to import different types of pottery from European countries such as Spain, Holland, France and Italy; however, they did not import enough to meet their needs.

Coarse earthenware was the most common type of pottery found at Jamestown. The clay was red, as this was the color of the soil. Often, a slip was placed over the object before firing in a color lighter than the original. After it had partially dried, the potter could begin a process known as "Sgraffito, " an Italian word meaning "scratched." This process allowed the slip color to be scraped away in a pattern, which then revealed the original color of the clay body. Many pieces have been found at Jamestown with floral and geometrical designs. Finally, a glaze was placed over the entire object before firing.

Sgraffito ware has been found in great quantities at Jamestown, especially pieces made in the area of North Devon, England. Devon served as a major port exporting goods to the colony. It was also a large ceramic production center. Thus, numerous pieces of pottery found at Jamestown can be traced to this area. A later version of Sgraffito ware was made in Pennsylvania by the Germans in the 18th and 19th centuries and is known as "Pennsylvania" ware.

Yet another type of pottery discovered at Jamestown was Delftware. The clay was buff and covered with a white tin glaze. Designs were often painted in bright colors such as blue, orange, green, yellow and purple in order to imitate fine Chinese porcelain. There is some confusion as to the origin of this style. Despite being named after a Dutch town, this was actually made in England in the 17th century. The Dutch began making it a few years later and were noted as the people who popularized this style. Most of the delftware found at Jamestown was made in the London suburbs, such as Lambeth, or in the area around Bristol. A few pieces found here can be traced to Holland, Spain and Italy.

A third type of pottery known to have been used at Jamestown was salt-glazed stoneware. Salt was thrown into the kiln during the firing process. The salt would then be absorbed onto the surface of the object when heated, thus giving the appearance of a rough or pebbled exterior. This type of pottery was made in large quantities in the Rhineland during the 17th century, but there were also successful attempts in England. These objects were generally solid in color, as it was not until the next century that painted colors and decorated molds were perfected.

Despite the fact that the settlers imported large quantities of pottery to Jamestown, there was not enough to meet the needs of the people. Thus, pottery was made here for utilitarian purposes. Four different kiln sites have been found on the island, which suggests that pottery was being made at this location during the first half of the 17th century. The first two kilns were used to make pottery, while the third was used to make bricks and the last was used for lime. Due to the color of the soil, most of the pottery made here was red. As its purpose was utilitarian, there was little decoration; however, some pieces have been found with thumb impressions and incised lines. From the pieces which have been found, it is evident that the potter in this area was a skilled artisan who probably learned the trade in England.

It can thus be seen that several types of pottery were used at Jamestown. Various types of earthenware and salt-glazed stoneware were used for everyday purposes. Additionally, fine delftware as well as a few pieces of Chinese porcelain have been found. The pottery imported to the area, however, was not enough to meet the demands of the people and, as a result, pottery was manufactured on this site by an artisan who probably learned his trade in England.

For more information on the pottery of Jamestown, refer to:

Hume, Ivor Noel. Early English Delftware from London and Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1977.

Hume, Ivor Noel. A Guide to Artifacts of Early America. Alfred A. Knopf Press, New York, 1985.

Spargo, John. Early American Pottery and China. Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, 1974.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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