Review by Timothy B. Riordan
Small Pieces of History: Archaeological Ceramics from Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent

Jonathan Goodwin and David Barker. Small Pieces of History: Archaeological Ceramics from Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke-on-Trent Archaeology Service, Monograph No. 2. Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, Eng.: Stoke-on-Trent Archaeological Service, 2009. 69 pp.; 214 color illus., tables, references. £13.95 (softcover).

This slender volume is informative and the stunningly beautiful photos of ceramic sherds provide vivid accompaniment to the text. As the first of a projected series of reports on salvage excavations around the potteries in the town of Tunstall, Staffordshire, it sets a high standard for the future.

The study begins with a general history of the development of Tunstall and a detailed description of the eight pottery factories that operated during the nineteenth century in or adjacent to the areas of the salvage work. Many of the potteries changed hands multiple times, and the manufacturer names, including such well-known ones as Johnson Brothers, Podmore, Walker and Co., Wedgwood and Co., and Wood and Challinoris—are familiar to anyone who works with nineteenth-century ceramics. While much of this is very localized history, it provides an interesting view of the impact that family relationships and the local economy had on pottery production.

The heart of the report is the presentation of material from three “watching briefs” and a private collection. Each section begins with a brief description of the site and the method of discovery. While there are only four collections, two of them are divided into several different find locations within the site. The Scotia Road vicinity, for example, had seven distinct findspots. As might be expected with archaeological monitoring projects, there was little hand excavation involved; most of the material was collected from mechanically excavated trenches.         

Presentation of the ceramic finds varies somewhat by collection but generally begins with a discussion of the manufacturers’ marks, followed by classification into broadly defined ware types (equivalent to decoration types). The majority of the sherds collected are transfer printed, and these are described by manufacturer and pattern. Patterns that can be associated with a particular manufacturer and/or pottery are grouped in the text. Following this, other decorative types are described, among them hand painted, slipped, and sponge decorated. These are the types of wares that usually get little attention from archaeologists but formed an important part of any potter’s business. The finds also included biscuit wares, wasters, and kiln furniture. Each site section concludes with an analysis of the date of the assemblage, most often based on manufacturers’ marks, and a discussion of the significance of the finds and what they add to the history of the nearby pottery.

The bulk of the identified sherds are transfer-printed earthenwares, and many have makers’ marks. Of these, there are a limited number of patterns, most of which are associated with a handful of companies known to have been working in the immediate vicinity. Figure 107 shows a blue-printed vessel with a romantic scene produced by John Wedgwood under the title Brussels; the presence of this well-known pattern strengthens the attribution of all the sherds in that deposit to Wedgwood and Co. The unidentified patterns are also well illustrated, which will help other researchers and lead to further identifications. Figure 129, for example, is a brown-printed vessel that exactly matches a pattern known as Acropolis. All of the collector books record this pattern, but it had never been associated with a particular manufacturer. Its discovery in a deposit entirely of wasters associated with the pottery of John Wedgwood and Co. suggests that this was one of their products. For patterns that were seldom if ever marked, this may be the only way to identify the manufacturer.

The one flaw in this study is its lack of organization, which tends to obscure its significant results. The narrative is hard to follow and would have benefited from a few tables summarizing the patterns from each site, number of vessels, and number of fragments. Placing the summary of all the ceramics in one section, separate from each find site, makes it difficult to know the extent and quantity of ceramic types in each collection. And while unidentified patterns are illustrated, it is almost impossible to determine what percentage of the material is unidentified. A few photographs or drawings of the archaeological fieldwork would have been useful in understanding the contexts.

Overall, however, this is an excellent source for students of ceramic history and archaeologists dealing with nineteenth-century sites. Future publications in this series will be highly anticipated.

Timothy B. Riordan
Historic St. Mary’s City

Ceramics in America 2011