Review by Richard G. Schaefer
Amsterdam Ceramics: A City's History and an Archaeological Ceramics Catalogue, 1175–2011

Jerzy Gawronski, ed., with contributions by Jerzy Gawronski, Ranjith Jayasena, Ab Lagerweij, Sebastiaan Ostkamp, Ron Tousain, and Jørgen Veerkamp. Amsterdam Ceramics: A City’s History and an Archaeological Ceramics Catalogue, 1175–2011. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen/Bureau Monumenten & Archeologie, 2012. 335 pp.; 1,500+ color illus. and numerous b/w line drawings, 2 appendixes, references. €39.50 (softcover).

Recovery of seventeenth-century Dutch artifacts in the former New Netherland, an area centered in modern New York City, became a reality in the 1970s with excavations in Lower Manhattan and Albany. Archeologists working in New Netherland recognized that they needed to develop competence in identifying/interpreting Dutch artifacts beyond measuring pipestems and perusing art-history publications on “delftware.” At the time, however, reference works on Dutch utilitarian ceramics were practically nonexistent, and the Dutch language was a substantial barrier. Since the late 1980s, however, lavishly illustrated archeological reports/catalogs published by Dutch municipal archeologists and museums have enhanced American access to these data.

Contact between American historical archeologists and the public archeologists in Amsterdam has been decades-long and cordial, and the Amsterdam office quickly became a pilgrimage destination for archeologists. From 1988 to 1989, I was funded to do dissertation research based in that office, hosted by then-head Jan Baart and his excellent team, Ab Lagerweij and Wiard Krook. The collections were astounding, and since then have been augmented by an additional twenty-three years of labor. Oddly, despite this embarrassment of riches, relatively few publications were generated by the office, although the 1977 Opgravingen in Amsterdam (Excavations in Amsterdam) achieved a certain notoriety.[1] This is about to change, however. When interviewed by the newspaper Het Parool, Amsterdam city archeologist Jerzy Gawronski, editor of the present work, indicated that Amsterdam Ceramics will be followed by publications on shoes, glass, and tools.

This English-language catalog presents 1,247 ceramic vessels recovered from 213 sites. The 580 vessels (46 percent) from the period 1575–1700 are directly relevant to many archeologists in former Dutch colonies and in those areas with historical trade links to the Netherlands, where this volume will be welcome.

First, however, come nine chapters on the history and development of Amsterdam, from “Amsterdam 1175–1300” through “Amsterdam 1850–2011.” These offer fascinating discussions of Amsterdam’s evolving environment, population, and government, as well as technological, social, and political trends. Both documentary and artifactual evidence tell Amsterdam’s story. The text is sprinkled with photos of artifacts ranging from a Neolithic stone axe to a cell phone. The high-water table has resulted in excellent preservation of both leather and wooden artifacts, and in situ assemblages, features, and trench profiles are illustrated. Almost every chapter includes a photo of a spoon, a shoe, a drinking vessel, and a lighting device, allowing the reader to follow a very simple typology across periods.

The catalog is divided into the same time periods used for the history chapters. The bridge between history and catalog is somewhat disappointing, with short “ceramics” paragraphs at the end of each history chapter. These describe the general ceramic assemblage of the particular period with a few insights into changes and new ware types.

A review of the introductory pages explaining the catalog’s organization, especially the description of the reasoning behind the ordering of the artifact entries, is advisable before browsing. American archeologists should study the Dutch definitions of the terms majolica and faience and note that the word delftware occurs nowhere.

Entries within each time period are divided by ceramic type and then subdivided by vessel form. Each has a crisp color photograph, an English “object name,” the item’s height or diameter measurement, and a place of origin; sometimes there is also a cross-sectional drawing. Despite the large, elegant white spaces between the entries, additional data are relegated to Appendix 1. Since the entries within each period are not in chronological order, one cannot follow the evolution of a particular form without flipping pages. Appendix 1 provides the site name, a tighter date range, and a code in the Deventer System (DS).

Named after its city of origin, the DS––officially the “Dutch Classification System for Late- and Post-Medieval Ceramics and Glass”––has emerged as the dominant typological system in Dutch archeology. The DS offers a desirable standardization of terms and date ranges, not idiosyncratic to one city. The code consists of a fabric/material designation, a Dutch vessel-type name generally based on historical usage, and a code number for the specific form. Unfortunately, the catalog provides only the three-letter DS vessel codes and does not supply the corresponding Dutch historical terms, which have been derived from documentary research and vetted by the DS board (a free pdf of the DS is available, however, if one emails Some of the English-only catalog terms are unhelpful overtranslations, such as no. 601, “cauldron,” for the large cooking pots the DS designates r-gra-11 (redware-grape [cooking pot]-11). The catalog’s “cauldron” conjures scenes from Macbeth, and “marmite,” a French historical term, is out of place. Another awkward translation is calling the pedestal salts (nos. 906–908) “salt tubs.” The format also has no flexibility to provide additional, needed information for some of the entries. A few objects might have been better illustrated to make all their attributes visible, for example the “birds’ drinking bowl” (nos. 409, 627), which has one flattened side so it can be placed flush against a birdcage.

The occasional difficulties with the translated text are more than compensated for by the book’s ability to reach a large English-speaking audience, however. For those interested, the Dutch version of the history section is available on the publisher’s website, For readers unfamiliar with the Dutch language or Amsterdam, the many tongue-twisting toponyms used are sometimes hard to follow, and the map provided is not really adequate to the task of pinpointing the locations.

These drawbacks aside, the catalog is a valuable resource. It provides images and general date ranges for a wide variety of ceramic artifacts, reflective of Amsterdam’s position as premier trading center and immigration destination. The volume makes accessible a large number of examples of the range of typical Dutch utilitarian earthenware forms (vessels, handles, feet, bodies, rims, bases) as well as contrasting non-Dutch examples. With this book in hand, there will be no excuse for misidentifying a late-seventeenth-century, lead-glazed, buff-bodied Dutch grape as North Devon gravel-tempered (something I encountered recently). Beyond the usefulness of illustrating many everyday earthenware forms, the variety of decoration—mainly of Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and French origin—on the majolica and faience entries should prove priceless to archeologists and connoisseurs. Given the quality of this production, one will look forward to the promised future volumes.

Richard G. Schaefer
Historical Perspectives, Inc. 


Jan Baart, Wiard Krook, Ab Lagerweij, Nina Ockers, Hans Van Regteren Altena, Tuuk Stam, Henk Stoepker, Gerard Stouthart, and Monika van der Zwan, Opgravingen in Amsterdam (Excavations in Amsterdam) (Haarlem: Fibula-Van Dishoek, 1977).

Ceramics in America 2013


  • [1]

    Jan Baart, Wiard Krook, Ab Lagerweij, Nina Ockers, Hans Van Regteren Altena, Tuuk Stam, Henk Stoepker, Gerard Stouthart, and Monika van der Zwan, Opgravingen in Amsterdam (Excavations in Amsterdam) (Haarlem: Fibula-Van Dishoek, 1977).