12.01.21, Blackmore, Lyn and Jacqueline Pearce, A dated type series of London medieval pottery - part 5

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Jennifer Lee

The Medieval Review 12.01.21

Blackmore, Lyn and Jacqueline Pearce. A dated type series of London medieval pottery: part 5, Shelly-sandy ware and the greyware industries. Museum of London Archaeology Monograph Series. London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2010. Pp. 334. ISBN: 978-1-901992-93-9.

Reviewed by:
Jennifer Lee

Archaeologists have been finding bits of broken pottery for centuries, but it is only recently, and in certain contexts, that they have had the means to describe not only where a pot sherd was found, but where the clay was dug, where and how the pot was fashioned and fired, how it was transported and sold, how it was used and broken, and finally how the pieces got to where they were found. This book exemplifies the state of scientific archaeology and its potential to explain the full pattern of production and distribution of pottery in a historic period.

Archaeological excavations in and around London over the past three decades have produced great quantities of pottery sherds dating from the Late Saxon period to the fifteenth century. These have been published in a series of six volumes, each focusing on one or more types of ceramic, by the organization now known as Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). This book is the sixth in the series and focuses on two types. The first, the shelly-sandy ware, is a coarse pottery tempered with both sand and bits of shell, used from the mid twelfth to the early thirteenth century. The second type, the greyware, a course, reduced pottery, comes in two varieties, one from south Hertfordshire and the other from Limpsfield, both of which were used from the later twelfth to the late fourteenth century. Both the shelly-sandy ware and the greywares were coarse potteries for everyday use. Usually unglazed, these fabrics tended to be made into jugs and cooking bowls and other necessary vessels, not for high status display. This book is sure to be the definitive reference work on these ceramic types.

Pottery from London can be dated with remarkable precision thanks to the many excavations carried out in recent decades. In particular, excavations on the Thames waterfront can be very closely dated by a combination of dendrochronology from wooden structures built in or alongside the river, associated finds of coins and badges, and supporting documentary evidence. This results in a dated sequence of "ceramic phases," defined by the types of ceramics that were most common at successive times. Ceramic phases then can be used to provide dates for associated finds in subsequent excavations, where similar distributions of ceramics are found. For this reason, the meticulous study of ceramic sherds in this book is crucial not just for understanding the pottery itself, but also as a benchmark for future research. An important contribution of this study is the revision to the dates of four of the ceramic phases proposed in 1991. Most of the changes shift the dates by one to two decades within the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, though the suggested revision to CP12 would extend it by fifty years from 1450 to 1500 (18).

The majority of this volume is given to meticulous analysis of the samples, first of the shelly-sandy ware and then of the greywares. Readers who are primarily interested in what was learned as a result of this study might do well to begin reading with Chapter 10 "General Discussion and Conclusions," and then use the preceding nine chapters to discover how the conclusions were reached. Chapter 10 is the most accessible chapter for readers from medieval studies disciplines beyond archaeology. The analytical sections of the book are quite technical and intended for readers familiar with archaeological laboratory techniques, statistics, and the particulars of ceramics.

The current volume is more than simply the sixth in a series. Published nineteen years after the fifth installment, the book benefits from advances in scientific techniques and computer software. [1] For instance, samples of shelly-sandy ware and greyware were analyzed with inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry (ICP-AES), which can be used to detect the amounts of specific elements in a sample. This information can be used, for instance, to match sherds of pottery found at consumer or disposal sites with the clay deposits from which they were made. In the case of the greywares, this means the pieces found in London can be sorted into two separate places of origin, south Hertfordshire and Limpsfield, despite their similar appearance to the naked eye. Information like this provides a more precise picture of production and distribution than had been possible in the earlier studies. In 1995, MOLA introduced a central archaeological database, which, although incomplete for sites excavated before its establishment, allows more reliable quantitative analysis than in the earlier volumes. Finally, maps, charts, tables, and photographs are clearer than in any of the earlier studies thanks to advances in digital technology.

This volume also considers examples from a greater number of sites than any of the previous studies. Locations outside of London where pottery was produced for sale in the city are examined, and also, though to a lesser degree, sites in Scotland and Scandinavia for comparison. Included in the study are profile diagrams of each of the pieces and drawings of decorative motifs, with photographs of representative samples. Thirty-three photomicrographs show thin- section samples under magnification. Site-summaries and a gazetteer cataloging each pottery fragment in the study will allow readers to consider the data in new ways.

The book is very clear about its goals and scope, and it would be unhelpful to criticize it for not being what it never attempted to be. This is a scientific study that adheres to the standards of its discipline and a reader with broader questions about medieval life will find that this book is really just about the excavated pottery samples. Human makers and users are implied very rarely, and when they are imagined, their motives are purely functional. This is a strength of the book, since this study provides the scientific and chronological basis for future studies, and such a foundation should not be built upon speculation. However, it is also a limitation, as encountered, for example, where questions of consumer choice or the significance of pottery to its users are discussed very briefly and in vague terms of what might be considered or what cannot be determined (237). Choices made by the potters as well as the consumers are presumed to have been made on the basis of functionality. This may be a safer assumption for decisions about firing temperatures or vessel thickness than it is for choices about incised surface decoration, for example. The authors are much more concerned with, and apparently much more comfortable with, the petrology of the sherds than with the ideology of the medieval pottery user.

The immediate relevance of this impressive study may be limited to London, but the story of the medieval city of London that can be told with ever greater precision thanks to meticulous, ongoing archaeological work, of which this book is an excellent example, is crucial to the history of the Middle Ages in all regions.



1. The authors note, however, that the bibliography is current only to 2001 when the first draft was completed.

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Jennifer Lee