A basic guide to forms & functions based on finds collected on the Thames foreshore


One of the most common finds on the Thames foreshore are broken bits of clay and pottery sherds, catchy to the eye,there for us to see and pick up.

Thousands of colourful, uneven remnants of cooking pots, drinking vessels, serving dishes, plates, beakers, jugs, storage jars, and other miscellanous items of the past Londoner ‘s daily life now lie anonymously on the banks of the Thames.

I must confess I was never really keen on pottery before, always skiping Museum rooms filled with earthenware or old teapot collections,  to prefer the more intriguing warfare relics or daily objects.

With all this time spent on the Thames foreshore in the last 3 years, the odd sights have instantly aroused my curiosity, to the point I even attended a pottery workshop organized by MOLA and TDP last year.

It was time to browse through my “precious boxes full of junk and mystery items”, whenever I collected  bits of clay for learning purposes, without really being able to identify or date them back accordingly. Being a fellow Thames admirer, it seems I have developed a light hoarding disorder, showing preference for the shiny medieval green glaze bits.

It is sometimes difficult to identify the ceramic function, former form and period, especially because it is not found during an archaeology dig where the historical context of the area is known, and pottery finds are often badly broken and eroded.

However, based on some observations and a keen eye for detail, identification can be made.

It involves looking for clues in the clay colour and texture of the surface, the firing, tempering, shape, sides & core, noticing if there is any glaze, decoration or pottery mark on the clay find.

I will use some of the finds I have collected to create a non-exhaustive, basic guide to forms, decoration and functions of pottery commonly found on the foreshore, based on my own experience.

PART I : a basic guide to forms & functions based on finds collected on the foreshore


I have mostly visited the City’s foreshore (Trig Lane, Canon Street, Bankside…) and a few sites like Wapping and Putney.

After 3 years wandering about on a regular basis, I came across a large variety of forms and functions of pottery finds.

Regrettably, I have found very little and scarce evidence from the prehistoric, roman & Anglo-Saxon periods in terms of broken pottery sherds. May it be no luck, the erosion having washed away most evidence, or simply not having an expert eye and not looking at the right place.

It’s a bit stating the obvious, but the easiest way to identify broken pottery is to look for forms.

Is there any handle, is there a neck, rim, is it flat/ rectangular or rounded/ bottle-shaped? Etc.

Is it plain or decorated, glazed, can you guess if it is wheel-turned or roughly made in firing with sand or shell inclusions? Any detail on the form or texture can help you determine the function of your pottery find.

Let me illustrate below the different vessel types using some of my finds.


So past Londoners chucked their broken or unwanted bowls, dishes and plates just like us. Amusingly I found quite a few on the foreshore, sometimes on the same spot.

Serving vessels for food are quite easy to identify. Mainly because of the shape, height and form, presence of a rim, and can be dated (based on my own experience) from late medieval to modern times.



Lovely bowl found in the mud at Putney foreshore in 2013.

It is one of my favourite pottery finds.

Incomplete, it is made of brick red pottery fabric with a clear glossy glaze of brown colour, it also looks like some shell inclusions are visible in the firing, and it is rather light in weight.

I guess it’s a London-area post-medieval bowl. I wouldn’t qualify it as a posh find, just an object of the daily life & household of our local ancestors, and what makes it so special to my eyes.


Broken pottery find found locally near Bankside in 2012.

It has a rim, it is round-shaped and flat, and looks like the serving vessel used for food.

You can see the find before cleaning and after.

The fabric is white, with a clear glaze of white and cobalt blue flower decorations.

Due to the cracks,  it is difficult to tell if it is hand-painted or transfer-printed.

My guess is that it is a fragment from typical dining ware, probably what is called “pearlware” and can be dated anytime between the end 18th Century and end 19th Century.

staffordshire slipware selection

Staffordshire slipware selection

georgian mayhem

post medieval & georgian selection

staffordshire slipware fragments

staffordshire slipware – white & brown

posset cup

staffordshire slipware – from cup or posset

A common pottery find is the distinctive Staffordshire combed slipware, as pictured above, with its yellow and brown glaze, or white and brown slipware variation.

It reminds me of the French Millefeuille cake icing.

Broken sherds of what once were rectangular dishes can be found on the foreshore.

You can also find fragments of finer Staffordshire slipware showing a mix of brown dots & lines, sometimes used for possets and drinking cups, as illustrated in the last thumbnail picture.

Intact baking dishes or serving dishes made of Staffordshire slipware can be seen in the earthenware section of local museums, like Museum of London galleries or at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.


Fragments of broken plates are a common find on the foreshore.

The picture above shows two fragments of plates.

The fragment on the left was found near Trig Lane/ Canon Street in 2011. It is roughly made with greyware and some partial black coating, the circular lines probably indicate it was wheel turned pottery, cheaply made. It must have been made locally, and I’d reckon it is post medieval.

The fragment on the right of the picture was found locally in the mud at Wapping foreshore in 2012. It is wheel thrown with a partial green glaze,  I would guess from the tudor period.


pottery fragment - pickle herring type

household vessel fragment found near Wapping – pickleherring type

The above household pottery fragment was found near Wapping.

It is likely from a plate or dish, and my guess is that it would have been typical of the London’s delftware industry.

With its polychrome geometric design, it is quite similar to the production of pottery called ‘pickleherring’ type, the tin-glazed pottery produced at the pickleherring pothouse which was located near Southwark and facing the Thames, South London.

Many similar fragments were locally excavated, so it’s my guess that it is a locally produced find.



Fragment of 18th Century creamware plate


Fragments of creamware plates

creamware selection

A nice selection of pottery fragments, such as you would typically find locally near Wapping or Bankside

pottery stamp

detail of a stamp on the back of dinnerware fragment

creamware hunting style

detail of dinnerware pattern – hunting scene ? deer ?

lord byron is back

lovely painted fragment on creamware, and a fine gentleman !

plate fragment

creamware – 18th C. plate fragment

It seems that most of my recent pottery finds are 18th Century or later.

You can see some fragments of 18th Century creamware/dinnerware represented in the  above pictures.

Fragments of modern plates made of English or Chinese porcelain dating from after 1750 are everywhere on the foreshore, there to remind us of the Georgian, Regency, Empire & Victorian Times.

Sometimes it can also be modern littering of the foreshore, as in the picture below, found on the foreshore next to the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping in 2013.

I remember asking the staff if they had any idea of when the pub manufactured and stopped their own dinnerware, but without success.

Prospect of Whitby- pubs used to have their own dinnerware

It is plain porcelain with some hand-painted logo. However, very modern, since the pub was renamed The Prospect of Whitby in the 19th Century, so my guess is : even a 20th Century recent find.


Forget about the ease and sustainability of your modern pans, it all started long time ago with cooking pots made of pottery and clay.

The basic form of cooking vessels was more like a jar with a rim, and then evolve with the addition of spouts, handles or feets during the medieval period.


Fragments of early romano-british pottery sherds found at Bankside in 2011.

Could it be remnants of cooking pots used by locals?

Fragment of possible cooking pot with handle found at Putney foreshore in 2012.

It is made of red earthenware, unglazed.

As it is incomplete and eroded, it is rather difficult to date this fragment.


Fragments of jars in various forms and sizes can still be found on the Thames foreshore.

Storage jars from the Victorian era can even be found almost intact, and it will make a nice collection for display in your home. Jars were used for storage of various foods, such as mustard & sauce pots, marmalade pots … Enamel and tin-glazed pottery jars & containers were handy to keep the contents cool and fresh.

2 fragments of French mustard pots ‘Maille’ found locally at Millbank.

The prints on the front of the pot are written in French,with black ink and say “MOUTARDE DE MAILLE, Vinaigrier Distillateur FOURNISSEUR des premières Cours de l’ Europe Paris”.

( Maille mustard, vinegar maker, distiller and supplier of the first European courts – Paris )

This is a lovely fragment of a DUNDEE Marmalade jar found at Bankside.

You can read : ‘only prize medal for marmalade, London 1862’

This is a jar fragment with the stamp of Rowton House King’s Cross.

I found it locally at Bankside in 2012.

Rowton house was a chain of Victorian hostels for working men.

How did storage jar from a King’s Cross hostel ended up at Bankside on the foreshore?

Was it carried away by a local working man and chucked on the banks of the foreshore?

Or simply from dump materials brought to Bankside at a later date?

Hard to tell.

Victorian jar fragments can lie next to modern glass waste or random objects.

pork dripping jar

pork dripping – it says it all on the stoneware fragment ( early 20th century?)

Other jars look just like the ones used as containers for display in the old days of grocery shops.

To conclude, let’s not forget that bottle lids and pot lids can also be made of pottery or porcelain, just like seals.

It is, however, from my own experience,  relatively rare to find, and difficult to clearly identify or date.


Hygiene, pharmacy, garden pottery


I briefly mentioned the kitchenalia-related finds earlier.

Sadly, I have not yet found pottery dairy items from the 19th Century and early 20th Century, could it be butter crocks with pottery lids, cream pots, pie funnels, water filters …

Hygiene products and bathroom products for daily use were often distributed in stoneware containers and pot lids: toothpaste, cold cream, shaving cream, toilet powder …

A large range of ceramic pots found on the foreshore once contained salves and ointment, first used in the mid & late 17th Century.


This is a fine example of a tin-glazed ointment pot, nearly intact, found at Putney in 2013.

18th Century tin-glazed ointment pot found at Putney in 2013,  cleaned

Pharmacy products in the 19th Century were common; if lucky you could find eye cups, lotions or inhalers made of white ceramic.

Let’s not forget centuries of chamber pots and bedpans.


Fragments of garden pottery, including watering pots, flower pots, decorative figures or vases can also be found on the foreshore.


Decorative pottery with leaves/ flower

Half a Frog pottery find – garden or pond votive figure ?

Victorian flower bed clay fragments



A wide range of pottery or glass containers were used to store ink.

Bulk ink bottles can sometimes be mistaken with the ginger bottles used for drinks, as in the early 19th Century the ink bottles were salt glazed brown English stoneware.

The picture below shows a typical ink bottle in use in London, it was found during tdp fieldwork at the Tower of London in 2012.

The stamp reads ‘Vitreous Stone bottle Warranted not to absorb’, J.Bourne & Son PATENTEE, DENBY & CODNOR PARK Potteries near Derby.

Of course, my list of miscellaneous pottery functions is non-exhaustive. I made this basic guide based on my own finds and observations.


broken ink bottle with base intact


Based on my own experience, it is rather rare to find early stoneware. You would be extremely lucky to find drinking vessels or serving vessels for liquids that are intact, especially for the Anglo-Norman, roman and medieval periods.

Drinking vessels and serving vessels for liquids came in different shapes like spouted pitchers, flagons, amphorae, jugs, beakers, tygs, mugs …

Broken fragments of drinking vessels can however be identified when displaying some clear characteristics: curved pottery fragments, ring-necked shape, handles, spouts, bottle-shaped…

The type of pottery, surface texture on the interior, decoration can also provide clues for identification.

Rhenish stoneware or Bellarmine bottle fragments with a brown salt glaze are relatively common on the foreshore and rather easy to identify. In a dark brown or patchy colour, it was made in Germany or Flanders from the mid-1500s and later in England (up to the late 1700s).

Intact and stunning Bellarmine wine bottles are displayed in museums, such as the V&A and Museum of London.

BeRhenish stoneware fragment found at Bankside in 2012 - Coat of Arms ?

This lovely glazed rhenish stoneware fragment was found at Bankside in 2012,  and seems to depict a heraldic shield

Stunning heraldic shield bellarmine fragment with a griffin

Bellarmine fragment with an heraldic shield or Coat of Arms depicting a griffin, found on the foreshore in the City in 2012

Rhenish stoneware, Bellarmine and a fragment of blue & creamware medieval mug

To date, I have not found any significant fragments of early serving drinking vessels, jugs or pitchers, but a few handles here and there.

These two pitcher or jug handles were found near Canon Street during  fieldwork in 2013

This lovely slip-coated handle (from a medieval jug?) was found at the Tower of London foreshore during a TDP fieldwork in 2012

You are more likely to find modern material at surface level, sometimes unbroken.

Drink-related containers and stoneware bottles are popular in the world of bottle digging and bottle collectors.

Ginger beer bottles and cool stoneware bottles are a familiar sight on the Thames foreshore.  They were in use from early Victorian times to the 1950s, and ginger beer was a popular and common drink in the household.

Broken bits of victorian bottles and stoneware from the foreshore

Bottle neck & base fragments

Bottle neck & bottle base fragments, the trademark or company label and their location is often impressed on victorian bottles, making it easier to identify

Ginger beer bottles exist in various shapes and colours.

It can be two-tone with a white-cream base and brown colour top, as seen in the picture below, found locally at Putney in 2012.

Two-tone ginger beer bottle found at Putney foreshore


white stoneware bottle
fragments of white stoneware bottle

stoneware bottles

Look up for pottery marks impressed near the bottle base, trademarks and company labels are often printed in ink or impressed on the bottle front.

Some more unusual stoneware bottles in size or shape can also be found.

The stoneware bottle below is in a white-cream colour, and was found intact in a dried mud context near the Thames. Note that the size of this bottle is smaller than average. A discreet pottery mark or company trademark is visible near the bottle base.

White-cream stoneware bottle found in Oxfordshire near the Thames

Pottery Mark visible on the front near the base of the bottle



  1. Brilliant site! I was on the isle of grain today and found lots of fragments of marmalade pots from 1862 and 1873! Fascinating

  2. Thank you for sharing your finds. I am always looking for finds along our sea shores. Did find some fragments of plates ect. My latest find appears to be the neck and top of a earthenware wine jug.

  3. Thank you for such great information. I just returned to the U.S. after a 12 day stay in London. I spent a couple days “mud larking” and found some pretty interesting artifacts just on the surface. I have a couple of small pieces of plates with identifying marks of crowns on them. They aren’t much but are interesting to me. I wonder if you may know more about them? I would love to send you pictures.

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