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.
I – SERVING VESSELS FOR FOOD
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.
SERVING/ BAKING DISHES
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.
Broken bits of what once were rectangular dish shapes can also be found on the foreshore.
A common pottery find is the distinctive Staffordshire combed slipware, as pictured below, with its yellow and brown glaze.
It reminds me of the French Millefeuille cake icing.
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 greywareand some black coating, the circular lines probably indicate it was wheel turned pottery, cheaply made.
The fragment on the right of the picture was found locally in the mud at Wapping foreshore in 2012. It is wheel thrown with green glaze, now badly eroded.
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.
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.
II- COOKING VESSELS FOR FOOD
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.
III – STORAGE VESSELS FOR FOOD
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.
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.
IV – OTHER MISCELLANEOUS FUNCTIONS OF POTTERY FINDS:
Hygiene, pharmacy, garden pottery
HYGIENE AND PHARMACY PRODUCTS
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
INK BOTTLES & POTTERY INKS
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.
IV – DRINKING VESSELS AND SERVING VESSELS FOR LIQUIDS
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.
This lovely glazed rhenish stoneware fragment was found at Bankside in 2012, and seems to depict a heraldic shield
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 & 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
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