Monday, August 04, 2008

Centuries of Clay

Saturday morning I showed up at Castle Hill Heritage Centre for the next workshop in an ongoing series to train interested people in the community on the techniques of archaeology. I had only the vaguest notion of what to expect. I found myself sitting around a table with 8 other adults listening to a man who has spent 40 years studying pottery and has a fondness for teaching other people what he knows. I like both that generosity of spirit and an opportunity to learn deeply about something.

Part of George Haggerty's commitment to teaching is the premise that you cannot understand the differences in pottery without seeing them, handling them. So he has spread out in front of us lying on their little plastic archaeological find bags a feast of pottery pieces from the 12th through the 17th century from his own collection and from the National Museum. They might look like little plastic baggies with broken bits of pottery to a casual observer. For the eight of us, it was a treasure trove, a guided tour through centuries of pottery and the people who dug it, worked, it, sold it, and used it.

Because I am one of those people who looks into the glass cabinets in museum and yearns to see what is on the other side, to know what the object feels like, to understand how it was used, I was delighted. Scottish white gritty from the 12th century is actually white and gritty. It can look like a bone if you run across it while digging.

If it is fired in part of the kiln that did not get as much heat or oxygen as other parts, it may be greyish. Or part of it may be grey, so that two shards of the same pot may not be the same colour. Red ware, similarly, is not always red. So colour, although a tantalizing clue for identification has to be regarded with caution.

Ironstone is dense and dark. Even a tiny handle has heft in the palm of my hand. A looped back piece of clay fired with a bit of green glaze is the handle for a long lost frying pan. I hold it in my hand and try to imagine what sort of a meal I could make in such a pan. What did they eat 500 years ago? The handle feels too short for a proper fry pan. The glaze makes it sleek, but the smooth grain of the pottery shows where the glaze has not reached it. I think of all the handles I have seen lined up in glass cases and celebrate the fact that I have this one in my hand now.

I handle the feet of a pipkin and the rim of a chafing dish from the 16th century before we break for lunch.

Saturday evening I come back with a friend for the public lecture on 17th and 18th century Scottish pottery. As with so many things, Scots were not thought to make any pottery. It takes a lot of evidence to budge a stereotype.

Sunday is porcelain. We laugh nervously around the table as we handle a cup worth several thousand pounds. It is beautiful to touch. George Haggerty is right. You do understand so much more when you can see something for yourself.

Now our mentor is back down south. He has left us with books and CDs and an enthusiasm for understanding and cherishing what ceramics can tell us.
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At 5:50 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

how wonderful! Sometimes I think that there isn't a subject in the universe that is not interesting if you are lucky enough to be in the presence of one who knows it deeply and is eager to share...

amazing to be able to 'reach through the glass' and touch these items yourself!


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