Slaves probably made earthenware for own use

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Slaves probably made earthenware for own use

March 21, 1996
by Pamela Cressey

Among the 578 ceramic fragments excavated by the Mount Vernon archaeologists from a slave quarters' cellar were 42 which stood out as distinct. These earthenware sherds were not made in Europe or China as the other plates, bowls and cups with which they were buried sometime between 1760 and 1792/93.

Representing only seven percent of all the ceramics in the cellar, these fragments might be disregarded by some as just unidentified coarse earthenware--not really very important compared with Chinese plates, an English loving cup or even a wine bottle seal inscribed DP Custis. [Note: Daniel Parke Custis was Martha Washington's first husband who died in 1757, two years before she moved to Mount Vernon.]

For an archaeologist, however, these sherds greatly expand our view of slave life and African American creativity. The overwhelming evidence from the cellar supports the interpretation that the objects used by George and Martha Washington's slaves were recycled from the Mansion House. These earthenware sherds appear to have been made for African American use by blacks.

Coarse unglazed earthenwares with shell or sand tempering have long been reported on Colonial period archaeological sites of the American southeast and Virginia. Originally Ivor Noel Hume, archaeologist of Colonial Williamsburg for so many years, identified these ceramics as Colono-Indian wares. In other words, pottery made by Native Americans after European contact. This interpretation continued for many years, until Leland Ferguson challenged it. Armed with data from many sites in the region, Dr. Ferguson presented his findings.

He described a far more complicated cultural phenomenon in the Colonial period than had been perceived previously. While Native Americans in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries did manufacture pottery which displayed modifications due to European contact, there were also coarse earthenwares which were associated with African American sites. The pottery classification now used widely is Colonowares, but their provenience in Indian, slave, and plantation contexts assists in identifying whether they relate more to their African or Native American affiliation.

The Mount Vernon Colonowares range from light buff to black in color, and for the most part, are tempered with oyster shell. The 42 sherds crossmend into 13 vessels, primarily small bowls with a diameter of 8 inches. Esther White and Dennis Pogue, authors of the archaeological report state that " it seems most likely that these vessels were used for individual consumption of stews and other one-pot meals. Two of the vessels were most likely shallow dishes or pans, and one round rim sherd is evidence of a drinking cup. Colonowares are exhibited in the new Museum Annex at Mount Vernon with items from archaeological and restoration research. Call 703-780-2000. Next week, I will explore the question: What are colonowares?

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist

This caption appeared with an image printed in the Gazette:

Many fragments mend together to form a shallow dish or pan made of local clay tempered with oyster shell classified as Colonoware and associated with Mount Vernon slaves.

Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.