Slave bowls made in African form

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Slave bowls made in African form

March 28, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Shallow colonoware bowl excavated by the Mount Vernon archaeologists in a cellar under the slave quarters near the Mansion House, ca. 1769-1792/93. Courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Colonoware: A low-fired unglazed earthenware, which probably was made by both African Americans and Native Americans. 

Theresa Singleton states that colonowares are usually found at 18th century plantation sites in South Carolina, but the distribution extends into Virginia and several Caribbean islands. She notes in her publication for the Museum of the Confederacy exhibit "Before Freedom Came" that African Americans shaped colonowares into forms which differed from those made by Indians. "Slaves recreated the rounded forms of African pottery for their own food preparation and consumption purposes." Leland Ferguyson has tabulated places where colonowares have been excavated, including forts and urban sites. Of the more than 63,000 colonoware fragments reported by Ferguson, three-quarters were excavated from rural plantations.

Although we have never excavated colonowares in Alexandria, many wonderful examples have been recovered through archaeological work at the nearby plantations of Mount Vernon and Pohoke/Portici (near the Manassas National Battlefield Park). Recently The Datum Point newsletter from the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia reported that Andrew Veech has excavated colonowares at the Barnes Plantation in Fairfax County. The Barnes collection includes a high number of decorated and burnished colonowares. Incised chevrons are the most frequent decorations used.

Andrew works in the Fairfax County Archaeology laboratory every week night studying the plantation artifacts. We will undoubtedly learn much more about the black potters of Fairfax County and Anglo-American plantation life ca. 1740-1770 from his work.

Why did African Americans make their own ceramics in the 17th and 18th centuries, and then stop in the 19th century? I don't think that we have definite answers yet. But we do have a lot of thoughts which continue to sort themselves out with more research.

Part of the answer to the manufacture of colonowares may come from need. While many dishes and cooking pots were supplied by the plantation owner, there may still have been a need for more individual dishes and food storage jars. Just as slaves produced some of their own food from personal gardens, fishing and hunting, so too could they have produced useful household ceramics.

Colonowares found in plantations are most frequently individual bowls. The shallow bowls excavated by the Mount Vernon archaeologists are about 8 inches in diameter. Esther White and Dennis Pogue state that "it seems most likely that these vessels were used for individual consumption of stews and other one-pot meals." They further note that "small bowls made of imported wares do not appear in significant numbers ... possibly suggesting a need for the colonoware bowls to fill this gap." Dr. Singleton comments that archaeologists speculate that African Americans stopped making these ceramics in the 19th century as assimilation increased. Each new site provides more answers and better questions.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist