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Artifacts reveal skills in creating ceramics

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Jessica Cosmas

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

One of my favorite artifacts featured in the Museum of the Albemarle’s newest exhibition, “River Bridge: Sunken Secrets,” is a small bowl that most likely dates to the first-half of the 19th century.

At that time, domestic ceramics were being produced in British factories and being exported to the American colonies. My chosen piece may have originated in Staffordshire, England, traveling over 3,000 miles to reach North Carolina.

The transformation of a lump of clay to a household staple relied on a series of skilled artisans. Each craftsman was well-versed in one-step of a labored process. It began by kneading the clay to expel any trapped air that could compromise its structure. Next, the clay moves to the wheel where the potter must pump their leg to power the mechanic revolutions. All the while, wetting the clay to a workable mud and finding the sopping mass’ center of gravity so clay may be evenly distributed into a symmetrical bowl.

My preferred bowl cuts an elegant shape. Straight sides taper down to a pronounced base that curves further inwards towards a rounded foot ring.

Once dried to a leather hardness, the object passed to yet another set of hands which imparted character with a capricious design scheme — a technique now known to collectors as the cat’s eye.

These curious swirls of periwinkle, black, and pumpkin pop against a wide swath of butter yellow. Two black bands stretch across the bowl’s widest point. These decorations were made with slip, a clay saturated with water until its texture is like that of heavy cream.

The different colors were achieved by adding certain elements to the slip. A wide range of warm earth hues were realized by including various amounts of iron oxide. Cobalt additions offered blue tones. Iron mixed with manganese resulted in the black color slip. 

The cat’s eye decoration could only be applied with a special multi-chambered slip cup (see image via Ceramics in America). Each chamber was filled with different colored slips that only converged when poured from the single spout. Once dropped onto the dried clay body, the slip quickly set and the piece was ready to be fired in the kiln.

This initial firing, known as bisque-firing, would be monitored to reach just below 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the white earthenware clay would mature to a durable hardness suitable for everyday use.

Once cooled enough to be safely handled by the potters again, the bowl was dipped in a clear, lead-based glaze. A glazed firing, at slightly higher temperatures, was then executed. This second and final firing set the glaze to ensure the bowl was liquid safe.

Despite the time and effort put into this single bowl, it was considered quite affordable at the time of its production. Historical records indicate that a score of similarly slip decorated wares cost five schillings. In today’s economy that would amount to a little over 10 American dollars for the single cat’s eye bowl. A deal in my opinion!

Jessica Cosmas is an Artifact Collections Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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