By Laura Tancredi / Archaeology Laboratory Assistant
With over 3000 sherds comprising a minimum of 180 vessels, curating the South Grove ceramic assemblage is a big task. Luckily for Mount Vernon’s archaeologists, we have amazing volunteers who have given generously of their time and skills through the years to help excavate, process, analyze and curate this assemblage. In honor of all of their hard work, let’s take a stroll through the life of a ceramic artifact, from excavation to website (and storage)!
Joining us through this journey is a Rhenish stoneware chamber pot fragment excavated (by Todd Bonshire?) from the South Grove Midden. Rhenish stoneware was popular from the middle of the 17th century until about the time of the American Revolution. It was created by potters living near the Rhine River in Germany and exported to Virginia, via London. Six Rhenish stoneware vessels were found in the South Grove.
Washing the artifacts
Artifacts are brought from the site to the archaeology laboratory. Our Rhenish chamber pot fragment made this journey in 1993. Once in our lab, a volunteer carefully washed it along with all other artifacts excavated from the same context. It was then left to dry overnight.
Labeling the fragments
Once the chamber pot fragment was clean and dry, a volunteer with excellent eyesight and a steady hand labeled it with its context number using a clear lacquer and ink. This label allows us to identify where this sherd was found and also allows us to mend sherds from many different proveniences together, to make our chamber pot, and then send it to a museum to be displayed.
Archaeological sites have a unique number that begins with the state and county of discovery, followed by the site number. At Mount Vernon we add an area number, test unit, and finally layer. In the case of the Rhenish stoneware fragment, the artifact label reads: 44FX762/17/328MM (44=Virginia; FX=Fairfax County; 762=George Washington’s Mount Vernon; 17=South Grove; 328=Test Unit; MM=Layer)
After all artifacts from an excavation are washed and labeled, they need to be catalogued. For ceramic artifacts, we examine ware-type, vessel-type and decorative motifs of each individual sherd and record this into a database. Our sherd was originally catalogued in dBase3+ in 1995, with our Archaeological Collections Online project we’ve recatalogued our sherd using DAACS, software developed by colleagues at Monticello.
After the entire assemblage is catalogued, we begin our analyses. One of the first questions we wanted to explore was how many objects are represented by the 3000+ ceramics we catalogued. We lay out ceramics of the same ware type (i.e. all 411 pieces of Rhenish Stoneware) and try to find mends, the pieces that fit together. At times mending can be like doing a puzzle from a box with multiple puzzles in it and you don’t know how many there are or exactly what they look like. We discovered that there are six Rhenish stoneware vessels in the midden and our fragment is one of 53 sherds that mend to form the chamber pot. This one chamber pot has sherds from 33 different contexts!
Life after Processing
Since 1993, our Rhenish Chamber Pot has had a busy life. From 1995 – 2008 it was on display in the Mount Vernon Museum Annex helping illustrate daily life in George Washington’s Mansion. Following the exhibition, it joined the rest of the excavated midden vessels in storage.
Mended vessels are very fragile and require extra care when stored. Thankfully, two of our extraordinary volunteers created mounts to ensure the stability of the South Grove midden vessels.
With the launch of the Archaeological Collections Online project in 2012, the objects from the midden will be the centerpiece of our new website. Several other great interns are photographing each object so we’ll have breath-taking images to show the world and also so we’ll have a digital record of each object (read Karen’s photography blog). Soon our chamber pot will make its debut on the new website. We are thankful to all the volunteers, interns and staff, past and present, whose hard work has contributed to making this project a success!