Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Tales a Sherd Could Tell

We are in the thick of excavating our 1x2 meter units at the Fort Saint Joseph site. We are currently at the top of the plow zone, or the level of soil which has been churned by farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. My unit hit the plow zone at 35 centimeters and my pit-partner, Steven, and I suspect that we will excavate well past 60 centimeters in this unit. We have encountered four large stones, which are probably associated with a wall feature that was excavated just northeast of our unit in 2012. In essence, our pit and the pit immediately south of us are being dug in order to intersect the west side of what we believe to be the foundations of an 18th-century house. It is a very exciting to be assigned this unit, as it is yielding contemporary household items and objects. The items and objects we are uncovering, such as ceramics, beads, and even animal bone, can be indicative of social factors, especially in multicultural settings such as Fort Saint Joseph. I will elaborate on material culture using an example from our own growing artifact collection: red earthenware ceramics, or redware.

Redware recovered at Fort St. Joseph
There are many types of ceramics based on their raw material, form, function and style. Many of the ceramics found at the site were produced in Western Europe, China, or even in the New World. Clues to the locations and dates of ceramic manufacture can be ascertained by their physical and chemical traits, observable makers’ marks, and records of their production and distribution. These traits make ceramics identifiable, and their ability to preserve makes them a near-constant feature of archaeological investigation. Therefore, we can use ceramics to assist us in classifying dates of occupation, identify the individuals occupying cultural sites, and understand the contemporary sociocultural setting of the site. As I said, we discovered a 2 x 2 centimeter sherd of redware, which was glazed on both sides, and had a reddish-brown hue overall. So what can we learn from this sherd?

First off, redware was manufactured in Britain, France, and North America, though most published sources point to British potters, or American colonists making redware in the British fashion. Secondly, redware is commonly associated with everyday household use, as opposed to being used in formal and social settings, such as a formal dinner. For formal dinners, the more delicate and artful white ceramic or porcelain was brought out for guests. Informal kitchen use and food ways, however, were reserved for the more durable and less expensive redware bowls, plates, cups and containers.

It is also believed that redware and similar ceramics were usually owned by people with lower socioeconomic standing, such as low-ranking military members. Further supporting the use of high-class ceramics within high-ranking households, is the belief that even if low-ranking soldiers or laborers for trading posts could afford the more expensive ceramics, they would not be expected to own or use them within their social station. Redware at Fort Saint Joseph, however, is not as common of a ceramic type as it is at Fort Michilimackinac. What are the implications of these observations?

It would seem that there is socioeconomic diversity at Fort Saint Joseph, perhaps it is also apparent in to the range of ceramic types, and by implication their value and utilitarian forms. The users could be middle to high class in standing, but preferred the more durable redware for everyday use, and therefore owned and used it on a regular basis. Perhaps the French or British inhabitants became separated from their respective cultural norms, and reverted to a mixed set of cultural norms for displaying socioeconomic standing. In other words, a small contingent of soldiers and traders, left to their own devices and far from the strict eyes of the military and the judgmental eyes of French or English society may have used redware on a more regular basis. Of course, these interpretations must be supported by other lines of evidence. What other objects would be consistent with these ideas? Let us know and we will keep you posted on future discoveries!


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