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Dig pieces together lost pottery’s past
Find puts Fredericksburg on stoneware list
Volunteers join archaeologists to pry secrets of stoneware potter, others, from Ellis–Bell site
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Much more about the lost potter of Fredericksburg is now known, thanks to efforts by archaeologists and volunteers who excavated the site of his 19th-century pottery.
In a four-day “salvage” dig ended by Hurricane Sandy, they confirmed previous suspicions that Francis Hamilton Bell operated a stoneware kiln at William and Winchester streets, finding plenty of evidence of his work on and in the ground.
But they didn’t find the remains of Bell’s 1830s kiln. It appears that his “stoneware factory” was demolished when a brick warehouse, with basement, was built on that corner in 1849, the archaeological excavation’s principal investigator said.
“It was a great place to have a business in 1832,” said Kerri Barile, Phd., president of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group of Fredericksburg. “And the same thing was true later on.”
The stoneware fragments found on site were in mixed dirt and rubble that was pushed aside by later construction.
“As happens with urban landscapes, every time you build, you also destroy,” said Sara Poore, Dovetail’s director of operations and marketing.
But the team, which included five professional archaeologists and more than 30 people who volunteered to help, extracted hundreds of pottery sherds from the site, Barile said.
“Now, if anyone finds that kind of stoneware, they’ll be able to positively identify it as Fredericksburg ware. That is a really exciting change,” she said.
“Before, people would see such stoneware and figure it must have been made in Richmond or Alexandria or Baltimore. But now there’s another option. That alone is great.”
Before the discovery about two months ago, most people thought Fredericksburg had never had a potter producing the utilitarian vessels that were the Tupperware of the 19th century.
Such handmade ceramics fascinate collectors. But to archaeologists, they also date sites, reveal trade patterns, show how successful a potter was, and can tell what artisans he influenced or was influenced by.
One volunteer, Oliver Mueller–Heubach of Williamsburg, was keenly interested in the stoneware—his field of study as a doctoral student at the College of William & Mary.
Though signs indicate Bell had a smaller operation or wasn’t in business that long, Mueller–Heubach saw pieces that indicate he produced a variety of vessels: ovoid jars, pitchers and jugs; straight-sided, long-necked bottles; chamber pots; outward-slanting milk pans; straight-sided butter pots and perhaps small flasks.
“To judge by the fragments, Francis Hamilton Bell was a very capable potter,” Mueller–Heubach said. “ The sherds are of a good thickness, rendering his vessels strong enough for shipping and daily use, but not so thick as to be cumbersome or wasteful of clay and [kiln] fuel.”
One incised, cobalt-decorated piece was especially remarkable, he said.
“It, together with a handful of others recently found in Virginia, demand a re-evaluation of the level of skill and artistry employed by makers of stoneware in the South,” Mueller–Heubach said. “This particular sherd provides strong connections to Northern stoneware traditions.”
Four days of intensive labor also pried loose other data about past life on Lot 142 and neighboring properties. For example, it held a pre-Civil War building that “no one knew was there,” Barile said.
The circa-1840, brick town house—with all of its occupants’ belongings inside—was destroyed by the 1914 fire that leveled the block, she said.
“One of the great things about this project is that it shows the evolution of this part of town,” Barile said. “We’re learning a lot not only about Francis Bell but about the history of the property.”
Bell apparently leased his lot from landowner Robert Ellis, who earlier fired bricks on the site. Most recently, the land was home to Fredericksburg Hardware, razed in 2011. The Amelia Square town house development is now under construction there.
“This will be one of the best-documented lots in Fredericksburg. We know its documentary record, its architectural history and now the archaeology,” Poore said. “So, we’re feeling good about that.”
Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Inc. organized the volunteers and coordinated the excavation with the city, the landowner—the Silver Cos. of Fredericksburg—and others.
Keith E. Littlefield and his wife, Ellen, came from Annandale to help, and spent the weekend onsite. Littlefield grew up in Stafford County and has spent years assembling what’s regarded as the nation’s largest collection of Fredericksburg stoneware.
“I was impressed by all of the volunteers who showed up for the dig,” he said. “That was an amazing show of support.”
Dr. Littlefield noted that Dovetail’s staff members and the other volunteers he met all donated their time. If Dovetail or another archaeological firm billed for the same work, the project—including laboratory work and reporting the findings—would cost about $40,000, Barile said.
Cleaning, cataloging and analyzing the artifacts will require many hours in Dovetail’s lab. To help with that first step, on Wednesdays, it will seek volunteers through HFFI’s Facebook page and the University of Mary Washington’s Department of Historic Preservation, Barile said.
Once Dovetail’s report is completed, copies will be made public, she said.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029