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Processing clay tobacco pipes with the archaeology department!

27 February 2014 by Sam Rowe

Copyright National Museums Liverpool

Emily working on the pipe collection

Here is a post from one of our volunteers on the Rainford’s Roots community archaeology project.  Emily spent time with the archaeology team archiving over 8,000 clay pipes; here she explains the stages of recording:

“Step 1. Gain a goodly amount of previous experience with analysing clay tobacco pipes, to be of maximum help to your old university friend and Project Officer.

Step 2. Share out the bags of clay pipe stems between you. All the pipe fragments had already been roughly sorted into stems, bowls, and anything encrusted with metallic kiln-waste. Now the detailed sort begins! This is going to take a lot longer than you might imagine.

Step 3. Study each tiny fragment for the smallest signs of decoration or markings; fingerprints (what an exciting connection to the pipe maker); larger bore-holes (which often means an earlier pipe); glaze; more kiln-waste; and in general anything unusual. Each time a bag of stems is finished, they are counted, weighed, and entered into the Rainford catalogue. The total stem count is around 6,800!

Step 4. Look at the large box of bowl fragments that now need sorting. Try not to feel daunted…

Step 5. Work out a typology for the bowls. Essentially this means seeing what shapes are most common, and which are variations of other shapes. It can help an archaeologist decide how many moulds were being used to make the pipes … and it can also drive an archaeologist mad. Squinting and trying desperately to match up the profiles of bowls is a recipe for indecision!

Sorting through the pipe stems!

Sorting through the pipe stems!

Step 6. Once you’ve figured out your typology, begin sorting the other bowl fragments – if any pieces are big enough to match into the typology, hurrah. If not, examine them closely for any sign of decoration. This takes a full day.

Step 7. Begin to recognise the most common patterns on bowls. Basket-weave, fluted lines, lines around the rim, leaves or wheatsheafs running up the back and front of the bowls. ..

Step 8. Become fascinated by the weirder patterns. This is the best bit! Buffalo horns – Freemason symbols – a sunburst! Sometimes the patterns are so eroded or fragmentary they’re unidentifiable: sometimes they’re clear and well-preserved but you don’t know what on earth they mean!

Step 9. Count, weigh, catalogue – just like with the stems, but it takes much longer because so many more bits of bowls are decorated, and need more detailed description. This takes until the end of the week, and the job is barely half-done by then.

Step 10. Leave your friend to finish the job because your time is up, and support her by text message thereafter from afar …

Step 11. Don’t forget to dream about clay pipes and see them every time you blink! Essential step, this.

Step 12. And have fun. It’s the ordinariness of clay tobacco pipes that make them so interesting. They’re not as glamorous as some finds, or as exciting as the actual process of excavation, but they were made and used in everyday life for hundreds of years, and so they can bring you very close to the past.”

Pipe bowl with leaf decorated seams

Pipe bowl with leaf decorated seams

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