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A plate full of meaning

10 January 2020 by Liz

Today we have a guest blog from Jeff Speakman, Assistant Curator at the Museum of Liverpool.

‘Excavations at Rainford Tennis Courts in St Helens in 2015 revealed an amazing range of locally-made pottery. One piece which really stood out was a plate or shallow dish, with a scratched-in ‘sgraffito’ decoration. This mid- to late-17th century plate is decorated with a central face with radiating lines and fruit or flowers and leaves.

Decorated plate found in Rainford, St Helens (Accession Number MOL.2014.48.8)

It is really unusual, very few of the other finds from Rainford Tennis Courts are decorated, and those which are don’t have such elaborate designs. This has made us wonder whether this item was made in Rainford or not? In the early 17th century, ‘sgraffito’ decorated pottery was made at a number of places around Britain (and also in Europe). It was particularly common in North Devon, but was also produced in large numbers at Donyatt in Somerset and Buckley, in North-East Wales. Most are made from a reddish clay body, which is covered with a thin layer of lighter clay ‘slip’. This lighter slip is then scratched off in areas to create the design. Our example from Rainford is the opposite, a light-coloured clay plate with a layer of darker slip, scratched away to create a design in the lighter colour.

There are a few quite similar examples which were made in ‘the Potteries’ region of North Staffordshire. This hints that our plate was made in north-west England, quite probably in Rainford itself, and may have been a special commission ‘made to order’ for a customer.

The design on the plate has also got us thinking – there might be a lot of interesting symbolism in there!

In the Netherlands, analysis of decorative designs has been used to suggest that potters used the images as a form of ‘picture-writing to communicate ideas to the illiterate masses’ (Gwarthoff-Zwaan and Ruempol 1988). These vessels were often decorated with popular religious symbols, and icons associated with fertility, regeneration or defence against evil.

On the Rainford plate there is a central face. This is encircled by a rope-like circle and four repeated shapes, which may be pomegranates cut open to reveal the seeds. These are interspersed with leafy shapes, potentially palm fronds. The design on the outer edge of the vessel does not survive with any certainty and the rim, which may have a contained further decoration, a motto or inscription is completely missing.

Reconstruction of decoration on plate, from surviving piece

Religion, primarily Christianity, was a central cultural and social structure in medieval and post-medieval Britain. There was a shared range of symbols, prayers and beliefs which everyone would have had some understanding of, whether they could read or not.

  • Face – the simple free-hand face motif, may represent the sun a symbol of Christ, the son of God, who brought light into the world (John 8: 12).
  • The rope circle – The surrounding circle was often used to represent eternity.
  • Pomegranates – A widely used motif during the 16th and 17th century as symbols of the resurrection or of fruitfulness/fertility, as the pomegranate produces lots of seeds.
  • Palm fronds – a symbol of victory of the faithful over the enemies of Christ, with many leaves angled towards the stem.

After the ‘reformation’ in Henry VIII’s reign, Catholic practice was increasingly extinguished and churches were stripped of much imagery. The 1549 Act of Uniformity banned the Mass and royal officials travelled the country to enforce the new laws. However, Lancashire retained a strong Roman-Catholic community, with the 1767 ‘Returns of Papists’ listing more than 40% of all English Catholics living in the County. It’s possible that objects like this plate represent people who continued to follow Roman-Catholic symbolic traditions into the 17th century and beyond. As the Puritans took stronger control it would have been dangerous to use objects that proclaimed these Catholic beliefs, let alone to have produced those wares. Indeed in 1660 a Rainford potter, John Bispham, was taken forcibly whilst attending a Quaker meeting at Bickerstaffe and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for nine weeks for refusing to take the oaths of allegiance to the new faith (Leadbetter 1992).

Whilst it is possible that the plate’s design might be purely decorative, as archaeologists we’re always keen to try to understand what someone was thinking, and how they used objects which survive, and why they made things the way they did, and we have our suspicions about this one!

Was it made for private use? Was it made for a secretly travelling Roman-Catholic priest so he could spread the message of the ‘one true’ faith to the illiterate masses and maintain the faith whilst it was illegal to do so? Indeed a number of such priests including men from Lancashire, such as Edmund Arrowsmith, from St. Helens, were hanged drawn and quartered as punishment!

Or is it just a pretty plate?!


Gwarthoff-Zwaan, M. and Ruempol, A. 1988. Exhibition Catalogue – Communicerende vaten Beeldtall van slibversiering op laat-middeleeuws aardewerk in de Nederlanden. Uit de collective Kunstnijverheid en Vormgeving Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam.

Leadbetter, F. 1992. The Leadbetter Papers. Privately published.

The (even longer) long history of the Calderstones

1 October 2019 by Liz

The Calderstones (or Calder Stones as they’re historically known) are the fascinating remnants of a Neolithic chambered tomb in Calderstones Park. A recent project by The Reader has conserved the stones and made them accessible again – you can visit them daily 10am-4pm and explore them in detail. There is lots of great information about them and the history of the Mansion House and the Park!

ancient carvings on a large stone

Calderstones. Photograph by George Nash and Adam Stanford © Aerial-Cam

The Calderstones are carved with numerous symbols dating from the Neolithic period (around 3000 BC) to modern times. Some of the most intriguing carvings are spirals which are similar to markings seen on similar tombs in Ireland and north Wales – suggesting some prehistoric cultural links around the Irish Sea.

The stones are a very special monument in Liverpool, of which I’m very proud. The spirals carved on them even inspired our floor decoration in the Museum of Liverpool!

It’s always interesting to hear people describe archaeological objects from a different point of view, though, and geologists see the sandstone of these monuments in a completely different light! Far from being 5000 years old (as the oldest carvings are) these stones themselves were formed in the Triassic, 260 to 230 million years ago! Read more…

Hands-on help

6 June 2019 by Liz

When you think of archaeology what comes to mind? People digging holes? Delicate brushing of soil from objects? Time Team? Indiana Jones?!

Archaeologists explore the past through material culture – the things people made, built and used.  Those things are often excavated, but can also be standing remains of buildings. After an excavation is completed there is a fascinating process of work to undertake back indoors to understand the site and its objects and make sense of the evidence. In June there are opportunities for you to get involved in some workshops to capture information about finds, and label them with their museum reference numbers.

Working with the archaeology team at the Museum of Liverpool volunteers (aged 18 or over) are invited to explore the finds excavated last years at the site of courtyard housing at Oakes Street. Read more…

Letters to the Earth

3 April 2019 by Liz

In exploring the culture of our fascinating city region the Museum of Liverpool considers our long history, our present people and place, and things which will shape our future. We need to be aware that in the future human-made climate change will impact our lives, our environment, other species, and future generations in many ways. Read more…

Digging Up ‘Little Hell’!

20 December 2018 by Liz

Looking back on 2018, this has been a fascinating and fun year at the Museum of Liverpool. One of my professional highlights of the year has been the excavation we undertook in July at Oakes Street (between London Road and Pembroke Place). As part of the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project the Museum of Liverpool archaeology team worked with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to see what was hidden under their car park.  With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) we’d been able to undertake extensive map and desk-based research, which had told us that this was the site of some courtyard housing, but you never know what you’ll actually find when you start digging! Read more…

A Social Evil, victims or scapegoats?

13 December 2018 by Liz

This research was spurred by looking into Pembroke Place’s past for the Galkoff’s & Secret Life of Pembroke Place exhibition

Today we have a guest blog from Susan Bennett, who has been researching Victorian brothels to explore the ‘little hell’ underworld in the late C19th as part of the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project. This is a difficult subject, and original Victorian documents and records can be very blunt!

“Between 1837 and 1901 Liverpool expanded massively to become one of the greatest ports in the world. Every day thousands of sailors, just paid off, eager for physical outlets after hard months at sea, poured onto the streets looking for women, drink and other vicious practices such as fist fighting and gambling – the Social Evil! An east wind could carry off between 10 – 15,000 sailors a day on ships from the port and a westerly wind cast that same number ashore with full pockets and much energy, “to do what men do naturally”, as a newspaper report gamely put it. The police force, newly recreated in 1836 with 390 men rising to a peak of 1,002 in 1859, struggled desperately to keep on top of the ensuing vice, violence, and crime. Read more…

At the Cutting Edge, with Edge Conservation

8 December 2018 by Liz

Today we have a guest blog from Anna Dembicka, who has worked on the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project as an ICON Ceramics Intern. Anna’s detailed work on the tiles with the Edge Conservation team has brought them back to beautiful condition for display in the People’s Republic gallery at the Museum of Liverpool.

Galkoff shop before tile removal

‘There are few people in Liverpool who don’t immediately recognize the green façade of the tiled Galkoff Kosher butcher’s shop. Having travelled past it on my way to university every day, I often thought about what its history and its future fate might be. But it never crossed my mind then that a few years later I would have the privilege of helping to restore it to its former glory Read more…

Pleasure Gardens Past

5 December 2018 by Liz

Today we have a guest blog from Rebecca Metcalfe, a volunteer working on the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Rebecca has been researching historical open spaces in Liverpool, and discovered a lot about Ranelagh Gardens Read more…

The Art of Butchery

26 November 2018 by Liz

Drawing of the P. Galkoff shop by his great great Gandson, Ilan Galkoff

Today we have a guest blog from Ilan Galkoff, great great grandson of Percy Galkoff, the butcher whose shopfront we have moved to the Museum of Liverpool as part of the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project with Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

‘I wanted to write a few words about how I came to create this piece of art depicting Galkoff’s Butcher shop. I’m Percy’s great, great grandson and I’m currently 15 years old. Read more…

Latest archaeological discoveries

26 September 2018 by Liz

NML archaeologist shows recent find at Rainford

This year’s Merseyside Archaeological Society Conference, being hosted at the Museum of Liverpool on Saturday 13 October, is exploring ‘Recent developments in Merseyside archaeology’. Talks will present some of the latest finds, with reference to many periods of our region’s past.
Read more…

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