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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?!

 

References
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.

Breathing new life into old records

5 November 2019 by Abbie Brennan

This year we decided to put our old aerial photographs to use, to create an insightful new resource…

Read more…

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…

Archaeology Twitter Conference – Call for Papers!

30 May 2019 by Vanessa

This year as part of our Festival of Archaeology celebrations we are hosting an archaeology Twitter conference! A Twitter conference means that anyone anywhere can attend and you can even catch up after the event by following our hashtag #ArchMoL19.

If you would like to submit a paper for our conference, all you need is a Twitter account and to send us your proposal. We want to find out about your favourite discoveries from Merseyside this year (2018/19). A favourite discovery could be a find or a site, but could alternatively be about a methodology, a way of working with students, or an approach to interpretation.

Read more…

Volunteer spotlight: Andrew Richardson

28 March 2019 by Rachel O'Malley

Volunteer Andrew Richardson with a regional archaeological find.

Volunteers are an integral part of National Museums Liverpool, and without them, important work would not be able to take place. As part of the Volunteer Spotlight series we will be meeting up with volunteers who have been making outstanding contributions to the organisation and finding out more about the work that they do.

For this month’s spotlight, I was able to make my way to the waterfront in the beautiful February sunshine (hopefully not too much of a distant memory by the time you read this) to meet Andrew Richardson, a Regional Archaeology volunteer who volunteers with Vanessa Oakden, Curator of Regional and Community Archaeology in National Museums Liverpool’s Archaeology departmentRead more…

Treasured Finds

26 February 2019 by Vanessa

While all objects in museum collections are highly valued for the information they tell us about our shared past and culture, just a few are also officially classed as ‘Treasure’! While this is a romantic term, it’s also a closely defined group of objects made from precious metals, or prehistoric metal objects. 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…

Graffitiology

3 December 2018 by Vanessa

Museum of Liverpool archaeologists and Lister Steps volunteers taking part in graffiti recording.

Recently the archaeology team have been working in partnership with Lister Steps; a community based childcare charity based in Tuebrook. We are exploring the history of The Old Library on Lister Drive, which is currently being renovated into a community hub by Lister Steps with support from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Volunteers and archaeology staff have been using the modern graffiti at the rear of the building to learn archaeological skills and building recording techniques. By setting up a string and using measuring tapes our volunteers were able to accurately plot the graffiti using the same techniques which are used to draw an archaeological section.  Read more…

Building Britannia: behind the scenes at the Museum of Liverpool

31 October 2018 by Vanessa

man examining archaeological finds in a large room full of boxes on shelves

Luke selecting objects for display from the stores

Today we have a guest blog by Luke Daly-Groves. Luke is currently studying a PhD on Anglo-American intelligence relations in occupied Germany at the University of Leeds:

“For five weeks I have been working with the team of archaeologists at the Museum of Liverpool as part of a placement, in order to create a display about the Romans in Merseyside. My interest in Roman history was sparked by tales of Emperors and Empire, travels around ancient sites throughout Europe, and the works of Professor Dame Mary Beard. But studying the Romans is not all about those at the top but also about revealing something of the lives of ordinary people. This is why archaeology is so important.

Here in Liverpool, the smallest fragment of Roman tile is bagged and recorded because it may provide vital evidence. Context, in archaeology, as in history, is key. The North West was in the past considered to be an area devoid of Roman archaeology. I certainly had no idea of any Roman presence here prior to my work at the museum!  Read more…



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We try to ensure that the information provided on our blog is accurate and that appropriate permissions to use images have been sought. The opinions in each blog are very much those of the individuals writing.