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19th-century pottery site is major find
Fragments at building site, document sleuths prove early 1800s kiln and pottery factory in Fredericksburg, exciting scholars

 Fredericksburg potter Francis Hamilton Bell's brother, Nathan Clark Bell in Kingston, N.Y., made this jug.
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Date published: 10/9/2012


Historians and archaeologists in the mid-Atlantic--and even abroad--are buzzing about a discovery in downtown Fredericksburg: the remnants of an early 19th-century pottery previously unknown to experts.

Dovetail Cultural Resource Group, a local archaeological firm, will glean what data it can later this month from a "salvage" dig at the pottery site in the Amelia Square townhouse development.

"I cannot overstate how important this find is the history of American ceramic production," said Rob Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America, the field's top journal. "There will be tremendous interest from collectors and museums, once the fragments are analyzed and published."

As the historical grapevine picked up word of what lies beneath the former Fredericksburg Hardware site, local researcher Nancy Moore jumped on the topic and pieced together much of the puzzle. Unbeknown to her, College of William & Mary ceramics expert Oliver Mueller-Heubach was also hunting for clues to the kiln.

Moore, who volunteers in the Virginiana Room at Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters, found a March 24, 1832, ad in The Virginia Herald that announced the opening of "a Stone-Ware Factory, Francis H. Bell & Company, on Commerce Street across from the Crawford Store at the corner of Commerce and Liberty Sts."

Period records and maps place that location smack dab on the Amelia Square property, Moore said.

Until recently, no ceramics expert had been certain that an antebellum pottery manufacturer had operated in Fredericksburg. The closest known businesses were in Richmond, Alexandria and on the Northern Neck.

The first clue came last summer when a backhoe operator testing soil at Amelia Square's just-cleared lot hit something hard deep underground at today's William and Winchester streets. Rhonda Kuebler, the city's construction inspector, had a look.

Kuebler, an amateur archaeologist, examined what the backhoe was digging and saw lots of pottery shards. The big mass of still-buried material would have to be removed for building foundations to get a good footing, she concluded, but otherwise paid it little mind.

"I thought, 'OK, we have kiln here,'" she recalled in an interview Monday. "But there's a lot of stoneware stuff in the ground around Fredericksburg."

Then, a few weeks ago, she bumped into old friend Taft Kiser, the archaeologist supervising excavation of Fredericksburg's new courthouse site.

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