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Volunteers join archaeologists to pry secrets of stoneware potter, others, from Ellis-Bell site
Date published: 11/2/2012
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
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, 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 find 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.