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Ceramic Makers’ Marks

By Erica Gibson

Review By Lorne Hammond

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 125-127

This slim and well-designed identification guide focuses primarily on nineteenth century American and European manufacturers of ceramics for those working to identify ceramic shards. Despite the back cover’s reference to “North American sites,” it draws only upon material found within California. Some 250 collections have been examined by the Erica Gibson over fifteen years as the Lab Director of the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University.

Gibson draws upon the classic works by Geoffrey Godden, Arnold and Dorothy Kowalsky, and Lois Lehner. Ceramics literature has evolved out of connoisseurship and museum collections of complete forms of ceramics. It is a field of study with a great interplay between practitioners and disciplines. Specialists move freely between museum and private collections, archaeological digs, technical conferences, London and Hong Kong auction houses, and the studios of contemporary potters, some of whom sit literally atop historic production sites in Staffordshire or Fusan. I have heard Godden speak joyfully about getting down in the dirt and examining potshards with staff at historical archaeology sites in pottery districts in London and Staffordshire. In this book we are dealing with the post-consumer end of the commodity chain.

Godden’s influence is seen in Gibson’s style for the entries. However, her work with sites in California has a different emphasis — focusing on the archaeological problem of fragmentary and rare evidence. This melding of approaches gives the book its strength as a practical and useful tool for persons working with ceramic fragments and represents a synergy between traditional approaches and today’s fieldwork.

The organization of the book is straightforward. In her brief and concise introduction, Gibson dispels web-perpetuated myths about trademark act and country of origin marks and dating (11-12). Over the next 123 pages, we find discussions of 343 ceramic marks. This represents 112 manufacturers, primarily English or Scottish and a very small number of French (four) German (one), and American (seven). There are none from Spain, Mexico, China, or Canada. The marks are presented alphabetically by name of manufacturer, one to three per page, with notes for each. A delightful cautionary note discusses how easy it is to confuse the mark of John Wood with that of Josiah Wedgwood, as Wood used his initial (Josiah did not) and left no space between his middle name (Wedg) and his surname (136).

The majority of the marks have a photographic illustration, preferred by her colleagues over pencil. Economics likely limited the photography to black and white, an area where the internet has a great advantage (http://www.thepotteries.org/pottery.htm). Many marks have colour variations.

A great subtheme is the presentation of a tremendous range of possible conditions of marks. The book successfully illustrates the typical real-world problems faced by archaeologists seeking to identify ceramics. The broken examples include missing shards, a mark poorly applied or badly fired, or a plate subject to heavy crackling. This is the experiential teaching aspect of the volume — a subtext that imparts field experience to the reader and instills analytical confidence.

Given her expertise, I wish the author had discussed the materials themselves, both clays and glazes, and the agents that act upon them: physical shock, fire or smoke, chemicals or earth stains, water, evidence of heavy use, and patina and crackling.

The book’s excellent two-page bibliography lacks only Robert E. Röntgen’s detailed and useful Marks on German, Bohemian and Austrian Porcelain, 1710 to the Present (Schiffer, 1997). The index uses categories: city, country or state, [design] element, mark type (impressed or printed, and colour), word, and maker. There is no entry under “Country or State” for Germany, and only one for California (142), yet the introduction lists one and two examples respectively (10). This results from the decision to limit the index to the physical mark itself.

Well researched, tightly organized, and inexpensive, Erica Gibson’s work will prove a great regional resource in British Columbia, where European ceramics are commonly encountered in museum collections and archaeological digs alike. The size suits a field camp, but unlike plant identification guides or silver mark books, it is too large for pocket use. I applaud the book’s utility to teach visual analytical skills. The author has made a useful addition, both to historical archaeology fieldwork and the classroom. This is a useful reference tool for the ceramics fraternity.

Ceramic Makers’ Marks
By Erica Gibson 
Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press, 2011. 146 pp, $27.95 paper

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.