Classic! A look at transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world

Ceramic artefacts are some of the most common finds recovered from 19th century Christchurch archaeological sites. Teacups, saucers, plates, dishes, bottles, jars, jugs, chamber pots, wash basins…heaps of objects related to food and drink preparation, consumption and storage as well as hygiene or personal grooming habits. However, today, we’re not talking about forms and functions. We’ll go further…travelling through transfer printed decorations inspired by Neoclassical and Romantic designs.

Once upon a time, until the invention of transfer printing, the coloured decorations on ceramics were applied by hand. The technique of transfer printing, which originated in England in the mid-18th century, allowed potters, for the first time, to mass-produce identical detailed images on ceramic vessels. Blue and white designs dominated the wide world of transferwares, although black, brown, green, grey, purple and red colours were also used in the second half of the 19th century as we’ll see.

A perfect explanation of the invention of transfer printing. Press 10/07/1935

Potteries offered a variety of patterns that reflected social and decorative trends of the time. It was well-known by everybody that the finest ceramic was imported from China. It is not a surprise, then, that Chinese designs were copied or adapted and used as inspiration. In fact, patterns like Asiatic Pheasants and Willow became very popular and they are found on Christchurch sites quite often.

Asiatic Pheasants (left) and Willow (right) plates. These designs are still in use on modern ceramics, confirming their success among consumers. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

However, the search for more interesting and original decorations began quickly. European scenes based on neoclassical and romantic themes became inspiration for decorative designs in the mid-19th century and were sold as an exotic counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscape and architecture.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries neoclassicism had infiltrated the arts and historical tradition. Ancient Greece and Rome were the inspiration. Transfer prints and stylistic trends were influenced by archaeological discoveries at ancient cities such as Pompeii, Herculaneum or Athens. Designs were dominated by horizontal and vertical lines and symmetrical proportions reflected the virtues of  antiquity, like harmony, clarity and universality. Ceramic patterns displayed temples, columns, urns, sculptures, draped figures, acanthus leaves and Greek or Roman ruins in an effort to emulate these glorious past civilizations. Neoclassical patterns are relatively common finds on archaeological sites in Christchurch, some more frequently than others.

To be honest, it was difficult to choose just a few patterns to show you today. But, finally, here we are with a selection of some of my favourite neoclassical inspired patterns uncovered on Christchurch sites!

ANTIQUE (left) and ITALIAN (right). Both patterns featured a bunch of antique vases in a central scene. The Greek vases sold to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton attracted considerable attention over the years and were probably the inspiration for these decorations. Image: J. Garland.

ETRUSCAN was a popular name used for transferware designs showing classical vases and ewers. We know if was popular as several variations have been found in Christchurch, all of which featured a border with the repeating Greek key motif and/or an arrangement of vases in the centre of the scene. Image: J. Garland.

From the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries romanticism arose in Europe as a reaction to modernity, increasing industrialisation and rationality in general, and as a rejection of the neoclassical virtues of order, calm and harmony in particular. This artistic, cultural and intellectual movement played on the emotions, individualism and the glorification of the past and nature. Given the interest in nature, these designs often contained landscape scenes. Romantic imagery is easily identifiable on transferwares because it always follows this formula: water source as a central feature (river, lake), stylised buildings in the distance and small human figures and/or animals to provide sense of scale. Nature is also present through trees, mountains and valleys.

A wide variety of romantic patterns are commonly found on Christchurch sites, but again (sorry for my obsession today!), I chose those inspired by classical themes, which completed the romantic formula that we know with classical buildings, fountains, urns or pillared balconies. Some of these patterns, as you’ll see, were named after historical places or influential figures in the past. Designs were sometimes associated with the name or place, but were sometimes not…

MOREA was the then name of the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in Southern Greece, so-named because it is said to look like a mulberry leaf in shape. The pattern depicted classical ruins with columns close to a river. The scene is framed by flowers and trees. A distant building with towers are visible on the distance. Two people on a path were also represented, one of them walking and the other one riding a horse. Image: J. Garland.

MYCENAE was the center of Mycenaean civilization, the culture which dominated Greece, Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age in the II millennium BC and one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. This example of Mycenae pattern featured an urn with two handles in the centre of the scene decorated with a variety of sculptures and musicians in separated vignettes along with floral and geometric designs. Water, buildings and mountains completed the landscape surrounded by trees. J. Garland.

RAVENNA is an Italian city, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The pattern combined a classical garden with a woman’s statue on a pedestal, a balustrade, a vase, a river and again, distant classical buildings and mountains among a cloudy sky. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As I mentioned, pattern names occasionally don’t match with the subject portrayed and for me, Sappho is a perfect example. I chose it because of who it refers to…

SAPPHO is a geometric pattern consisting of repeating elements on the border and a medallion in the centre of the vessel. On top right, among the earthenwares offered to consumers, Sappho dinner services were listed as an available pattern in 1863 (Press 5/08/1863: 2). On bottom right, there is a picture of Sappho, who inspired this ceramic decoration. She was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, particularly famous for her love poems. Image: J. Garland and Wikimedia Commons.

Given the topic for the blog today and taking advantage of that, I would like to show you other Romantic patterns based on real or imaginary European themes, referring to Spain and its medieval past. Yes! Here in Christchurch we have found these beautiful vessels…

ANDALUSIA is a region in the South of Spain. This Andalusia patterned plate features Spanish friars or monks, praying in front of a monument. The border has vignettes with alternating sprays, floral and foliage elements. Image: J. Garland.

Sometimes, we find ourselves unable to trace the name of a specific design, although many of the elements may be known and/or resemble other ceramics decorations. For example, although it was impossible to figure out the name of this ceramic pattern, I can’t resist the temptation to suggest an idea…

The pretty chamber pot on top uncovered on Tuam Street features an architecture quite familiar to me. It reminds me of the Alhambra in Granada. And I promise you that it is not a crazy idea! Look the image on right! The name Alhambra means “the red fortress”. Alhambra is one of the most emblematic examples of Islamic architecture in Spain, later completed as a fortress and palace. The place in which the fortress is located has plenty of running water, fountains, cascades and gardens. It was the last bastion of the Moors, who were forced to leave Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Image: J. Garland and The Telegraph.

While Romantic transfer prints based on classical inspirations are relatively popular on 19th century Christchurch sites, those inspired by the Middle Age in Spain are uncommon finds so far. It is likely that Spain was more exotic and unusual for the New Zealand consumers, rather than Greek and Rome revivals.

The presence of these fashionable items within the home, displaying exotic scenes of faraway places, conveyed messages and knowledge of culture and history. Certainly, potters made wares decorated with certain patterns to supply the consumer’s demand. But beyond that, ceramics were a vehicle by which the myths and ideas from these places could travel across the world wherever the vessels were sold. These neoclassic and romantic transfer prints could make people believe that they were intrepid explorers travelling to ancient Europe, through their vessels. The scenes on their plates would become their image of Greece or Rome and Spain, whether or not it was realistic. The symbolic power of transfer prints was also important in the formation of new identities and the emergence of new national ideologies throughout the 19th century, as we discussed in a recent post talking about commemorative designs.

Neoclassical and romantic decorative styles, which inspired both my post today and ceramic makers during the 19th century, had decreased in popularity by the late Victorian era, while the standard Willow and Asiatic Pheasants remained in production for some time. After the decline of neoclassical and romantic designs, patterns with repeating and floral borders became more popular. However, that’s a story for another day!

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & La Trobe University, Australia.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 17801880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ [Accessed 23 June 2017]

Lucas, G., 2003. Literature and Transfer-Printed Pottery in the Early Nineteenth Century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 7 (2): 127-143.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. [online] Available at:  http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/ [Accessed 23 June 2017].

 

 

So far, yet so close…

As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…

As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…

Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.

To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.

So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!

The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.

Evening Star 12/06/1883.

Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!

Recreation of a prehistoric settlement. Image: M. A. Salvatierra.

I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.

Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!

A range of food related material, comparing prehistoric (black background) and 19th century (white background) from Spain and Christchurch sites respectively: bone spoon/silver spoon, bowl with incised decoration/green transfer printed bowl, polished jug/Bristol glazed jug and serving dish with geometric decoration/moulded serving dish. Images: Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia, Museo Arqueologico Regional de Madrid, J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?

Children’s artefacts. On the right, an articulated doll made of ivory recovered from a children’s burial from Paleocristian site of Tarragona (Spain) dating to 3rd or 4th century AD. Remnants of fabric were also visible on it, indicating that these dolls wore clothes, as 19th century porcelain dolls recovered from Christchurch sites do. On the left, there are some miniature ceramic vessels from el Cerro de la Encina (Monachil, Granada, Spain) dating to the Bronze Age between 3rd and 1st millennium BC. They were recovered from a children’s burial as well. Below those, there is a toy tea set and a children’s cup found in Christchurch. Images: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona, Underground Overground Archaeology, J. Garland, M.A. Blanco and G. Jackson.

So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!

What a curious scene that’s shown in these images! Do you notice the similarities and difference between them? Domestic activities are shown as awful tasks in both pictures. As a difference, the re-creation on top depicts a relaxed man, who is smoking and reading a race car magazine, while his stressed woman is cooking and holding the baby, with the other children surrounding her. It might be the traditional atmosphere in a 19th century household context. However, the female and masculine roles are reversed in the bottom picture. Here, the domestic activities are presented as the apocalypse for men, and they cannot manage the situation. Top image: The Observer 14/03/1891. Bottom image: New Zealand Mail 29/09/1893.

So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!

Images: Underground Overground Archaeology and El Periodico Villena.

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

GEA. Cultura Material e identidad social en la Prehistoria Reciente en el Sur de la Peninsula Iberica. [online] Available at: http://www.webgea.es/ [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Gonzalez Marcen, P., Monton-Subias, M. and Picazo, M., 2008. ‘Towards an archaeology of maintenance activities’. In Monton-Subias, S. and Sanchez-Romero, S., 2008 (ed.) Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. BAR International Series 1862.

Museo Arqueologico Regional. Comunidad de Madrid. [online] Available at: http://www.museoarqueologicoregional.org [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia. [online] Available at: http://www.museuprehistoriavalencia.es [Accessed 8/05/2017].

Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona [online] Available at: http://www.mnat.cat/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Past Women. Material Culture of Women. [online] Available at: http://www.pastwomen.net/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Sanchez Romero, M., 2008. ‘Childhood and the Construction of Gender Identities through Material Culture’. Childhood in the Past 1, 17-37.

Symonds, J., 2007. Table Settings. The Material Culture and Social Context of Dinning, AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, United Kingdom.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.