Our ceramic type collection and associated database are organized around the concept of “ceramic type”, which is a concept typically used by historical archaeologists to identify, classify and compare pottery.
A “type” refers to a category of ceramics that shares a consistent, specific and unique combination of physical attributes (such as paste type, color of decoration, kind of glazing, etc.). Type definitions also incorporate additional information about dates, origins, costs and functions of pottery.
This page is intended to illustrate the basic principals of visual ceramic type identification, which will allow users to access additional information.
Most types of historic ceramics (that is, post-1492 ceramics of European origin or inspiration) are classified according to three primary attributes:
- Paste: the characteristics of the clay from which the vessel is made
- Surface Treatment: the way the surface of the vessel is treated, covered or glazed
- Decoration: the methods, colors and motifs used to decorate the vessel
Each “type” of ceramic has a unique combination of paste, surface treatment and decoration that is not found in that combination on any other “type”
Steps in Ceramic Identification
The first step in identifying a pottery type should be the identification of paste type. You can click on the glossary links to see examples of paste types and colors.
- Coarse Earthenware (also known as “earthenware”, “terra cotta”, or “pottery”):
Fired at temperatures of 900-1200° C porous, softest and least compact of the paste types, often contains tempering material, colors range widely from cream through dark red. Can have a wide variety of surface treatments.
Fired at temperatures of 1200-1350° C hard and very compact (but not vitreous), non-porous, granite-like in texture, usually grey in color, rarely cream or white. Usually salt-glazed.
- Refined earthenware (also known as “China” or “semi-porcelain”):
Fired at temperatures of 1100-1200° C hard and compact, only slightly porous, compaction texture may be visible, thin and cream to white in color. Usually lead-glazed.
Fired at temperatures of 1300-1450° C very hard, compact and vitreous, white to bluish-white in color. Sometimes lead-glazed.
The next step involves the surface treatment. Once the paste type is identified, it is necessary to identify the general category of surface treatment. You can click on the links to see examples.
- Surface displacement, penetration or addition (Punctates, incising, applique etc.)
- Smoothing or scraping
- Polishing and burnishing
- Painting and pigmentation
- Slip decorating
- Lead glaze (AKA low-fired glaze)
- Tin enamel
- Salt glaze
- Fieldspar glaze
The final step in identifying a pottery type is to analyze the decoration. This is the most specific of the elements identifying a ceramic type. It is important to identify paste type and surface treatment first, because the same decorative elements can occur on several different paste types and surface treatments. Decoration includes specific design motifs, colors and iconographic elements.