Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Back in late September we found a mysterious feature out at the dig site. An almost complete circle of bricks with a brickedopening. There was evidence for intense heat. I thought it might have been a small bread oven. Dan thought it had been used to melt lead to make bullets.

Mystery feature.

Last week I laid out all of the ceramics from one of the two oldest outhouse pits, one that was depicted on the 1883 fire insurance map. I put the pieces out by level, use masking tape to put together the broken pieces from the level, label these pieces, and then make mends across the levels. Because outhouse waste is pretty liquified, it is common to find matching pieces up to two feet apart.

As I was mending the pieces of a small, hand-painted dish, I noticed that it had a date, 1883, on its back. I realized that it also had the initials NG (or GN) on it. And then I realized that the next small dish had the same thing, as did several others, some with the year 1884.

Signed piece.

Eureka, this explained the presence of a piece of kiln furniture in another outhouse. The little brick feature was being used to fire these hand-painted dishes.

Back in the Victorian era, especially between 1875 and 1900, there was a china painting craze in the United States and Europe. Women could purchase blank pieces of ceramics and paint flowers, scenes, people, basically whatever they wanted.

Illustration from China Painting book, 1880s.

Middle and upper class women had more leisure time in the late 19th century. Servants did a lot of the hard work and labor saving devices, such as cook stoves, freed up time for women to do other things. China painting was touted as an educational, artistic, time-consuming, and potentially money making pursuit.

The dishes.

NG (or GN) painted at least six dishes in 1883 and 1884, and somehow they broke and ended up in the outhouse. Whoever she was (china painting was a mostly female hobby), was a pretty good painter, able to handle a number of different subjects.

White flowers on red background.

It is rare to find artifacts that you can conclusively say were made by the same person. Occasionally, workshops of artisans are excavated (usually out east at Colonial sites). This may be the first example in Arizona.

Reeds and flying birds.

I like finding artifacts that tell a story, and these dishes do just that.

Blue flowers on white background.

Sometimes I think I am the luckiest person in the world, digging up interesting things, learning about them, and then sharing the information with the world.

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