Archaeological Artifact: German Stoneware Sherd

July 17, 2018

By: Jeanne A. Ward, RPA and Alexandra Glass

This small ceramic sherd is a fragment of a type of stoneware often called Rhenish, or German, stoneware excavated from TU14, ST.2A, a unit excavated beneath a former doorway on the western side of the original house at the intersection of the first rear addition. Produced mainly in the Westerwald region of Germany as early as the mid-1500’s the blue and grey stoneware ceramic has a slightly dimpled surface texture due to a technique called “Salt-glazing.” These ceramics are fired at a high temperature producing a compact, non-porous, fine pasted body. Blue and grey German stonewares were brought to the colonies by the earliest immigrants and continued to be imported until the last quarter of the 18th century.

Figure 1. Cloverfields Rhenish Stoneware, GR Medallion fragment (Right). Image to the left illustrates what the complete medallion would have looked like. Roughly 2cm long.

While the sherd is small, there is enough of the original design to see that the decoration on it would have been part of a “GR” medallion, the GR abbreviation standing for George Rex, or King George (Fig. 1). These decorations were applied to vessels meant for export from Germany to England and then to her colonies in commemoration of the king. King George I, II, and III ruled successively between 1714- 1820, however, because Rhenish stonewares decline in popularity towards the end of the 18th century it is more likely that this sherd represents the reign of either King George I (1714-1727) or King George II (1727-1760). 

Figure 2. Ornate George Rex medallion with crown, floral sprigs, and winged figure. Image courtesy Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, Diagnostic Artifacts of MD, Oxon Hill Site (18PR175).

The medallion would have been applied by a method known as sprig-molding, where a stamp is used to impress a design on a small piece of clay which is then applied to the vessel wall. Some GR medallions were very ornate featuring crowns, winged figures and swirls (Fig.2). Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of the Cloverfields sherd to say what type of vessel it originates from, but in the Chesapeake, mugs, pitchers, and jugs are found most often (Fig.3).

Figure 3. Westerwald Stoneware Jug with GR medallion (1714-1760). Image courtesy of The British Museum, online catalog, Museum no 1981,1002.33, AN1613139899 .

Stoneware jugs from this period were used mainly for wine or beer and this jug would likely have been a prized possession of the Hemsley family.  Other, less distinctive, fragments of Westerwald have been recovered across the site indicating that the Hemsley family likely owned numerous vessels, as many prominent families of the period (including George Washington at his Ferry Farm property) did (