The Hidden Mysteries of Ceramics

The Hidden Mysteries of Ceramics

Trust me. Step back in time and take a moment or two to look around. There are secrets to be revealed, mysteries to solve. And if you have someone like Colleen Tamblyn as your guide, you’re sure to not be disappointed.

Colleen has spent a month in Placentia doing the initial phases of her research of Fort Louis ceramics. While in Placentia, she was headquartered in the former St. Luke’s Anglican church, now a community building owned by the Placentia Area Historical Society. And on the 28th July, 2021, Colleen gave a presentation of her work thus far on the ceramics of Fort Louis, a fort that was built by the French when they controlled Plaisance, the term they used for Placentia. Her efforts have been guided by a firm commitment to the community. She stated how she wants her work “to be accessible to the people that the research is for, as much as possible.” Notably, she’s committed to involving the community in the archaeological investigation which will “allow the community to engage with their past.”

As Colleen poignantly explained, she wants to give people an opportunity to “touch history,” to be able to “put a 400 year piece of pottery in your hand and think, oh my gosh, I’m holding something that somebody 400 years ago held and drank out of and survived out of.”

To lay the groundwork, Colleen eagerly discussed French history that spans vast distances, its arms reaching from the deltas of Louisiana in North America to the rice paddies of Asia and numerous places between. The actions in these far reaching regions would go on to play a significant role in the evolution of Plaisance.

Colleen then explained how either in 1655 or 1658, the first people arrived in Plaisance, their survival placed now in the hands of mercantile ships from Boston anchored in the harbour. In 1663, the French soon began to construct the first of several forts—Vieux Fort atop Mount Pleasant. It was none too soon because 1672 would be the first of three long wars that would rage and largely determine the place of France in the colourful history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Centuries later, beginning with Jean-Pierre Proulx in 1969, historians and archaeologists began trying to decipher and unearth this history. As one of those archaeologists, Colleen has chosen ceramics to be the lens through which she will explore the Placentia area’s history.

For the initial prodding of Colleen’s research, many of her questions had been posed by people coming to see her display at St. Luke’s, one being why look at ceramics in the first place.

She noted how ceramics provided an ideal platform by which to study history, as there are a wealth of typologies which have been developed to classify the pieces focussing on qualities such as colour, material, patterning and so on. One can then obtain information on price and deduce ceramic usage. From this information, it’s possible to understand the nuances of wealth and to better understand how wealth has changed over time.

Another question wondered how this would all be done. Colleen responded by explaining how she had arrived at what she termed “Colleen’s Five Fs” of ceramic analysis.

Colleen’s Five Fs of Ceramic Analysis

AttributeDescription
FormWhat does the vessel look like?
FromFrom where does the ceramic come? What is its origin?
FunctionWhat is its intended purpose?
FragilityWhat would it take for this vessel to break?
FaïenceHow decorated is the vessel?

She stated that when taking these into account, one arrives at the cost or perceived cost of a ceramic. Understanding these qualities she explained allows her to track cost, figuring out patterning styles and exploring “the psychology of a colony that was given up on.” In so doing, there are a multiplicity of factors that muddy the waters.

Colleen discussed how certain vessels are found in the excavation at a layer that does not make sense. But factors such as some being heirlooms would explain this confusion. Otherwise, they may be plundered goods. Any number of other factors place the ceramics where they are not supposed to be.

Another question that materialised for her, amongst many others, was where all the money went that was being given by France. The forts were notoriously short on uniforms and other items and as far as Colleen was concerned, the missing money was certainly not in the ceramics. But she pointed out that several of the governors had been recalled for “discharging their duty badly,” a hint to Colleen that they were likely “lining their pockets.” This will no doubt be another side avenue her research may take.

Colleen has done excellent work in her initial explorations into the ceramics of Fort Louis in Placentia. She will likely face considerable obstacles in her efforts to build an “interconnected network of wealth expression,” as well as in her attempt to explore patterns of usage and consumption in Fort Louis as well as Placentia as a whole. However, if her work to the present is any indication, she is more than up to that challenge.

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