For archaeologists, ceramics are one of the most useful artifacts that can be found during an excavation. They can help date an archaeological site, they can shed light on the domestic habits of the people who left them behind, and they can also reflect the social and economic status of individuals.
When I worked in Virginia, ceramics were my favorite artifacts to have to clean and catalog. I was fascinated with the variety of colorful patterns that were excavated from the areas where James Madison’s enslaved populations lived their daily lives. I also wondered what these ceramics must have meant to them, considering they had relatively little, especially compared to the family they worked for.
The collections at the Peabody don’t typically have these types of historic ceramics. The main type of ceramic housed here are Native American ceramics, which are very interesting, but also very different from the European ceramics I had grown accustomed to seeing in my daily work life. We do have one collection that is comprised of historic ceramics, and that is the Lucy Foster Collection.
Lucy Foster, unbeknownst to her in her lifetime, became a very important figure in the world of African American archaeology. Her dwelling, known as Lucy Foster’s Garden, was one of the first, if not the first, excavated site of a freed former slave in the United States. In addition to other materials, Lucy Foster left behind a great deal of ceramics. Lucy’s ceramics were like those I had grown accustomed to seeing in the context of enslaved populations in the South. However, here were the same patterns showing up at the home of a freed woman.
The remains of pearlware, creamware, and even porcelain were present in the assemblages from Lucy’s Garden. Decorations ranged from plain to hand painted and transfer printed. Vessels ranged from bowls to plates, to jugs and mugs. This variety is especially interesting. Of note is the nearly equal percentage of bowls and plates found. Research into various enslaved populations has suggested that they commonly ate from bowls, and therefore a higher percentage of bowls are found in these archaeological contexts. Plates were more commonly used by freed individuals or people of European descent. The nearly equal representation of both vessel types is especially interesting because it could possibly show how Lucy walked the line of being enslaved and freed, which is essentially true to her life story.
The Lucy Foster ceramics are quite an impressive collection for Lucy to have had in her lifetime. Further research into the collections of Lucy Foster and comparing them to the assemblages of enslaved populations and freed populations could give us even more insight into Lucy Foster and her life as a freed woman in Andover over 200 years ago. These collections are available for any researchers or Phillips Academy students who might be interested in taking on such a project. Anyone in the Washington D.C. area can view a portion of the collections as they are now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as talked about here!
For more on Lucy Foster, see:
2011 Black Feminist Archaeology. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA
2018 Homeplace is also Workplace: Another Look at Lucy Foster in Andover, Massachusetts. Historical Archaeology 52(1):100-112.