Midlands purple is a high-fired earthenware made as early as the late 14th century or early 15th century of iron rich clays found in the regions of Northern Staffordshire and Southern Lancashire. Most Midlands purple vessels found at Jamestown are butter pots, large cylindrical-shaped jars, to store butter for consumption aboard ship and upon arrival to the Jamestown colony.
Butter pots were highly fired to an almost stoneware temperature, and were lead glazed only on the interior to prevent seepage. Butter was packed into the pots in layers separated by thin layers of salt as a preservative. Because butter was difficult to preserve in the summer heat of Virginia, the jars probably were used for storage of other commodities at Jamestown.
Soon after the arrival of cattle in Virginia from England in 1611, colonists could prepare dairy products locally. No longer relying on imported butter, Midlands Purple butter pots began to disappear from the material record at Jamestown and beyond. However, they were still in use in England in 1686 when Robert Plot described them as being “of a long cylindrical form, made at Burslem in this County of a certain size, so as not to weigh above six pounds at most, yet to contain at least 14 pounds of butter.” The ware continued to be produced and used in England into the 18th century.
Another vessel form now recognized as Midlands purple is a globular flask. Prior to recent discoveries made in Ticknall in Derbyshire, England, all globular flasks were thought to have been made in Martincamp in Normandy, France. The round bottles were wicker covered, and carried by farmers working in fields and sailors and soldiers while on duty. The fabrics and form are almost identical to Martincamp flasks, thus it is difficult to distinguish the two.
Fabric: Generally fired at high temperatures of iron-rich clay, the colors range from reddish-purple to purple-brown. The fabrics are dense and hard, and display occasional hematite and white clay inclusions, and some fissures. One butter pot in the James Fort archaeological assemblage was low fired; it exhibits a red to orange marbled fabric that resembles the much later Buckley-type earthenware.
Glaze: Glaze to prevent seepage is found only on butter pots. Appearing brown to black, the lead glaze unevenly covers interior bases and lower walls. Flasks are unglazed.
Form: Two Midlands purple forms have been recovered at James Fort: butter pots and flasks. Butter pots are tall and cylindrical, and their bases are flat. The form constricts slightly just below the neck. Their short, vertical rims are thickened with an exterior collar. A slight ledge on the interior rim may have supported a lid. Multiple horizontal cordons appear below the rim.
Flasks were wheel thrown in two halves and luted together. A single neck was then luted to the body a hole made by two or more of the potter’s fingers. The neck was wheel-thrown, and it tapers toward a lip with a rounded exterior edge.
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