Tracing History: Using Innovative Research Methods and Chemical Testing to Track the Origins of Colonial Pottery

by Special Collections and HIST 368 Intern Amber Kates

Amber Kates being interviewed in the ODU Chemistry Lab where the testing occurred

My favorite thing about working in archives is getting lost in the stories. The shelves are a treasure trove filled with others’ memories. Sifting through the pages reawakens moments long since passed. Some interconnect to form entire lives. Others are just snapshots of a single moment, bringing with them an air of mystery. They whisper out questions, begging you to discover their long hidden secrets. But these allurements do not belong solely to the two dimensional world. Artifacts contain their own stories; you just have to know how to read them.

In 2022, the ODU Special Collections was gifted a few pieces of pottery. They were just a small fraction of the 20,000 pieces found during the expansion of I64, headed by the Virginia Department of Transportation. After they were pieced back together by the team at William and Mary, they were placed in the possession of the Coastal Virginia Church – the owners of the property where the pieces were found. The Coastal Virginia Church graciously gave the pieces to the Special Collections. As the intern for the Fall 2022 semester, I was given the opportunity to research a large jug and tankard.

Not much was known about the pottery when it arrived at our Special Collections. They were accompanied by a report prepared by the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. Based on this report, it appeared that these pieces were created around the 1730s by the William Rogers Pottery in Yorktown, VA. If everyone was correct, that meant the pieces were almost 300 years old, and a truly extraordinary find!

ODU Professor Rick Nickel explains the firing process that resulted in jug’s decorative surface to his Introduction to Ceramics Class.

Assuming that the experts were correct, I dove headfirst into my investigation. When looking at the pieces, they appeared to be common stoneware, consistent of the colonial period. The missing pieces in both the tankard and jug made their fragility obvious. Cracks slither across the jug, indicating places of reconstruction; both handles had been destroyed. The potter utilized a two-tone glaze technique on each piece. Artfully detailed ridges denote the deft hand of the maker. As I studied the jug, my eye was drawn to these drips of green glaze. Not only does the color not match any glaze used on either piece, but the finish is distinct. In contrast to the more matte, gritty-looking finishes, the green glaze is glossy and smooth. These markings are obviously unintentional.

After my initial observations, I began my research. I gathered as many sources as possible on William Rogers and colonial pottery. I read through the report that was sent with the pieces, but it was just a snippet of information. According to the report, the area in which the excavation was conducted was within the site of the old Newtown Colony. Like many colonies in the area, Newtown was an English settlement, and acted as a port for trade. However, by the early nineteenth century, the residents of the area moved on. They discarded whatever wares they couldn’t carry into a giant pit – a pit that wouldn’t be discovered for hundreds of years.

NPS Photo of the Poor Potter Site

After immigrating from England, William Rogers was a resident of Yorktown colony until the mid-eighteenth century. Often referred to as the “poor potter”, Rogers was anything but. A natural businessman, Rogers had made quite the name for himself with several different ventures. Before building the factory, he was a brewer and merchant. The success from his various enterprises made him a prominent figure in the community, and a wealthy man.

So, why the nickname “poor potter?” Well, it stems from the lieutenant governor of the time, William Gooch. In a 1732 letter to the Board of Trade in London, Gooch mentioned Rogers’ pottery endeavor and stated that it was “of so little consequence.”  Then, in 1739 he wrote “The Poor Potter’s operation is unworthy of your Lordship’s notice…” In reality, pottery from Rogers’ factory was transported up and down the east coast and to the West Indies. Gooch’s motivation for the way he handled the situation remains a mystery. After all, what Rogers was doing was illegal. At the time, English law made it clear that goods were to be manufactured in England and then transported to the colonies. Many have stated that Gooch must have been “on the take”.  While there was probably some monetary incentive, I believe that the situation was far more complicated. Gooch’s position as lieutenant governor was a balancing act between keeping both Virginia and England happy. He was in charge overseeing the colony and its people while being a soldier for the English Crown. The success of Virginia was good for everyone involved, and Rogers’ pottery was a component of this success. Gooch also knew that he couldn’t turn a blind eye to it. Eventually the truth would be discovered, and there would be consequences.

During this portion of my research, I came across a book that proved to be surprisingly helpful. In, Yorktown, Virginia: A Brief History, author Wilford Kale has an entire chapter on William Rogers and the unearthing of his factory. Included in this chapter was the story of the initial discovery around 1970. According to Kale, the story goes that W.A. Childrey, a Yorktown resident, was sweeping the dirt floor of his garage when he noticed shiny green spots. Curious, Childrey dug a little further and revealed bricks covered in a green glaze. He contacted the College of William and Mary, and the real hunt began (Kale, pp. 30).

Inside an 18th Century Pottery Workshop.

My “spidey senses” were tingling. Was this, a brief mention of green glaze, my first clue? Steve Bookman, Head Archivist at the Special Collections, was kind enough to reach out to William and Mary for a copy of the original excavation report. This report described the kiln as being “coated by a thick (1-2 inches) accumulation of a lustrous light to dark green smooth and glass-like glaze” (Barka, 1973, pp. 14). I was like Nancy Drew gathering little fragments of information to solve a mystery.

I knew I needed to go on a field trip and see the site for myself. I reached out to the National Park Service and explained about the pottery and research. I was put into contact with Dr. Dwayne Scheid, Cultural Resources Program Manager and Archaeologist for the National Park Service. He was kind enough to invite me out to the site to discuss this project. I was excited, but nervous. Before I arrived, I emailed pictures of the pottery. Once there, he agreed that they looked like pieces of pottery found during the excavation of the property. However, the only way to really confirm was to get the pieces tested. Dwayne also pointed me to Lindsay Bloch’s work with testing historical ceramics.

I toured the space, which really is the size of someone’s garage. Looking down into the large kiln, it is easy to see the green glaze that was described by Barka. Just as I had hoped, visually it was a match to the drops on the large jug. Dwayne reiterated the need for testing. He explained that the best and easiest thing to do was to first get the pieces tested with an XRF machine. As an undergraduate intern who was clearly in over her head, I just nodded. There was no way that I was going to explain to this very knowledgeable man that I had not even the slightest clue what I was doing, though I’m pretty sure he caught on. I left feeling a little deflated. Was this the end of the road for my project? Nevertheless, I still had a few avenues of investigation to pursue.

Inside the Poor Pottery Kiln. Photo by Amber Kates, 2022

Overwhelmed but undeterred, once again, I began my research. Assuming the budget for student-led testing was practically nonexistent, I wanted to find out if the William and Mary’s Center for Archaeological Research had conducted testing during the preservation process. When the pottery was donated to the Special Collections, it was accompanied by a report prepared by William and Mary for VDOT. Reading the report, a second time, I realized that pages were missing. However, several names were listed, including Deborah Davenport. The report stated that she was in charge of “laboratory processing and artifact analysis.” I figured it would be best to go straight to the source and reached out to her with my questions. She informed me that due to their own budgetary constraints they had not performed any testing of the pieces but confirmed their belief that they were created by the William Rogers pottery in Yorktown. She was also kind enough to send me the full report – all 608 pages!

Realizing we were on our own in reference to the chemical analysis, I did a little digging to the basics of XRF testing. This was unknown territory. The Special Collections is not used to diving into the archaeological side of historical preservation. I was able to find a few different institutions who had the ability to help us out but wasn’t sure how many would be willing to assist us pro bono. I once again feared a dead end. On a whim, I contacted the department chair of the ODU Chemistry Department, Dr. Craig Bayse. I explained the situation and asked if we had the testing capabilities. To my surprise, not only did he have access to the equipment, but he was willing to conduct the tests himself.

This is where we are now. The chemical analysis is the final missing piece to confirm if all our work is correct. The wonderful Dr. Bayse conducted XRF testing on both pieces of stoneware. When the results are analyzed, we will be able to determine if the pieces are, in fact, part of the William Rogers collection. I am so lucky to have had the honor to work on this project. It has been an amazing example of different departments and institutions coming together to uncover the truth. Everyone served as an important piece of the puzzle. A special thank you to everyone in the Special Collections. You were all so supportive of me and provided a great learning experience. Jessica Ritchie in particular has been so amazing. She trusted me enough to allow me to run wherever the research led. This has been a truly remarkable hands-on experience.

Director’s Update: After graduating from ODU, Amber has continued to collaborate with the Poor Potter Site and ODU Libraries on a project to trace the pottery back to the site. Amber’s research and ODU’s pioneering chemical analysis methodology could help other repositories and museums officially trace their pieces back to the Poor Potter Site.

Ancient Art in the Archives

By Lara Canner, Curator of Music Special Collections

Jordan Staten_Crypus Vase Drawing
Photographed here is student Jordan Staten drawing an archeological depiction of a vase from Bronze Age Cyprus

Early last spring, Special Collections and University Archives happily hosted Dr. Jared Benton’s Ancient Art History class. Using Bronze Age pottery from the island of Cyprus donated to ODU in the 1960’s, the students took photographs and created archaeological sketches of the vases. Later, this work would be turned into digital 3-D models and in-depth research papers. The results of their studies were impressive, so much so that Dr. Benton believed that their work should be presented at Old Dominion University’s Undergraduate Research Symposium. The program gives a platform to ODU student researchers, from various disciplines, to present papers, or posters examining their scholarship. I must have been impressive too since Dr. Benton also asked if I would be interested in partnering in assisting his students with the symposium. (I was delighted to help!)

With campus remaining closed over the course of the summer, Zoom became the main means of communication between the students, Dr. Benton, and myself. Together, we formulated the design of a virtual poster, showing how the class created their digital representations of the Cypriot vases. Meeting with those more interested in presenting papers, advice was shared on best research practices, edits were made to their original papers and possible ways to introduce the student’s themes were explored. Overall, a very productive summer, but the fact of the matter was, to create the greatest possible poster and research presentation, the undergraduate scholars would need to view the vases again.

So here we are, adapting to the need for social distancing, but still providing access to our collections. Updated policies, such as granting appointments for ODU students and staff, wearing a face mask at all times and Archives staff disinfecting prior and after each appointment are just a few ways Special Collections and University Archives are creating a safe and healthy environment for our researchers. Only one patron and one staff member are allowed in Special Collections for appointments, meaning that for Dr. Benton to help guide our student through the creation of detailed drawing and building the 3-D model, he would have to utilize Zoom to communicate in real time. When problems arose, or just making sure we were on the right track, Jordan would have to hold her paper up to a laptop screen. Complicated to say the least…

Watching an archaeological rendering as a bystander is fascinating, but now I had to become an interpreter of the professor’s instructions and at times a fellow teacher of Bronze Age Pottery. Not exactly my field of expertise. However, this was a session not only a lesson in primary source instruction, but active learning. Together, Jordan and I talked through the best ways to capture the vase’s decorations, worked through mismeasurements, and inspected the vase from every possible angle. And, the results were incredible, just look:

Cyproit Vase Model

Two of Dr. Benton’s students will be presenting their research at the 2021 ODU Undergraduate Symposium on March 20, 20201! Registration is free and open to the public:

Local History: Discovering The Fight For Desegregation In Norfolk

by Ethan Dykes, HIS368 Intern

As a resident of the Hampton Roads area I have always been fascinated by the region’s rich history. It’s been home to many important historical events, towns, buildings, and people. Jamestown and Williamsburg were some of the first successful colonial settlements. The first enslaved Africans believed to be brought to the Americas were deported on the coast of Point Comfort, not more than thirty miles from where I live. My own home town was the site of a battle in the Revolutionary War, where Virginia rebels pushed out British forces and helped secure key points in the area. The great city of Norfolk is home to the largest Navy base in the world and has long been an important city in America’s history. One aspect of my local history, however, that I have largely overlooked has been the fight against racism. We all know of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and others that fought so famously against segregation and racial oppression. We all know of the March on Washington, the events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the many other great examples of the fight for justice. But so often do we forget the smaller victories against racism, so often do we not realize the local impacts these events have on us.

Granby Street late 1960s

The Importance of Archives in Preserving Local History

Thanks to my experiences as an intern with the Special Collections Department at Old Dominion University, I have had the privilege of seeing some of this history firsthand. I was able to watch several videos from different news outlets from the 1960’s and 70’s. The videos included several interviews, statements, and images on desegregation, and many were focused on the city of Norfolk specifically. I saw President Eisenhower give a statement on desegregation and the closing of schools in several cities such as Norfolk. I saw the Virginia General Assembly issue a response to the  Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, and their plans to implement the Massive Resistance policy to prevent desegregation. I also saw several videos of activists fighting for the desegregation of schools and other public buildings, such as the YMCA. Each video captured the feelings of Norfolk citizens at the time, and how the changes in government, such as the Brown vs. Board decision and the implementation of Massive Resistance, caused them to react. The fight against racism and segregation in Norfolk was captured and documented in these archives, and I of all people was given the opportunity to observe and organize them. I had never before now truly appreciated the rich history of Norfolk and its citizens who fought against racism. Norfolk and the rest of Hampton Roads has had a long and deep history, filled with ordinary people doing great things.

Protest over the Norfolk YMCA’s segregation policies

Everyday Deeds

Until recently, I did not consider the area of Hampton Roads, and Norfolk specifically, to be of some importance in the fight against segregation. We are always told to study the big events and the people who had the most impact on the world. The people and events involved in the local history of Hampton Roads may not have been as memorable or had as large of an impact as other occurrences in their times, but their efforts were still felt and preserved in history. The civil rights movement in Norfolk may not have been the most noticed or impactful of efforts in America, but it nonetheless changed the city and its citizens for generations to come. This look into local history reminded me that even the smallest things can have large impacts. It was thanks to the cumulative efforts of ordinary people that the schools in Norfolk were reopened, desegregation was implemented, YMCA buildings and other facilities were opened to people regardless of color, all because the citizens of Norfolk and others willed it. When observing history in such a way, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of a famous grey wizard: “Some believe that it is only great power that can keep evil in check. But I have found that it is the small every-day deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay”. Despite what many may think history is not just made of people or events of major significance. Its foundations lie with the efforts of everyday people in everyday towns, creating a cumulative structure filled with local history and local people, of which we should strive to preserve and learn from.

A New Insight: An Intern’s First Look Into Archival Work

by Ethan Dykes, HIS 368 Intern in Special Collections and Archives

As an up and coming history major at Old Dominion University, I was excited to receive the opportunity to work as an intern at the Special Collections Department in the Perry Library. I have always been curious about the specifics behind the jobs that entail the collection, study, and preservation of historical materials. This being my final semester at the university I was thankful for the opportunity to learn all I could about archival work before I graduated. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, I would have to do the internship remotely rather than the usual in-person experience. Still, I believed this to be a good opportunity to see what working in an archive facility was like and if I would consider it as a job for myself in the future. Needless to say I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have learned about archival work and the types of materials I have gotten to work with despite the global pandemic.

October is National Archives Month! It’s a great time learn more about archives and the labor and expertise that goes into them.

Unexpected Lessons

My first few assignments in the internship mostly involved getting to know the staff and reading the training modules for archival work. To my surprise, the training module held a plethora of information on the specifics of archival work, and I learned many unexpected lessons. Not only did the modules define the different types of archives in the world and what they look to collect, but how they may sort and preserve those different types of materials. Many paper materials, for example, need to be kept in properly humidified places with dim light and kept in containers safe from dust and bugs. I knew from common sense that paper materials certainly needed to be kept clean and with minimal exposure, but I did not know the amount of tiny specifics that were important to keep those materials in good condition. Such things included the importance of using iridescent bulbs and not fluorescent ones in rooms with paper or other materials to prevent deterioration from ultraviolet rays. I also learned much about the importance of structure and safety in archival facilities. Archives have to be careful of how their buildings are built and manage to ensure safety from disasters and accidents, such as water leaks from air conditioning units. There is also a surprising amount of importance on security, such as the need to organize materials in a certain way that prevents just anyone from looking something up and being able to take it. Archival work has a surprising amount of complexities and small details that one must learn if they wish to be able to handle historical documents.

Employee in Washington National Records Center Stack Area, ca. 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Employee in Washington National Records Center Stack Area, ca. 1968. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Of Surprising Importance

Other than learning much about archival work and the surprising amount of information required to conduct such labor, I have also found archival work to be of surprising importance to the world of history. As a historian, I always knew that archives played a key role in the study of historical materials but I did not initially see their overall importance. Archives do not simply gather and preserve information, which in of itself is of significance, they also organize, label, and make that information easy to access to the public and to historians. Those wishing to research certain materials for a book or paper may easily find themselves in the depths of an archive facility shifting through shelves of materials. Many archives are also the keepers of documents one would not find anywhere else in the world, and are thus of major importance to the preservation of local and smaller portions of history. Archives are not only more complicated than I initially thought, they are also of greater significance than one such as myself may originally think. They are a key cog in the machine that preserves and teaches the world’s history.

A New Found Respect

Overall, I am thoroughly enjoying my time with this internship so far, and have a new found respect for those who work in archives. The work I’ve done so far has been interesting and insightful, with a plethora of information about archival work. A person outside of the archival world, such as my previous self, may believe it to be simple and easy. But there is actually a science to it, a methodology that is used to best preserve the world’s history. This has been the most useful and world-changing lesson I have learned so far from the internship. In just a few weeks I have had the privilege of learning about the importance of archival work and the amount of effort that goes into it. I strongly recommend anyone interested in archival work, or in other professions of history, to seek out information on the methods behind archive work. It may yet offer a new perspective on your view of the work behind historical preservation and research.