Research: Goethean Observations: Pottery Shard

Mediaeval Pottery Shards

This piece of pottery can fit in the palm of my hand. The shard measures just over three inches in length. The narrower side of the shard (the bottom) is around two and a half inches in width and the top (the rim) about three inches. It is delicate, quite thin – about four millimetres thick. It weighs very little and is rough to the touch. As I rub my thumb and forefinger over its surface I can feel the indentations, ridges on its surface. Looking at it, the surface on the outside appears smooth. Of course here I will have to distinguish between the outside and the inside of the shard. Looking at the shard sideways on, I can see how the shard bows to one side. This curve appears quite uneven but from the top of the shard, it appears quite uniform. Looking from the top I can see two ridges running down the surface (the outside) of the shard just below the rim. These ridges are either side of a groove and find their opposites on the inside. Where there are ridges on the outside so there are grooves on the inside and vice-versa. As I feel the surface of the pottery fragment, bits fall onto the page like small grains of sand. I can detect more ridges, though more shallow than those which run across just below the rim on the outside. Furthermore these ridges are on the inside of the shard. Closing my eyes I can feel about eight or nine.

The shard becomes thicker near the bottom – almost twice as thick as at the top. In the side of the shard I can see small holes – about a dozen – little more than pinpricks. The material is light grey in colour and moving my finger down the edge I can detect a shallow groove running from the bottom of the shard to approximately halfway up. The colour of the shard as a whole at first glance is very dark grey, almost like charcoal, perhaps a little lighter. On the outside there are patches where the shard is darker and indeed lighter than other parts. There are also very small patches of colour in the shard, tiny patches which are sandy in colour and even smaller patches which appear white. Although mainly grey, there is a hint of brown throughout the fragment, particularly on the inside of the shard where there is a greater build up of material particularly around the ridge near the top. The colour and patination on the inside of the shard is much less uniform than on the outside. Just as I can see more ridges and grooves in the surface, so I can see more variations in colour. In the centre there is a large patch of light grey within which I can see speckles of white and brown. I can see lines running through the middle of the patch. Towards the top of the shard on the inside right as I look at it, I can see distinct brown markings and around this are what look like crumbs of dirt – dark grey which if gently rubbed fall from the shard. There is some writing on the inside too, just beneath the top of the rim written in black – OX TMS 02 II with a 35 in a circle beneath.

On my fingers I can see patches of grey from the surface of the shard. I can see the dust on the piece of white kitchen towel on which the shard is resting on the table. I can see particles on the surface of the table too and my finger tips can feel the edges of the shard even though I am no longer touching it. If I hold the shard in my hands and without looking move it around I can feel both its smoothness and its edges which though not sharp are nonetheless rough. This object, without looking, becomes an object in its own right rather than a part of something else, but the rough edges tell you there was once more to this piece. Feeling the smooth side with its ridges and grooves one can feel suddenly the sharper rougher edge, which is quite at odds with the rest.

Looking at the shard from the inside, it’s difficult to see this object as being anything other than a piece of something. Looking at it I can see of course see (even if I hadn’t known already) that this piece of pottery is a broken piece of something bigger. However what that bigger something might have been is difficult to discern. It’s only by observing the piece from certain angles that the bigger picture’s revealed.  The curve of the shard, looking at it from the top down, shows the bulge on the right hand side. One can also see a tapering of the two longer sides towards what is the bottom of the piece and even though these sides are jagged and obviously broken, they carry nonetheless the dynamics of the shard. One assumes that whatever pot this piece was a part of it narrowed towards the base. Looking at the curve again from the top and holding the shard in my right hand, I can see roughly how the curve would become a circle using my left hand as a guide. In order however to judge its height, I need to know the size of the base. If I hold the shard in my left hand and look at the shard from the bottom I can see the curve and with my right hand get a sense of its diameter. I then look at the sides of the shard and draw the lines down towards the base, thereby gaining a sense of the volume of the pot from which this fragment remains.

[drawing the line up and down mirrors the physical gesture of the potter’s hands]

However I must leave the reconstruction to one side for a moment because to understand this shard fully I need to take it back in time. I need to see it first as part of the collection in the museum stores, stowed away in a box with hundreds and thousands of other pieces. I need to see it being assessed and given its reference number (visible beneath its rim). I need to take it back to the day it was pulled from out the ground in 1985 in the area of the Trill Mill Stream in St. Aldates where it had lain in the dark for perhaps as long as 500 years. Half a millennium in which time its original colour was changed by it being in the waterlogged ground. Was it broken in the ground, or thrown away because it was broken already? Either way this fragment has been an object in its own right for several hundred years.

[the rings are testament to this other complete object]

How it ended up in the ground I cannot say, but I can speculate that it was broken before it went in. There is evidence of burning on the surface of the shard (although one must be careful as the discolouration could be confused with burning). Perhaps this points to its main use – as a utilitarian piece of pottery used for heating food or drink? Whatever the answer, I can perhaps surmise that the fragment has had contact with fire. Perhaps that’s why it broke?

Certainly it was broken and it broke at a specific moment in time. The edges of the shard therefore reflect and illustrate this very specific moment in time. There is a sound associated with those edges; a sound I can feel when running a finger over the surface.

There is then within this single shard, evidence of two distinct time spans: 1) the staining caused by it being buried in the ground for several hundred years and 2) the moment it broke – a second in time several hundred years ago. There is also therefore a sonic quality to the shard in relation to these two periods of time 1) the long sound of silence and 2) the short sound of a break (one can also imagine that this breakage came with other sounds – perhaps that of the person responsible for breaking it?).

[what other sounds were there at this moment in the city?]

Before the breakage, this fragment was part of a bigger object which we can speculate was used over a given period of time – how long exactly we can’t be sure, but we can imagine it being used in a mediaeval house - perhaps as part of its everyday activity. But what did it hold? What was it used for? Whatever the answer to these questions we can say that it held something and was used by people in the mediaeval period.

I have described the ridges and the grooves on the inside of the shard which tell us that this piece of pottery was made on a wheel. It was thrown. The rings are evidence not only of the movement of the wheel but of the person who made the pot. The wheel would have been turned by hand by the potter and then using his hands he could have drawn the clay up to make the pot. Every groove shows the movement and the physical presence of the potter.

[I’m reminded of a record player, with the needle drawn over the surface of the record, replaying a sound that has already happened. In a sense this shard reveals to us something that has already happened – not through the fact of the pot (as a whole) but rather the physical gestures of the potter. Drawing my fingers over the ridges and the grooves and keeping my eyes closed, listening to the everyday things going on around me, I can begin to find a window into the mediaeval world – not by sight, but by tough].

Having described the two sounds associated with this fragment (silence and the break) as well as the two time-spans (the moment in time that it broke and the few hundred years it was buried beneath the ground) I can also add to that this sense of movement; the wheel being turned, the wheel turning, the clay being pulled up into shape and the physical presence and skill of the potter. Through touching the object we can make a physical connection with an anonymous individual who lived between the 13th and 15th centuries. We can make a physical connection with a time. Just what was happening when those rings were made? It’s almost as if what was happening at the time has been recorded in these grooves – including the thoughts of the potter himself.

With this piece of pottery therefore we can go back even further, for the shard is evidence of the pot and the pot is evidence of the skill of the potter – skill which was no doubt learned over a long period of time, passed down from other potters. It is evidence of an exchange between people in the mediaeval period. It is evidence of dialogue.

In terms of the fragment’s materiality we can also think about what it is made from. I think of the piece of clay sitting on the potters wheel, without shape, inert. Only through the intervention of the potter, through his eyes and his hands and through the skills he has learned over time could this piece of clay have become shaped into the pot of which this shard was a part. The question arises; what about the other parts of the pot? What happened to them? Perhaps they are hidden away somewhere in other boxes in the museum stores, or still buried somewhere in the ground. Perhaps like so much of the world from which this fragment originates they have been lost altogether?

It’s strange to think that when this fragment was part of a much bigger pot and indeed when it was in the ground, it was more a part of the world than I was ever likely to be.  Now as I look at the fragment, I could say that the fragment is now more a part of the world than the person who made it, although of course it might be that there are people alive today who wouldn’t be here had it not been for this anonymous potter.

Any work made and inspired by this shard should not necessarily be considered as separate from the pot itself but rather as a continuation of the pot, and just as the fragment is a direct consequence of the thought, skill and physical gestures of a potter living some 5, 6 or 700 years ago, so this work might be considered the same. This shard has been living the same moment ever since it was made and so it continues in this work. The mind of the potter, my mind and that of all who see the work I make will somehow be connected.

I want to draw out from what I've written about the shard, points which I think will lead to further research as regards the production of works about the shard. The following is a list of those key points.

-

This piece of pottery can fit in the palm of my hand.

-

As I rub my thumb and forefinger over its surface I can feel the indentations, ridges on its surface.

-

This object, without looking, becomes an object in its own right rather than a part of something else, but the rough edges tell you there was once more to this piece.

-

Looking at the curve again from the top and holding the shard in my right hand, I can see roughly how the curve would become a circle using my left hand as a guide. In order however to judge its height, I need to know the size of the base. If I hold the shard in my left hand and look at the shard from the bottom I can see the curve and with my right hand get a sense of its diameter. I then look at the sides of the shard and draw the lines down towards the base, thereby gaining a sense of the volume of the pot from which this fragment remains.

[drawing the line up and down mirrors the physical gesture of the potter’s hands]

-

Either way this fragment has been an object in its own right for several hundred years.

[the rings are testament to this other complete object]

-

Certainly it was broken and it broke at a specific moment in time. The edges of the shard therefore reflect and illustrate this very specific moment in time. There is a sound associated with those edges; a sound I can feel when running a finger over the surface.

-

There is then within this single shard, evidence of two distinct time spans: 1) the staining caused by it being buried in the ground for several hundred years and 2) the moment it broke – a second in time several hundred years ago.  There is also therefore a sonic quality to the shard in relation to these two periods of time 1) the long sound of silence and 2) the short sound of a break (one can also imagine that this breakage came with other sounds – perhaps that of the person responsible for breaking it?).

[what other sounds were there at this moment in the city?]

-

The rings are evidence not only of the movement of the wheel but of the person who made the pot. The wheel would have been turned by hand by the potter and then using his hands he could have drawn the clay up to make the pot. Every groove shows the movement and the physical presence of the potter.

[I’m reminded of a record player, with the needle drawn over the surface of the record, replaying a sound that has already happened. In a sense this shard reveals to us something that has already happened – not through the fact of the pot (as a whole) but rather the physical gestures of the potter. Drawing my fingers over the ridges and the grooves and keeping my eyes closed, listening to the everyday things going on around me, I can begin to find a window into the mediaeval world – not by sight, but by tough].

-

Through touching the object we can make a physical connection with an anonymous individual who lived between the 13th and 15th centuries. We can make a physical connection with a time. Just what was happening when those rings were made? It’s almost as if what was happening at the time has been recorded in these grooves – including the thoughts of the potter himself.

-

It is evidence of an exchange between people in the mediaeval period. It is evidence of dialogue.

-

Only through the intervention of the potter, through his eyes and his hands and through the skills he has learned over time could this piece of clay have become shaped into the pot of which this shard was a part.

-

Any work made and inspired by this shard should not necessarily be considered as separate from the pot itself but rather as a continuation of the pot, and just as the fragment is a direct consequence of the thought, skill and physical gestures of a potter living some 5, 6 or 700 years ago, so this work might be considered the same. This shard has been living the same moment ever since it was made and so it continues in this work. The mind of the potter, my mind and that of all who see the work I make will somehow be connected.