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A Potted History of Britain

Review of the lecture given by
Julian Richards
on June 28th 2017

The penultimate image which appeared on the screen was a photograph of some of the 325 pots which Julian had earlier confessed was the total number that he owned and had on display at his home.  This was followed by a question “So am I potty?” and the invitation for us to record our answers on a postcard.  As he had earlier confessed, at the beginning of his talk, that he was an aspiring “potaholic” and as we had just experienced a very enjoyable but rapid gallop through the history of pots from 6000 years ago to the present time we felt that the answer must be “Yes”.  He had engaged his audience with his enthusiasm for his subject and although the well known names like Spode, Wedgewood, Doulton and Chelsea had all made an appearance it was quite obvious that his real love for his subject was embedded in his discoveries of pots which he had found on archaeological sites.

We all have a connection with pottery.  We eat from it, drink from it, walk on it and sit on it and in an hour “Mr Stonehenge” had given us a broad brush approach to everything “potty” from 4000 BC, when pottery first appeared in Britain, to the Potteries of Bernard Leach and Jonathan Garratt.

As children we probably all enjoyed “messing about” with clay without any particular aim in mind but we were shown how our ancestors used it to create burial urns, domestic  vessels and tiles.  A particularly exciting find had been made when the Bronze Age Settlement at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire was discovered.  As the site, known as the “Pompeii of The Fens”, had been destroyed by fire everything had been left as it lay so archaeologists were able to see exactly how the pots had been used.

We learnt how, during Roman times, wine had been shipped in amphorae to Britain to “soften up” the natives and how after the Roman Invasion the Potter’s Wheel and the Updraft Kiln were used to create more sophisticated pots.  Many years later it was the invention of the transfer print which had paved the way for mass production.

With appropriate pictures Julian explained about such things as Beaker Ware, Samian Ware, slipware, tin, copper and salt glazing, porcelain and how the amount of oxygen in the fire could affect the colour of the pottery.  As for “tempering” it seems that all kinds of foreign material from sand, grit and plant fibres to shell and broken pottery could be added to clay to improve the firing of a vessel and thus prevent it from cracking in the drying process.

A final thought came from Julian emphasising the connection of people with pots.  Pottery can be used for dating evidence and how exciting it must be to discover the mark of a fingernail on an excavated pot.  Was it made, perhaps, 6000 years ago?  What was the potter like?  Was the creation admired as it was placed in the fire?  Would the next effort see an improvement?

We thank Julian for “making his mark” by delivering a “Potted History of Britain” in such an informative and enthusiastic way.

Marian and Barrie Heathcote

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Julian Richards website