Beginner's Guide to Historic Ceramic Identification
How to Use this Website
When faced with an unidentified sherd, there are three primary attributes which can help lead to identification: paste, surface treatment/glaze and decoration. Paste consists of the clay or a mix of clay and any inclusions (temper) that have been used in forming the body of the ceramic.
It is best to identify paste and surface treatment/glaze first, before tackling decoration. The layered clickable menu below will ask you to choose paste first, and then lead you deeper into surface treatment/glaze and finally into decoration/specific types. Decoration is particularly important in identifying and dating post-colonial refined earthenware. We have also prepared an organization chart of ceramics and their characteristics as a visual aid. Click here to see chart. Also available is a visual guide of historic ceramics created by Joe Bagley, City Archaeologist of Boston. This poster is ideal for printing and using in the lab or field as a quick visual reference.
Also, please remember that the production of ceramics has been a process with much experimentation with paste and glaze compositions and firing temperatures through time. The characteristics listed below are generalizations that may not hold true for every sherd.
CLICK THROUGH MENU:
- variety of paste colors (white, buff, orange, yellow, red, gray, pink)
- porous paste - broken edge of sherd sticks to tongue
- paste can appear grainy and, in coarse earthenware, may have inclusions of gravel or be formed from two different colors of clay
- variety of paste colors (white, buff, yellow, red, gray)
- hard and compact paste - broken edge does not stick to tongue
- paste texture smooth to grainy
- some stoneware will have a dimpled “orange peel” surface
- white to grayish white paste
- smooth, vitrified (glassy) look to broken edge; does not stick to tongue
- thinner sherds may be translucent when held to light